Around June 2011: The State Department gets a say in CIA drone strikes in Pakistan, leading to email trouble for Clinton and others.

US Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter (Credit: India Times)

US Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter (Credit: India Times)

For several years, the CIA has been conducting a secret drone program in Pakistan, targeting Islamist militants in the mountainous region near the border with Afghanistan. The Pakistani government has secretly allowed the program while publicly protesting it, because the Pakistani public is mostly against it. In 2011, Pakistani officials push back against the program due to the growing number of strikes and an increasing public backlash.

In June 2011, the Wall Street Journal reports that there is a debate about the scale of the program inside the US government. State Department and military officials argue that the CIA needs to be more selective with their strikes. Also, for the first time, State Department officials are given a say. The CIA begins notifying US ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter about planned drone strikes, and this information gets passed up the State Department to Clinton and other top officials. The department then gets to concur or not concur with the strike.

For the rest of Clinton’s tenure until February 2013, the department objects to a planned strike only once or twice. But the strikes will often be discussed by Clinton and other State Department officials in unsecured email channels, and this will later be a focus of the FBI’s Clinton investigation. (The Wall Street Journal, 6/9/2016(The Wall Street Journal, 6/4/2011)

After June 2011 to Late 2012: Clinton and other State Department officials sometimes discuss proposed drone strikes in Pakistan in unsecured emails.

A rally in Islamabad, Pakistan, to condemn US drone attacks in Pakistani tribal areas, on October 28, 2011. (Credit: The Associated Press)

A rally in Islamabad, Pakistan, to condemn US drone attacks in Pakistani tribal areas, on October 28, 2011. (Credit: The Associated Press)

According to a June 2016 Wall Street Journal article, there are a series of Clinton emails in these two years regarding the US drone program in Pakistan. Starting roughly around June 2011, the State Department is given the right to approve or disapprove of the CIA’s drone strikes in Pakistan as part of the US government’s attempt to mollify Pakistan’s concerns so they will continue their secret support of the program.

However, this creates a communication problem, because advanced warning of strikes varies from several days to as little as half an hour. According to the Journal, “Under strict US classification rules, US officials have been barred from discussing strikes publicly and even privately outside of secure communications systems.”

As a result, US intelligence officials want State officials to use a very secure system to discuss the strikes, called JWICS (Joint Worldwide Intelligence Community Systems). But few State officials have access to JWICS, even in Washington, DC, so they use another secure system commonly known as the “high side” (SIPR or, Secret Internet Protocol Router Network).

However, this can be slow as well as difficult to access outside of normal work hours. As a result, according to the Journal, on about a half-dozen different occasions, State officials use the “low side,” which means unsecure computers, such as emailing from a smart phone. This is often said to take place at night, or on the weekend or holiday, or when people are traveling, or when a proposed drone strike is imminent. It is not clear why secure phone lines are not used instead.

The emails are usually vaguely worded so they don’t mention the “CIA,” “drones,” or details about the militant targets, unnamed officials will later claim. These emails sometimes are informal discussions that take place in addition to more formal notifications done through secure communications. In some cases, these emails about specific drone strikes will later be deemed “top secret,” making up many of Clinton’s reported 22 top secret emails.

According to the Journal, unnamed US officials will later say that there “is no evidence Pakistani intelligence officials intercepted any of the low side State Department emails or used them to protect militants.” (The Wall Street Journal, 6/9/2016)

December 23–27, 2011: An email about a specific US drone strike is forwarded to Clinton.

Frank Ruggiero (Credit: public domain)

Frank Ruggiero (Credit: public domain)

On December 23, 2011, US Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter sends a short email to his bosses Frank Ruggiero, who is acting US special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Ruggiero’s deputy Daniel Feldman. The email’s subject heading is “(SBU),” which stands for “sensitive but unclassified.” The single line email will later be mostly redacted, but according to a June 2016 Wall Street Journal article, Munter indicates that a specific US drone strike is planned.

Feldman then forwards the email to Clinton aides Jake Sullivan and Cheryl Mills with the comment, “I’m sure you know already, but just in case.” There are two more emails between Feldman and Mills in the chain that day, mostly later redacted.

Then, on December 27, 2011, Mills resumes the chain with a short email to Feldman, asking, “What happened on this?”

After some more mostly redacted discussion, the full email chain is forwarded by Mills to Clinton later that day. Her response, if any, is unknown.

 Nine-year-old Nabila Rehman appears before Congress and holds a drawing depicting the drone strike that killed her grandmother. (Credit: Evan Vucci / The Associated Press)

Nabila Rehman appears before Congress and holds a drawing depicting the drone strike that killed her grandmother in 2009. (Credit: Evan Vucci / The Associated Press)

The Wall Street Journal will later cite this chain as its only specific example of emails about the US drone program said to be a “key part” of the FBI’s Clinton investigation. Apparently, many of the other emails about various drone strikes are later deemed “top secret,” so their details can’t be shared.

The Journal will claim this email chain is an example of officials having discussions about highly classified drone strikes via unsecured emails “in part because people were away from their offices for the [Christmas] holiday and didn’t have access to a classified computer, officials said.”

Munter incorrectly marks the original email “SBU,” because the Journal will later note, “Under strict US classification rules, US officials have been barred from discussing strikes publicly and even privately outside of secure communications systems.”

Many of the other emails discussing proposed drone strikes will be deemed “top secret,” the highest classification level. (The Wall Street Journal, 6/9/2016) (US Department of State, 1/7/2016)

In Clinton’s July 2016 FBI interview, she will be asked about this email chain, which reached her on December 27, 2011. “Clinton stated no policy or practice existed related to communicating around holidays, and it was often necessary to communicate in code or do the best you could to convey the information considering the email system you were using. In reference to the same email, Clinton believed if the foreign press was to obtain information from that email, it would not cause damage to the US Government.”

It is impossible to judge the validity Clinton’s comments, since so much of the entire chain remains redacted. (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 9/2/2016)

July 5, 2016: The FBI says Clinton both sent and received emails in seven above “top secret” email chains.

Although FBI Director James Comey announces he will not recommend an indictment of Clinton, comments in his public speech reveal information that could be very politically damaging for Clinton. It was previously known that Clinton’s emails contained 22 “top secret” emails in seven different email chains. However, Comey reveals, “Those chains involved Secretary Clinton both sending and receiving emails about those same matters.”

This contradicts previous news reports that Clinton had only been the recipient of “top secret” emails. Comey also says that seven email chains contain “top secret / special access program” (TP/SAP) information, which is above top secret, plus one more previously unknown email chain at the “top secret” level. (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 7/5/2016)

The New York Times notes, “Those emails have been widely reported to include information about the Central Intelligence Agency’s program to use drones to track and kill terrorism suspects. … Only a small number of officials are allowed access to those programs, which are the nation’s most sensitive intelligence operations.”

Another 36 chains were “secret,” which means it includes information that “could be expected to cause serious damage to the national security.” Eight more chains had information classified at the “confidential” level.

The Times comments that Comey’s speech “was, arguably, the worst possible good news Mrs. Clinton’s presidential campaign could have hoped for: no criminal charges, but a pointed refutation of statements like one she flatly made last August,” when she said, “I did not send classified material.” (The New York Times, 7/5/2016) (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 7/5/2016)

September 2, 2016: The FBI’s Clinton email investigation final report and its summary of her FBI interview are released.

The FBI’s 47-page final report on its Clinton email investigation and the FBI’s 11-page summary of its July 2016 interview with Clinton are publicly released. However, both are heavily redacted. The last third of the final report is entirely redacted.

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A Secret Service agent stands guard while two other agents close a gate after a Secret Service vehicle arrived at the home of Clinton in Washington, DC, July 2, 2016. (Credit: Cliff Owen / The Associated Press)

The Washington Post notes, “Ordinarily internal documents from FBI investigations are not made public. However, [FBI Director James] Comey has said the unusually high profile case warranted more robust public disclosures than is standard.”

It is believed both reports were finished just prior to when Comey gave a public speech on July 5, 2016, stating that he wouldn’t recommend any indictments in this case. Clinton’s interview occurred only three days prior to this.

The New York Times, the Washington Post, and many other newspapers make the release of the two documents the main headline.

The Post comments, “Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her staffers employed an informal and sometimes haphazard system for exchanging and storing sensitive information and were at times either unaware or unconcerned with State Department policy…” (The Washington Post, 9/2/2016)

The Times comments: “The documents provided a number of new details about Mrs. Clinton’s private server, including what appeared to be a frantic effort by a computer specialist to delete an archive of her emails even after a congressional committee had requested that they be preserved.”

This is a reference to the revelation that Platte River Networks (PRN) employee Paul Combetta confessed to deleting and then wiping all of Clinton’s emails off her server in late March 2015, despite him being aware of a Congressional order to preserve them. This had been entirely unknown prior to the publication of the report. (The New York Times, 9/2/2016)

The following are other key findings in the FBI documents, as pointed out by the Times or the Post:

A snippet from the FBI report released on September 2, 2016. (Credit: public domain)

A snippet from the FBI report released on September 2, 2016. (Credit: public domain) The opening paragraph of the FBI’s summary on Clinton’s interview, released on September 2, 2016. (Credit: public domain)

  • Clinton defended her handling of the private server by repeatedly saying that she deferred to the judgment of her aides.
  • She regarded emails containing classified discussions about planned drone strikes as “routine.” (In fact, such discussions make up most of her “top secret” emails.)
  • She said she did not recall receiving any emails “she thought should not be on an unclassified system.” Furthermore, she “could not recall anyone raising concerns with her regarding the sensitivity of the information she received at her email address.” (In fact, she sent or received over 2,000 emails later deemed classified, including at least 22 at the “top secret” level.)
  • She emailed Colin Powell a day after she was sworn into office to ask him about his use of a personal email account when he was secretary of state. Powell warned her to “be very careful” because if she used her BlackBerry for official business, those emails could become “official record[s] and subject to the law.”
  • Some of her closest aides were aware she used a private email address but didn’t know she had set up a private server. (However, this is actually contradicted by other evidence.)

The front page of the FBI’s final report, released on July 2, 2016. (Credit: public domain)

  • She regularly brought her BlackBerry into a secure area near her office where it was prohibited, according to three of her aides. However, one aide said it was only stored there, not used.
  • She used 13 BlackBerrys to send emails. The FBI was unable to recover any of them. Two aides said “the whereabouts of Clinton’s devices would frequently become unknown once she transitioned to a new device.”
  • One aide recalled two occasions “where he destroyed Clinton’s old mobile devices by breaking them in half or hitting them with a hammer.” (The New York Times, 9/2/2016) (The New York Times, 9/2/2016)
  • The FBI wrote that “investigative limitations, including the FBI’s inability to obtain all mobile devices and various computer components associated with Clinton’s personal email systems, prevented the FBI from conclusively determining” whether her emails had been successfully hacked.
  • Shortly after she left office, a laptop was made to contain back-up copies of all her emails. However, it got lost in transit.
  • According to the Post, Clinton claimed she “did not know much about how the government classified information. For instance, she said she did not pay attention to the difference between levels of classification, like ‘top secret’ and ‘secret,’ indicating she took ‘all classified information seriously.'” And when she was shown an email with the (C) marking, which is commonly used by the department to indicate classified information, she didn’t recognize the marking.
  • The Post also notes, “she repeatedly told agents she could not recall important details or specific emails she was questioned about.” (The Washington Post, 9/2/2016)