WASHINGTON — A new finding by the State Department’s internal watchdog that Hillary Clinton clearly broke department rules when she used private email for government business once again focuses the presidential race on an issue the Democratic front-runner has worked for months to put behind her.
The highly critical report, issued by the department’s inspector general and sent to Capitol Hill on Wednesday, concluded that Clinton created a security risk and violated transparency and disclosure policies.
It feeds into the narrative her Republican opponents have long worked to build: that Clinton does not follow the same rules as everyone else and that she has not been open with the American public.
The 79-page report faulted Clinton for not seeking permission to use a personal email account and server, noting the investigation found “no evidence that the Secretary requested or obtained guidance or approval to conduct official business via a personal email account on her private server.” Department officials “did not — and would not — approve” of such a practice, the report added.
Clinton’s failure to promptly turn over all relevant emails also was criticized. “At a minimum, Secretary Clinton should have surrendered all emails dealing with Department business before leaving government service and, because she did not do so, she did not comply with the Department’s policies that were implemented in accordance with the Federal Records Act.”
The report does not focus on Clinton alone. It also found a Republican predecessor, Colin Powell, to have committed similar violations in using personal emails and failing to turn them over to the department.
That finding, along with the report’s sweeping criticism of the department’s “longstanding, systemic weaknesses” in the handling of electronic communications, provided Clinton some defense against the criticism.
“While political opponents of Hillary Clinton are sure to misrepresent this report for their own partisan purposes, in reality, the inspector general documents (show) just how consistent her email practices were with those of other secretaries and senior officials at the State Department who also used personal email,” Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon said Wednesday.
But opponents wasted no time using the charges about Clinton’s misconduct to sharpen their attacks, and the report is certain to become a treasure-trove for Republican opposition researchers.
In one particularly scathing account, the report reveals that technology staffers who raised concerns about Clinton’s use of email in late 2010 were told to stop talking about it. One staffer was told their mission was “to support the Secretary” and “never to speak of the Secretary’s personal email again,” according to the report.
Another staffer warned that Clinton was sending and receiving emails that should be preserved to comply with open records laws. The staffer was told “that the Secretary’s personal system had been reviewed and approved by Department legal staff and that the matter was not to be discussed any further,” according to the report.
The inspector general’s office found no evidence that any such legal review had been done.
One of Clinton’s top GOP critics in Congress, Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, who chairs the Select Committee on Benghazi, said the report vindicates the controversial, long-running investigation he has led into Clinton’s handling of the events surrounding the 2012 attacks on Americans in that Libyan city.
“If anyone wonders why the investigation is not yet complete, the malfeasance and numerous problems identified in this report are Exhibit A, and prove the committee has faced serial delays from day one at the hands of public officials who sought to avoid transparency and accountability,” Gowdy said in a statement.
Donald Trump briefly mentioned the report Wednesday during a rally in Anaheim, mocking Clinton. “She’s as crooked as they come. She had a little bad news today,” he said. “The inspector general’s report. Not good.”
Clinton sought to come into compliance with open records requirements in December 2014 by turning over some 30,000 emails to State that she said represented all of her government-related correspondence during her time there. But since that time, emails have emerged that should have been turned over but were not. The inspector general called the December 2014 document dump “incomplete.”
Clinton said she had exchanged an equal number of personal messages on the same email account while she was secretary of state, and that those messages had been deleted.
The report also revealed a 2011 episode in which Clinton’s staff raised concerns that her email had been hacked, after she received a suspicious link from the personal account of an undersecretary. Clinton replied, “Is this really from you? I was worried about opening it!” Neither Clinton nor her staff ever reported the incident to department security staff, as was required. No evidence has emerged that her server was hacked.
Clinton’s campaign has been preparing for the release of the report for months. Earlier in the presidential race, it accused the State Department of working together with congressional Republicans to undermine her — a charge the office has vehemently denied. The investigation spanned party lines, digging into the practices of secretaries of state since Madeleine Albright. Powell, Albright, Condoleezza Rice and John Kerry all agreed to be interviewed for the investigation. Clinton declined.
Clinton supporters argue that the report breaks no new ground. Her emailing controversy has been in the news for months, and after initially resisting, Clinton ultimately apologized for the way she handled her communications. The report found that Clinton did not have the special legal permission her campaign has implied she had, but it remains to be seen whether Republicans can use the finding to recapture the interest of voters or blow it into a bigger scandal.
Rep. Adam Schiff, a Californian who is the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that “it is disappointing — though entirely predictable — that Republicans would seek to frame this as an issue only pertaining to Secretary Clinton. These problems have transcended administrations — both Democratic and Republican.”
The report is not the federal government’s final word on the controversy. An ongoing FBI investigation into Clinton’s private email server continues to hang over the Clinton campaign. The agency is looking into whether classified information was mishandled. FBI officials say they have no specific deadline for completing their work, but pressure to finish is increasing as the November election nears.
Last month, FBI agents and federal prosecutors began interviewing aides who were close to Clinton during her time at the State Department, including Huma Abedin, who is now her campaign vice chair, and Cheryl Mills, who was her chief of staff at State.
Clinton has said that the FBI has not approached her for an interview, but that she would gladly sit for one. Agents and prosecutors are interested in interviewing Clinton, people familiar with the investigation said.
Most legal experts, including a number of former federal prosecutors, believe that Clinton faces little risk of being prosecuted for mishandling classified information on the private email system.
Still, the optics are not good for a presidential campaign. Clinton’s campaign is eager for the FBI to complete its work.
Separately Wednesday, a Romanian hacker nicknamed “Guccifer” pleaded guilty in federal court to charges stemming from his hacking of computers of several well-known Americans, including Powell, relatives of former President George W. Bush and an informal adviser to Hillary Clinton.
In recent interviews, the hacker, Marcel Lehel Lazar, 44, claimed that he had penetrated Clinton’s private email server, though nothing in the publicly released court documents on Wednesday supported that allegation. Investigators also have found no evidence that he hacked Clinton’s server, according to a person familiar with the investigation.
The court papers verify that Lazar accessed the email account of Sidney Blumenthal, an informal adviser to Clinton, and in 2013 leaked email exchanges between Blumenthal and Clinton. The leaks first exposed Clinton’s use of a private email account while secretary of state.
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