Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice used private accounts for classified emails | Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton’s campaign claimed vindication in the long-running emails saga on Thursday when it emerged that two Republican secretaries of state had also received information later deemed classified on personal accounts.

The state department watchdog found that both Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, America’s top diplomats under president George W Bush, were sent sensitive national security information to nongovernment email addresses.

A spokesman for Clinton was quick to seize on the findings, arguing that they demonstrate “just how routine it is for government bureaucrats to go overboard” in keeping information secret from the public. Senior Democrat Harry Reid called it “a watershed moment”.

The findings come after nearly a year of controversy over Clinton’s decision to set up an unsecured private email server for her work as secretary of state. Thousands of the emails have been made public but it emerged last week that 22 have since been classified “top secret”. The Democratic presidential candidate has described it as a mistake but denied any wrongdoing.

Steve Linick, the inspector general for the state department, wrote in a memo that two emails sent to Powell and 10 emails sent to Rice’s staff contained classified national security information.

“None of the material was marked as classified, but the substance of the material and ‘Nodis’ (No Distribution) references in the body or subject lines of some of the documents suggested that the documents could be potentially sensitive,” Linick wrote in the memo obtained by NBC News and the Associated Press (AP).

In late December, he said, the state department told Linick’s office that 12 out of 19 documents under review “contain national security information classified at the Secret or Confidential levels based on a review by nine department bureaus and office”.

Powell rejected the inspector general’s findings and called for the emails to be released. He told NBC News: “I wish they would release them, so that a normal, air-breathing mammal would look at them and say, ‘What’s the issue?’”

The former secretary of state explained in a statement that they were forwarded messages that two American ambassadors sent to state department staff. “My executive assistant thought I should see them in a timely manner so sent them to my personal account,” he said.

He said that while the department now has said they are “confidential” – a low level of classification – both messages were unclassified at the time and there was no reason not to forward them to his personal account. “I have reviewed the messages and I do not see what makes them classified,” Powell added. “The ambassadors did not believe the contents were confidential at the time and they were sent as unclassified.”

Powell’s office said he was visited by two FBI agents in December for a general discussion about email practices during his time at the state department.

Georgia Godfrey, Rice’s chief of staff at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, said the former secretary of state did not use email while in the job nor have a personal email account. It was her understanding that the emails in question were sent to Rice’s assistant, “reporting diplomatic conversations and they contained no intelligence information”.

The memo was a gift for the Clinton campaign, which has been hammered by Republicans over the emails issue. Hillary for America chairman John Podesta said: “This announcement about Secretary Powell’s emails shows just how routine it is for government bureaucrats to go overboard when it comes to judging whether information is too sensitive for the public to see.

“Hillary Clinton agrees with her predecessor that his emails, like hers, are being inappropriately subjected to over-classification. She joins his call for these emails to be released so that the public can view the contents for itself.”

Senate minority leader Harry Reid of Nevada called the findings “a watershed moment”, adding: “If we’re to believe Republicans, we would have to criminally charge Secretary Rice, Secretary Powell, the senior staff and everyone else who received these emails.”

There was also support from Maryland Representative Elijah Cummings, senior Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, who expressed concern over an inconsistent approach.

“My concern has been that Republicans are spending millions of taxpayer dollars singling out Secretary Clinton because she is running for president often leaking inaccurate information while at the same time disregarding the actions of Republican secretaries of state,” he said.

The emails affair is unlikely to end any time soon, however. A fourth congressional committee is pressing for general information about the handling of government documents, use of personal emails and the response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests during her time at the State Department.

Republican Jason Chaffetz of Utah, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, sent a letter last month to Secretary of State John Kerry seeking information and documents, citing the panel’s jurisdiction over implementation of FOIA requests. His request included material from current and former secretaries of State.

John Kerry himself used a private account when he was a senator to send information now deemed classified to Clinton when she was secretary of state, department spokesman John Kirby has acknowledged.

On Thursday, Kirby declined to give details on the latest revelations. “What I can tell you is that we’re in receipt of a letter from the IG [inspector general] regarding sensitive information, and I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to comment more than that. We’re in receipt of it. We’ll respond accordingly, but beyond that, I can’t comment.”

Powell has previously said the state department was technologically backward when he joined in 2001 and that he had to fight to get an internet-connected computer installed in his office, from which he continued to use his personal email account.

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