Just two days after controversy erupted over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s using private email and not a government account during her tenure, the House Foreign Affairs Committee appears to have launched an investigation.
Thomas Alexander, the committee’s chief council for oversight and investigations, sent an email Wednesday afternoon to Al Jazeera America requesting contact with a confidential State Department source who said information technology staff expressed concern years ago that Clinton’s private email use was a security hazard.
“I saw your article in AJAM yesterday regarding the warnings HRC’s people received from the department’s cybersecurity team,” Alexander wrote, referring to Clinton by her initials. “Any chance your source would be willing to speak with me confidentially? Like you, I don’t reveal sources without their permission.”
Al Jazeera declined to participate. Neither Alexander nor the committee’s communications director, Audra McGeorge, replied to requests to explain the parameters of the investigation or what Alexander is hoping to learn.
Still, the correspondence represents new public relations and possibly legal headaches for Clinton, a likely 2016 presidential candidate whose presumed dominance in the Democratic nominating contest has made her a focus of attacks by Republicans and conservatives since she left the State Department in February 2013.
Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, issued a statement Wednesday night saying “the Oversight and Government Reform Committee is reviewing the administration’s compliance with the Federal Records Act and related laws. The Foreign Affairs Committee stands ready to support this important work.”
He added that he was “deeply troubled” by Clinton’s email practices and that “the allegations that Secretary Clinton sought to sidestep the law merit robust scrutiny.”
In addition to whatever the Foreign Affairs Committee is planning, a special committee has been investigating Clinton’s role in the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, were killed.
“The Select Committee on Benghazi today issued subpoenas for all communications of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton related to Libya and to the State Department for other individuals who have information pertinent to the investigation,” committee spokesman Jamal Ware said via e-mail. “The committee also has issued preservation letters to Internet firms informing them of their legal obligation to protect all relevant documents.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the Benghazi committee, said the Republicans’ actions have led him to believe they simply want to attack Clinton. He noted that Colin Powell, a secretary of state under President George W. Bush, a Republican, used personal email accounts.
The New York Times reported Monday night that Clinton used only private email accounts during her tenure — a move that prevented the National Archives and Records Administration from automatically archiving her correspondence for historical purposes when she left office. Instead, the newspaper reported, two months ago Clinton aides turned over some 55,000 pages of emails after they reviewed all the messages she sent and received during her four-year tenure.
It’s unclear what her motivation was in doing it this way, but Clinton used, for at least some of her email, the domain clintonemail.com. Online records show that the domain was registered on Jan. 13, 2009, the day she testified before the Senate as the nominee for secretary of state.
Clinton maintained public silence on the email controversy until tweeting on Wednesday night, “I want the public to see my email. I asked State to release them. They said they will review them for release as soon as possible.”
Marie Harf, the State Department’s deputy spokeswoman, issued a statement saying, “The State Department will review for public release the emails provided by Secretary Clinton to the department, using a normal process that guides such releases. We will undertake this review as quickly as possible; given the sheer volume of the document set, this review will take some time to complete.”
Clinton’s spokesman, Nick Merrill, and longtime adviser Philippe Reines, have commented only to assert that Clinton didn’t violate the law.
“Both the letter and the spirit of the rules permitted State Department officials to use nongovernment email, as long as appropriate records were preserved,” Merrill said in a written statement.
It was only after Clinton left the post, her defenders say, that use of private email was almost entirely banned for government business. Critics insist her use of private email, which The Associated Press reported is handled by computer servers at her home in Chappaqua, New York, violated the spirit — if not the letter — of the Federal Records Act.
Nobody from the Clinton camp has addressed the lingering question of why she didn’t use a government email account for government business. Likewise, neither Merrill nor Harf would comment on questions about how Clinton’s private email service was secured against cyberattack.
“I'm just not going to get into security, on what we do or don’t do,” Harf replied via email when asked whether the department ever assessed Clinton’s private account to ensure it was as secure as the State Department’s email system.
On Tuesday, Harf told Al Jazeera America that the department has “no indication that Secretary Clinton used her personal email account for anything but unclassified purposes.” She declined to explain Wednesday how that could be known, given that the State Department has never been in control of Clinton’s emails.
Clay Johnson, a former presidential innovation fellow and a longtime Democratic campaign technology consultant, has advanced an explanation for Clinton’s avoidance of a state.gov email account. He posited on Tuesday that Clinton may have been advised that the State Department’s system wasn’t secure enough, an idea that proved true in 2010 when thousands of internal emails were posted online as part of the WikiLeaks revelations. He noted that no clintonemail.com messages were among them.
Yet a former cybersecurity official with the Department of Homeland Security found such an explanation “laughable.” The official, who requested anonymity because he now works for a think tank that does not permit him to speak to reporters, said that private email is “automatically less secure than a system like what exists at State. And if she was told that the email system was insecure, why would she let the rest of the department use it? Wouldn’t she have tried to get it fixed?”
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