Former Secretary of State Colin Powell used a personal computer connected to a private telephone line to send and receive emails to staffers, friends and foreign leaders without having to go through State Department servers.
Powell shared that experience with Hillary Clinton two days after she took over as secretary of state. Powell cautioned Clinton to “be very careful,” lest her emails be discovered and become part of the official State Department record.
“I got around it by not saying much and not using systems that captured the data,” Powell wrote to Clinton in January of 2009.
The advice from Powell was referenced in an FBI report released last week, and the former secretary’s full email exchange with Clinton was made public Wednesday by Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee.
Cummings said it demonstrates that Clinton’s reliance on a personal email account for government business — which has become a flashpoint in her presidential campaign — is nothing new.
“This email exchange … illustrates the longstanding problem that no Secretary of State ever used an official unclassified email account until the current Secretary of State,” Cummings said in a statement.
Clinton told the FBI that Powell’s advice did not factor into her decision to use a personal email account. And she has said she did so for convenience, not to skirt government record-keeping requirements.
Powell’s email suggests he was determined to avoid having his correspondence preserved and possibly made public, describing that as “a real danger.”
“What I did do was have a personal computer that was hooked up to a private phone line (sounds ancient),” Powell wrote. “So I could communicate with a wide range of friends directly without it going through the State Department servers. I even used it to do business with some foreign leaders and some of the senior folks in the Department on their personal email accounts. I did the same thing on the road in hotels.”
Powell also told Clinton that he used a primitive form of BlackBerry to communicate, despite concerns raised by the State Department’s security force.
“The real issue had to do with PDAs [personal digital assistants], as we called them a few years ago before BlackBerry became a noun. And the issue was DS [diplomatic security] would not allow them into the secure spaces,” Powell wrote.
“When I asked why not they gave me all kinds of nonsense about how they gave out signals and could be read by spies, etc. Same reason they tried to keep mobile phones out of the suite. I had numerous meetings with them. We even opened one of them up for them to try to explain to me why it was more dangerous than say, a remote control for one of the many tvs in the suite. Or something embedded in my shoe heel. They never satisfied me and NSA/CIA wouldn’t back off. So we just went about our business and stopped asking. I had an ancient version of a PDA and used it. In general, the suite was so sealed that it is hard to get signals in or out wirelessly.”
Clinton, who described herself as a “berry addict,” had asked Powell for advice about her own mobile device.
“What were the restrictions on your use of your blackberry?” she asked Powell, in an email dated Jan. 23, 2009. “Did you use it in your personal office? I’ve been told that the DSS [Diplomatic Security Service] personnel knew you had one and used it but no one fesses up to knowing how you used it!”
Clinton also noted that President Obama broke new ground by carrying his own, secure BlackBerry. “I just have to figure out how to bring along the State Department,” she added.
In her interview with the FBI in June, Clinton said she never brought her unclassified BlackBerry into the secure area of her State Department office. Former security agents told investigators Clinton stored the device in a desk drawer that was within the secure area. Clinton’s aide Huma Abedin told the FBI Clinton would retrieve the BlackBerry and leave the secure area when she wanted to check email.
It was clear from Powell’s email to Clinton that he often chafed at demands of the Diplomatic Security Service, and sometimes ignored them.
“You will find DS driving you crazy if you let them,” Powell wrote. “Their job is to keep you hermetically sealed up. Love, Colin.”