April 23, 2009: Clinton aide Huma Abedin sends Clinton a series of steps the State Department is taking to secure the US embassies in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The US embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2010. (Credit: public domain)

The US embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2010. (Credit: public domain)

Abedin, Clinton’s deputy chief of staff, lists steps that include “increasing the number of hooches, and doubling up staff in lodging.” The email adds more details, for instance, “[W]e need to improve the security perimeter – acquiring property adjacent to our current facilities in Kabul, which is now difficult to secure.” In addition to mentioning information that could benefit attackers of the embassies, the email shows that Clinton was briefed on embassy security issues, despite her claim that she did not directly deal with such matters. (Politico, 10/30/2015)

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)

February 5, 2016: The New York Times reveals a few more details about what Clinton’s 22 emails deemed “top secret” contain.

A Reaper drone firing its missile. (Credit: public domain)

A Reaper drone firing its missile. (Credit: public domain)

The Times reports, “It remains unknown what exactly the 22 emails contain, given their classification as ‘top secret,’ but [some US] officials described them generally, on the condition of anonymity. The officials included people familiar with or involved in the handling of the emails in government agencies and in Congress.”

  • Officials from US intelligence agencies have battled with State Department officials over what should be considered classified in Clinton’s emails, with the intelligence agencies arguing for more classification and the State Department arguing for less. But in the case of Clinton’s 22 top secret emails, even the State Department agreed that all 22 should be deemed top secret or even above top secret.
  • The emails comprise seven distinct email chains, and most of those chains involve discussions of the CIA drone program. The Obama administration has generally considered the program highly classified, even though details of it have been widely reported. However, some Clinton’s emails contain unredacted mentions of the drone program, so it is the discussion of certain details of the drone program that merit a top secret classification. For instance, some of the top secret emails include an email discussion relating to an unnamed New York Times article that “contained sensitive information about the intelligence surrounding the CIA’s drone activities, particularly in Pakistan.”
  • At least one of the email chains was started by Richard Holbrooke, “who as the administration’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan would have been intimately involved in dealing with the ramifications of drone strikes.” He died in December 2010.
  • “Some of the emails” include information deemed “top secret/SAP,” which means “special access programs.” The Times calls these programs “among the government’s most closely guarded secrets.”
  • “At least one of the emails contain[s] oblique references to CIA operatives.” One email has been given a designation of “HCS-O,” which indicates the information came from human intelligence sources. However, officials say that “none of the emails mention specific names of CIA officers or the spy agency’s sources.” (The New York Times, 2/5/2016)