The Cable

Your Guide to Another Hillary Clinton Email Investigation

On Thursday night, the State Department announced it’s reopening an investigation into the possible mishandling of classified information by Hillary Clinton and her top operatives, ensuring that the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee’s email habits will continue to haunt her on the campaign trail.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton checks her PDA upon departure in a military C-17 plane from Malta bound for Tripoli, on October 18, 2011.  AFP PHOTO/KEVIN LAMARQUE/POOL (Photo credit should read KEVIN LAMARQUE/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton checks her PDA upon departure in a military C-17 plane from Malta bound for Tripoli, on October 18, 2011. AFP PHOTO/KEVIN LAMARQUE/POOL (Photo credit should read KEVIN LAMARQUE/AFP/Getty Images)

On Thursday night, the State Department announced it’s reopening an investigation into the possible mishandling of classified information by Hillary Clinton and her top operatives, ensuring that the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee’s email habits will continue to haunt her on the campaign trail.

If you’re wondering why another inquiry into her email habits is happening after the FBI concluded a year long investigation into the issue this week, and a House panel spent part of two years and $7 million on some of the same issues, let us explain:

Why Is the Federal Government Launching Another Investigation into Hillary’s Emails?

When FBI Director James Comey announced his recommendation that the Justice Department not bring charges against Clinton on Tuesday — and Attorney General Loretta Lynch accepted the recommendation — many assumed the matter was then settled (at least as it related to any formal censuring of Clinton or her top advisers).

But that isn’t the case.

As Comey noted, the “extremely careless” way that Clinton and her colleagues handled sensitive government information on the former secretary of state’s private email server means they could be “subject to security or administrative sanctions,” i.e., Clinton’s aides could have their security clearances revoked, a significant punishment given that having a clearance is a prerequisite for a high-ranking job in the government. But it’s not up to the FBI to revoke the clearances of Clinton or her aides, it’s up to the State Department, which had refused to look into the matter until the Justice Department finished its investigation. So that’s why the investigation is happening now.

So Who Is the State Department Investigating?

It’s not exactly clear, but one can venture a guess.

On Thursday, State Department spokesman John Kirby said he “cannot provide specific information about the department’s review, including what information we are evaluating.” But it’s safe to assume the department will investigate anyone who was closely involved with setting up or using Clinton’s private email server — which would include Clinton and her top aides at the State Department during her tenure, Cheryl Mills, her chief of staff at the time, and her deputies Jake Sullivan and Huma Abedin.

How Might They Be Punished?

Even though Mills, Sullivan and Abedin no longer work at the State Department, there are a few ways they can still be punished, should an investigation find that necessary.  Mills and Sullivan reportedly still maintain their clearances. According to Mark Zaid, a Washington-based attorney who frequently deals with cases involving security clearances, the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, which controls the issuance of clearances, can take steps to revoke that clearance with the issuance of a “Statement of Reasons,” or SOR. But lesser consequences are possible too.

Given Comey’s assessment that Clinton and her aides showed a serious lack of judgement in using private email to handle sensitive government information, Zaid said Diplomatic Security officials (DS), will likely “insert incident reports into each of the relevant individuals’ security files regarding the mishandling of classified information for future adjudication.”

“If the individuals do not hold current access then the incident report would sit until such time as access was requested and then the security adjudicative process would move forward,” he said.

Why Does This Matter?

Should Clinton secure the presidency in her bid for the White House, she would likely bring her top aides into her administration. Sullivan is a likely candidate for the powerful position of national security adviser, but he could fit into a number of other roles as well. If any of her aides are stripped of their clearances, it could complicate efforts to move them into future administration jobs, though there are ways around such hurdles. The White House, State Department, and Department of Defense maintain control of their own clearances. However, even if they were to reject a clearance for Sullivan or Abedin, the president could theoretically overturn that decision and demand that a clearance is given, though such a move could create some controversy if the details are leaked to the press.

When Will We Know the Results of the Investigation?

In short, the State Department won’t say. In remarks on Thursday, Kirby said “we will aim to be as expeditious as possible, but we will not put artificial deadlines on the process.” Regardless, the longer it takes, the more likely criticisms will be from Clinton’s opponents who have already slammed Foggy Bottom for slow-rolling its responses to Clinton’s email troubles to the benefit of her candidacy.

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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