The State Department acknowledged for the first time Friday that “top secret” information has been found in emails that passed through the private email server Hillary Clinton used while leading the agency, elevating the issue in the presidential campaign three days before the hotly contested Iowa caucuses.
The information was contained in 22 emails, across seven email chains, that were sent or received by Clinton, according to a State Department spokesman. The emails will not be disclosed as part of an ongoing release of Clinton’s email correspondence from her years as secretary of state, even in highly redacted form.
The finding is likely to complicate Clinton’s efforts to move past the controversy, which has dragged down her poll ratings in her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. And it comes as her potential Republican rivals have called for Clinton to be prosecuted for what they say was her mishandling of national secrets.
In responding Friday, Clinton’s campaign took the unusual step of criticizing the intelligence community, accusing spy agencies of engaging in “overclassification run amok.” Some Clinton allies suggested that intelligence officials were politically motivated.
Clinton’s spokesman, Brian Fallon, presented the findings as the latest turn in an ongoing struggle between government officials over whether to retroactively classify emails that were not marked as sensitive when they were sent and that Clinton thinks should be made public.
“After a process that has been dominated by bureaucratic infighting that has too often played out in public view, the loudest and leakiest participants in this interagency dispute have now prevailed in blocking any release of these emails,” Fallon said. “This flies in the face of the fact that these emails were unmarked at the time they were sent, and have been called ‘innocuous’ by certain intelligence officials.”
Fallon told MSNBC that withholding the emails from view in their entirety made it impossible for the public to independently judge the validity of the State Department’s conclusion.
Friday’s announcement came at a politically sensitive moment for Clinton. She is locked in a dead heat in Iowa with Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, whose long-shot bid for the Democratic nomination has gained momentum in recent weeks, and the revival of the email matter could increase anxiety among Clinton supporters who had hoped that the issue would fade as the primaries began and a general election loomed.
Some uncertainty has hung over Clinton and her campaign since the revelation last spring that she had used a private email system for official business, with the FBI conducting an investigation into whether classified information was compromised.
A U.S. law enforcement official familiar with the investigation said that prosecuting anyone involved in the case would be difficult. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations, said that investigators are looking at whether anyone knowingly mishandled classified information on the system.
The inquiry has frustrated Clinton allies and provided fodder to GOP candidates such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who mused in Thursday night’s Republican debate that Clinton was “disqualified from being the commander in chief” because she stored classified material on her server and “her first acts as president may very well be to pardon herself.