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Archived fact-check: Clinton's claim she never received nor sent material marked classified

Editor's note:This is an archived version of a fact-check that has been re-rated due to new information. See the new fact-check here.

Says she "never received nor sent any material that was marked classified" on her private email server while she was secretary of state.

— Hillary Clinton on Sunday, July 3rd, 2016 in an interview on "Meet the Press"

Fact-checking Clinton's claim she 'never received nor sent any material that was marked classified'

By Lauren Carroll on Sunday, July 3rd, 2016 at 7:27 p.m.

About this statement:

Published: Sunday, July 3rd, 2016 at 7:27 p.m.

Researched by: Lauren Carroll

Edited by: Aaron Sharockman

Subjects: Ethics, Foreign Policy

(After this fact-check published, FBI Director James Comey released details of the FBI's investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server. This claim will remain rated Half True, because we base our rulings on when a statement was made and on the information available at that time. But the FBI investigation clearly undercuts Clinton’s defense if she makes a similar claim again. You can read more about the findings of the FBI investigation here.)

FBI agents questioned Hillary Clinton July 2, possibly signaling that the nearly year-long investigation into her email practices is nearing its finish, said Meet the Press host Chuck Todd.

FBI investigators are evaluating whether Clinton, while serving as secretary of state, or members of her team criminally mishandled classified information by exclusively using a personal email address hosted on a private server located in her New York home. Following the FBI interview, Todd asked Clinton how her practices did not violate federal law.

"Let me repeat what I have repeated for many months now," Clinton responded. "I never received nor sent any material that was marked classified."

Clinton has indeed repeated this talking point for many months now. In the past, we avoided rating this claim on the Truth-O-Meter because of the lack of details publicly available. We now feel comfortable concluding that Clinton’s phrasing is potentially misleading to viewers and voters, and fails to account for many unanswered questions. (Our colleagues at the Washington Post Fact Checker reached a similar conclusion.)

"On the one hand, I believe that sentence is likely accurate," said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight. "But I also believe that it is so carefully crafted as to avoid a more important question, which is whether there was information in her email that should have been marked classified."

Classified after the fact

As a preface, we previously rated False Clinton’s claim that her email practices were "allowed." That fact-check focused on records preservation and State Department protocol; this fact-check (and the FBI investigation) is about classification and national security.

After the email issue surfaced in March 2015, Clinton handed over about 30,000 work-related emails to the State Department for public release.

The State Department redacted about 2,000 emails before releasing them, saying they contain classified information — including some that have been withheld entirely because they contain "top secret" information.

Clinton’s defense obscures this element because it focuses on a different point — that Clinton sent or received material she knew was classified because it was marked. None of the emails the State Department redacted, or any other emails made public, contained classification markings at the time they were sent, government officials said.

The possibility remains, however, that that she sent or received classified information that was inappropriately left unlabeled — or that Clinton, as head of the department, failed to recognize and deal with information that should have been classified.

Further, because Clinton used a private server, we only have Clinton’s word that she turned over all relevant email. It’s possible there are emails with classified information on them that she deleted or did not turn over.

Classification confusion

Federal agencies can classify information after the fact, for example, if an international situation changes in such a way that would affect the sensitivity of the information.

We know that officials did that in the case of emails on Clinton’s private server. But we do not yet know if any of those emails contained classified information when they first landed in Clinton’s server. It’s possible that emails that were not marked classified contained classified information.

To make matters more complicated, there’s some disagreement between the State Department and the intelligence community over what was or should have been treated as classified. Government agencies regularly disagree over what should be classified or not, and transparency advocates say the government regularly over-classifies. These are real issues with the classification system, and we’ve written at length about them in previous articles, here and here.

"The decision to mark a document is more art than science and leads to bureaucratic in-fighting on whether something should be classified or not," said Gary Bass, Bauman Foundation executive director and former director of OMB Watch, a government accountability organization.

Some emails turned over by Clinton and made public actually show Clinton’s team talking about how they can’t email each other classified information over the private server and instead have to move the conversation to a more appropriate venue. Clinton has said she viewed classified information in hard copy in her office. If she was traveling, she used other secure channels.

"The fact that no emails on her personal server were marked as classified suggests that she generally was doing her classified business on the secure government servers dedicated to that purpose," said Liza Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, in a prior interview with PolitiFact.

Clinton’s specific phrasing — that she never sent or received material "marked classified" — is likely a critical point for investigators, as it’s relevant to the question of Clinton’s intent and whether she knowingly mishandled material.

In that sense, Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said Clinton’s claim might not be misleading.

But it’s also true, Aftergood said, "that statement alone does not answer all possible questions about the matter."

Our ruling

Clinton said, "I never received nor sent any material that was marked classified."

One of the principles of PolitiFact is not only to judge the facts behind a claim, but to investigate whether a statement leaves a particular impression that may be misleading.

Clinton is focusing on a technical aspect of the government chain of classification, that information contained within her private email server wasn’t "marked" classified. There is no evidence Clinton knowingly sent or received classified information.

But the government classification system is complicated, and Clinton fails to acknowledge that classified information could have moved through her email server without a proper label. Part of the problem is Clinton's private server itself, because only she and her team know what was in the emails she deleted.

We rate her claim Half True.


NBC, "Hillary Clinton's First Interview After FBI Meeting," July 2, 2016

U.S. Code, 18 USC Section 1924 Unauthorized removal and retention of classified documents or material, Jan. 3, 2012

PolitiFact, "Four pressing questions about Hillary Clinton’s State Department email," July 29, 2015

PolitiFact, "Hillary Clinton's emails: classified or not?" Sept. 10, 2015

PolitiFact, "What we know about the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails," May 12, 2016

PolitiFact, "Fact-checking Hillary Clinton's claim that her email practices were 'allowed,’" May 31, 2016

AP, "More Clinton emails released, including some she deleted," June 22, 2016

Washington Post, "Clinton’s claims about receiving or sending ‘classified material’ on her private e-mail system," Aug. 27, 2015

Washington Post, "How did ‘top secret’ emails end up on Hillary Clinton’s server?" Feb. 4, 2016

Washington Post, "Officials: Scant evidence that Clinton had malicious intent in handling of emails," May 5, 2016

Washington Post, "New analysis shows 160 emails missing from Clinton’s disclosure to State," June 29, 2016

Washington Post, "FBI interviews Hillary Clinton for more than 3 hours in email probe," July 2, 2016

New York Times, "Unclassified Clinton Emails May Have Consequences for a Key Deputy," Feb. 26, 2016

New York Times, "Last Batch of Hillary Clinton’s Emails Is Released," Feb. 29, 2016

New York Times, "Use of Unclassified Email Systems Not Limited to Clinton," May 10, 2016

New York Times, "F.B.I. Interviews Hillary Clinton Over Private Email Server," July 2, 2016

Email interview, Clinton spokesman Josh Schwerin, July 3, 2016

Email interview, Bauman Foundation executive director Gary Bass, July 3, 2016

Email interview, Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at FAS, July 3, 2016

Phone interview, Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, July 3, 2016