National Security

State Dept. conducts tepid review of ex-secretaries’ email practices

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton laughs as she is introduced to a crowd on the campus of Case Western Reserve University during a 'Commit to Vote' grassroots organizing meeting Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015, in Cleveland.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton laughs as she is introduced to a crowd on the campus of Case Western Reserve University during a 'Commit to Vote' grassroots organizing meeting Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015, in Cleveland. AP

After a firestorm erupted over Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal computer system for government business, the State Department’s internal watchdog launched an inquiry into the email practices of the nation’s most recent top diplomats.

But despite having subpoena power, the inspector general’s review has not been aggressive so far.

The inspector general’s office first asked the former secretaries of state to turn over personal emails in March, though it does not seem to have received any from anyone other than Clinton. In August, it sent brief surveys to current and former aides asking them five yes-or-no questions, according to a copy obtained by McClatchy. But three days later, after some former aides objected, the office dashed off a message assuring them their responses are “entirely voluntary.”

“The State Department inspector general’s office should be going after the information about the former secretaries with the same kind of determination as they are in Hillary Clinton’s case,” said Bradley Moss, a national security lawyer in Washington. “Candidly, it’s rather terrifying if they’re not.”

The request for records was sent to former secretaries Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright, according to their offices. It was not sent to Secretary of State John Kerry, who is included in the review, according to a State Department official who is knowledgeable about the situation but not allowed to speak publicly as a matter of practice. Kerry, who requested the review, is the first to use a standard government address ending in “state.gov” for all his business.

Lawrence B. Wilkerson and Elaine Shocas, chiefs of staff to Powell and Albright, respectively, and Philip Zelikow, Rice’s former counselor, confirmed they received the questionnaires. Kerry’s aides also received and completed the survey, the State Department official said.

Some experts say the haphazard policies and procedures regarding email at the State Department could have posed national security risks. The inspector general inquiry, however, isn’t considered an “investigation” and will not examine whether classified emails were sent or received by Clinton, which is being investigated by the FBI. Instead, it is an audit designed to make the department more effective and efficient.

“They (the department) seemed to want to find out if they had been irresponsible over the years and if they could hide it,” Wilkerson said. “To me, it was typical government bureaucracy at work. It seemed like the questions were designed to be answered, but not to be answered in a way that would be indicative of State Department incompetence or responsibility.”

It’s unclear what the inspector general’s office asked Clinton, the front-runner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, and her aides. Clinton already turned over her email to the State Department and at least four aides have delivered records, including copies of work emails on personal accounts, to the agency, which is collecting them in response to a subpoena from Capitol Hill. Clinton then deleted all her emails, including those she considered personal.

Marcus Rogers, an expert in cyber forensics at Purdue University, said that if secretaries and their aides used personal email accounts that haven’t been wiped out, “it’s all recoverable.” Even if someone erased emails on computers and hard drives, Rogers said, the Internet provider might have backed up or archived those records.

“Electronic data on its own doesn’t disappear,” he said. “It stays around for a long time. So unless somebody’s physically gone to those servers where this information would have been kept, and not just deleted them but actually did what would be called a wipe of the data, that stuff’s still there.”

Clinton’s exclusive use of a personal email account, routed through a private server at her Chappaqua, N.Y., home when she served as secretary of state from 2009 to 2013, has become the focus of multiple inquiries by the FBI, a pair of inspectors general and Congress.

Revelations that her emails included classified “top secret” information has prompted questions about her judgment and motive for actions that potentially led to national security risks. At the FBI’s request, she turned over her computer server after months of resistance.

While the inspector general has referred the matter to the FBI to assess whether national security was compromised by Clinton’s use of private email, the State Department watchdog is still examining Clinton’s email practices as part of its policy review.

The inspector general’s office declined to provide details on the inquiry being conducted by the Office of Evaluations and Special Projects, including the timetable and how many aides have been contacted. A dozen other top aides to the former secretaries declined to comment or did not return calls.

The inspector general’s office acknowledges it has the power to subpoena documents and records, though there’s no sign that it has done that. It can compel current employees to talk, but it can’t do the same for former employees.

In February, Inspector General Steve Linick testified on Capitol Hill that inspectors general should be given the power to “compel witness testimony.”

“As a former prosecutor, I believe that adding this tool, subject to appropriate oversight and coordination, is essential,” he told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

In March, after Clinton’s use of a private email system became public, Kerry asked the inspector general to examine how it handles its records and responds to requests for information following revelations about his predecessor’s use of a personal email account for government business. “It is critical for the State Department to preserve a full and complete record of American foreign policy,” he wrote to Linick.

Some former aides have bristled at any inquiry into their conduct, frustrated to be asked to get involved in what they assume is the State Department’s attempt to provide cover for Clinton.

Eric Herzik, chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada, Reno, said Kerry had no choice but to ask for the review, not necessarily to protect Clinton but to protect his department.

“I don’t blame people for saying, ‘Why are we being dragged into this?’” he said. But “this is more about the State Department. It doesn’t make anyone look good. It’s a headache for them. . . . This is not going to solve the problem for Hillary Clinton.”

Linick told Kerry he would examine the department’s policies and procedures concerning the use, if any, by the five secretaries and their immediate staffs of non-departmental hardware and software to conduct official business, according to an April letter. The review was to include whether communication was secure, government records were properly preserved and the department is properly responding to congressional and open records requests and subpoenas for records.

In its survey to former aides, the office asked if they had used personal hardware or software, such as servers, phones or iPads, to do State Department business, and if yes, how often and why.

Kerry and his staff welcome the review and are cooperating, State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said.

“We are working closely with the inspector general’s office and cooperating with their requests,” he said. “In fact, senior department officials meet weekly with the IG. Secretary Kerry himself met with the IG recently to receive an update on the review and discuss ways to continue to cooperate.”

Toner said the department already has taken steps to improve records management practices, including automatically archiving the emails of Kerry, dozens of senior staff including the deputy secretaries, undersecretaries, several senior advisers, and the secretary’s staff ranging from his chief of staff to assistants who handle paper for him.

Clinton has said that she regrets using a personal system for business but that she acted the same way as her predecessors. “I did what other secretaries of state had done,” she said in an Aug. 17 interview on Iowa Public Radio. “I was permitted to and used a personal email.”

But, according to her predecessors, that’s not true.

Albright, who served as secretary of state under Clinton’s husband, President Bill Clinton, during his second term, never used email while in office, either personal or government, said Alexis Keslinke, a spokeswoman for Albright at Albright Stonebridge Group LLC.

Rice, who served during President George W. Bush’s second term, did not use personal email for business, aides said. Those who wanted to contact her either emailed her aides or called her on the phone, they said.

Georgia Godfrey, Rice’s chief of staff at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, said Rice informed the inspector general’s office that she did not have any personal emails that constitute federal records and does not have any electronic media or devices in her possession that contain federal government data.

But Powell, Bush’s first secretary of state, did use a personal laptop and email account for department business, though he did not keep copies of his emails.

“I don’t have any to turn over,” Powell said in March on ABC’s “This Week.” “I did not keep a cache of them. I did not print them off. I do not have thousands of pages somewhere in my personal files. A lot of the emails that came out of my personal account went into the State Department system. They were addressed to State Department employees and state.gov domain, but I don’t know if the servers in the State Department captured those or not.”

Powell’s personal laptop was cleared for use in his office by George Tenet, then the director of central intelligence, and the department was aware of the setup, Wilkerson said. Powell and Tenet discussed the arrangement with Steve Case, the former CEO of America Online, to ensure the laptop could not be used to listen to conversations in the secretary’s office. Tenet and Case did not return phone calls.

Powell only conducted State Department business while emailing those with government addresses and never sent classified information on his personal computer, Wilkerson said. He said Powell assumed the department would keep his emails.

But in 2005 after he left office, Powell asked the department if it could retrieve some emails in case he wrote a book or wanted to reflect on his time as secretary. State Department officials at first said he could, but later they were vague about whether the department even had his papers on file in a comprehensive and retrievable way.

“They (the State Department) just neglected to grasp emails as increasingly a primary means of communication, therefore needing some kind of protocols and procedures,” Wilkerson said. “They left it until too late.”

State Department statement

Statement from State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner:

In March, Secretary Kerry requested that the State Department Inspector General undertake a review of our efforts to date on improving records management, including the archiving of emails as well as responding to FOIA and Congressional inquiries. Secretary Kerry also asked that the IG make recommendations on how to improve our systems. The Department is committed to improving our systems and increasing transparency. As such, we are working closely with the Inspector General’s office and cooperating with their requests. In fact, senior Department officials meet weekly with the IG. Secretary Kerry himself met with the IG recently to receive an update on the review and discuss ways to continue to cooperate. The IG is independent and questions about the specifics of their review should be directed to them.

The Department has already taken proactive steps to improve our records management practices. The Department is currently automatically archiving Secretary Kerry’s emails. Any email sent or received on his official account is automatically copied and remotely saved electronically. In addition, the Department is currently archiving the email accounts of dozens of senior staff including the Deputy Secretaries, Under Secretaries, several senior advisers, as well as the Secretary’s staff ranging from his Chief of Staff to assistants who handle paper for the Secretary. The Department is also working to apply a system that meets NARA requirements for the management of emails by the end of 2016 as required by the President's Managing Government Records initiative.

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