Secrets have long slipped into State Department email

Kirby on Clinton Emails, Iran Deal


WASHINGTON (AP) — During the 2012 attack on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya, State Department officials in Washington were emailing one another with updates in real time. Embedded in those messages were nuggets of classified information, including an apparent reference to a CIA facility that was a closely guarded secret.

When the emails were released last year under the Freedom of Information Act, that and other information found to be classified were censored from public view.

Hillary Rodham Clinton is now under fire after revelations that material deemed classified was sent through the unsecure home server she was using as secretary of state for both official and private email, a matter that has become an issue in her front-running campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Records reviewed by The Associated Press make clear that the leakage of secrets onto unsecure email is a State Department problem dating to the George W. Bush administration, if not earlier. It may have accelerated under Clinton as email use became more frequent.

See photos of Clinton addressing the scandal:

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Secrets have long slipped into State Department email
Representative Susan Brooks, a Republican from Indiana, questions Hillary Clinton, former U.S. secretary of state and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, not pictured, during a House Select Committee on Benghazi hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015. Under scrutiny for her handling of the Benghazi attacks and her use of a private e-mail server, Clinton plans to invoke the memory of slain U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens to defend her approach to diplomacy, saying they shared a common belief in the need for America to lead. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at an event at the New York University Leonard N. Stern School of Business in New York on July 24, 2015. The Justice Department said it had received a request to probe whether Hillary Clinton mishandled sensitive government information by using her private email for State Department business. 'The Department has received a referral related to the potential compromise of classified information,' a department official said in a brief statement that confirmed in part a story that first appeared in The New York Times. AFP PHOTO/ KENA BETANCUR (Photo credit should read KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - MARCH 10: Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks to the media after keynoting a Women's Empowerment Event at the United Nations March 10, 2015 in New York City. Clinton answered questions about recent allegations of an improperly used email account during her tenure as secretary of state. (Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty Images)
Hillary Clinton answers questions from reporters March 10, 2015 at the United Nations in New York. Clinton admitted Tuesday that she made a mistake in choosing for convenience not to use an official email account when she was secretary of state. But, in remarks to reporters after attending a United Nations event, she insisted that her email set-up had been properly secure and that she had turned over all professional communications to the State Department. AFP PHOTO/DON EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - MARCH 10: Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks to the media after keynoting a Women's Empowerment Event at the United Nations March 10, 2015 in New York City. Clinton answered questions about recent allegations of an improperly used email account during her tenure as secretary of state. (Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - MARCH 10: Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks to the media after keynoting a Women's Empowerment Event at the United Nations March 10, 2015 in New York City. Clinton answered questions about recent allegations of an improperly used email account during her tenure as secretary of state. (Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - MARCH 10: Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks to the media after keynoting a Women's Empowerment Event at the United Nations March 10, 2015 in New York City. Clinton answered questions about recent allegations of an improperly used email account during her tenure as secretary of state. (Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - MARCH 10: Huma Abedin (R), aide to former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, looks on during a news conference following Clinton's keynote speech at a Women's Empowerment Event at the United Nations. Clinton answered questions about recent allegations of an improperly used email account during her tenure as secretary of state. (Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 03: Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) and other members of the House Select Committee on Benghazi speak to reporters at a press conference on the findings of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's personal emails at the U.S. Capitol on March 3, 2015 in Washington, D.C. The New York Times reported that Clinton may have violated the law by using a personal email account for official business at the State Department. (Photo by Gabriella Demczuk/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 03: Peter Roskam (R-IL), Susan Brooks (R-IN) and Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) of the House Select Committee on Benghazi speak to reporters at a press conference on the findings of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's personal emails at the U.S. Capitol on March 3, 2015 in Washington, D.C. The New York Times reported that Clinton may have violated the law by using a personal email account for official business at the State Department. (Photo by Gabriella Demczuk/Getty Images)
Hillary Clinton answers questions from reporters March 10, 2015 at the United Nations in New York. Clinton admitted Tuesday that she made a mistake in choosing for convenience not to use an official email account when she was secretary of state. But, in remarks to reporters after attending a United Nations event, she insisted that her email set-up had been properly secure and that she had turned over all professional communications to the State Department. AFP PHOTO/DON EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 03: Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) of the House Select Committee on Benghazi speaks to reporters at a press conference on the findings of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's personal emails at the U.S. Capitol on March 3, 2015 in Washington, D.C. The New York Times reported that Clinton may have violated the law by using a personal email account for official business at the State Department. (Photo by Gabriella Demczuk/Getty Images)
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Clinton's use of a home server makes her case unique, but it's not clear whether the security breach would have been any less had she used government email. The State Department only systematically checks email for sensitive or classified material in response to a public records request.

Clinton insists she didn't send or receive information marked classified, and there is no evidence she did. But information can be classified without being marked. Government investigators have found material they believe was classified when sent in several dozen of 30,000 emails that the former secretary of state has turned over.

In five messages that date to Condoleezza Rice's tenure as secretary of state during the George W. Bush administration, large chunks are censored on the grounds that they contain classified national security or foreign government information.

In a December 2006 email, for example, diplomat John J. Hillmeyer appears to have pasted the text of a confidential cable from Beijing about China's dealings with Iran and other sensitive matters. Large portions of the email were marked classified and censored before release.

Released under the Freedom of Information Act, the emails have been posted on the State Department's searchable reading room.

On the night of the Benghazi attack on Sept. 11, 2012, department officials emailed one another about extraordinarily sensitive matters, including the movement of Libyan militias and the locations of key Americans.

An email from diplomat Alyce Abdalla, sent the night of the attack, appears to report that the CIA annex in Benghazi was under fire. The email has been largely whited out, with the government citing the legal exemption for classified intelligence information. The existence of that facility is now known; it was a secret at the time.

In an email sent at 8:51 p.m. on Sept. 11, 2012, Eric J. Pelofsky, a senior adviser to then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, gives an update on efforts to locate U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, who died in the attack.

The email was marked unclassified when sent. Later, part of it was deemed classified and censored before its release.

Critics have said Clinton and her aides should have known not to discuss anything remotely secret over unsecured email. The emails show they were cognizant of security, routinely communicating over secure phone and fax lines.

Many of the emails to Clinton containing classified information were forwarded to her by a close aide, Huma Abedin. Most, however, originated with diplomats who have access to confidential material. Some emails sent by Clinton have since been censored.

Such slippage of classified information into regular email is "very common, actually," said Leslie McAdoo, a lawyer who frequently represents government officials and contractors in disputes over security clearances and classified information.

What makes Clinton's case different is that she exclusively sent and received emails through a home server in lieu of the State Department's unclassified email system. Neither would have been secure from hackers or foreign intelligence agencies, so it would be equally problematic whether classified information was carried over the government system or a private server, experts say.

In fact, the State Department's unclassified email system has been penetrated by hackers believed linked to Russian intelligence.

Many of the emails to Clinton came from state.gov email accounts, noted Steven Aftergood, an expert on classification at the Federation of American Scientists. "So if there is routine security screening and monitoring of incoming and outgoing State Department emails, anything that is classified should have been flagged. That does not seem to have happened. I think it's the State Department culture."

That may be true, but it would not save a rank-and-file official with a security clearance who was caught sending classified information over email, said Bradley Moss, a lawyer who frequently represents intelligence officers. That person could lose his job, his clearance, or both.

"In real life, the 'everybody does it defense' doesn't fly," Moss said.

Clinton, speaking to reporters after an event in Iowa, said: "My use of personal email was allowed by the State Department. It clearly wasn't the best choice. I should have used two emails, one personal, one for work. And I take responsibility for that decision."

The AP has asked the State Department to turn over records reflecting any concerns by agency computer staff or security officials over Clinton's use of a private email server, but has received no responsive documents.

Clinton also had access to a classified messaging system, but it's not widely used at the State Department. Most department officials in Washington and at embassies have on their desktops a classified network that goes up to "secret" level. A small number of State officials, including the secretary, can use a third system that goes up to "top secret" level in special secure rooms.

But even the middle-tier "secret" network is cumbersome for many in the agency, said officials who would not be quoted when discussing internal security policies. Only a few top officials in Washington are able to read classified emails outside the department's headquarters. Most ambassadors can't open their accounts from home. Officials in the field may have no access at all.

Lots of State Department information is meant for use, sharing and interaction with foreign officials, the vast majority of whom aren't authorized to receive classified U.S. material.

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Associated Press writers Steven Braun, Bradley Klapper, Deb Riechmann and Jack Gillum contributed to this report.

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Follow Ken Dilanian on Twitter at https://twitter.com/KenDilanianAP

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