The Trump administration is investigating the email records of dozens of current and former senior State Department officials who sent messages to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s private email, reviving a politically toxic matter that overshadowed the 2016 election, current and former officials said.
In virtually all of the cases, potentially sensitive information, now recategorized as “classified,” was sent to Clinton’s unsecure inbox.
State Department investigators began contacting the former officials about 18 months ago, after President Trump’s election, and then seemed to drop the effort before picking it up in August, officials said.
Senior State Department officials said that they are following standard protocol in an investigation that began during the latter days of the Obama administration and is nearing completion.
“This has nothing to do with who is in the White House,” said a senior State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about an ongoing probe. “This is about the time it took to go through millions of emails, which is about 3½ years.”
To many of those under scrutiny, including some of the Democratic Party’s top foreign policy experts, the recent flurry of activity surrounding the Clinton email case represents a new front on which the Trump administration could be accused of employing the powers of the executive branch against perceived political adversaries.
The existence of the probe follows revelations that the president used multiple levers of his office to pressure the leader of Ukraine to pursue investigations that Trump hoped would produce damaging information about Democrats, including potential presidential rival Joe Biden.
State Department officials vigorously denied there was any political motivation behind their actions, and said that the reviews of retroactively classified emails were conducted by career bureaucrats who did not know the names of the subjects being investigated.
“The process is set up in a manner to completely avoid any appearance of political bias,” said a second senior State Department official, who was speaking on condition of anonymity to describe the mechanics of an internal probe.
Clinton’s use of a private email server during her term as secretary triggered multiple investigations by the State Department, the FBI and Congress. The bureau did not accuse her of breaking the law, but she blamed the FBI’s unusual public handling of the matter as a major factor in her loss in the 2016 election.
“I’d like to think that this is just routine, but something strange is going on,” said Jeffrey Feltman, a former assistant secretary for Near East Affairs. In early 2018 Feltman received a letter informing him that a half dozen of his messages included classified information. Then a few weeks ago he was found culpable for more than 50 emails that contained classified information.
“A couple of the emails cited by State as problems were sent after my May 2012 retirement, when I was already working for the United Nations,” he said.
A former senior U.S. official familiar with the email investigation described it as a way for Republicans “to keep the Clinton email issue alive.” The former official said the probe was “a way to tarnish a whole bunch of Democratic foreign policy people” and discourage if not prevent them from returning to government service.
The probe is being carried out by investigators from the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security. Republican lawmakers, led by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), have been pressing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to complete the review of classified information sent to Clinton’s private emails and report back to Congress.
State Department officials said they were bound by law to adjudicate any violations.
Former Obama administration officials, however, described the probe as a remarkably aggressive crackdown by an administration with its own troubled record of handling classified material. Trump has improperly disclosed classified information to foreign officials and used phones that national security officials warned were vulnerable to foreign surveillance, according to current and former officials.
At the same time, Trump overrode the concerns of his former White House chief of staff and U.S. intelligence officials to give his son-in-law and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner access to highly classified materials, officials said.
The list of State officials being questioned includes prominent ambassadors and assistant secretaries of state responsible for U.S. policy in the Middle East, Europe and Central Asia. But it also includes dozens of current and former career bureaucrats who served as conduits for outside officials trying to get important messages to Clinton.
In most cases the bureaucrats and political appointees didn’t send the emails directly to Clinton, but passed them to William Burns, who served as deputy secretary of state, or Jake Sullivan, the former director of policy planning at the State Department. Burns and Sullivan then forwarded the messages to Clinton’s private email.
Burns and Sullivan declined to comment. Other officials spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the matter and concern for retaliation.
Those targeted began receiving letters in August, saying, “You have been identified as possibly bearing some culpability” in supposedly newly uncovered “security incidents,” according to a copy of one letter obtained by The Washington Post.
In many cases, the incidents appear to center on the sending of information attributed to foreign officials, including summaries of phone conversations with foreign diplomats — a routine occurrence among State Department employees.
There is no indication in any of the materials reviewed by The Post that the emails under scrutiny contained sensitive information about classified U.S. initiatives or programs. In one case, a former official was asked to explain dozens of messages dating back to 2009 that contained messages that foreign officials wanted relayed rapidly to Washington at a time when U.S. Foreign Service officers were equipped with BlackBerrys and other devices that were not capable of sending classified transmissions. The messages came in through “regular email” and then were forwarded through official — though unclassified — State Department channels.
In other instances officials were relaying email summaries of time-sensitive conversations with foreign leaders conducted over unclassified cellphones.
Those communications are now being “upclassified” or “reclassified,” according to several officials involved in the investigation, meaning that they have been retroactively assessed to contain material so sensitive that they should have been sent only on State Department classified systems.
Many of those who have been targeted by the probe and found “not culpable,” described it as an effort to harass diplomats for the routine conduct of their job.
“It is such an obscene abuse of power and time involving so many people for so many years,” one former U.S. official said of the inquiry. “This has just sucked up people’s lives for years and years.”
Several of those who have been questioned said that the State Department Bureau of Diplomatic Security investigators made it clear that they were pursuing the matter reluctantly, and under external pressure.
One official said the investigators were apologetic: “They realize how absurd it is.”
Those targeted do not appear to be in jeopardy of criminal prosecution — the FBI investigation of the Clinton email case has been closed since before the 2016 election. But many fear the results of the probe will damage their reputations and complicate their ability to maintain security clearances.
Several said they have received follow-on letters saying that investigators “determined that the [security] incident is valid,” but that they did not “bear any individual culpability” — an ambiguous designation that could pose complications in future background checks and confirmation hearings.
“It gives them a way to hassle pretty much anyone,” a former senior U.S. official said.
In many instances, the officials said that it had been so long since they had been questioned that they assumed the email case had been resolved, even though Trump routinely rails about the Clinton email issue.
Trump raised the issue as recently as Wednesday, calling it “one of the great crimes committed” by his 2016 opponent.
Trump faces impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives in the wake of a whistleblower report by a CIA officer exposing Trump’s efforts on a July 25 call to pressure the leader of Ukraine to pursue investigations that Trump hoped would generate embarrassing material about Biden.
Trump’s request for that “favor” came as his administration was withholding hundreds of millions of dollars in aid from Kiev and dangling a potential White House visit for Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky.
The FBI began examining Clinton’s use of a private email server in July 2015, based on a referral from the intelligence community inspector general. Their investigation sought to determine whether anyone — especially the former secretary of state — had broken federal law in discussing classified information on unclassified systems.
Investigators reviewed 30,000 emails that Clinton turned back over to the State Department after leaving others, and took other steps, including tracking down computers and other devices Clinton had used, to find thousands more. Their investigation included examinations of the archived government accounts of people who had been in government at the same time as Clinton and who might have naturally exchanged messages with her.
Although Clinton was considered the biggest player in the investigation, she was never formally labeled a subject or target, and investigators also considered the conduct of her top aides and colleagues.
About a year later, in July 2016, then-FBI Director James B. Comey announced he was recommending the case be closed with no charges. He said Clinton’s and her aides’ handling of classified information was “extremely careless,” but not such that it warranted criminal charges. He suggested those who did wrong could face job-related consequences, and took a broad swipe at the State Department, saying its employees’ use of unclassified email systems was “generally lacking in the kind of care for classified information found elsewhere in the government,” according to his prepared remarks.
A few months later, the bureau resumed the inquiry after discovering more of Clinton’s correspondence with a top aide on a device investigators were examining in a separate investigation of the aide’s husband. But they found nothing to change their conclusion and closed the case again just before the 2016 election.
Paul Sonne, Shane Harris, Matt Zapotosky and Julie Tate contributed to this report.