Here’s Everything We Know So Far About Hillary’s Shady BlackBerry Use

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Chuck Ross Investigative Reporter
Font Size:

Much of the focus on Hillary Clinton’s email use as secretary of state has focused on the mystery that is the private email server that was set up in the basement of her New York home. But Clinton’s BlackBerry — which was not issued by the State Department — is also a crucial piece of the puzzle.

State Department emails published last week add to records that have been released over the past few months to paint a better picture of just how Clinton came to solely use that personal BlackBerry. Some of the emails show that State Department officials strongly urged Clinton and her aides against using non-secure devices. And others suggest that Clinton threw caution to the wind and used her BlackBerry in countries like Russia and China, a move which cyber security experts say put her at great risk of being hacked.

The State Department has declined commenting specifically on the issue, saying that: “There are reviews and inquiries looking into this matter generally.”

The initial request

Days after Clinton took office in Jan. 2009, her aides began pushing for a souped-up BlackBerry like the one that the National Security Agency (NSA) designed for President Obama, emails obtained by Judicial Watch show.

In a Jan. 23, 2009 email Clinton’s chief of staff Cheryl Mills asked Lewis Lukens, the executive director of the State Department’s executive secretariat, about obtaining a special BlackBerry.

Lukens responded the next day to say that he had started checking into the NSA-developed device. He also agreed with a suggestion made by Mills to set up an office across the hall from Clinton’s suite that would allow her to check email on her BlackBerry.

“Will set up the office across the hall as requested,” Lukens wrote. “Also think we should go ahead (but will await your green light) and set up a stand alone PC in the Secretary’s office, connected to the internet (but not through our system) to enable her to check her emails from her desk.”

The idea for Clinton to access her emails through a desktop system appears to have fizzled out, however, because Clinton was unable — or unwilling — to use a computer.

“She says problem is hrc does not know how to use a computer to do email — only bb,” Lukens wrote, referring to the BlackBerry.

Clinton had hoped that she and her top aides could use BlackBerries at the State Department’s executive offices, known as Mahogany Row. But the offices also function as a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF). Wireless communications devices, including those that can function as recording and picture-taking devices, are prohibited from such areas.

‘On the off chance’

A set of emails exchanged just a week later show that the State Department official in charge of diplomatic security did not expect Clinton and her team to continue pushing the issue of obtaining super-charged BlackBerries.

“On the off chance that S staff continues to push for [Secret] and [Top Secret]-capable PDAs [redacted],” wrote Eric Boswell, then-assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security, to Donald Reid, security coordinator for security infrastructure at the bureau for diplomatic security, and Patrick Donovan, deputy assistant secretary for countermeasures, on Feb. 2.

NSA denies Clinton’s request

Emails published last week, also by Judicial Watch, show that on Feb. 13, 2009 Reid sent an email stating that the bureau of diplomatic security had started “examining options for [Clinton] with respect to secure ‘Blackberry-like’ communications.”

“The current state of the art is not too user friendly, has no infrastructure at State and is very expensive,” Reid continued, adding that “each time we asked the question ‘What was the solution for POTUS?’ we were politely told to shut up and color.”

During a Feb. 17 meeting between Mills, State Department officials and NSA officials, Mills said that the desire for the super-secure BlackBerries was “chiefly driven” by Clinton who “does not use standard computer equipment but relies exclusively on her Blackberry for e-mailing and remaining in contact on her schedule, etc.”

“The issue here is one of personal comfort,” Reid wrote of Clinton’s preference for a BlackBerry in an email the next day.

He also appears to have questioned that personal choice.

“[Clinton] does not use a personal computer so our view of someone wedded to their email (why doesn’t she use her desktop when in SCIF?) doesn’t fit this scenario,” he wrote.

The rationale for blocking Clinton’s request is not made clear in the emails.

Richard “Dickie” George, who helped design Obama’s BlackBerry as technical director for the NSA’s information assurance directorate, told The Daily Caller that he was never informed of Clinton’s request for an Obama-like BlackBerry. He speculated that NSA did not want to open up a can of worms by granting a Cabinet-level official and her aides the tweaked BlackBerries.

Official cautions against BlackBerry use

Boswell, the diplomatic security chief, was clearly not keen on the idea of Clinton using a BlackBerry on Mahogany Row, records obtained last year by the Competitive Enterprise Institute shows.

In a March 2 memo to Mills, Boswell wrote that the bureau of diplomatic security had conducted a review and reaffirmed its belief that “vulnerabilities and risks associated with the use of Blackberries in the Mahogany Row [redacted] significantly outweigh the convenience their use can add to staff that have access to the unclassified OpenNet system on their desktops.”

Boswell also appeared to suggest that Clinton could sync her BlackBerry with OpenNet, the State Department’s unclassified email network.

“Those Blackberries can be synchronized with your OpenNet Microsoft Outlook accounts, provide full cellular, e-mail, and internet functionality, and provide unclassified mobile technology when you are away from Mahogany Row.”

Clinton never did use an OpenNet system, however. She opted instead for an email system that utilized an email server maintained in her personal residence.

Boswell also laid out the risks associated with using an unclassified BlackBerry.

“I cannot stress too strongly, however, that any unclassified Blackberry is highly vulnerable in any setting to remotely and covertly monitoring conversations, retrieving e-mails, and exploiting calendars,” he wrote, also attaching a report from Department of State’s office of computer security’s cyber threat & analysis division.

As a recent Daily Caller investigation revealed, Clinton’s emails show that she sent and received dozens of messages during several trips to Russia and China, two nations which have robust spy agencies and capabilities. (RELATED: INVESTIGATION: Hillary Sent Dozens Of Emails On Her BlackBerry From Russia And China)

Boswell seemed to concede that Clinton and her staff could, if they wished, continue to utilize BlackBerries in the executive offices.

“If, after considering the vulnerabilities that I describe above and the alternatives that I propose, the Secretary determines that she wants a limited number of staff to use Blackberries in the Mahogany Row [redacted],” he wrote.

Clinton ‘gets it’

Emails obtained by the Competitive Enterprise Institute and published by the Washington Free Beacon in November also show that Clinton was told of the vulnerabilities and risks associated with the use of BlackBerries on Mahogany Row.

“After this mornings ‘management meeting’ with the A/Secys, Secretary Clinton approached Ambassador Boswell and mentioned that she had read the IM and that she ‘gets it,'” Boswell’s executive assistant wrote in a March 11 email to Reid and Donovan.

“Her attention was drawn to the sentence that indicates we [Diplomatic Security] have intelligence concerning this vulnerability during her recent trip to Asia.”

Clinton had traveled to Japan, Indonesia, Korea and China the previous month.

No mention was made in any of the emails about the use of personal BlackBerries on Mahogany Row or anywhere else. It is also not clear whether Clinton used her BlackBerry in a SCIF.

First emails on a new system

Clinton began using her private email system a week later.  She received her first email to — and to her personal BlackBerry — on March 18.

Aide loses personal BlackBerry 

Just over a year later, Mills lost her personal BlackBerry. Emails obtained by TheDC show that on March 20, 2010 she emailed Bryan Pagliano to ask for help in transferring her contact list.

Pagliano was the State Department IT specialist who managed Clinton’s private email system.

Mills appears to have used a Gmail account which was synced up to her BlackBerry. The trove of Clinton emails released by the State Department show that Mills received two now-classified emails on that personal account.

Clinton aides reject Department-issued BlackBerry

Other emails show that Clinton was provided an opportunity to begin using a Department-issued BlackBerry and a email account in the summer of 2011.

But Clinton’s chief of staff, Huma Abedin, nixed the idea. She told Mull in an Aug. 31, 2011 email that providing Clinton with a government-issued BlackBerry “doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Mills had written to Abedin, Cheryl Mills and under secretary for management Patrick Kennedy that his office was “working to provide the Secretary per her request a Department issued Blackberry to replace her personal unit which is malfunctioning.” (RELATED: Emails: Clinton Aides Resisted State Department Suggestion That Clinton Use Account)

He asserted that the BlackBerry was malfunctioning “possibly because of [sic] her personal email server is down.”

Mull then offered to provide Clinton with a second Department-issued BlackBerry that would operate a State Department email account.

The new email account “would mask her identity” but it “would also be subject to FOIA requests,” he wrote.

Clinton was never issued the government BlackBerry.

A surprise admission

Separate and apart from Clinton’s use of a BlackBerry is her claim that she did not send or receive classified information while in office.

But video emerged in January showing Wendy Sherman, who served as under secretary for political affairs in the Clinton State Department, openly admitting that agency officials often used their BlackBerries to view information that “would never be on an unclassified system.”

“Things appear on your Blackberries that would never be on an unclassified system, but you’re out traveling, you’re trying to negotiate something,” Sherman said during a 2013 conference for the American Foreign Service Association.

Clinton has claimed she did not use her BlackBerry in Russia and China 

Even though Clinton’s emails suggest that she emailed while visiting China and Russia, video emerged last week showing that Clinton claimed in Nov. 2014 that the cyber security threat in those nations was so great that she and other State Department personnel had to leave their BlackBerries and computers behind on their airplane. (RELATED: Video Shows Hillary Acknowledging Risk Of China And Russia Hacking Her BlackBerry)

“Every time I went to countries like China or Russia we couldn’t take our computers, we couldn’t take our personal devices, we couldn’t take anything off the plane because they’re so good,” she said.

Clinton has not yet been asked about the discrepancy between that claim and her emails suggesting she used her BlackBerry while in China and Russia.

Follow Chuck on Twitter