— Hillary Clinton, news conference addressing her private email server, March 10, 2015
The Fact Checker has received numerous reader requests to revisit claims Clinton made during her March 2015 news conference, in light of information that has surfaced in recent weeks. In particular, several readers have raised the question as to how Clinton’s claim that she used her clintonemail.com address and a private server out of “convenience” and that using her private email was “allowed by the State Department.”
When Clinton held her initial news conference, we focused our fact-check on the four points in her opening statement and key answers to reporters. We did not issue a ruling, as it was a fluid situation. (All of our fact-checks related to Clinton emails are available at wapo.st/ClintonEmailFacts.) In the March 2015 fact-check, we wrote the following about the quote above:
Perhaps this was the actual reason, but it’s worth noting that secretaries of state are always accompanied by staff who carry purses, briefcases and so forth. It would have been up to the staff to keep track of the devices, not Clinton.
Clinton has not disclosed who at the State Department approved the use of a personal e-mail account, with its own server, instead of a government account. One would expect there is a paper trail that would explain how and why approval was granted. (The technology for one phone to handle two email accounts was fairly nascent back in 2009.)
Let’s see how the quote holds up now.
A batch of emails released last month chronicles technical issues that Clinton and her top aides were facing with her private clintonemail.com account in late 2010. This led to communications issues between Clinton and her staff, and Clinton’s emails were being blocked by the State Department’s server. In a November 2010 email, Clinton wrote to her longtime aide, Huma Abedin: “This is not a good system.”
Abedin responded: “We should talk about putting you on state email or releasing your email address to the department so you are not going to spam. It’s not the phone message system, it’s the device delay.”
“Let’s get separate address or device, but I don’t want any risk of the personal being accessible,” Clinton wrote.
This email became a recurring line of questioning in Abedin’s deposition, the transcript of which was released last week by Judicial Watch. When asked about that last response line by Clinton, Abedin explained:
“I read that line exactly the way she wrote it, which is, let’s get a separate address. There was no resistance to getting a separate email address, as I’m reading it in this document. And not wanting her personal emails to be accessible to the public. … Just like you wouldn’t — I would imagine anybody who has personal email doesn’t want that personal email to be read by anybody else.”
Abedin’s answer shows that Clinton was open to having a second device or email address — which calls into question whether the “convenience” concern was relevant or applicable after she became secretary of state. Yet Clinton did not mention these issues when she explained she chose the system out of convenience.
“Secretary Clinton wanted to ensure the timeliness of her officials’ calls and if that could be facilitated by state.gov account, she was open to having one if she could maintain the privacy of her non-work related correspondence,” Clinton campaign spokesman Josh Schwerin said.
Clinton later requested to switch to a State Department-issued device to replace her personal one, as shown in this detailed account of her email saga by our colleague Robert O’Harrow. In an August 2011 email, Stephen Mull, then-executive secretary at the State Department, wrote to Clinton’s aides:
“We are working to provide the Secretary per her request a Department issued Blackberry to replace personal unit, which is malfunctioning (possibly because of her personal email server is down.) We will prepare two version for her to use — one with an operating State Department email account (which would mask her identity, but which would also be subject to FOIA requests).”
Abedin responded: “Steve — let’s discuss the State BlackBerry. Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.” (Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon told O’Harrow the email showed that the secretary’s staff “opposed the idea of her identity being masked.”)
O’Harrow wrote that U.S. District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, presiding over a Judicial Watch lawsuit over the emails, cited this email “as part of the reason he ordered the State Department produce records related to its initial failures in the FOIA searches for Clinton’s records.” Sullivan said there were legitimate questions raised “about whether Clinton’s staff was trying to help her to sidestep FOIA,” O’Harrow wrote.
[Update: In his announcement that he would not recommend criminal charges against Clinton, FBI Director James Comey said Clinton used “numerous mobile devices to view and send email" during her time as Secretary of State.]
‘Allowed by the State Department’
Clinton said her private email was “allowed by the State Department.” We have written about a similar claim before, and awarded Three Pinocchios to Clinton when she said “everything I did [on emails] was permitted.” She has said repeatedly since then, “What I did was allowed by the State Department.”
The State Department Office of the Inspector General’s report released in May found “no evidence” that Clinton requested or obtained guidance or approval from the State Department to solely use her private email on her private server for official business. She had an “obligation” to do so, and discuss such use with the chief information officer and assistant secretary of diplomatic security.
The two offices would have “attempted to provide her with approved and secured means that met her business needs.” But they “did not — and would not — approve her exclusive reliance on a personal email account to conduct Department business, because of the restrictions in the FAM [Foreign Affairs Manual] and the security risks in doing so,” the inspector general wrote.
Schwerin noted the difference between “allowed” and “approved” by the State Department. “She had reason to believe the use of personal email accounts was allowed given that there was precedent of top officials, including Secretary [Colin L.] Powell and other senior level aides, using their personal email for work in years prior. This precedent was confirmed by the IG report,” he said.
Indeed, the report found that more than 90 other employees from 2001 to 2008 periodically used personal email accounts to conduct official business. (John Kerry is the first secretary of state to use a state.gov email account, and he also used his personal email when he was transitioning from the Senate to the Office of the Secretary, according to the inspector general.)
But as we’ve written before, the rules were not as clear prior to 2009, when the U.S. Code of federal regulations on handling electronic records was updated: “Agencies that allow employees to send and receive official electronic mail messages using a system not operated by the agency must ensure that Federal records sent or received on such systems are preserved in the appropriate agency record-keeping system.” The responsibility for making and preserving the records is assigned to “the head of each federal agency.”
On top of that, when Clinton was secretary, a cable went out under her signature warning employees to “avoid conducting official Department business from your personal e-mail accounts.”
Fallon told PolitiFact and FactCheck.org that Clinton “thought” it was allowed, and that even though the inspector general’s findings contradict Clinton’s past statements, it “doesn’t make her statements untruthful,” according to FactCheck.org.
“It did not occur to her that having it on a personal server could be so distinct that it would be unapproved,” Fallon told FactCheck.org. “We’re not intending to say post the IG report that her server was allowed. We don’t contest that. We’re saying … the use of personal email was widespread.”
[Update: In a July 7, 2016 House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing, FBI Director James Comey was asked several times whether Clinton used her private email server out of convenience.
When asked whether Clinton “knowingly, clearly set up her own private server … to shield communications from Congress and the public,” Comey replied: “I can’t say that. Our best information is that she set it up as a matter of convenience. It was an existing system her husband had and she decided to have a domain on that system.”
FBI agents asked her why she set up the email system, and her answer was that it was out of convenience, “it was already there. It was a system her husband had and so she just jumped on to it,” Comey said.
Comey said he did not know whether FBI agents investigating Clinton specifically asked her whether she stands by her convenience claim. But he said “they established, in talking to her, she used many devices during her four years. So I don’t know whether they asked her specifically about that statement.” Comey said he didn’t “want to get in the business of trying to parse and judge her public statements.”]
The Pinocchio Test
When Clinton addressed reporters on March 10, 2015, she had a prepared statement with four points she wanted to make. The first point she made regarding her emails was that she “opted for convenience to use my personal email account, which was allowed by the State Department.” She said she thought “it would be easier to carry just one device for my work and for my personal emails instead of two.”
Convenience certainly may have been a factor. But what is clear now is that on at least two separate occasions in her tenure, Clinton was open to carrying two devices or having two separate email accounts — especially when her use of personal email led to communications breakdowns with her staff. These details show there was more happening than Clinton explained in this statement, and it makes her convenience excuse less credible.
Clinton also said using her personal email account “was allowed by the State Department.” The inspector general report makes it clear that Clinton never cleared her use of her private email on a private server even though she had an obligation to do so. The report also says the department would not have approved it had she asked. So her statement was quite misleading.
Dozens of employees and Secretary Colin L. Powell did use their personal emails, but that was before the rules were made clearer in 2009. Plus, they did not set up a private server like Clinton did. Since these new details emerged, Clinton’s campaign has said she “thought” it was allowed, and that she didn’t think a personal server was “so distinct that it would be unapproved.” Those are semantic differences that are meaningless to the average voter.
Clinton has continued to use some version of this talking point from her March 2015 news conference. But when you add up the details that have emerged, they are just not that credible and worthy of Three Pinocchios. It’s time to update the talking points.
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