Hillary Clinton, already facing a congressional inquiry about the personal email account she used as secretary of state, could be facing another federal investigation by President Barack Obama’s Justice Department.
Appearing on Fox News Sunday, Republican presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky called the Justice Department’s potential review into whether classified information was mishandled "damning" before charging Clinton with hypocrisy.
"Even she knew there was a rule," Paul said July 26. "They actually admonished one of her ambassadors because he wasn't using the proper server. I don't understand how she can skate by and act as if she wasn't aware of the law."
We won’t address here whether Clinton was or wasn’t "aware of the law." But we were curious about Paul’s allegation: Did the State Department under Clinton chide a diplomat for handling email on an improper server in the same way as Clinton?
The Clinton campaign declined to comment.
A spokeswoman for Paul told us he was referring to Scott Gration, a former Obama advisor who left his post as ambassador to Kenya three years ago.
After less than a year and half on the job, Gration resigned in June 2012 (while Clinton was secretary) after reading a draft of a highly critical audit by the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General, which works independently. Among Gration’s many failings was his continued usage of a personal email account, according to the report.
Unsurprisingly, Gration’s drama resurfaced when the Clinton email controversy first erupted in March 2015, and some claimed that Gration was fired for his "Hillary-like" use of the email. (Gration used a Gmail account.) Gration himself called the State Department’s treatment of him a double standard.
PunditFact, however, found that most of the reports inflated the significance of the personal email. Gration’s grating style of management, uncooperative attitude and "disruptive" initiatives were more pressing to the State Department. Out of more than 80 mission chiefs, he ranked last for interpersonal relations, next to last on managerial skill and attention to morale, and third to last on overall scores, according to the audit.
Compared to these issues, the email problem played a minor role, according to Ronald Neumann, who served as an American ambassador three times, most recently in Afghanistan from 2005-07.
"It could be an important issue, but when you screw up as many things as this guy did, it’s hard to get through to that one," Neumann told PunditFact.
Paul’s claim, however, is more tempered, and thus more accurate. That audit did indeed "admonish" Gration for his email habits. The fourth bullet point on the report’s summary reads:
"The Ambassador’s greatest weakness is his reluctance to accept clear-cut U.S. Government decisions. He made clear his disagreement with Washington policy decisions and directives concerning the safe-havening in Nairobi of families of Department employees who volunteered to serve in extreme hardship posts; the creation of a freestanding Somalia Unit; and the nonuse of commercial email for official government business, including Sensitive But Unclassified information. Notwithstanding his talk about the importance of mission staff doing the right thing, the Ambassador by deed or word has encouraged it to do the opposite."
The report describes Gration’s actions in detail starting on page 43: He deliberately defied the State Department’s rule on communication by installing a commercial Internet connection in his embassy office bathroom and authorizing his embassy staff to use personal emails.
"He has willfully disregarded Department regulations on the use of commercial email for official government business," the report says.
Ars Technica, a technology news site, put it even more bluntly: "Gration was the end user from hell for an understaffed IT team in a politically sensitive outpost."
The report also spells out the reasons for the policy: Unauthorized systems increase the risk for hacks and loss of records. It then states that the use of personal emails "must be limited to maintaining communications during emergencies" and recommended the embassy stop using the unofficial email accounts.
It is unclear if top State Department brass slammed Gration for violating the personal email policy, as Paul suggests. We found no on-the-record condemnations from department officials, though Gration said multiple times that Clinton’s chief of staff fired him after reading the report. An audit by an inspector general is different than Clinton directly criticizing Gration for the practice.
Comparison to Clinton
In short, the department’s watchdogs chided Gration for a number of issues, including his personal email use. But how closely did his improper email habits mirror Clinton’s?
Clinton exclusively used a personal email account during her tenure as the country’s top diplomat. At the time, there was no law prohibiting the practice (one was put in place in 2014). There was, however, a long-standing policy against using personal emails, reiterated in a 2011 memo from the State Department under Clinton. Gration, for his part, used both, although he "very infrequently" logged onto his classified account, the report says.
Without more information, it’s hard to compare the security risks of both setups. Gration likely channeled his personal emails through an unsecured Internet connection despite repeated warnings, according to the Washington Post.
As for Clinton, her personal email was relayed through a private server guarded by the Secret Service, Clinton said at a March press conference. We don’t know if the State Department signed off on her private server, but it was aware of the server’s existence. The emails were encrypted after March 2009, according to her security provider, though there’s still debate over the account’s security.
Overall, an expert told us it’s an apples-to-apples comparison, though he cautioned that the inspector general report does not address why Gration was using a personal email. (According to Gration, he couldn’t get news alerts through the official State Department server.)
"The similarities between the two situations are striking, and it is fair to compare them," said Douglas Cox, a law professor at the City University of New York, who studies records preservation. "Both were in senior leadership positions. Both made a regrettable decision to use non-official email, which raised security and record-keeping concerns that should have been obvious. And both refused to accept that their continuous use of non-official email violated State Department rules."
Cox pointed out that the report condemned Gration’s email usage as a failure in leadership that "sapped the morale" of his staff. The same criticism could apply to Clinton, who, as secretary of state, should be held to a higher standard than Gration, Cox argued.
"The buck should have stopped with her, and she should have been leading by example," he said.
Paul said the State Department under Clinton "actually admonished one of her ambassadors for not using the proper server."
The ambassador in question, Scott Gration, was effectively fired from his post in Kenya in 2012 mostly because of his poor management skills but also for his email management. The department’s office of the inspector general, which works independently, called Gration’s use of a personal email account for government business a leadership failure and a security risk.
We rate Paul’s claim True.