Colin Powell told Clinton he bypassed official servers to email foreign leaders | Colin Powell

Colin Powell told Clinton he bypassed official servers to email foreign leaders | Colin Powell

Colin Powell told Hillary Clinton, his successor as secretary of state, that he used a personal computer to email foreign leaders “without going through State Department servers”, a seven-year-old email exchange reveals.

Powell dismissed some of the official security restrictions on him as “nonsense” and questioned why his personal digital assistant (PDA) was any more vulnerable to spies than a TV remote control or “something embedded in my shoe heel”.

The email correspondence was released on Wednesday by Representative Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House oversight committee, intending to show that Clinton’s handling of data was hardly less meticulous than previous secretaries of state. She was the only one to set up a private email server in her home, however, and has admitted this was a mistake.

The emails also offer a rare glimpse of relations between America’s top diplomats across party lines, evolving technology in an era when the BlackBerry was still king and the daily frustrations of a security detail.

Clinton and Powell were on first name terms. At 7.37am on Friday 23 January 2009, two days after she was sworn into office, she wrote flatteringly:

Dear Colin, I hope to catch up soon w you, but I have one pressing question which only you can answer!

What were the restrictions on your use of your blackberry? Did you use it in your personal office? I’ve been told that the DSS [Diplomatic Security Service] personnel knew you had one and used it but no one fesses up to knowing how you used it!

Barack Obama was the first president to own a BlackBerry at a time when celebrities such as Angelina Jolie, Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears made the hand-held device fashionable. He gave it up for a smartphone only this year, although his phone cannot text or play music for security reasons.

Clinton wrote to Powell: “President Obama has struck a blow for berry addicts like us. I just have to figure out how to bring along the State Dept. Any and all advice is welcome. All the best to you and Alma, Hillary.”

Skipping formalities, Powell replied that he did not have a BlackBerry but explained how he circumvented official channels:

What I did do was have a personal computer that was hooked up to a private phone line (sounds ancient.) So I could communicate with a wide range of friends directly without it going through the State Department servers. I even used it to do business with some foreign leaders and some of the senior folks in the Department on their personal email accounts. I did the same thing on the road in hotels.

Powell has previously admitted using a laptop on a private line and sending notes to ambassadors and foreign ministers via personal email, according to a report by the state department’s inspector general.

In the message to Clinton, Powell said the main issue for him was PDAs – once-popular devices that included Palm Pilots – that the DSS would not allow into secure spaces.

When I asked why not they gave me all kinds of nonsense about how they gave out signals and could be read by spies, etc. Same reason they tried to keep mobile phones out of the suite. I had numerous meetings with them.

We even opened one up for them to try to explain to me why it was more dangerous than say, a remote control for one of the many tvs in the suite. Or something embedded in my shoe heel. They never satisfied me and NSA/CIA wouldn’t back off. So, we just went about our business and stopped asking. I had an ancient version of a PDA and used it. In general, the suite was so sealed that it is hard to get signals in or out wirelessly.

Powell went on to offer Clinton a friendly warning first reported last week when the FBI released notes of its now closed investigation into her handling of sensitive information. “However, there is a real danger. If it is public that you have a BlackBerry and it it [sic] government and you are using it, government or not, to do business, it may become an official record and subject to the law … Be very careful. I got around it all by not saying much and not using systems that captured the data.”

Giving an insight into the routine frustrations of balancing security with convenience, Powell, who was secretary of state under George W Bush, added: “You will find DS driving you crazy if you let them. They had Maddy [possibly a reference to former secretary Madeleine Albright] tied up in knots. I refused to let them live in my house or build a place on my property. They found an empty garage half a block away.

“On weekends, I drove my beloved cars around town without them following me. I promised I would have a phone and not be gone more than an hour or two at Tysons or the hardware store. They hated it and asked me to sign a letter relieving them of responsibility if I got whacked while doing that. I gladly did.

“Spontaneity was my security. They wanted to have two to three guys follow me around the building all the time. I said if they were doing their job guarding the place, they didn’t need to follow me. I relented and let one guy follow me one full corridor behind just so they knew where I was if I was needed immediately. Their job is to keep you hermetically sealed up. Love, Colin.”

The email saga has continued to haunt Clinton’s presidential campaign even after the FBI concluded in July that she should not face criminal charges. She was quizzed about it closely during a “commander-in-chief” forum with military veterans on NBC News on Wednesday night.

Cummings said the 2009 exchange showed that Republicans were unfairly critical of Clinton and argued that Powell “advised Secretary Clinton with a detailed blueprint on how to skirt security rules and bypass requirements to preserve federal records, although Secretary Clinton has made clear that she did not rely on this advice”.

It “also illustrates the longstanding problem that no secretary of state ever used an official unclassified email account until the current secretary of state”, Cummings said.

The date of the Clinton-Powell email exchange raises questions over Powell’s recent denial of responsibility for providing her advice. “The truth is she was using it for a year before I sent her a memo telling her what I did,” he told the New York Post. “Her people have been trying to pin it on me.”

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