Former secretary of state Colin Powell told Hillary Clinton in 2009 that he used a personal computer attached to a private phone line to do business with foreign leaders and State Department officials and was generally scornful of the notion that his mobile devices might be accessed by spies, according to an email exchange released by U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) on Wednesday.
Responding to a question from Clinton about restrictions on BlackBerry use, Powell wrote that he didn’t have such a device, but he did have “a personal computer that was hooked up to a private phone line.”
“So I could communicate with a wide range of friends directly without it going through the State Department servers,” Powell wrote. “I even used it to do business with some foreign leaders and some of the senior folks in the Department on their personal email accounts. I did the same thing on the road in hotels.”
According to a report by the State Department’s inspector general, Powell had already acknowledged using a laptop on a private line and sending notes to ambassadors and foreign ministers via personal email, and a representative said he did not retain or print those emails. The exchange with Clinton, though, reinforces that the secretary of state under President George W. Bush was not especially meticulous about his own cybersecurity or about keeping business off his personal devices.
Clinton’s presidential campaign has been dogged by her own use of a private email server while she was secretary of state — a practice notably different from Powell’s in that she kept the server in the basement of her home. Although FBI Director James B. Comey recommended in July that she not be charged in connection with the case, he said she and her aides had been “extremely careless” in their handling of classified information. Republicans have since pushed for more details on the probe.
A portion of the email exchange between Clinton and Powell had already been revealed in documents the FBI made public Friday, although the email itself provides some additional context. After writing at length about what he perceived as overblown concerns about spies accessing his devices, Powell advised Clinton that the “real danger” was that her correspondence on a BlackBerry could ultimately be made public.
“If it is public that you have a BlackBerry and it it [sic] government and you are using it, government or not, to do business, it may become an official record and subject to the law,” Powell wrote. He added later: “Be very careful. I got around it all by not saying much and not using systems that captured the data.”
Clinton told FBI agents that she understood Powell’s comments to mean any work-related communications would be government records and that they did not factor into her decision to use a personal email. Asked about the email before it was released in full, Powell said he could not recall the details of the years-old exchange but that he used his email system “openly for unclassified communication” and “saw no need for, say, an email to one of my kids or a friend becoming an official record.” He declined to comment further for this story.
In a statement, Cummings suggested the exchange showed that Republicans were unfairly singling out Clinton and alleged that Powell “advised Secretary Clinton with a detailed blueprint on how to skirt security rules and bypass requirements to preserve federal records.”
“If Republicans were truly concerned with transparency, strengthening FOIA, and preserving federal records, they would be attempting to recover Secretary Powell’s emails from AOL, but they have taken no steps to do so despite the fact that this period — including the run-up to the Iraq War — was critical to our nation’s history,” Cummings said.
The email exchange indicates Powell wanted the State Department to loosen its technological restrictions, although he ran into obstacles in doing so. He told Clinton that he used an “ancient version” of a PDA — personal digital assistant — but officials of the Diplomatic Security Service would not allow such devices into secure spaces.
“When I asked why not they gave me all kinds of nonsense about how they gave out signals and could be read by spies, etc.,” Powell wrote. “Same reason they tried to keep mobile phones out of the suite. I had numerous meetings with them. We even opened one up for them to try to explain to me why it was more dangerous than say, a remote control for one of the many tvs in the suite. Or something embedded in my shoe heel. They never satisfied me and NSA/CIA wouldn’t back off.”