The results of an FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server as secretary of state shredded Clinton’s most oft-recited defense — that she never sent or received information marked classified.
Clinton made the case for a year — and as recently as Saturday, hours after being interviewed by investigators.
“Let me repeat what I have repeated for many months now,” Clinton said July 2. “I never received nor sent any material that was marked classified.”
Clinton has made the same general claim two ways. At a Democratic debate in February, Clinton said, “I never sent or received any classified material.” Other times she’s added the qualifier that she never sent material “marked” classified.
We previously found that Clinton was spinning what was publicly known about the FBI investigation and Clinton’s e-mails. We rated her claim Half True.
Now we know it’s just plain wrong.
At PolitiFact, our policy is that we fact-check statements and claims using the information available at the time. That policy stands. But in this case, while the evidence FBI Director James B. Comey presented wasn’t available to us, it was available to Clinton through her own e-mails. She had every opportunity to present an accurate accounting in comments to the public and voters. She did not do that.
We think it’s important to make the record abundantly clear.
FBI investigators reviewed the 30,000 e-mails Clinton turned over to the State Department in 2014. The investigation found “a very small number” contained classification markings at the time they were sent.
The State Department confirmed July 6 that it was aware of two e-mails that were marked confidential, the lowest level of classification, when they were sent. An aide sent the two e-mails to Clinton to prepare her for phone calls with foreign leaders, according to the New York Times.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said call sheets are often classified when they are prepared. But then at some point before the call is made, someone with the appropriate authority will declassify them. These two call sheets sent to Clinton unnecessarily retained their confidential markings due to human error, Kirby said.
Even though just two e-mails out of many thousands were marked classified at the time they were sent, it’s more than the number Clinton cited: zero.
In total, the investigation found 110 e-mails in 52 e-mail chains containing information that was classified at the time it was sent or received. Eight chains contained top secret information, the highest level of classification, 36 chains contained secret information, and the remaining eight contained confidential information. Most of these e-mails, however, did not contain markings clearly delineating their status.
Even so, Clinton and her team still should have known the information was not appropriate for an unclassified system, Comey said.
“There is evidence to support a conclusion that any reasonable person in Secretary Clinton’s position or in the position of those with whom she was corresponding about the matters should have known that an unclassified system was no place for that conversation,” Comey said of some of the top-secret chains.
About 2,000 additional e-mails have been retroactively classified, or up-classified, meaning the information was not classified when it was first e-mailed. This is a regular practice when documents are reviewed for release, according to transparency experts.
Throughout this saga, Clinton has said she turned over all work-related e-mails to the State Department. But Comey said FBI investigators uncovered “several thousand” work-related e-mails that she had not handed over, and three of those were classified at the time they were sent, though they were not marked as such.
Some of Clinton’s e-mails now made public actually show Clinton’s team talking about how they couldn’t e-mail each other classified information over the private server and instead have to move the conversation to a more appropriate venue. Clinton has said she viewed classified information in hard copy in her office. If she was traveling, she used other secure channels.
But the FBI investigation found that Clinton sent and received classified information over her private server.
Why the disconnect?
Experts say the story here is more about the dysfunction of government classification than about how Clinton regularly handled sensitive information.
Agencies regularly disagree over what should be classified. As the e-mail story has unfolded, the State Department has squabbled with the intelligence community over whether certain e-mails should be classified today and if it was classified back when it was sent during Clinton’s tenure.
Also, transparency advocates say the government regularly classifies more than it needs to. The government classifies incorrectly 70 percent of the time, according to the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel.
Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University said some of the classified material the FBI identified might not be particularly sensitive. “There is not a line in any of Mrs. Clinton’s e-mails that meets the smell test of classification, which is their release would be damaging to our national security,” he said.
Given these concerns, it’s reasonable to give Clinton a little benefit of the doubt regarding how she treated classified information that landed in her inbox unlabeled, said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.
“If it had been marked as classified and she or her staff transmitted it through nonsecure e-mail anyway, that would have been an overt violation of procedures,” Aftergood said. “If it wasn’t marked as classified, then it could easily have been handled in good faith as unclassified.”
Clinton said, “I never received nor sent any material that was marked classified.”
Clinton has made this claim over and over again. An independent FBI investigation has found that to be inaccurate.
It’s important to remember that only “a very small number” of her e-mails, two, were marked classified when they were first sent, and just 110 out of the 30,000 she turned over were classified but unmarked. Evidence seems to indicate that Clinton generally dealt with classified information in an appropriate manner.
But over the course of a year, Clinton and her staff have painted a picture of an e-mail setup where absolutely zero classified information slipped through the cracks, case closed.
We rate this statement False.
PolitiFact.com is a project operated by the Tampa Bay Times, in which reporters and editors from the Times and affiliated media outlets “fact-check statements by members of Congress, the White House, lobbyists and interest groups.” The Star Tribune opinion pages periodically republish these reports.