Clinton’s Private Emails Show Aides Worried About the Security of Her Correspondence
The latest batch of Hillary Clinton's private emails show she was the target of a cyberattack.
Some 6,300 newly released pages of messages are the latest drip to drop in the fallout from Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton’s decision to use a private email server while serving as secretary of state. Like previous releases, the emails contain little that appears explosive or highly sensitive, but this time there’s an indication that top aides worried about the security of the State Department’s servers and Gmail — and that hackers may have already been targeting Clinton’s home-brew server.
The latest tranche contains emails sent between October 2010 and September 2011. They do not cover the deadly Sept. 11, 2012, attack on a U.S diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, but many of the messages do address the developments there, including an Aug. 14, 2011, email with the subject line: “Benghazi Sitrep.” They also feature back and forth exchanges between State Department officials about coverage of the worsening security situation in Libya and emails from longtime Clinton confidante Sidney Blumenthal on politics, foreign affairs, and suggested readings. Earlier this year, Blumenthal testified to the House committee probing allegations — so far unfounded — that Clinton helped orchestrate a coverup of her culpability in the Benghazi attack, which left four Americans dead.
With more than 19,500 pages of emails now released, or about 37 percent of the 55,000 pages of correspondence that traveled over Clinton’s home-brew server now in the public domain, the new batch of missives command interest because of what they say, in totality, about Clinton’s conduct at State and the political fallout from it as much as from any individual email.
The correspondence posted Wednesday contain more emails with classified information than in the three previous releases. The total number more than doubled, to 400. State Department spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday that almost all were “confidential,” the lowest level of classification. Three were declared “secret,” a mid-level tier for information that could damage national security if made public.
“The information we upgraded today was not marked classified at the time the emails were sent,” Kirby said. “It has been subsequently upgraded.”
Clinton’s use of a private server has been criticized by security experts for potentially exposing her to hackers working on behalf of foreign states, but it also exposed to that most mundane aspect of life on the internet: malicious spam. Wednesday’s email dump includes five messages from Aug. 3, 2011 that masqueraded as traffic tickets sent by the New York Department of Motor Vehicles and included attachments containing a trojan. If opened, that file would have downloaded other malware onto the computer used to open it. It is not known whether Clinton downloaded the malicious attachment.
These emails were part of an email spam campaign targeting thousands of accounts on the Internet, and while the Associated Press cited the emails to claim that “Russia-linked hackers tried at least five times to pry into Hillary Rodham Clinton’s private email account,” there is no evidence that she was actively targeted by those behind the spam campaign. “They probably had no idea that this was the secretary of state. It was just another email address,” said Gary Warner, the chief technology officer at Malcovery Security and the director of computer forensics research at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who authored an analysis of the spam message when it first appeared. “This was extremely common malware.”
Nonetheless, the emails released Wednesday revealed that some in Clinton’s camp were concerned about the security of private email. On June 3, 2011, Anne-Marie Slaughter, who was no longer in her job as director of policy planning at the State Department, wrote to Clinton after a Gmail hack, “State’s technology is so antiquated that NO ONE uses a State-issued laptop and even high officials routinely end up using their home email accounts to be able to get their work done quickly and effectively. Further cuts to State’s budget just makes matters much much worse. We actually need more funds to significantly upgrade our technology.”
A day later, Clinton’s chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, who was copied on the message, then wrote to Clinton: “As someone who attempted to be hacked (yes I was one), I am not sure we want to telegraph how much folks do or don’t do off state mail b/c it may encourage others who are out there.”
A third exchange also showed that Clinton was aware of online threats to sensitive information. In a July 26, 2011, email, sent to Nora Toiv, then a staffer at State, Clinton wrote, “I just checked and I do have your state but not your gmail — so how did that happen. Must be the Chinese!”
Tensions between Washington and Jerusalem, which boiled over in recent months as the United States pushed through the Iran nuclear deal, were evident five years ago. On July 1, 2010 — with the subject line, “What’s this about?” — Clinton emailed Dennis Ross, one of her special advisors, with a link to a story, “Maariv: [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu won’t meet Clinton; ‘sources’ say she ‘isn’t relevant.’” “Do they honestly think that publicizing a quote like this, on record or off, works to their advantage?” Clinton asked.
In a thread from late September 2010, Tony Blair sent three brief emails from Jerusalem, where he’d been sent for emergency meetings as peace talks faltered. The notes were redacted by State, but one of the unredacted portions read: “Hi Hillary. Just spent 3 hours with BB [a nickname for the Israeli prime minister]. Ready to speak when convenient but should do it on secure line.”
Clinton also closely tracked the personal trouble of her top aide, Huma Abedin. A June 8, 2011, email sent to Clinton from Mills, contains a Politico story about how Abedin sought counsel from Clinton as the online sex scandal involving Abedin’s husband, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), who ultimately resigned. A number of other messages also deal with the Weiner scandal.
In a Feb. 21, 2011, email, Clinton, responding to Mills, asked, “How can we get the word out?” regarding a documentary, airing on MSNBC, about her husband, former President Bill Clinton, and his work at the Clinton Foundation.
A message sent by Mills to Clinton on Saturday, July 30, 2011, shows that the State Department can get dragged into any international dispute, even one involving a Little League. The Rev. John Foundation Little League team from Kampala, Uganda, was set to travel to the United States to compete in the Little League World Series, held annually in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. But a number of players and coaches had their visas denied by State, which found discrepancies in some of the information provided. In the message, in an apparent acknowledgment of how badly this would play with the public, Mills writes to Clinton, “I explained why we can’t be holding this bag.”
And while Clinton might be one of the most recognizable faces in U.S. politics, her voice must not be that distinct, at least to one White House operator. In a Feb. 10, 2010, email to Abedin, she wrote using shorthand terms: “But right now I’m fighting w the WH operator who doesn’t believe I am who I say and wants my direct office line even tho I’m not there and I just have [sic] him my home # and the State Dept # and I told him I had no idea what my direct office # was since I didn’t call myself and I just hung up and am calling thru Ops like a proper and properly dependent Secretary of State — no independent dialing allowed.”
As in previous releases, Sidney Blumenthal, Hillary Clinton’s unofficial advisor during her tenure as secretary of state, provides reading material and advice. In an Aug. 23, 2010, email, Blumenthal sent Clinton a New Yorker piece “that looks at the Koch brothers’ control and funding of the tea party and right wing.” Clinton responded, “Ah, a little lite vacation reading!”
A message sent to Clinton from Blumenthal earlier that month, on Aug. 12, 2010, also suggested some summer reading: “The Unnecessary Fall: A counter-history of the Obama presidency,” published in the New Republic.
On June 20, 2011, he advised her that “the most important event that could alter the Syrian equation would be the fall of Qaddafi, providing an example of a successful rebellion,” while providing her with an article CNN published by an analyst making that point.
The travails of Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel laureate accused of diverting funds from Grameen Bank, the micro-financing lending institution he’d founded in Bangladesh, were the subject of multiple emails. Although Clinton wrote on Dec. 6, 2010, that she’d “like to know what is really going on,” the publicly released emails give readers little indication of what she learned. Other than press releases and news accounts, the substantive exchanges between officials is redacted sometimes because the information is classified and sometimes because it represents internal deliberations, also exempt from FOIA.
In another sign of the disagreements that exist among government officials about what should be classified and what shouldn’t, an Aug. 11, 2011, email with the subject line “Grameen Search Committee” was completely redacted for reasons of national security — save for a notation by its sender that the information was “sensitive but unclassified.”
There are also cases of irony. An exchange that began on July 20, 2011, with the subject line “Fw: Problems With Logistics, Coordination and Rivalries Hamper Libya’s Rebels (NYT),” eventually became a chain about the logistics of Clinton’s breakfast. “The hotel manager asked me last night to try their special breakfast. They may try to send it up — did they?” Clinton wrote to Abedin.
Photo credit: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images
David Francis was a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covered international finance. @davidcfrancis
Bill Allison is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. @bill_allison