Sunday 11 December 2016

Hillary's decision was bound to prove costly

Harriet Alexander

Published 29/10/2016 | 02:30

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a rally at NewBo City Market in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Photo: AP
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a rally at NewBo City Market in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Photo: AP
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton greets a woman and a baby outside the Leonard J. Kaplan Center for Wellness at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in Greensboro, N.C.

THE saga of Hillary Clinton's email server began back in 2009, when she was appointed by President Barack Obama to be secretary of state.

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Mrs Clinton had used a Blackberry phone to check her emails and communicate with her friends, and she wanted to continue using it. The only problem was a Blackberry not issued by the government was not considered secure enough for official government use.

So Mrs Clinton and her team came up with a solution: an email server, just for her, located in the basement of her house in Chappaqua, New York.

She would have her own email domain - clintonemail.com.

It was to prove a costly decision.

Ever since then questions have been asked about how she was allowed to use her own email server - whether she was negligent, or even whether she did it with the express intention of hiding classified material.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump

Donald Trump, her rival for the presidency, has said she should be tried and imprisoned for the act - whipping up chants of "lock her up" to echo around his rallies. Last night he said it was a scandal "bigger than Watergate".

James Comey, the FBI director, was more reserved - but in July he did describe it as "extremely careless".

In the first year of Mrs Clinton's appointment, officials with the National Archives and Records Administration expressed concerns over possible violations of normal federal government record-keeping procedures. Hackers from Russia, Serbia and China are said to have been aware of the existence of her private server since 2011.

Mrs Clinton says she felt she was doing nothing different to her predecessor.

Colin Powell had used a private email account - such as a gmail.com one - but, crucially, he never had his own private server.

Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice never used email - and John Kerry now uses a state.gov email address.

Mrs Clinton's ill-advised choice was probed in 2012 by an NGO, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, towards the end of her tenure - but they were told, in response to a Freedom of Information Request, that no records were available.

It was not until March 2013 when a well-known hacker, "Guccifer," accessed and distributed emails sent to Mrs Clinton from her confidant Sidney Blumenthal that the existence of her clintonemail.com address

was revealed. The following summer, lawyers from the state department investigating the 2012 Benghazi attack - which killed Chris Stevens, ambassador to Libya - noticed emails from Mrs Clinton's personal account.

In October of that year, the state department sent letters to Mrs Clinton and all previous secretaries of state back to Ms Albright requesting emails and documents related to their work while in office.

Mrs Clinton's lawyers in December 2014 delivered 12 boxes filled with printed paper containing more than 30,000 emails. But, crucially almost 32,000 emails deemed to be of a personal nature were withheld.

In March 2015, The New York Times broke the story that the Benghazi panel had discovered that Mrs Clinton exclusively used her own private email server rather than a government-issued one during her time as secretary of state, and that her aides took no action to preserve emails sent or received from her personal accounts as required by law.

Mr Obama at first denied knowledge of the scandal yet it later transpired he had exchanged emails with Mrs Clinton, suggesting he may have known her server was not secure. The following month Mrs Clinton announced her bid for the White House. By spring of this year, with the election campaign in full swing, an internal investigation by the inspector general of the state department found that she had never sought permission to use the server in her basement, and would have been refused permission if she had tried.

They discovered that some of the emails contained classified information - and the FBI became involved.

In October 2015 Mrs Clinton testified for 11 hours before a committee investigating Benghazi.

The email issue was addressed, but was not the focus of the session. "I did not conduct most of the business I did on behalf of our country on email," she testified. "I conducted it in meetings, I read massive amounts of memos, great deal of classified information, I made a lot of secure phone calls, I was in and out of the White House all the time."

The questions refused to go away, and led Bernie Sanders, then Mrs Clinton's rival for the Democratic nomination, to declare in a debate: "The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails."

Still it continued. In November 2015, the FBI expanded its inquiry to examine whether Mrs Clinton or her aides had jeopardised national security secrets, and, if so, who was responsible.

She was questioned over the July 4 holiday for three hours, in testimony that was never made public.

On July 5 the FBI concluded its investigation. Mr Comey strongly criticized Mrs Clinton, stating that it "is possible that hostile actors gained access to Secretary Clinton's personal email account." Yet he recommended there was no criminal case to answer.

Mrs Clinton and her team breathed a huge sigh of relief, and felt that the seven-year saga was over.

That, too, now appears to have been unwise.

The revelations continued. In September the FBI took the unusual step of making parts of her testimony public, including the astonishing revelation that her Blackberries were destroyed with a hammer, rather than being disposed of securely.

Mrs Clinton told the agents that she had no idea about servers and security. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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