Report

Meet the Obama Appointees Who Could Sink Hillary

These inspectors general are sifting through Hillary Clinton's emails to see who was naughty or nice.

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 30: National Intelligence Community Inspector General Charles McCullough prepares to move into a closed session after testifying before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee about the lessons learned about intelligence and information sharing after the Boston Marathon bombings April 30, 2014 in Washington, DC. Despite errors and inaccuracies in the information itself, the inspectors general said that sharing between different law enforcement agencies was successful prior to the April 15, 2013 bombing that left three people dead and scores injured. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 30: National Intelligence Community Inspector General Charles McCullough prepares to move into a closed session after testifying before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee about the lessons learned about intelligence and information sharing after the Boston Marathon bombings April 30, 2014 in Washington, DC. Despite errors and inaccuracies in the information itself, the inspectors general said that sharing between different law enforcement agencies was successful prior to the April 15, 2013 bombing that left three people dead and scores injured. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Hillary Clinton always knew House Republicans would be a major irritant to her campaign for the White House. But the widening federal probe of her private email server has created an unexpected threat to her electoral ambitions: two federal government watchdogs appointed by the White House of a fellow Democrat, President Barack Obama.

The inspectors general — Steve Linick, the State Department’s internal watchdog, and Charles McCullough III, who oversees the 17-agency intelligence community — are each reviewing Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state. The flurry of questions raised by the two watchdogs, as well as those from FBI officials and Republican lawmakers, prompted Clinton’s aides to announce this week that she is providing the Justice Department with the Internet server and thumb drive that held tens of thousands of documents from her office while at Foggy Bottom, a move she had resisted for months.

What the separate inquiries by Linick and McCullough reveal could threaten to seriously wound the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee for the White House.

It’s an unusually high-profile responsibility for officials who are holding what are typically little-known, though powerful, positions.

“We will follow the facts wherever they lead, to include former aides and associates, as appropriate,” Linick spokesman Douglas Welty said in a statement to Foreign Policy on Wednesday.

The widening inquiry into Clinton’s emails have bogged down her campaign for president. Recent polls in swing states show more and more voters describing Clinton as untrustworthy or dishonest, due in part to questions about why she routed official emails through her personal Internet server.

Clinton maintains that the private email account was a convenient way to receive all correspondence on one device. Critics accuse her of trying to shield those documents from State Department archives.

Concerns and questions over whether her personal email server hosted classified information spurred investigations by Congress, Linick, and McCullough.

So far, Linick’s office has acknowledged it is reviewing Clinton’s top aides’ use of “personal communications hardware and software” at lawmakers’ request. It’s unclear, however, precisely who and what is being investigated.

According to McClatchy, at least four of Clinton’s top aides have provided copies of personal emails and other records to the State Department.

Linick, who was named the State Department’s inspector general in 2013, has years of experience investigating white collar criminal fraud and national security waste and abuse. Before joining the State Department, he served as inspector general of the Federal Housing Finance Agency from 2010 to 2013, taking the lead on audits, inspections, and efforts to combat waste and abuse. In 2014, he was also named associate inspector general for Operation Inherent Resolve — the U.S.-led campaign to defeat Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

Congressional aides describe Linick as intent on cultivating relationships with Republicans — and say he has been unusually successful in doing so. In negotiations with members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the former federal prosecutor specifically sought legislation to provide his office with additional independence from Foggy Bottom, a request Republicans were happy to grant in the committee’s State Department authorization bill, which aimed to give the inspector general more autonomy in conducting investigations.

He has built good relationships on both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill,” a former committee staffer told Foreign Policy.

Linick has also surprised observers inside and outside Foggy Bottom with his willingness to publicly criticize the State Department for security lapses exposed by the Benghazi attacks in 2012, and the mismanagement of billions of dollars of reconstruction money in Iraq and Afghanistan.

John Sopko, the U.S. watchdog for Afghan reconstruction, called Linick “a breath of fresh air” at the State Department. “Steve brings that view that he is supposed to be independent and he’s supposed to speak truth to power,” he said.

The most damaging information to come out of the federal inquiries of Clinton’s emails so far comes from McCullough. This week, the intelligence community’s inspector general dropped a bombshell by telling lawmakers that two classified emails discovered on the Clinton server contained “top secret” information, one of the highest security classifications.

According to the Washington Post, some of the classified information in the emails originated with the CIA. The materials include references to information taken from satellite images and electronic communications, which were deemed to be classified under National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s guidelines.

McCullough is one of the few officials in Washington familiar with the often arcane ways the spy agencies classify information. 

Confirmed by the Senate to his current position in 2011, McCullough has spent much of his career trying to uncover waste and abuse in the dark U.S. national security underworld. Earlier, he served as the deputy inspector general at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Before that, he worked as the assistant inspector general for investigations at the National Security Agency. There, “he oversaw internal investigations involving fraud, ethics, intelligence oversight, and whistleblower reprisal matters,” according to his official biography. His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

The stakes of his current investigation are arguably higher than any McCullough has ever undertaken.

Republicans want to ensure McCullough’s office has all of Clinton’s emails to review for classification purposes. But the intelligence community’s watchdog has had difficulties coordinating with the State Department.

McCullough’s original findings came from a review of a sample of 40 Clinton emails. McCullough requested all of the emails, but the State Department in July refused to hand them all over, according to the Washington Post.

“State still has possession of the emails, and they view it as their institutional responsibility to play the lead role here,” said Bradley Moss, an attorney representing one of the media companies suing for access to correspondence of Clinton aide Philippe Reines.

In a statement Tuesday, the State Department said that the classified information made its way to Clinton’s account when “department employees circulated these emails on unclassified systems in 2009 and 2011.” Some of the emails ultimately were forwarded to Clinton, the department said. The statement by State spokesman John Kirby noted that the information in the emails were not labeled as classified.

Security experts worry that Clinton’s decision to host official information on a private server could have allowed hackers to access sensitive government information. Her critics say she should have known better than to communicate so frequently on a system that doesn’t have the government’s cyber protections.

Responding, Clinton’s campaign says none of the emails that came through her personal Internet server were classified at the time. But some legal experts say that’s irrelevant.

“This is where folks in her camp have gone wrong in their P.R. battle,” said Mark Zaid, a Washington attorney who frequently represents clients accused of improperly handling classified information. “Just the mere fact that the email wasn’t marked classified doesn’t mean the information wasn’t classified. That was a poor misjudgment on her part for pushing that line so much.”

Photo credit: Getty Images

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