WASHINGTON — Even as he declined to recommend a criminal case against Hillary Clinton, the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, undercut many of the arguments she has used to play down her use of a private email server while secretary of state, describing a series of questionable, even reckless, decisions made by her and her aides.
At least 110 emails sent through her server contained information that was classified at the time it was sent, he said, meaning it should never have been sent or received on an unclassified computer network — not hers, not even the State Department’s official state.gov system.
That fact refutes the core argument she and others have made: that the entire controversy turned on the overzealous, after-the-fact classification of emails as they were being made public under the Freedom of Information Act, rather than the mishandling of the nation’s secrets.
Mr. Comey’s announcement was, arguably, the worst possible good news Mrs. Clinton’s presidential campaign could have hoped for: no criminal charges, but a pointed refutation of statements like one she flatly made last August. “I did not send classified material,” she said then.
“Even if information is not marked classified in an email, participants who know, or should know, that the subject matter is classified are still obligated to protect it,” Mr. Comey said, suggesting that Mrs. Clinton and her aides were “extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.”
Mr. Comey said the emails included eight chains of emails and replies, some written by her, that contained information classified as “top secret: special access programs.” That classification is the highest level, reserved for the nation’s most highly guarded intelligence operations or sources.
Another 36 chains were “secret,” which is defined as including information that “could be expected to cause serious damage to the national security”; eight others had information classified at the lowest level, “confidential.”Continue reading the main story
While Mr. Comey’s disclosures did not radically reshape what was known about Mrs. Clinton’s use of a private email server, installed in her home in Chappaqua, N.Y., he offered new details, including some that could not immediately be squared with previous disclosures.
Among those was the fact that “a very small number” of emails sent on her server bore markings that indicated they were classified, contradicting not only previous statements of Mrs. Clinton’s but also claims by the State Department that none had.
While he did not identify any, he was evidently referring to two emails that one of Mrs. Clinton’s close aides, Monica R. Hanley, sent to prepare her for telephone calls with foreign leaders, according to a State Department official familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss classified information.
One email, dated Aug. 2, 2012, noted that Kofi Annan, the former secretary general of the United Nations, was stepping down as special envoy trying to mediate the war in Syria. A second one, sent in April 2012, discussed Mrs. Clinton’s call to the newly inaugurated president of Malawi.
Each was marked with a small notation, “(C),” indicating it contained information classified as “confidential.”
Other paragraphs in the note about Mr. Annan’s resignation were marked “(SBU),” for “sensitive but unclassified.” That designation appears in more than 1,000 of the 30,000 work-related emails that Mrs. Clinton turned over to the State Department, including some later “upgraded” to higher levels of classification. The official said that the notations were part of “a standard process” when preparing a phone call, which would be “confidential” until it occurred and then considered unclassified.
Far more serious were those that were unmarked, according to Mr. Comey. He referred at one point to eight chains that were classified as “top secret,” and at another point to seven with the additional designation as “special access programs.” Only a small number of officials are allowed access to those programs, which are the nation’s most sensitive intelligence operations.
“Those chains involved Secretary Clinton both sending and receiving emails about those same matters,” he said.
Mr. Comey did not detail any of the information contained in the emails, but the State Department announced in January that it would not release to the public 22 emails contained in seven chains of emails and replies, even in a redacted form, as thousands of others have been over the last year. Those emails have been widely reported to include information about the Central Intelligence Agency’s program to use drones to track and kill terrorism suspects.
It was not immediately clear what subject the eighth chain Mr. Comey cited involved, but his statement means that more than 22 emails already disclosed included “top secret” information. Officials at the F.B.I. did not respond to inquiries seeking further explanation.
As part of its investigation, the agency also found that while secretary of state, Mrs. Clinton used more than one server and more than one mobile device, the BlackBerry that at one point in her tenure became a meme. In hindsight, that image, once celebrated, would come to haunt her politically.
The change in servers and devices meant some emails were not saved but remained in the “slack space” of the previous ones. That led to the “painstaking undertaking” of piecing together millions of email fragments like a jigsaw puzzle, Mr. Comey said, and ultimately proved that she had not turned over all of her work-related email to the State Department as she and her aides have claimed.
Three emails that were recovered also contained classified information, one “secret” and two “confidential.” Mr. Comey strongly suggested that others might be lost to the public record for good, though he suggested that there was no “reasonable confidence” that they were deliberately withheld or destroyed.
The State Department itself faced criticism, with Mr. Comey saying that agents “developed evidence that the security culture” of the department was “generally lacking.” The department’s spokesman, John Kirby, took issue with the characterization.
“We’re going to continue to look for ways to improve,” he said, “but we don’t share the broad assessment made of our institution that there’s a lax culture here when it comes to protecting classified information.”
Mr. Comey cited no evidence that Mrs. Clinton’s server had been hacked, but he added that such a breach was possible, because she had “used her personal email extensively” while traveling abroad, including “in the territory of sophisticated adversaries.”
Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said that the government’s classification of information was often opaque.
“This is very much a moving target,” he said, referring to Mr. Comey’s remark that 2,000 emails were “up-classified” to make them confidential. “That may have contributed to the reluctance to pursue criminal charges.”
Other factors might have been the frequency and the recipients. The 110 emails represented only a small fraction of the roughly 60,000 emails that passed through Mrs. Clinton’s servers. Even with the 2,000 that the State Department upgraded as part of their public release, they account for fewer than 7 percent of those sent and received. Also, as one law enforcement official noted, the recipients of the most sensitive emails included aides or diplomats who have clearances to receive classified information — as opposed to a journalist, as was the case with the former director of the C.I.A., David H. Petraeus.
In the end, as damning as Mr. Comey’s conclusion was, he did not claim that Mrs. Clinton’s behavior had compromised any program or operation.
“There was no assertion of damage to national security because of this episode,” Mr. Aftergood said.
In the handling of classified information, however, any carelessness is cause for concern. Mr. Comey noted that people who are careless often face administrative punishment, echoing some officials at the State Department who have privately suggested that a similar misstep could severely harm their careers.
“There is evidence to support a conclusion that any reasonable person in Secretary Clinton’s position or in the position of those with whom she was corresponding about the matters should have known that an unclassified system was no place for that conversation,” Mr. Comey said.