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Hillary’s Flimsy ‘Colin Powell’ Excuse Won’t Save Her from Email Scandal

One of the main arguments Hillary Clinton and her supporters are using to dispute a damning new State Department Inspector General report on her use of a private email server for official business when Clinton was Secretary of State is claiming the report indicates Colin Powell essentially did the same thing when he headed the State Department.

Although this argument has become a Democratic talking point, it is false and extremely unfair to former Secretary Powell.

The IG report makes clear there is no comparison between Clinton’s and Powell’s email practices. Powell did use personal email for some official business, but not nearly to the extent Clinton did nor did he use a private server. Although a handful of Powell’s emails were found to be classified at a low level, according to a May 27, 2016 New York Times article, 2,028 of the Clinton’s work-related emails were classified “confidential” and 65 were classified “secret.” 22 other Clinton emails were classified “top secret” or higher and are so sensitive that they will not be released even in redacted form.

Fox News anchor Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday chided Congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA) last weekend for using the “Colin Powell excuse” to deflect the Clinton email scandal by pointing out that State Department security rules concerning the use of personal email for official business were entirely different when Clinton was Secretary. Wallace also counseled Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, that his use of the Powell argument was a red herring and said, “I expect better of you.”  Schiff also had no clear answer on why Clinton and her aides refused to cooperate with the State IG’s investigation.

Wallace was right. The new IG report says the State Department’s rules on the use of unclassified email for official business significantly evolved between 2001 and 2009 and provides charts showing how these rules changed over time. The report also noted that State Department employees first acquired desktop access to the Internet under Powell.

According to the IG report, Powell “installed a laptop computer on a private line” in his State Department office for unclassified email access and he used this laptop to send email via his personal email account to his “principal assistants, individual ambassadors, and foreign minister colleagues.” This was permissible in 2001, but would never be allowed today, since the Secretary’s office is a “Secure Compartmented Information Facility” from which personal electronics are banned. State officials also are now required to use the State system to access the Internet; they are not permitted to set up their own official accounts through commercial services.

Aside from the evolution of the rules on private and unclassified emails between Powell’s tenure and Clinton’s, there are other stark differences between the email practices of these two officials.

Concerning Powell, the State Department IT staff (the Office of Information and Resource Management or IRM) would have been aware of the laptop in his office that he used for internet access since they maintained his work electronics and probably installed this computer. The State Department’s Diplomatic Security bureau also would have been aware of Powell’s laptop, since it does periodic security sweeps of all Department offices. The IRM office also probably coordinated with Diplomatic Security on the installation of this laptop.

On the other hand, although Clinton has claimed she used her private email server with the permission of IRM and Diplomatic Security, the IG says it “found no evidence that the Secretary requested or obtained guidance or approval to conduct official business via a personal email account on her private server.” The report also said that State Diplomatic Security and IRM officials informed the IG that they “did not and would not” approve Clinton’s exclusive reliance on a personal email account to conduct Department business” because of the restrictions in State Department regulations and the security risks in doing so.”

According to the State IG report, this story gets much, much worse.

  • Although Clinton’s staff and an aide to former President Clinton discovered evidence of cyber attacks against the private email server, the IG found no evidence that these incidents were ever reported to Diplomatic Security even though State Department regulations require this.
  • Concerning the security of the private server, the IG report noted that Clinton presidential campaign claims “robust protections were put in place and additional upgrades and techniques employed over time as they became available, including consulting and employing third party experts.” However, the IG report says Diplomatic Security and IRM staff told the IG that Clinton never demonstrated to them that her private server or mobile device met minimum information security requirements specified by State Department regulations.
  • In October 2012, after Clinton’s private email server went down due to Hurricane Sandy, Clinton’s staff asked the IRM staff whether the Department could provide support for the server. An IRM official informed the IG that his office declined to provide support because this was a private server.
  • The IG report also revealed that a State Department IRM employee [Brian Pagliano] secretly maintained Mrs. Clinton’s private server without telling his supervisors and was compensated for his services “by check or wire transfer in varying amounts and various times between 2009 and 2013.” This employee’s supervisors told the State IG “that they questioned whether he could support a private client during work hours, given his capacity as a full-time government employee.” Pagliano was given immunity by the Justice Department in March for its investigation into the Clinton email scandal. He took the Fifth Amendment and refused to testify to the Benghazi Committee last fall and is refusing to testify to Senate committees. Pagliano recently said he will take the Fifth if forced to testify in a deposition in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by Judicial Watch.
  • The IG report says two IRM officers raised concerns in 2010 that Clinton’s private email server did not comply with laws and regulations on the retention of official records. One of the IRM officers was told by the IRM director that “the Secretary’s personal system had been reviewed and approved by Department legal staff and that the matter was not to be discussed any further.” The IG could find no evidence that State Department attorneys approved Clinton’s private email server. The other IRM officer was told that IRM’s mission “is to support the Secretary and instructed the staff never to speak of the Secretary’s personal email system again.”

This adds up to a scheme by Hillary Clinton to use a private email system to evade federal laws and regulations on the retention of official records and the Freedom of Information Act. The private email system wasn’t set up by accident. It is impossible to believe that Clinton and her staff were unaware of laws and regulations concerning official records and personal email. It is not a coincidence that a State employee was paid off the books to secretly maintain the private server and IRM officers were ordered not to discuss the server.  It is likely that Clinton’s private server led to the compromise of sensitive classified information.

This is a scandal that represents serious criminal activity by Secretary Clinton and her staff, for which they should be indicted.

It is outrageous that Clinton and her supporters have tried to explain away her crooked email scheme by trying to drag in and smear former Secretary Colin Powell. Chris Wallace was right: there is absolutely no comparison between Powell’s innocent use of personal email for official business and Clinton’s email practices. That the Clinton team would try to turn the tables by casting blame on Powell is a sign of Mrs. Clinton’s craven lack of ethics and the scandal-ridden administration she will lead if elected president this fall.

Fred Fleitz is senior vice president for policy and programs with the Center for Security Policy. He followed the Iranian nuclear issue for the CIA, the State Department, and the House Intelligence Committee during his 25-year government career.  Twitter @fredfleitz.

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