What we learned from 52,000 pages of Hillary Clinton’s emails
WASHINGTON — Hillary Clinton’s work-related emails from her private account are now public, more than 52,000 pages detailing her tenure as secretary of state but failing to resolve questions about how she and her closest aides handled classified information.
Several investigations continue into her exclusive use of a nongovernment email account and homebrew server while she was in government, an issue that has dogged her presidential campaign, even though she seems well-positioned to capture the Democratic nomination.
The correspondence between Clinton and her advisers, friends and political acquaintances offers no shocking revelations, but it sheds light on a management style she would take with her to the White House.
Some of the things we learned:
The emails are full of sections that the State Department decided were improper for release and blanked out, ranging from personal information to national secrets.
In the end, State Department reviewers classified more than 2,000 emails, mostly at the lower “confidential” and “secret” levels. Twenty-two emails were withheld entirely from publication on grounds that they were “top secret.” None of these bore classification markings at the time they were sent and most were written by other officials.
Most of the time, Clinton and aides appeared keenly aware of the limitations of operating over an unclassified, nongovernment account. Sometimes they were frustrated by the constraints.
In a February 2010 message, Clinton exclaimed: “It’s a public statement! Just email it.” Sent moments later, the document merely said U.S. and British officials would cooperate to promote peace. “Well that is certainly worthy of being top secret,” Clinton responded sarcastically.
But the State Department’s Freedom of Information Act reviewers found plenty of cases where releasing the emails in uncensored form today, more than three years after Clinton left office, would pose diplomatic or national security concerns.
Many were written by advisers and experts, and then forwarded to Clinton by one of three close aides: Cheryl Mills, her chief of staff; Jake Sullivan, her director of policy planning; and Huma Abedin, her longtime personal assistant. All three remain in Clinton’s inner circle.
Officials describe Sullivan at the center of the most sensitive chain, concerning CIA drone strikes. These were the “top secret” emails the department would not make public even in heavily censored form.
Other messages show top aides working around the restrictions.
In February 2010, Abedin writes to Clinton about a scheduled call with Ecuador’s new foreign minister. Abedin says she is trying to get her boss a “call sheet,” but it’s classified.
In June 2011, Clinton tells Sullivan to convert talking points meant for a secure fax into “nonpaper” with “no identifying heading and send nonsecure.”
Clinton hardly comes across as a technological whiz.
At one point, she asks her communications adviser how to charge her iPad and update an app. Asked if she has wireless Internet, the secretary replies: “I don’t know if I have wi-fi. How do I find out?”
Clinton tells another aide that she is “never sure which of my emails you receive, so pls let me know if you receive this one and on which address you did.”
In her final year on the job, she apologizes to someone for being slow to respond to an email, describing her BlackBerry as having “a nervous breakdown on my dime!”
Technological problems included the State Department’s unclassified email system, too.
The department’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,” policy chief Anne-Marie Slaughter laments in 2011.
Mills describes how hackers tried to get into her account, but says, “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.”
In another chain, Clinton asks assistant Nora Toiv for her email address, prompting Toiv to respond: “You’ve always emailed on my State email.” Clinton replied: “Even weirder – I just checked and I do have your State but not your gmail – so how did that happen. Must be the Chinese!”
Even though Clinton’s home email was unsecure, she and her aides expressed concern about the practices of other department officials.
Receiving a long Libya analysis, Clinton asks where the author works. Sullivan tells her it comes from one of her employees, and she responds with surprise that “he used personal account if he is at State.”
After a news story appears based on leaked classified cables, Mills states solemnly: “The leaking of classified material is a breach not only of trust, it is also a breach of the law.”
There was no smoking gun.
The congressional investigation into the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, may have alerted the public to Clinton’s private account, but the emails themselves offer little that wasn’t already known.
Still, it has provided significant fodder for her political opponents.
“Two of our officers were killed in Benghazi by an al-Qaida-like group: The Ambassador, whom I handpicked, and a young communications officer on temporary duty w(ith) a wife and two young children,” Hillary Clinton wrote to her daughter, who used an account under the alias “Diane Reynolds.”
“Very hard day and I fear more of the same tomorrow,” the secretary wrote.
Republicans on the House Benghazi Committee seized on that email as evidence Clinton quickly saw the attack as the work of Islamic extremists, not a spontaneous street protest against an anti-Muslim video – a description provided by then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice.
Sullivan assured her in later email that she never echoed that assessment.
“You never said ‘spontaneous’ or characterized the motives,” he wrote.
A year earlier, after rebels ousted and killed their longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, Sullivan hailed his boss as “the public face” of the U.S. military intervention. While subsequent emails point to the growing post-war chaos, none cited a specific threat against the Benghazi mission.
An interesting set of characters has Clinton’s ear.
No one was more prolific than 2008 campaign adviser Sid Blumenthal. He was barred from government by the Obama administration but his “sbwhoeop” email handle pops up 1,030 times in Clinton’s total email correspondence.
Clinton last year called his would-be intelligence reports “unsolicited.” But she replied to one in August 2012 with “keep ’em coming.”
Many dealt with Libya, apparently written by a former CIA official with whom Blumenthal coordinated. Others delved into Afghanistan, Egypt, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and domestic U.S. politics. Clinton often asked aides to print out Blumenthal’s advice or forwarded it to key State Department officials.
Not all were welcome.
“This one strains credulity,” Clinton wrote about a report claiming French and British intelligence services were trying to cut up Libya. “A thin conspiracy theory,” Sullivan responded. Gene Cretz, U.S. ambassador there at the time, termed another such memo “odd.”
Blumenthal worked for the Clinton family foundation and advised entrepreneurs trying to win contracts from Libya’s transitional government, and his regular missives to the secretary of state suggest a possible blurring of the lines between personal relationships and private business ventures. Such criticism has been levied repeatedly against the Clintons as they and their friends have reaped tens of millions of dollars since Bill Clinton’s presidency.
But if Blumenthal had favorable access, no email points to any favors he received.
Plenty of other individuals outside of government chimed in with advice, solicited or not, for Clinton.
They include such trusted holdovers from Bill Clinton’s presidency such as John Podesta, now heading Hillary Clinton’s campaign; think tank officials who would conceivably join a Hillary Clinton presidency, such as Neera Tanden, the Center for American Progress’ president; and foreign policy veterans, including Henry Kissinger.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a frequent interlocutor, praises her for doing the “Lord’s Work.” Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar asks for technological help. Former President Jimmy Carter pitches in on North Korea negotiations.
Domestic politics were never far from Clinton’s mind.
Secretaries of state love to describe themselves as above politics, but Clinton kept close tabs on President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul, gay marriage rulings, congressional and presidential elections, and much more.
She hoped Republicans would put to rest the “‘absurd’ death panels argument” during the health care debate.
With the GOP set to crush Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections, Clinton declared herself “bewildered” by how poorly her party was delivering its message. Losing the House, she said, would be a “disaster in every way.”
When longtime Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley announced he wouldn’t run for re-election, Clinton was “in shock.” After asking a childhood friend, Betsy Ebeling, to share “all insights into this huge news,” Clinton gets a response the next day about “Rahm rumors everywhere.” White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel would later become mayor.
Clinton doesn’t hold back on Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, even ascribing nicknames to the president’s potential rivals. Mitt Romney = “Mittens.” Newt Gingrich = “Grinch.”
From Clinton’s early days as secretary of state, several emails from her inner circle viewed her public actions with an eye toward the 2016 election.
In September 2010, communications adviser Philippe Reines tells Clinton to avoid the furor over a proposed mosque near the site of the destroyed World Trade Center in New York.
“You’ll be kicking the President when he’s down. Waay down,” Reines writes. “There will be a day you need to publicly disagree with him, but that day is not Wed, Sep 8, 2010 and that issue is not the mosque.”
Rock star diplomat
Clinton was surrounded by people who cheered her every move.
“I’m being flooded with emails about how you rocked,” Abedin writes after her boss testified in January 2013 before two congressional panels on the Benghazi attack.
She wasn’t kidding.
“Twitterverse abuzz with Hillary-kvelling,” Brookings Institution president Strobe Talbott wrote, using the Yiddish word for gushing praise.
“You looked fabulous,” Abedin chimed in.
After a meme of Clinton reading her BlackBerry became a sensation, Mills told her boss: “You look cute.”
“DAMN – I LOVE YOU!” wrote Capricia Marshall when Obama nominated the longtime Clinton supporter for State Department protocol chief. “Thank you for holding firm for me — always in my foxhole! xxooo”
Former policy chief Slaughter provides many of the most obvious examples.
“I have NEVER been prouder of having worked for you,” she tells Clinton in March 2011, as the U.S. intervened in Libya. “Turning POTUS around on this is a major win for everything we have worked for.”
“Please tell HRC that she was a ROCK STAR yesterday,” Slaughter tells Sullivan after the Benghazi sessions, having since left office.
Political consultant Mark Penn was a lone dissenter, suggesting Republicans could use one moment where she pounded the desk in frustration as evidence she was rattled.
Communications adviser Philippe Reines leapt to Clinton’s defense:
You did not look rattled. You looked real. There’s a difference. A big one.”
Sullivan said Penn gave her the same advice in her losing 2008 presidential campaign. Clinton replied, “BINGO!”
Sense of humor
Clinton likes a good laugh.
So often buttoned-down on the campaign trail or diplomatic circuit, her sense of humor pours forth in emails.
When Afghanistan looks at a stricter code of conduct for women, she writes: “WHAT??? Or, more to the point, WTF??”
Clinton tries in February 2010 to call the White House herself, only to reach a disbelieving operator. She resigns to calling “like a proper and properly dependent Secretary of State – no independent dialing allowed.”
She tells Reines, disappointed to be uninvited to an all-woman gathering, that his “message cannot go through this female-only channel which is required to operate in perpetuity in a vain attempt to balance the gender scales. Try again in the next millennium. Thank you for your understanding.”
And after receiving the colorful complaints of a former Capitol colleague, Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, Clinton offers empathy, referencing the musical, “The Music Man”: “Oh, Barb, we got trouble w a capital “T” in River City.”
“Keep going,” she tells Mikulski, invoking their “home girl” Harriet Tubman, the runaway slave.
At 6 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, Clinton asks an aide: “Anything else I need to know before this year ends?”