National security experts and lawyers who handle classified document cases say there's no evidence that Hillary Clinton broke any laws or State Department policies when she emailed an aide in 2011 asking for talking points to be sent to her over a “nonsecure” channel.
Last week, the State Department released the latest batch of Clinton's emails from her time as secretary of state. Among the emails was a message Clinton sent to her adviser Jake Sullivan, in which she responds to word of a delay in receiving talking points over a secure fax by asking Sullivan, “If they can't, turn into nonpaper w no identifying heading and send nonsecure.”
Republicans quickly seized on the email to accuse Clinton of possible lawbreaking. During an appearance on ABC's This Week, conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt said of Clinton's email, “It's clearly a felony and I think she's going to be indicted.”
State Department officials have said there is “no indication that the document in question was sent to Secretary Clinton using nonsecure fax or email,” and “instead turned up a secure fax transmission shortly after Clinton's email exchange.”
Clinton explained on CBS' Face the Nation that classified information was not sent over unsecure channels, saying, “I think this is another instance where what is common practice -- namely, look, I need information. I had some points I had to make. And I was looking for a secure fax that could give me the whole picture. But, oftentimes, there's a lot of information that isn't at all classified. So, whatever information can appropriately transmitted unclassified often was. That's true for every agency in the government and who everybody does business with the government.”
She added that she had “great confidence” in Sullivan to know “exactly what was and wasn't appropriate.”
Experts in both national security issues and legal boundaries tell Media Matters that claims that the email to Sullivan is proof of lawbreaking are overheated, citing the lack of evidence that anything classified was ever sent through any unsecure avenues -- and the fact that separating unclassified from classified information for separate treatment can be permissible.
“We don't know what was exactly in the email, but we also don't know that it contained any classified information,” said Steven Aftergood, Director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. “Not everything in a classified document is necessarily classified and it is entirely possible to separate out unclassified material from what is classified.”
J. William Leonard, former director of the U.S. Information Security Oversight Office under George W. Bush, said such requests must be handled “with care,” but also found no proof of illegality.
“It shows people dealing with the daily frustration in terms of trying to use somewhat cumbersome security accounts,” he said of Clinton's email. He later said that to prove anything illegal or improper occurred “you'd have to see the actual substance of what was eventually transmitted.”
Thomas S. Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University who has testified before Congress on related issues, also found no evidence of an improper act being committed.
“It's certainly not illegal, it's unclassified information,” he said. “She has argued that she did not send [anything] classified, or marked classified. And I don't think they have come up with an example.”