The State Department undermined on Thursday a claim Hillary Clinton is making to push back against reports that her private, unsecured server contained emails with highly classified “special access programs” intelligence.
During a press briefing, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said that agency employees are “strongly discouraged” from forwarding information containing potentially classified intelligence even if it is in the public domain in the form of a news article or leaked document.
Toner also left open the possibility that such activity is prohibited altogether.
Clinton and her campaign responded aggressively on Wednesday to a letter that Intelligence Community inspector general I. Charles McCullough III sent last week to two Senate committees informing them that emails containing “special access programs” (SAP) intelligence were found on the former secretary of state’s private, unsecured email server.
SAP is classified at a higher level than “top secret” information. McCullough and some of his aides were reportedly required to obtain a higher security clearance level in order to view the information.
But Clinton and her campaign sought to downplay McCullough’s findings. Her campaign communications director, Brian Fallon, went so far as to accuse McCullough of coordinating leaks with Republicans.
And Clinton said during an NPR interview on Wednesday that “the best we can determine” is that the emails in question contained a forwarded New York Times article mentioning a classified drone program.
“How a New York Times public article that goes around the world could be in any way viewed as classified, or the fact that it would be sent to other people off of the New York Times site, I think, is one of the difficulties that people have in understanding what this is about,” Clinton said.
The federal government considers information pertaining to drone strikes and drone activity to be highly classified, even though such intelligence is often reported in the press.
But Toner seemed to indicate during Thursday’s daily press briefing that even though classified information may have made its way into the public domain, sharing it is still “strongly discouraged” and possibly prohibited.
“What’s the protocol for State Department employees sending articles that contain information that, while in the public domain, is considered by the government to be classified?” a reporter asked Toner.
“It’s strongly discouraged to, for example, access Wikileaks material and other material that is allegedly classified,” said Toner.
“Not prohibited though?” the reporter probed.
“I’d don’t have the exact language, I’d have to get back to you on that,” the spokesman replied.
Following the Wikileaks case, in which a huge archive of State Department cables were published online and shared with news organizations, the Obama administration issued a warning to federal workers reminding them that classified information should not be viewed by individuals without proper security clearance.
“Classified information, whether or not already posted on public websites or disclosed to the media, remains classified, and must be treated as such by federal employees and contractors, until it is declassified by an appropriate U.S. Government authority,” reads a Dec. 2010 notice from the Office of Management and Budget.