Hillary Clinton's 'emailgate' diced and sliced
- 12 August 2015
- From the section US & Canada
Hillary Clinton's smooth ride to the 2016 Democratic nomination for the US presidency has got a lot bumpier in the last few months - and it's all thanks to her emails.
What's the deal with Hillary Clinton's emails?
Shortly before she was sworn in as secretary of state in 2009, Hillary Clinton set up an email server at her home in Chappaqua, NY. She then relied on this server, home to the email address firstname.lastname@example.org, for all her electronic correspondence - both work-related and personal - during her four years in office.
She also reportedly set up email addresses on the server for her long-time aide, Huma Abedin, and State Department Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills.
She did not use, or even activate, a state.gov email account, which would have been hosted on servers owned and managed by the US government.
Mrs Clinton's email system became a national story the first week of March, when the New York Times ran a front-page article on the subject. The article said that the system "may have violated federal requirements" and was "alarming" to current and former government archive officials.
Why did she do it?
According to Mrs Clinton, the primary reason she set up her own email was for "convenience". During her 10 March press conference at the UN, she said that she preferred to carry only one smartphone with one email address, rather than have two devices - one for work and one for personal affairs.
At the time, according to reports, government-issued Blackberry phones were unable to access multiple email accounts.
"I thought using one device would be simpler, and obviously, it hasn't worked out that way," she said.
Sceptics have countered that the real reason Mrs Clinton established her own email system was because it gave her total control over her correspondence.
With her email setup, she became the sole arbiter of what should and shouldn't be provided to the government, made public via freedom of information requests or turned over to interested parties, such as the congressional committee investigating the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi.
Was this against the law?
Probably not. Mrs Clinton's email system existed in a grey area of the law - and one that has been changed several times since she left office.
When she became secretary of state, the controlling interpretation of the 1950 Federal Records Act was that officials using personal email accounts must ensure that official correspondence are turned over to the government. Ten months after she took office, a new regulation allowed the use of private emails only if federal records were "preserved in the appropriate agency recordkeeping system".
Mrs Clinton maintains that this requirement was satisfied because most of her emails from her personal account went to, or were forwarded to, people with government accounts, so they were automatically archived. Any other emails were turned over to State Department officials when they issued a request to her - and several of her predecessors - in October 2014.
She said it is the responsibility of the government employee "to determine what's personal and what's work-related" and that she's gone "above and beyond" what she was asked to do.
In November 2014 President Barack Obama signed the Presidential and Federal Records Act Amendments, which requires government officials to forward any official correspondence to the government within 20 days. Even under this new law, however, the penalties are only administrative, not criminal.
How many emails are we talking about?
According to Mrs Clinton, she sent or received 62,320 emails during her time as secretary of state. She, or her lawyers, have determined about half of those - 30,490, roughly 55,000 pages, were official and have been turned over to the State Department.
Mrs Clinton said the other emails are private - relating to topics like her daughter's wedding, her mother's funeral and "yoga routines".
On Hillary Clinton's request, the State Department released the first set of emails sent on her private account in May, with many relating to the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi,.
In early August, she signed an affidavit swearing she had turned over all copies of government records from her time in office.
Have other politicians engaged in similar activities?
Mrs Clinton is far from alone. Other politicians and officials - both in federal and state governments - sometimes have relied on personal email for official business. Colin Powell, secretary of state under President George W Bush, told ABC he used a personal email account while in office, including to correspond with foreign leaders.
Outside of Washington, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush - a possible 2016 candidate for the US presidency - relied on a private email address (email@example.com). Like Mrs Clinton, he has selected which correspondence to make public.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, also a Republican presidential aspirant, faced questions over his staff's use of private email addresses when he was Milwaukee County executive.
Government Executive magazine conducted a poll in February 2015 of 412 high-level federal workers and found that 33% of those surveyed said they use personal email for government business "at least sometimes".
Mrs Clinton differs from these examples not in manner but in extent - because she used her personal email address exclusively. And, unlike Mr Bush and Mr Walker, her actions were governed by federal law.
So why is this a controversy?
This has become a big deal - prompting Mrs Clinton's hastily assembled news conference and reports that she is accelerating the launch of her presidential campaign - in large part because Mrs Clinton is asking the US public to trust that she is complying with both the "letter and the spirit of the rules", in the words of her spokesperson, Nick Merrill.
The New York Times story was prompted by information provided to the paper by the congressional Benghazi committee, and conservative critics allege that there is no way to prove that she is being forthcoming in providing their investigation with all the relevant material.
Her "convenience" explanation has been difficult for some to swallow, given that as secretary of state she travelled with an extensive entourage capable of carrying her additional phone. And in February 2015, she told a television interviewer that she now carries multiple devices - an iPhone and a Blackberry, as well as an iPad and an iPad mini.
In addition, critics on both the left and the right have expressed concern that her reliance on a "homebrew" email system made her communications more susceptible to hackers and foreign intelligence services.
Exactly how secure was her email?
During her press conference, Mrs Clinton said that that there "were no security breaches" of her server and that robust protections put in place "proved to be effective and secure".
Independent cybersecurity analysts have said that expert hackers can break into email servers without leaving any evidence, however. And commercially available security systems are no match for government-protected systems - but even those aren't invulnerable, as a November 2014 intrusion into the State Department's email system proved.
She has repeatedly asserted that no classified material was transmitted via her email account and that she sent only one email to a foreign official - in the UK.
But in July, the inspector general of the US intelligence community, Charles McCullough, told Congress she had sent at least four messages that contained information derived from classified material. A month later, Mr McCullough revealed that two of the emails contained information deemed "top secret" - the highest classification level.
Responding to building pressure, Clinton finally agreed in August to hand over the private server she used for a preliminary FBI investigation into the security of classified information contained among her emails. She also said she would hand over memory sticks containing copies of the emails.
Wait, the State Department was hacked?
Indeed, it was. According to sources cited by CNN, the November 2014 attack was the "worst ever" cyberattack on a government agency , requiring department IT workers to shut down its entire unclassified email system for a weekend.
The US government suspects Russian hackers were behind the attack - and were also responsible for similar efforts against the White House, postal service and other agencies.
Although Mrs Clinton wasn't affected by that particular incident, some of her personal correspondence were revealed in March 2013 when a confidante, Sidney Blumenthal, had his aol.com address compromised by a hacker named Guccifer (later revealed to be a Romanian named Marcel-Lehel Lazar).
Although Guccifer only exposed emails Mr Blumenthal sent to Mrs Clinton, not her replies, it did reveal the secretary of state's private email address two years before the New York Times made it a national story.
Where does the story go from here?
Hillary Clinton's decision to release the entire private server to the FBI will likely advance its investigation into the security of her email.
There's an open question as to whether Mrs Clinton's personal emails even still exist. During her press conference in March, she said she "chose not to keep my private personal emails". If she deleted them, thanks to her email setup, they are likely gone for good.
Meanwhile, Mrs Clinton is due to testify before a House select committee in October to discuss her email system and the handling of the Benghazi attacks that led to the deaths of four Americans - another issue likely to overshadow her presidential campaign.
As for the political fallout, Mrs Clinton is still considered the prohibitive favourite to win the Democratic nomination. Since the story first broke, her standings in favourability polls has declined precipitously, indicating that the controversy could be taking its toll on her campaign.