Q&A: What you need to know about Hillary Clinton’s emails

No one has produced any evidence that Hillary Rodham Clinton, pictured in 2011, violated any law.

No one has produced any evidence that Hillary Rodham Clinton, pictured in 2011, violated any law.

(Kevin Lamarque / Associated Press)

When Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton takes the stage Tuesday in the party’s first presidential debate, some of the sharpest questions, from the moderators, if not the other candidates, may focus on her use of a private email server while she was secretary of State. The FBI is reviewing whether classified information was mishandled in her email correspondence. Here are some answers to major questions in the email controversy.

Why didn’t Clinton use the State Department’s email system?Read more

While she was secretary of State, Clinton used the email address to communicate with her staff, friends and other government officials. The messages were stored on her family’s personal email server in the basement of her home in Chappaqua, N.Y. Clinton has said she used the personal account because she didn’t want to carry two separate devices for personal and State Department communications. Other officials have said the State Department’s official email system was cumbersome and difficult to use.

Clinton has since said that using a private server was a mistake and "not the best choice."

Was using personal email allowed?

Sort of. While Clinton was in office, using personal email for government work was allowed, but National Archives rules required that official messages be preserved in an agency record-keeping system. Clinton did not appear to take extra steps to ensure this occurred until after she left office. Clinton and her aides have said that 90% of her work-related emails were sent to addresses and would have been automatically preserved.

What about non-work emails on Clinton’s server?

In March, Clinton’s attorney informed a House committee that had demanded information about her emails that 32,000 of the 62,230 messages on the server had been deemed to be "non-record personal emails" and had been erased from the server at the end of last year. The FBI, which has physical custody of the server, may be able to recover some or all of those deleted messages to determine whether any of them actually were work-related.

Can officials use personal email servers now?

No. After Clinton left office, the National Archives revised its policy and discouraged government employees from conducting official business on personal emails, except in an emergency. The Federal Records Act was changed last year to require that federal workers copy their government account when sending messages from a personal email.

Was Clinton’s email hacked?

There were definitely attempts. In 2011, when Clinton was still secretary of State, Russia-linked hackers sent her email attachments disguised to look like speeding tickets, according to emails released by the State Department and analysis by security experts. Clinton’s camp says she never opened the malicious attachments and there is no evidence Clinton’s server was breached. It’s not clear, however, whether any of those hacking efforts were aimed specifically at Clinton or simply the sort of "phishing" spam that millions of Americans routinely get, many of them originating from Russia.

Last year, software on Clinton’s server detected attempted cyberattacks originating in China, South Korea and Germany, according to information collected by the Senate Homeland Security Committee. The monitoring software that detected the attempts was installed in October 2013, but lawmakers investigating Clinton’s email use are concerned that other attacks could have gone undetected.

For comparison purposes, it’s important to note that the State Department’s official email system is known to have been successfully hacked by the Russians.

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How was Clinton’s email server protected?

It’s unclear. Clinton’s campaign says the server was first set up in Clinton’s Chappaqua house for use by former President Bill Clinton and the family after he left office, and that server had protections installed and upgraded over time. The former president’s Secret Service security detail was charged with protecting the physical property.

Five months after Hillary Clinton left the State Department, the email server was moved to a data center in northern New Jersey and maintained by a Denver technology company called Platte River Networks. At the time, the server held about 55,000 pages of emails from her time running the State Department. The Clinton campaign has declined to release more specific information about how the server was protected, saying such details might help hackers.

Was there information in those emails that could damage national security?

Security experts say that some information in the emails should have been treated as classified. The State Department has challenged some of those rulings. Whether any of the information, classified or not, might have endangered national security is harder to know.

The Associated Press has reported, for example, that security officials say one email that a State Department official sent to Clinton should have been considered classified because it included a discussion of a covert U.S. drone strike. The U.S. government at the time considered virtually all information about drone strikes to be secret, even though they were widely reported in the news media. It’s not known whether the email in question included any information beyond what might have been available through nonclassified sources.

In late July, two inspectors general said information that "should have been marked and handled at the secret level" had been on Clinton’s email server and had been publicly released by the State Department this year. The inspectors general have not alleged that the State Department’s public release of those emails damaged national security, and the department has said the information may not be secret at all.

Many of Clinton’s emails made public by the State Department under the Freedom of Information Act have had lines blacked out for national security and other reasons, indicating they contain information the government now considers sensitive.

Two emails found on Clinton’s server have since been marked "TK" for "talent keyhole," a carefully guarded compartment for information gleaned from spy satellites. The AP, which first reported on the matter, said that one of the email chains began with one State Department official sending another a copy of a news story about a drone strike. The message was passed up the ranks, ending with Clinton, with other officials commenting on it along the way. Some of the comments may have hinted at classified information, the AP said.

Clinton has said that she didn’t send or receive any material that was marked "classified." Security officials, however, note that information can be classified even if it is not clearly marked.

What does "classified" mean?

There are several classification levels for government documents: Confidential, Secret, Top Secret, Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmentalized Information. The State Department and other government agencies use a separate email system for sharing classified information. It is walled-off from the Internet.

Technically, messages from the classified system cannot be sent electronically to unsecured accounts. But it would be possible for someone to hear classified information in a secure briefing and type that into an email on an unsecured account. It is also possible for an official to obtain information from nonclassified sources that the government considers classified – a situation that security experts refer to as "parallel reporting."

Critics, including many current and former officials, have argued for years that the government classifies too much information, often for reasons that have little to do with actual security threats.

Can Clinton face criminal charges?Read more

Law enforcement officials have said Clinton is not the target of any criminal investigation and so far, no one has produced evidence that she violated any law.

The FBI has received a "security" referral from the inspectors general and is looking at whether people who sent emails to her may have violated security regulations and whether they exposed U.S. secrets to potential spying by foreign powers. If Clinton received secret information from staff over her personal email, that may have violated security rules, but it might be difficult to show she knew any of the information was classified at the time she received it.

Even a relatively low-level misdemeanor charge for mishandling classified information would require proof that Clinton knew she was keeping government secrets at "an unauthorized location." But she could argue that she didn’t know the information was secret at the time.

Clinton says she has "gone further than anybody…in American history" in being transparent with email. True?

Not really. Clinton has, indeed, turned over a massive amount of email. But her argument that she was the driving force behind making the emails public is misleading. Clinton only turned over the documents after the New York Times revealed her private server. And multiple Freedom of Information Act lawsuits filed by the press would have ultimately forced disclosure of the messages.

What’s all this got to do with Benghazi?

A small portion of the emails make mention of Libya. But the main connection is that Clinton’s use of private emails came to light because the House committee investigating the deaths of four Americans in an attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi in 2012 had demanded access to all her messages.

Since Clinton’s use of a private email server became public, the GOP-controlled committee has used questions about her messages as a reason to extend its probe. Committee Republicans question whether Clinton is hiding emails that would shed further light on her role in the attack. Democrats on the committee accuse the Republican majority of conducting a politically motivated fishing expedition.

Clinton is scheduled to testify before the committee at a hearing on Oct. 22. It will be tense and could prove a pivotal moment in the Democratic primary.

What’s all the talk about Sidney Blumenthal?

Republicans on the Benghazi committee are focusing on email messages between Clinton and her longtime confidant. They claim Blumenthal, who was not a government employee with security clearance, sent Clinton the name of a confidential CIA source. They charge Blumenthal was pursuing personal business interests in Libya while simultaneously influencing Clinton’s decision-making on U.S. policy there.

Have the emails from the private server revealed much else?Read more

So far, no. They provide a lot of interesting insight into Clinton and her inner circle, down to the candidate’s yoga schedule, her difficulty with fax machines and her handling of a trade dispute over the shipment of carp from Illinois to Israel for use in gefilte fish. There are many candid moments, some of which the Clinton campaign would probably prefer were not in the public domain. But no smoking guns have emerged.

Then why is this email issue causing so much damage to Clinton’s campaign?

One of Clinton’s biggest problems since she became a public figure in her husband’s administration is that many voters are skeptical of her trustworthiness. Diverting government emails to a private server has fed into that skepticism. And the drawn-out nature in which the emails are being released and the lengthy congressional investigation have created a constant stream of worrisome headlines: The FBI joining the probe, a former Clinton tech staffer choosing to invoke the 5th Amendment over answering committee questions, official government emails surfacing among the batch of emails where Clinton said there were none.

"It is like a drip, drip, drip," Clinton said on NBC’s "Meet the Press." "That's why I said there is only so much I can control."


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