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What the new inspector general report on Hillary Clinton's emails actually says

Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

On Wednesday, the State Department's inspector general released a long-awaited report on the email practices of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, other former secretaries of state, and the State Department more broadly.

And while the report is filled with impenetrable lingo about records management and bureaucratic processes, it ends up pretty clearly concluding that Clinton's practices around using a personal email account for all her State Department business were not "appropriate."

Now, this inspector general's report isn't the main event in the Clinton email scandal — that's the FBI probe into whether any criminal activity, such as mishandling of classified information, took place. That's still underway, though there are reports that it may be nearing completion.

Still, it's significant that State's inspector general, Steve Linick, has two broad sets of criticisms aimed at Clinton here: the first set related to records management policies, and the second set related to potential security risks.

IG: Clinton "did not comply with the Department's policies" to preserve federal records

The first issue here relates to whether records of government business were appropriately preserved, according to the Federal Records Act and various regulations.

As is well-known, Clinton used her personal email account, which was hosted on a private server, for all her State Department–related emails — she never even bothered to set up a government email address.

And all the time she was at State, she apparently made no effort to hand over records of her emails to the government. Only after she had left and State started making inquiries — in 2014 — did she turn over about 30,000 emails she deemed related to government business.

Clinton and her aides have a defense here. They argue that she almost always emailed her State Department subordinates at their government email addresses. Therefore, they said, the email records would end up being preserved from the subordinates' end of each conversation.

But the IG doesn't buy it, and called this "not an appropriate method" of preserving federal records. Clinton should have filed her records at the time, and certainly before she left government, Linick writes.

IG: Use of personal email for government business presents a security risk

The other major potential issue in using personal email for government business, Linick writes, is the risk of a security breach: "Department information must be secure and protected from threats."

Importantly, the report doesn't turn up any evidence that Clinton's emails were successfully hacked or compromised (though it does include this exchange in which an outside adviser helping Clinton with her email says someone was "trying to hack us").

However, Linick writes that government guidance is quite clear that use of personal email for work presents a security risk. And he writes that if Clinton had asked for department guidance on whether she could use her personal email in this way, she would have been rejected.

Instead, though, Clinton doesn't seem to have asked at all — the report states, "OIG found no evidence that the Secretary requested or obtained guidance or approval to conduct official business via a personal email account on her private server."

Elsewhere, Linick writes that he "found no evidence that staff in the Office of the Legal Adviser reviewed or approved Secretary Clinton's personal system." However, when a lower-level staffer in State's Bureau of Information Resource Management "raised concerns" about Clinton's email system, he or she was told that State's legal staff had approved it "and that the matter was not to be discussed any further" (in Linick's paraphrase).

Furthermore, another staff member in the bureau who raised similar concerns was told that the bureau's "mission" was "to support the Secretary" and was instructed "never to speak of the Secretary's personal email system again" (again, in Linick's paraphrase).

The report does turn up an email in which, after Clinton is struggling with technical difficulties, a subordinate suggests she start using State's system. Clinton seems amenable to the idea, but writes that it should be a "separate address or device" because "I don't want any risk of the personal being accessible." This never ended up happening, however — Clinton never got a State email address.

The report chides Colin Powell too — but stresses that the context was different

One of the Clinton campaign's major arguments throughout this whole brouhaha has been that she did essentially nothing different than previous secretaries of state. Indeed, her spokesperson Brian Fallon issued a statement arguing that the report demonstrated "just how consistent her email practices were with those of other Secretaries."

"Other Secretaries" seems too strong here, since, according to the report, neither Madeleine Albright nor Condoleezza Rice used email for work during their respective tenures. However, Clinton's email practices do resemble those of Colin Powell. The report quotes Powell's casual description from his autobiography of using his "personal email account" from his office to email whomever he felt like.

As with Clinton, Linick chides Powell for failing to appropriately preserve federal records, even in similar language. "Secretary Powell did not comply with Department policies that were implemented in accordance with the Federal Records Act," he writes.

However, in what seems to be a deliberate rebuttal to the Clinton campaign's argument that she did nothing different from previous secretaries of state, Linick stresses that quite a lot changed between Powell's departure and Clinton's tenure — specifically, that the guidance to use government email systems became much more firmly entrenched:

Overall, the report certainly doesn't make Clinton look all that good. However, it's worth keeping the big picture in mind.

First, the Clinton emails that have been publicly released have tended to be banal or even pathetic rather than corrupt or scandal-worthy. We don't, of course, know what hasn't been released. But so far there's little indication that there's some deep corruption she was trying to hide from the public.

And second, no evidence of successful hacking of Clinton's email account has yet turned up. If that did happen, it would show that there were real consequences to Clinton's desire to skirt the usual email procedures.

If either of these happen — or, of course, if the FBI turns up anything else untoward — then Clinton's candidacy might really be in deep trouble. But so far, neither has.

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