NEW YORK (Reuters) - Hillary Clinton broke government rules by using a private email server without approval while U.S. secretary of state, an internal government watchdog said on Wednesday.
The long-awaited report by the State Department inspector general was the first official audit of the controversial arrangement to be made public so far, and was also critical of department record-keeping practices before Clinton's tenure.
It concluded that Clinton, now the front-runner in the race to become the Democratic presidential nominee, would not have been allowed to use the server in her home had she asked the department officials in charge of information security.
The report undermined Clinton's defense of her private server. She said it was allowed and that no permission was needed, although she has since apologized for the arrangement.
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The report's highly critical findings included an account of State Department technology staff trying to internally raise concerns about the arrangement in 2010 only to be told to keep quiet by an official in Clinton's office.
It immediately fueled Republican criticism of Clinton in an already acrimonious race. The report will also add to Democratic anxieties about voter perceptions of Clinton as untrustworthy and secretive.
Several other inquiries are continuing, including a U.S. Justice Department investigation into whether the arrangement broke laws.
The inspector general's report cited "longstanding, systemic weaknesses" with State Department records that predated Clinton's tenure, and found problems with the email record-keeping of some of her predecessors that failed to comply with the Federal Records Act.
But it singled out Clinton for her decision to use a private server in her home in Chappaqua, New York, for government business, apparently without seeking authorization.
"OIG 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 said, using an abbreviation for the office of inspector general.
The report said she should have discussed the arrangement with the department's security and technology officials. Officials told the inspector general's office that they "did not - and would not - approve her exclusive reliance on a personal email account to conduct Department business." The reason, those officials said, is because it breached department rules and presented "security risks."
When two lower-level information technology officials tried to raise concerns about Clinton's email arrangement in late 2010, their supervisor in Clinton's office instructed them "never to speak of the Secretary's personal email system again," the report said. Their supervisor told them that department lawyers had approved of the system, but the inspector general's office said it found no evidence this was true.
Brian Fallon, a Clinton spokesman, said the report rebutted criticisms of Clinton made by her political opponents.
"Contrary to the false theories advanced for some time now, the report notes that her use of personal email was known to officials within the Department during her tenure, and that there is no evidence of any successful breach of the Secretary's server," he said in a statement.
He did not address the report's criticism of her use of a private server, something no other secretary of state has done.
Emails sent by Colin Powell, who was secretary of state from 2001 to 2005 and the first in that role to use email, were not properly archived, the report said, noting that the rules for email in place at the time were less comprehensive than those during Clinton's tenure.
Powell failed to keep any of his work emails, in breach of the Federal Records Act, while Clintonreturned some of hers to the department two years after she left, about 30,000, though the report notes that some are missing.
Officials in the inspector general's office interviewed John Kerry, the current secretary of state, and predecessors Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine Albright for the report, which was released to the media by lawmakers on Wednesday. Kerry asked the inspector general to investigate after Clinton's email arrangement came to light last year. Representatives for Powell and Rice did not respond to requests or comment.
Clinton, who served as the nation's top diplomat from 2009 to 2013, and her deputies, including Cheryl Mills, Jake Sullivan and Huma Abedin, declined to be interviewed for the inspector general's investigation, the report said.
Republicans have used Clinton's email practice to suggest she was trying to hide government records from scrutiny under public-access laws.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement that the findings "are just the latest chapter in the long saga of Hillary Clinton's bad judgment that broke federal rules and endangered our national security."
Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, said the report's key recommendations have already been acted upon.
"As this report underscores, agencies across the Federal Government are working to adapt decades-old recordkeeping practices to the email-dominated modern era," he said in a statement.
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