Hillary Clinton gained an apparent ally Thursday in her fight to limit the political damage from her growing email controversy, as former Republican secretary of state Colin L. Powell said he disagreed with a State Department decision to retroactively classify two emails from his personal account while in office.
“I have reviewed the messages, and I do not see what makes them classified,” Powell said of the emails, which were uncovered late last year by the State Department’s inspector general and, he said, brought to his attention by the department in recent weeks.
The emails, initially sent to the State Department by two U.S. ambassadors serving abroad and forwarded to Powell’s account by an aide, were described in notifications sent to Congress in recent days by the State Department and intelligence community inspectors general.
Those notifications also said that 10 emails with retroactively classified information had been found on private accounts of the “immediate staff” of Condoleezza Rice, Powell’s immediate successor in the second term of the George W. Bush administration.
The originators of the messages to Powell did not classify them, he said, and “if the department wishes to say a dozen years later they should have been classified, that is an opinion of the department that I do not share.”
Powell has said in the past that he found the State Department computer system, including Internet and email, to be woefully inadequate when he took office there in 2001. He devoted substantial resources to improving it but also made liberal use of his personal AOL account.
His entry into the controversy capped a week of revelations and allegations coinciding with the nation’s hotly contested first presidential primary contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. It began with the State Department’s acknowledgment last week that it agreed with an intelligence assessment that “top secret” information was included in 22 of the tens of thousands of emails that passed through the private server Clinton used while in office.
Clinton has said that the emails in question did not originate with her, and that the information was not “marked classified” when she received it. Late Thursday, after Powell’s remarks, her campaign released a statement saying she “agrees with her predecessor that his emails, like hers, are being inappropriately subjected to over-classification.”
The existence of Clinton’s private email server was uncovered as part of a Republican-led congressional investigation of her actions before and after the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that left two State Department officials and two CIA contractors dead.
The “top secret” 22 are part of 1,600 Clinton emails the State Department has retroactively classified all or in part, according to a senior congressional aide with access to the material, with the vast majority in the lowest-level category of “confidential.”
One or more refer to North Korea, the aide said, including “some deployment of assets,” an apparent reference to intelligence-collection capabilities. But the emails include no attached classified documents or material that could definitively be said to come from classified analysis. “I wouldn’t characterize it as typing off the high side,” the aide said, referring to clearly sensitive material. The messages contain “far more operational discussion than regurgitation of [intelligence] analytical product.”
Other published accounts have said the classified emails include internal commentary on a New York Times story about drone attacks.
The State Department and the intelligence community have clashed over the origin of some of the material, with intelligence agencies saying information could only be gleaned from classified sources and State saying much of it comes from its own personnel simply paying attention to the obvious in the countries in question.
After the “top secret” revelations, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, indicated to the State Department that he was considering opening an investigation into the extent to which Clinton may have compromised national security.
The House Republican leadership was already considering how to respond to the Clinton email issue, according to a congressional source familiar with the sequence of events. That discussion was pushed toward resolution when Chaffetz, in a Politico interview published Wednesday, said he was preparing to open a new probe of Clinton.
On Wednesday evening, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) called Chaffetz to a meeting to temper his zeal. He was told that the leaders had made a “collective decision” that anything related to Clinton and her emails “was best left to the FBI,” said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to relate the closed-door discussions. The only exception was the ongoing Benghazi investigation.
The FBI has been conducting an investigation of whether the use of nongovernment servers violated federal records laws and classification regulations.
Some lawmakers with access to the 22 emails have offered public assessments, generally along partisan lines, of their potential to cause security damage.
“They do reveal classified methods. They do reveal classified sources, and they do reveal human assets,” Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, told Fox News on Wednesday. “I can’t imagine how anyone could be familiar with these emails, whether they’re sending them or receiving them, and not realize that these are highly classified.”
Committee member Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) said Thursday that he would not comment on the content, “and I urge others to let the process proceed unimpeded by politics."
But, Schiff said, “it is more than a little ironic that people are leaking classified information about this while excoriating Secretary Clinton for her handling of classified information. In light of reports that have surfaced indicating that Republican secretaries of state and their immediate staffs had classified information on their personal accounts, the GOP focus on Secretary Clinton is all the more transparently political.”
Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) took to the Senate floor late Thursday to agree. By GOP logic, he said, “we would have to criminally charge Secretary Rice, Secretary Powell, the senior staff and everyone else who received these emails. We might have to indict the entire senior level of America’s national security team. . . . This is absurd.”
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, first revealed the inspector general notifications Thursday. He said in a statement that he had been informed of the Powell and Rice emails through a memo marked “Not for Distribution” that was sent by the department’s inspector general to Undersecretary for Management Patrick Kennedy on Wednesday.
The same information, he said, had already been provided to “other congressional staff without authorization” by the intelligence inspector general.
In a letter requesting further information from Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Cummings said the memo indicated that a records review was being conducted of five previous secretaries of state and their immediate staffs. Out of “potentially sensitive records” referred by the inspector general to the department for further review, he said, the inspector general reported that 12, dating between February 2003 and June 2008, were determined to contain “classified national security information.” Two had been sent to Powell’s personal account and 10 sent to accounts of Rice’s staff.
“According to the memo,” Cummings wrote, “none of the emails was marked as classified.”
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.