The Controversy Surrounding Hillary Clinton’s Private Email Server

The use of a private email server by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her tenure has been a subject of intense political debate and scrutiny. Despite the FBI’s decision not to recommend criminal charges, the issue continues to linger, with the Trump administration now reviving investigations into current and former State Department officials who had communicated with Clinton’s private email account.

This comprehensive article delves into the timeline of events, the key questions surrounding Clinton’s email practices, the findings of various investigations, and the ongoing implications for those involved. By meticulously analyzing the available information and presenting it in a coherent and unbiased manner, we aim to provide readers with a thorough understanding of this complex and multifaceted issue.

The Establishment of Clinton’s Private Email Server

Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal email account and private server during her time as Secretary of State first came to light in March 2013, when the Smoking Gun website reported on emails sent by former Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal to Clinton’s private email address. However, it was not until March 2015 that the New York Times broke the story that Clinton had exclusively used her personal email account for government business.

The State Department’s investigation revealed that Clinton had set up a private email server in her New York residence, which she used throughout her four-year tenure as Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013. This arrangement was in contrast to the department’s policies, which required the use of government-issued email accounts for official communications.

Approval and Policies Surrounding the Use of Personal Email

The State Department’s independent inspector general report found that the occasional use of personal email accounts for government business was permitted in certain emergency situations. However, the report also stated that it had been department policy since 2005 for “normal day-to-day operations” to be conducted on government servers.

The report noted that the department’s Foreign Affairs Manual was updated in November 2005 to explicitly state that “it is the Department’s general policy that normal day-to-day operations be conducted on an authorized [automated information system].” This policy was further reinforced through various memoranda issued between 2005 and 2011.

Crucially, the inspector general’s report found no evidence that Clinton had sought or received approval for her exclusive use of a private server for all her official communications. The report stated that Clinton “had an obligation” to discuss her email system with the department, but the investigators could not find any record of such a request, which they concluded would have been denied.

Clinton’s Predecessors and Their Email Practices

The inspector general’s report also examined the email practices of Clinton’s predecessors as Secretary of State. It confirmed that among Clinton’s predecessors, only Colin Powell (2001-2005) used a personal email account for government business. Madeleine Albright (1997-2001) did not use email at all, and Condoleezza Rice (2005-2009) did not use a personal email account to conduct government business.

The report further stated that Clinton’s successor, Secretary of State John Kerry, told the inspector general’s office that he “infrequently” used a personal email account for government business “when responding to a sender who emailed him on his personal account.” However, no other Secretary of State had maintained a private server that was used for official government communications.

The Number and Use of Mobile Devices

According to the FBI’s investigation, Clinton used a total of 13 mobile devices associated with two different phone numbers during her tenure as Secretary of State. Of these, eight were used while she was in office, with the remaining five used after her departure.

The FBI’s summary revealed that Clinton primarily relied on her BlackBerry devices for sending and receiving emails, both on her private server and through her personal email accounts. Additionally, the investigation identified five iPad devices associated with Clinton that were potentially used for email communications.

Notably, the FBI was unable to acquire or forensically examine any of the 13 mobile devices, as Clinton’s attorneys stated that she no longer had them. This limited the investigators’ ability to fully understand the extent of Clinton’s use of personal devices for official communications.

Classified Information in Clinton’s Emails

One of the key issues that emerged from the investigations was the presence of classified information in Clinton’s emails. The FBI director, James Comey, stated that more than 2,000 of the 30,490 emails Clinton turned over to the State Department in December 2014 contained classified information, including 110 emails in 52 email chains that were classified at the time they were sent or received.

Comey acknowledged that while there was no clear evidence that Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information, there was evidence that they were “extremely careless” in their management of such sensitive information.

The FBI director also noted that a “very small number” of the emails containing classified information bore explicit markings indicating the presence of classified material, contrary to Clinton’s previous claims that none of the emails were marked as such.

Potential Security Breaches and Hacking Attempts

The inspector general’s report and the FBI’s investigation revealed several instances of attempted hacking of Clinton’s private email server, although no conclusive evidence of a successful breach was found.

The inspector general’s report stated that on January 9, 2011, hackers attempted to access Clinton’s server, but her technical support adviser shut down the server to deny access. The report also mentioned that Clinton received two phishing email messages on May 13, 2011, which contained suspicious links.

While the FBI director acknowledged the lack of direct evidence of a successful hack, he expressed concern about the possibility of such an occurrence, given the nature of the system and the potential involvement of “sophisticated adversaries.” Comey noted that the FBI had assessed that hostile actors may have gained access to Clinton’s personal email account, given her extensive use of the private server while traveling abroad, including in the territories of “sophisticated adversaries.”

The Deletion of Clinton’s Personal Emails

A significant aspect of the controversy surrounding Clinton’s email practices was the deletion of her personal emails. According to the FBI’s investigation, Clinton’s lawyers had completed their review of her emails by December 2014 and identified 30,490 work-related emails, which were then turned over to the State Department.

The remaining 31,830 emails were deemed personal by Clinton’s lawyers and were subsequently deleted. The FBI report stated that the deletion of these emails occurred “sometime between March 25-31, 2015,” approximately three weeks after the House Select Committee on Benghazi had issued a subpoena for any emails related to its investigation.

The Clinton campaign initially told investigators that the deletions occurred sometime between December 2014 and March 4, 2015, but later clarified that Clinton and her attorneys had no knowledge of the specific timing of the deletions until the FBI released its report.

The FBI’s Investigation and Findings

The FBI’s investigation into Clinton’s email practices was initiated in July 2015, following a referral from the inspectors general of the State Department and the Intelligence Community. The FBI was tasked with investigating whether there was any evidence of the “potential compromise of classified information” or unauthorized access to Clinton’s private server by “any foreign power or other hostile actors.”

In his July 2016 statement, Comey acknowledged that the FBI found evidence of “potential violations” of federal statutes regarding the handling of classified information. However, he concluded that “no reasonable prosecutor” would bring criminal charges against Clinton, given the lack of clear intent to violate the law and the absence of successful hacking attempts.

Comey did state that Clinton and her colleagues were “extremely careless” in their handling of sensitive information, and that such actions would typically result in “security or administrative sanctions.” Nonetheless, the FBI director ultimately recommended that no charges be filed against Clinton.

The Reopening and Closing of the Investigation

The FBI’s investigation into Clinton’s email practices appeared to be closed in July 2016, when Comey announced that the bureau was not recommending criminal charges. However, the issue was reignited in late October 2020, just days before the presidential election, when Comey informed Congress that the FBI had discovered additional emails that appeared to be “pertinent” to the investigation.

This announcement, which was made in a letter to Congress, sparked a renewed wave of scrutiny and criticism towards Clinton. The FBI subsequently reviewed the newly discovered emails and, on November 6, 2020, Comey once again notified Congress that the bureau had not changed its earlier conclusion, and that no criminal charges would be filed against Clinton.

The State Department’s Renewed Investigation

In a surprising development, the Trump administration has now revived an investigation into the emails of current and former senior State Department officials who had communicated with Clinton’s private email account during her tenure as Secretary of State.

According to reports, this investigation involves approximately 130 to 140 people, ranging from assistant secretaries to senior ambassadors. The investigators are examining whether any of the information shared with Clinton’s private email account was classified at the time, even if it was not marked as such.

The individuals being investigated are reportedly being informed that emails they had sent, which they believed to be unclassified, have now been retroactively classified. While some of the officials feel that this is a form of “low-level harassment,” the State Department maintains that it is obligated to investigate such matters, as they were referred to the department by the FBI following the conclusion of its criminal probe.

Implications and Ongoing Debates

The controversy surrounding Clinton’s use of a private email server during her tenure as Secretary of State has had lasting implications, both politically and professionally. While the FBI ultimately decided not to recommend criminal charges, the issue has continued to plague Clinton and her associates.

The renewed investigation by the State Department has the potential to further complicate the lives of the individuals involved, as even if they are found to be not culpable, the mere presence of a letter in their file could make it more difficult for them to regain security clearances and re-enter government service.

Moreover, the timing of the State Department’s investigation, as the Trump administration faces its own allegations related to a whistleblower complaint, has fueled speculation about the political motivations behind the renewed scrutiny. Nonetheless, the State Department maintains that it is simply following up on a referral from the FBI and fulfilling its obligation to investigate potential mishandling of classified information.

The ongoing debates and investigations surrounding Clinton’s email practices highlight the complex and evolving nature of information security in the digital age, as well as the challenges faced by government officials in navigating the ever-changing landscape of technology and communication.


The controversy surrounding Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her tenure as Secretary of State has been a complex and multifaceted issue, with far-reaching implications. The investigations conducted by the FBI and the State Department have uncovered a range of concerns, from the potential mishandling of classified information to the lack of adherence to established policies and procedures.

While the FBI ultimately decided not to recommend criminal charges, the issue has continued to haunt Clinton and her associates, with the State Department now reviving its own investigation into the emails of current and former senior officials who communicated with Clinton’s private account.

As the debates and scrutiny surrounding this issue persist, it is crucial for policymakers, government officials, and the public to engage in a thoughtful and nuanced discussion about the evolving challenges of information security, the appropriate use of technology in government, and the importance of transparency and accountability in the highest levels of public service.

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