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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

The FBI Files on Clinton’s Emails

The FBI’s summary of its investigation of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton contradicted some of her past statements about her use of a private email system for government business:

  • The Clinton campaign previously had indicated that her personal emails were deleted before Clinton received a congressional subpoena on March 4, 2015. But the FBI said her emails were deleted “between March 25-31, 2015” — three weeks after the subpoena. The campaign now says it only learned when the emails were deleted from the FBI report.
  • Clinton repeatedly had said “everybody in the government with whom I emailed knew that I was using a personal email.” But the FBI said “e-mails from Clinton … did not display her e-mail address,” and only 13 people directly emailed her.

Deleted Emails 

The FBI on Sept. 2 — the Friday before Labor Day — released an 11-page summary of its interview of Clinton and a 47-page “factual summary” of its investigation of her email use when she served as secretary of state from January 2009 to February 2013.

The FBI probe focused on whether Clinton or her staff violated federal laws governing the handling of classified information, and whether foreign powers or hostile actors hacked into her private server, which was located at her home in New York.

FBI Director James Comey on July 5 announced that although Clinton and her staff were “extremely careless” in handling classified information, the FBI did not find evidence that their actions were intentional. He declined to pursue criminal charges.

One of the mysteries that the FBI has now cleared up is when Clinton’s emails that were deemed personal were deleted and how it was done.

Clinton’s office disclosed on March 10, 2015, that she gave the State Department 30,490 work-related emails on Dec. 5, 2014, and “chose not to keep” 31,830 emails she deemed “personal.”

“We went through a thorough process to identify all of my work-related emails and deliver them to the State Department,” Clinton said at a press conference that day. “At the end, I chose not to keep my private personal emails.”

It was widely reported at the time that Clinton deleted her personal, private emails. The New York Times, which broke the story of her unusual email arrangement on March 2, 2015, wrote this lead on its press conference story.

New York Times, March 10, 2015: Hillary Rodham Clinton revealed on Tuesday that she had deleted about half her emails from her years as secretary of state, saying she had turned over to the Obama administration all correspondence about government business but had erased records of communications about private matters, like yoga routines, her daughter’s wedding and her mother’s funeral.

But the campaign did not disclose exactly when the personal emails were deleted — which became an issue after Clinton had received a subpoena on March 4, 2015, from the House Select Committee on Benghazi. The committee was seeking emails related to its investigation into the Sept. 11, 2012, deadly attack on the U.S. facilities in Libya.

Clinton and her campaign pushed back at suggestions that the personal emails were deleted while she was under subpoena. In a July 7, 2015, interview, CNN’s Brianna Keilar asked Clinton “how you decided to delete 33,000 emails and how that deletion was executed.” Clinton did not answer the question, instead saying that “previous secretaries of state have said they did the same thing.” (That was not true, as we wrote at the time.)

Keilar questioned whether other secretaries of state “used a personal server and while facing a subpoena, deleted emails from them?” Clinton said that Keilar was making false assumptions, saying, “I’ve never had a subpoena.” Rep. Trey Gowdy, the chairman of the Benghazi committee, immediately accused Clinton of lying after the interview, because, of course, Clinton indeed did receive a subpoena.

The Clinton campaign told us at the time that Clinton was specifically responding to Keilar’s question about deleting personal emails “while facing a subpoena.”

The campaign gave us a statement from Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill that said: “She was asked about her decision to not to retain her personal emails after providing all those that were work-related, and the suggestion was made that a subpoena was pending at the time. That was not accurate.”

It turned out that Keilar’s assumption was accurate. The 31,830 personal emails that Keilar asked about were deleted “sometime between March 25-31, 2015,” according to the FBI. That was about three weeks after Clinton received a House subpoena on March 4, 2015.

As the FBI explains, Cheryl Mills, Clinton’s former chief of staff, and David Kendall, Clinton’s lawyer, oversaw the process of sorting the work-related emails from the personal emails. Heather Samuelson, a lawyer who worked on Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, undertook the review to identify work-related emails and reported to Mills and Kendall.

In December 2014, after the work-related emails were preserved, Mills told Platte River Networks – which at the time was managing Clinton’s private server – that Clinton “decided she no longer needed access to any of her e-mails older than 60 days.” Mills instructed the PRN employee — who was not identified — “to modify the e-mail retention policy” on Clinton’s server “to reflect this change,” the FBI said.

But the PRN employee mistakenly did not make the retention-policy change and did not delete the old emails until sometime between March 25 and March 31, even though Mills had sent PRN an email on March 9 that mentioned the committee’s request to preserve emails.

The PRN employee who deleted the emails was a recipient of Mills’ message. However, the employee told the FBI that “he had an ‘oh shit’ moment and sometime between March 25-31, 2015 deleted the Clinton archive mailbox from the PRN server and used BleachBit to delete the exported .PST files he had created on the server containing Clinton’s e-mails.”

Mills and Kendall had a conference call with PRN on March 31, 2015, the last day of the time frame given for when the deletions occurred. The FBI doesn’t know what was said at that meeting. The PRN employee responsible for deleting the emails was advised by his lawyer not to discuss his conversation with Kendall based on attorney-client privilege, the FBI said.

Clinton told the FBI that she was not aware that they were deleted in late March 2015. (See pages 17-19 for the FBI’s notes on the deleted emails.) The FBI did not say when Clinton learned when the emails had been deleted.

Campaign spokesman Josh Schwerin told us nobody from the campaign knew when PRN deleted the emails — including Clinton, her attorneys (Mills, Kendall, Samuelson), Merrill and Schwerin himself.

Schwerin, Sept. 7: Clinton’s attorneys only learned that a Platte River Networks employee took this action when the FBI’s notes were released last week. In fact, the Secretary’s interview notes indicate that she “had no knowledge regarding” the “March 2015 deletions by PRN”.

It appears that an employee of Platte River Network acted on his own and in contradiction to guidance given by Clinton’s and by Platte River’s attorneys to retain all data in compliance with a Congressional preservation request.

Looking back now, Merrill’s July 2015 statement did not say that the emails were deleted before the subpoena was issued; Merrill said “her decision to not to retain her personal emails” was made before the subpoena was issued. That is accurate. The decision was made, but not executed.

But, given the context of Keilar’s question, it was widely reported — including by CNN, the New York TimesWashington Post, the New York Daily News, the National Journal, PolitiFact and us — that the campaign said the emails were deleted sometime before the subpoena was issued on March 4, 2015. All quoted from Merrill’s statement.

New York Daily News, July 8: Clinton’s campaign argues that she was referring specifically to the period when she deleted emails she deemed personal and not work-related.

National Journal, July 8: Clinton made the comment about the subpoena in the course of a broader defense of her email arrangement, and she did not face a subpoena at the time she turned over emails to the State Department or when she deleted them from her server.

Washington Post, July 8: Clinton’s campaign spokesman, Nick Merrill, told us in an e-mail that Clinton was not under subpoena at the time she cleared her e-mails off her personal server, and that she’d already turned over her work-related ones to State.

New York Times, July 8: In the video of the exchange, Ms. Keilar can be heard asking whether Mrs. Clinton was suggesting that her predecessors deleted emails while “facing” a subpoena, A spokesman for Mrs. Clinton, Nick Merrill, said she was reacting to that specific question, pointing out that the emails were deleted in the fall of 2014, and the subpoena didn’t arrive until March 2015.

PolitiFact wrote, “The Clinton campaign told us the work-related emails were deleted off the server ‘shortly after’ she turned them over to the State Department on Dec. 5, 2014, but did not provide a date.”

We wrote, “Clinton’s campaign said that the emails were deleted before she received the subpoena and that was the point Clinton was making.” In addition to the campaign statement, we spoke to a Clinton spokesman that day.

We were all misled, but by whom? The Clinton campaign says it was by Platte River Networks, which has declined to comment specifically on the FBI report, but issued a statement that said that it “did not, at any time, treat the server belonging to the Clintons differently than we did any other client.”

‘Everybody’ Didn’t Know

The FBI notes also answer the question of how many people in government knew that Clinton was using a private email account for official business.

As we have written, Clinton on more than one occasion has said that it was widely known within government that she had a personal email account, including in interviews on Sept. 4, 2015, with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell and again on Sept. 7, 2015, with the Associated Press.

Clinton, Sept. 4, 2015: The people in the government knew that I was using a personal account … the people I was emailing to on the dot gov system certainly knew and they would respond to me on my personal email.

Clinton, Sept. 7, 2015: It was fully above board. Everybody in the government with whom I emailed knew that I was using a personal email, and I have said it would have been a better choice to have had two separate email accounts.

Clinton also told the FBI that it was “common knowledge” that she used a private email account.

It appears that Clinton, who has admitted to not being tech savvy, assumed that her email address — hdr22@clintonemail.com — was displayed in the “from” field when she sent emails. But the FBI says that that was not the case.

The FBI said “e-mails from Clinton only contained the letter ‘H’ in the sender field and did not display her e-mail address.” Only 13 people emailed her directly, and the “majority” of State employees interviewed by the FBI did not know she had a private server, the FBI said. (See page 13.)

The FBI notes add to our body of knowledge about Clinton’s emails, as did the May report by the State Department’s inspector general and the FBI’s announcement in July that it would not prosecute Clinton. And, as we did at those times, we again have found that the new information contradicted some claims that Clinton and her campaign had made about her emails in the past.