The past few weeks have brought a myriad of revelations about the private server Hillary Clinton used while she was secretary of state. First, there was the State Department inspector general’s devastating critique of the former secretary’s email practices. Then came sworn testimony of two key Clinton aides about how the server was set up and how the system worked (or didn’t). Just this weekend, Clinton met with the FBI to discuss her email arrangements. And on Tuesday, FBI Director James Comey announced that the agency would not recommend criminal charges over the handling of these emails, while at the same time offering a brutal assessment of how poorly Team Clinton handled classified information.
But, when it comes to Clinton’s correspondence, the most basic and troubling questions still remain unanswered: Why are there gaps in Clinton’s email history? Did she or her team delete emails that she should have made public?
The State Department has released what is said to represent all of the work-related, or “official,” emails Clinton sent during her tenure as secretary—a number totaling about 30,000. According to Clinton and her campaign, when they were choosing what correspondence to turn over to State for public release, they deleted 31,830 other emails deemed “personal and private.” But a numeric analysis of the emails that have been made public, focusing on conspicuous lapses in email activity, raises troubling concerns that Clinton or her team might have deleted a number of work-related emails.
We already know that the trove of Clinton’s work-related emails is incomplete. In his comments on Tuesday, Comey declared, “The FBI … discovered several thousand work-related e-mails that were not in the group of 30,000 that were returned by Secretary Clinton to State in 2014.” We also already know that some of those work-related emails could be permanently deleted. Indeed, according to Comey, “It is also likely that there are other work-related e-mails that [Clinton and her team] did not produce to State and that we did not find elsewhere, and that are now gone because they deleted all emails they did not return to State, and the lawyers cleaned their devices in such a way as to preclude complete forensic recovery.”
Why does this matter? Because Clinton signed documents declaring she had turned over all of her work-related emails. We now know that is not true. But even more importantly, the absence of emails raises troubling questions about the nature of the correspondence that might have been deleted.
Based on the emails the State Department released, Clinton sent or received an average of 21 work emails per day during her tenure—including on her numerous trips overseas, when email must have been a lifeline for communication. But there are numerous odd low-traffic days in the email record during her foreign travel. For example, from July 17-23, 2009, Clinton made a high-profile visit to India and Thailand. She not only issued a pivotal joint statement with the Indian government on nuclear technology, she also met with Indian billionaires at the start of her visit. On July 22, she met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Thailand to discuss arms control. And yet, if you look at what she claims is her complete email record released by the State Department, on July 18 and July 20 of this trip, she did not send or receive a single email that was deemed work-related.
Could it be that Team Clinton avoided email while she was traveling as a security precaution? Her pattern during other travels doesn’t support that possible explanation. During her 2010 visit to Ukraine on July 1-2, for example, she sent and received 38 emails over both days. During her June 27-29, 2012, visit to St. Petersburg, Russia, she sent and received 65 emails over those three days.
Could it be that her BlackBerry didn’t work in certain countries? No. The server back in Chappaqua would still be receiving emails whether the BlackBerry was connected or not. Short of the server going down, for which there is no evidence, there is no technological explanation for this gap.
There are other anomalies. The email traffic for the secretary of state seems for the most part to be event-driven. For example, during Muammar Qadhafi’s removal from power in Libya, on Aug. 22, 2011, Clinton received 133 work-related emails, way more than average. However, there are some important events with virtually no corresponding email traffic. One useful approach in determining what emails might be missing is to overlay the Clinton emails with State Department cables that were released via WikiLeaks. As one might expect, the volume of cables and the volume of emails about specific events tend to rise and fall together. (Obviously, we cannot account for emails redacted prior to public release.) Consider these examples: the earthquake and rebuilding of Haiti, the Copenhagen climate treaty, the military coup in Honduras and diplomatic matters concerning the Lisbon Treaty. As we demonstrate below, the number of State Department cables and Clinton emails either sent or received that mention these matters rise and fall together.
But then there is an instance where the State Department cable traffic rises and there are few if any Clinton corresponding emails. It’s the case of Rosatom, the Russian State Nuclear Agency: Clinton and senior officials at the State Department received dozens of cables on the subject of Rosatom’s activities around the world, including a hair-raising cable about Russian efforts to dominate the uranium market. As secretary of state, Clinton was a central player in a variety of diplomatic initiatives involving Rosatom officials. But strangely, there is only one email that mentions Rosatom in Clinton’s entire collection, an innocuous email about Rosatom’s activities in Ecuador. To put that into perspective, there are more mentions of LeBron James, yoga and NBC’s Saturday Night Live than the Russian Nuclear Agency in Clinton’s emails deemed “official.”
What could explain this lack of emails on the Russian Nuclear Agency? Were Clinton’s aides negligent in passing along unimportant information while ignoring the far more troubling matters concerning Rosatom? Possibly. Or, were emails on this subject deleted as falling into the “personal” category? It is certainly odd that there’s virtually no email traffic on this subject in particular. Remember that a major deal involving Rosatom that was of vital concern to Clinton Foundation donors went down in 2009 and 2010. Rosatom bought a small Canadian uranium company owned by nine investors who were or became major Clinton Foundation donors, sending $145 million in contributions. The Rosatom deal required approval from several departments, including the State Department.
Equally bizarre is the absence at certain times of basic logistical emails pertaining to Hillary Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton. In general, Bill gets plenty of mention in the official emails released by the State Department, emails covering everything from travel logistics to press releases about Clinton Foundation work. But there’s an email silence in June 2010, when Hillary Clinton was in South America for a series of high-level meetings. According to her memoir, “by coincidence” Bill was in Bogota, Colombia, apparently for Clinton Foundation work, at the same time she was in the country. Also there with Bill was Frank Giustra, one of the Clinton Foundation’s largest contributors. Bill, Hillary and Giustra reportedly had dinner together, and the next morning, Bill met with Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe, followed immediately by Hillary’s meeting with Uribe. In the weeks that follow, Giustra’s companies scored concessions from the Colombian government on matters ranging from oil to timber.
The State Department released plenty of emails concerning Bill Clinton during other foreign trips when Hillary and Bill were traveling together, including dining recommendations, travel schedules and records of Bill’s daily activities. And yet there is not a single email in the public Clinton email trove about Bill’s presence in Colombia, the couple’s dinner with Giustra or the fact that Bill and Hillary met separately and back-to-back with Uribe.
These omissions could come down to Clinton’s definition of “personal.” Clinton and her team have claimed that the only emails that were deleted pertained to personal matters, or as she put it, “emails about planning Chelsea’s wedding or my mother’s funeral arrangements, condolence notes to friends, as well as yoga routines, family vacations, the other things you typically find in inboxes.” But the system by which this sorting took place was highly arbitrary, and was undertaken not by objective government officials but by lawyers and close aides. Keep in mind that those lawyers have used a more expansive term than Clinton to describe what was deleted. They called them “private, personal records.” By this definition, “private, personal records” doesn’t just have to apply to wedding planning; that term could involve anything related to the Clinton Foundation or Bill’s commercial activities. But the world has a right to know if and when Hillary Clinton’s State Department work overlapped with the Clinton Foundation’s agenda—and what resulted from such blurring of lines.
The media has spent a lot of time parsing through the Clinton emails that already have been released—compiling lists, looking for specific names or discussion of particular issues. But they ought to pay more attention to the holes. Bob Woodward has declared that Hillary Clinton’s email scandal “reminds me of the Nixon tapes.” He’s right. In that case and here, it’s not what’s in the record that’s most troubling. It’s what’s not there.