The Hillary Clinton emails: What are the facts?

Eric Mink is a freelance writer and editor and teaches film studies at Webster University. He is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Daily News in New York.  Contact him at [email protected].


• When control freak Hillary Clinton became secretary of state in 2009, she arrogantly dismissed as “inconvenient”  the in-house computer systems at the State Department. Instead, she had a personal email system set up for her, built around a computer server located in the basement of her house in Chappaqua, N.Y. Clinton was so careless with classified material on her unclassified system that cyber thieves broke into it, snagged more than 250,000 classified State Department cables and made them public, much to the delight of America’s adversaries. 

No, wait; that’s wrong. 

Those classified State Department cables were certainly stolen and published, but it had nothing to do with Clinton or her email system. The documents were snatched in 2010 from a Department of Defense database intended to improve the sharing of security information among government agencies after 9/11.

Who took them? A distressed and disgruntled Army private then known as Bradley Manning (now Chelsea Manning, a transgender woman) was serving as an intelligence analyst. He used his security clearance to gain access to the database, copied the documents to a small flash drive and provided the information to WikiLeaks. Chelsea Manning was court-martialed, convicted and sentenced to 35 years at the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

• Agents of unknown origin hacked into Clinton’s unauthorized basement server, jumped through it to the State Department’s unclassified computer system and infected it with viruses. Department IT experts eventually had to shut down their system, effectively cutting off State from the internet. The Wall Street Journal reported the intrusion was so devastating that some intruders were still rummaging around in the system three months later.

Oh wait; that didn’t happen, either.

Actually, the cyberattack happened, but it, too, was unrelated to Clinton or her personal e-mail system. The attack, most likely by Russians, started long before Clinton’s arrival in 2009. It was part of a broader assault that included an unclassified system in the Executive Office of the President at the White House, and wasn’t discovered until the fall of 2014, more than a year after Clinton and her staff had left the State Department and decommissioned the personal Internet domain: Had Clinton been using State’s supposedly more secure system during her tenure, her e-mails would have been far more vulnerable.

The secure computer systems of other government entities have been successfully attacked in recent years as well. Among them: the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (personal information on 22 million people, including highly sensitive applications for security clearances), the U.S. Postal Service (800,000 employees, 3 million customers affected) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to say nothing of a 2008 breach at the U.S. Central Command in which attackers used a digital worm that spread through military computers and took 14 months to clean out.

• So here in this vulnerable, risky real world, how many times was Clinton’s private email system hacked? And how much damage did Clinton and her State Department team do to U.S. security interests and the safety of intelligence personnel by being “extremely careless,” as FBI Director James Comey has put it, in handling classified information through her personal unclassified system?

So far as FBI investigators could tell, the short answers to those questions were: “It was never hacked”; and, “They did no damage.” 

These investigators, of course, are the only people who have scrutinized the matter as detached, trained professionals, as opposed speculating about it as political partisans.

Longer answers:

“We did not find direct evidence that Secretary Clinton’s personal email domain, in its various configurations since 2008, was successfully hacked,” Comey said July 5, announcing the results of a yearlong criminal investigation into Clinton’s personal email system and her related handling of classified information. 

Comey restated that conclusion several times July 7 in response to questioning during an interminable appearance before a so-called emergency session of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee (4 hours without a break).

Comey added cautionary qualifiers. He said it still was possible that Clinton’s system had been hacked by someone or some organization that was clever enough to cover their tracks completely. And some equipment that had been used, replaced and recycled during Clinton’s four-year tenure was no longer available for examination. But FBI forensic examiners have demonstrated a tenacious ability to detect and piece together digital fragments of evidence of intrusions. They apparently found no such indicators in Clinton’s system.

Last Friday, the FBI released a dense, partially redacted, 58-page summary of its Clinton investigation, supplementing Comey’s July announcement and explanation that he and his investigative team had found insufficient evidence of willful wrongdoing to support prosecuting Clinton or any senior members of her State Department team.

FBI agents had closely examined about 47,500 emails with which Clinton had contact while she was secretary of state. Of those, the FBI determined that 303 — 0.64 percent of the total reviewed — contained at least some classified material when they were sent or received.

Investigators also found, however, that when Clinton and members of her senior staff were handling those 303 emails, virtually none bore the header and footer markings that are supposed to identify classified U.S. documents. Three e-mails — 0.0064 percent of the total — had only a “(c)” mark next to at least one paragraph, but nothing on the document explaining the symbol’s significance. (It means “Confidential,” the lowest category of classified material.)

When questioned by the agents about specific emails she sent and received that were later deemed to contain classified information, Clinton said several times that she believed the State Department’s “experienced foreign service professionals” knew to not send classified material on an unclassified system. And because the emails were not marked as classified, she had no reason to believe they were, even if the subject matter was sensitive.

Comey said that he and the experienced agents who questioned Clinton concluded that she answered all of their questions truthfully.

In other words, it made perfect sense for her to believe and state publicly, as she did many times, that she did not send or receive emails through her unclassified system that contained classified information.

It turned out she was wrong about that. But — as we all know from our own life experiences – there’s a difference between being wrong but not knowing it and knowing that what you’re saying is wrong and saying it anyway. The former is simply a mistake. The latter is a lie.

Some Republicans are ignoring that common sense distinction when it comes to Clinton. They stridently and repeatedly accuse her of having lied about the classified emails. If they truly believe that, the FBI investigation strongly suggests they are mistaken.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that they know what they’re saying is wrong.