The Rushmore Report: Was Hillary’s Email System Really Different from Her Predecessors?

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s decision to exclusively use private email to conduct State Department business was not unprecedented, she has maintained. When asked about her arrangement for emails by Univision’s Jorge Ramos, Clinton said, “I’m going to give the same answer I’ve given for months. It wasn’t the best choice. But it was not prohibited. My predecessors did the same thing.” Let’s fact check . . .

There are a couple problems with Clinton’s talking point that her State Department predecessors used email practices similar to hers.

First of all, there’s the fact that most of Clinton’s predecessors did not regularly use email. Just four former secretaries of state have held the job during the prominence of electronic communications: Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, and Madeleine Albright.

According to MSNBC, an aide for Albright said she “did not use email while she was in office” from 1997-2001. And Rice, head of the State Department from 2005-09, was not a habitual emailer either, according to multiple reports.

So that leaves Powell, a regular email user, as Clinton’s only predecessor who serves as a useful comparison. When we reached out to the Clinton campaign, they pointed us to Powell.

Like Clinton, Powell used a personal email address. However, there’s a big difference: Clinton hosted her email on a private server located in her home. Powell did not.

Many politicians use private addresses, but private servers like the one Clinton used are rarely seen, said John Wonderlich, a policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan group focused on government transparency, for a prior PolitiFact story.

And there’s a big difference between a private account, which is generally free and simple to start, and a private server, which requires a more elaborate set-up.

The Atlantic speculated the Clintons “may have wanted to be in control of the encryption of their correspondence, ensuring that no third parties – whether commercial, hacker, or government – were able to snoop on them.”

The unorthodox approach has opened up questions about her system’s level of security. If the server was managed without the help of a third party, “you would have to have a staff that’s keeping up with all the latest fixes,” said Clifford Neuman, director of the University of Southern California’s Center for Computer System Security.

We would note that the State Department has flagged a handful of emails containing information now deemed classified that were received by Powell and aides to Rice at private email addresses. In the more than 50,000 pages of Clinton emails the State Department has reviewed, just over 100 sent by Clinton have been deemed classified, according to a Washington Post analysis.

It’s unclear whether the information was classified at the time the emails were sent.

Our ruling

Clinton said, regarding her State Department email practices, “my predecessors did the same thing.”

This is a misleading claim chiefly because only one prior secretary of state regularly used email, Colin Powell. Powell did use a personal email address for government business, however he did not use a private server kept at his home, as Clinton did.

We rate this claim Mostly False.

About the Author

Lauren Carroll is a PolitiFact staff writer based in Washington, D.C. Before working for PolitiFact, Lauren worked for the Tampa Bay Times. She is a graduate of Duke University.

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