One of the most serious potential breaches of national security identified so far by the intelligence community inside Hillary Rodham Clinton’s private emails involves the relaying of classified information concerning the movement of North Korean nuclear assets, which was obtained from spy satellites.
Multiple intelligence sources who spoke to The Washington Times, solely on the condition of anonymity, said concerns about the movement of the North Korean information through Mrs. Clinton’s unsecured server are twofold.
First, spy satellite information is frequently classified at the top-secret level and handled within a special compartment called Talent-Keyhole. This means it is one of the most sensitive forms of intelligence gathered by the U.S.
Second, the North Koreans have assembled a massive cyberhacking army under an elite military spy program known as Bureau 121, which is increasingly aggressive in targeting systems for hacking, especially vulnerable private systems. The North Koreans, for instance, have been blamed by the U.S. for the hack of Sony movie studios.
Allowing sensitive U.S. intelligence about North Korea to seep into a more insecure private email server has upset the intelligence community because it threatens to expose its methods and assets for gathering intelligence on the secretive communist nation.
“While everyone talks about the U.S. being aware of the high threat of hacking and foreign spying, there was a certain nonchalance at Mrs. Clinton’s State Department in protecting sensitive data that alarms the intel community,” one source familiar with the email review told The Times. “We’re supposed to be making it harder, not easier, for our enemies to intercept us.”
State Department spokesman Mark C. Toner told The Times on Tuesday evening he couldn’t discuss the email because of ongoing probes by the FBI and the inspector general community. “There are reviews and investigations under way on these matters generally so it would not be appropriate to comment at this time,” he said.
The email in question was initially flagged by the inspector general of the intelligence community in July as potentially containing information derived from highly classified satellite and mapping system of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. That email was later confirmed to contain classified information by Freedom of Information Act officials within the intelligence community.
The revelation, still under review by the FBI and intelligence analysts, has created the most heartburn to date about a lax email system inside the State Department that allowed official business and — in at least 188 emails reviewed so far — classified secrets to flow to Mrs. Clinton via an unsecured private email server hosted at her home in Chappaqua, New York.
The email does not appear to have been copied directly from the classified email system and crossed what is known as the “air gap” to nonclassified computers, the sources said.
Rather, the intelligence community believes a State Department employee received the information through classified channels and then summarized it when that employee got to a nonclassified State Department computer. The email chain went through Mrs. Clinton’s most senior aides and eventually to Mrs. Clinton’s personal email, the sources said.
The compromised information did not include maps or images, but rather information that could have been derived only from spy satellite intelligence.
It was not marked as classified, but whoever viewed the original source reports would have readily seen the markings and it should have been recognized clearly by a trained employee who received the information subsequently as sensitive, nonpublic information. Intelligence community professionals are trained to carry forward these markings and, if needed, request that the information be sanitized before being transmitted via non-secure means.
The discovery could affect the FBI investigation of Mrs. Clinton’s email, putting the originator of the email chain into legal jeopardy and allowing agents to pressure the employee to cooperate as they try to determine how classified information flowed so freely into Mrs. Clinton’s account and what senior officials knew about the lax system that allowed such transmissions.
As the investigation has advanced, the intelligence community has debunked many of Mrs. Clinton’s and the State Department’s original claims about the private email system.
For instance, the department initially claimed that it had no idea Mrs. Clinton was conducting government business on an insecure private email account.
But the intelligence community uncovered evidence early on that her private email account was used to coordinate sensitive overseas calls through the department’s operations center, which arranges communication on weekends and after hours on weekdays.
The coordination of secure communications on an insecure break with protocol would give foreign intelligence agencies an opportunity to learn about a call early, then target and intercept the call, U.S. officials told The Times.
The concern is in full display in emails that Mrs. Clinton originated and that the department has already released under the Freedom of Information Act.
“As soon as I’m off call now. Tell ops to set it up now,” Mrs. Clinton wrote from her personal email account on Oct. 3, 2009, to top State Department aide Huma Abedin on Oct. 3, 2009, seeking the department’s operations center to set up a high-level Saturday morning call with two assistant secretaries of state and a foreign ambassador.
The email thread even indicated where Mrs. Clinton wanted to receive the call, at her home, giving a potential intercept target.
Similarly, the very next day, Mrs. Clinton and Ms. Abedin coordinated another call over insecure email with her ambassador to Afghanistan, former Army Gen. Karl Eikenberry. The two clearly understood the potential sensitive nature of the Sunday morning call even as they discussed its coordination on an unprotected email system.
“OK. Does Eikenberry need to be secure?” Mrs. Clinton asked, referring to the need for a secure phone line to receive the call. State officials said Mrs. Clinton had a secure phone line installed at her home to facilitate such calls, which is common for Cabinet-level officials.
Mr. Toner, the State Department spokesman, told the daily press briefing on Tuesday he did not know who approved Mrs. Clinton having a private email server to conduct official business but that it was obvious from the emails now released that many people knew inside State, including some in high places.
“People understood that she had a private server,” he told reporters. “…You’ve seen from the emails. You have an understanding of people who were communicating with her, at what level they were communicating at.”