More than four years after a squad of House Republicans led a charge against then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for her handling of sensitive diplomatic information, the State Department is once again under scrutiny for how diplomats use personal phones to conduct official business.
But some of those same House lawmakers are now on the opposite side of the controversy, playing defense for U.S. diplomats.
On Tuesday, lawmakers said that President Donald Trump’s top envoys for Ukraine and the European Union used personal phones and an encrypted messenger app as they conducted U.S. policy on Ukraine, a matter that was revealed during House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.
The most vocal defenders of the Trump administration’s actions include some of the most aggressive critics of Clinton’s handling of sensitive information, including Republican Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio, Mark Meadows of North Carolina and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who as a Kansas congressman had attacked Clinton by underscoring the solemn role of soldiers in defending U.S. secrets.
“We have soldiers today in the field, fighting to protect classified information from getting out … [risking] a lot of their lives to keep the information safe. And Secretary Clinton handled this in a very different way,” Pompeo told a television host in February 2016, adding that she had violated “multiple laws.”
On Tuesday, Meadows dismissed concerns about the communications of the two diplomats, Kurt Volker and Gordon Sondland, saying that their use of personal phones or encrypted apps was acceptable because they ultimately handed over their correspondence to the State Department.
“Based on what I’ve seen, I have no concerns,” he said in an interview.
The State Department has not responded to questions about the diplomats’ handling of information, but Pompeo has broadly defended his subordinates, saying “each of the actions that were undertaken by State Department officials was entirely appropriate.”
State Department officials are told to use government-issued phones when conducting official business so that those communications are secure and archived for posterity in compliance with the Federal Records Act and Foreign Affairs Manual. If diplomats send a work-related message on a private platform, they must make a copy of it and submit it for archiving “no later than 20 days after the original creation or transmission,” the manual says.
Despite those rules, the use of WhatsApp and other messaging services is fairly widespread at the State Department, and those who use them often fail to take screenshots of the communications and forward them on in official emails for the archives as instructed.
“Few, few people do that,” said one former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss compliance issues he witnessed.
“The irony is that Pompeo’s diplomats are using personal devices when he personally went ballistic on Hillary Clinton for that,” the official added.
Clinton employed a more elaborate workaround of State Department guidelines through her use of a private server, but some legal experts said the disparity in outrage in the two cases was telling.
” ‘Pot meet kettle’ doesn’t do the situation justice,” said Brad Moss, a Washington-based attorney who specializes in national security and classification cases.
Meadows said the charges of hypocrisy were not valid because Clinton was mishandling classified material. He said he trusted Volker’s testimony before House investigators last week in which the envoy purportedly said none of his communications were “classified.”
“A few of them were sensitive, in his opinion, but none from his professional opinion were classified,” Meadows said.
In 2016, the FBI found that at least 110 emails Clinton sent through a private server contained information that was classified at the time, but many of her pieces of correspondence were retroactively classified. That’s something some experts believe could happen with Volker’s correspondence, given that the contents included a potential meeting with a U.S. president and security assistance for a country in a military conflict with Russia.
“It is more likely than not that at least some of the information outlined in those messages will be designated as classified at some level, and those who slammed Secretary Clinton for passive receipt of unmarked emails that later were deemed to contain classified information will be presented with claims of hypocrisy if they now dismiss similar behavior merely because it was done by their political allies,” Moss said.
While Volker handed over his correspondence to House investigators last week, Sondland’s correspondence remains with the State Department. Sondland, who was a hotel magnate and Trump donor before becoming the president’s envoy to the European Union, appears to have played a significant role in trying to persuade Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden at Trump’s behest.
Sondland was scheduled to appear before House investigators Tuesday, but the State Department ordered him not to do so, a decision that Democrats led by Rep. Adam Schiff of California protested.
“Not only is the Congress being deprived of his testimony, and the American people are being deprived of his testimony today, but we are also aware that the ambassador has text messages or emails on a personal device which have been provided to the State Department,” Schiff told reporters Tuesday.
Pompeo, who led an aggressive campaign to extract documents and interviews from the State Department as a part of probe into the killing of a U.S. ambassador in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, also faced charges of hypocrisy last week when he accused House Democrats of trying to “intimidate, bully and treat improperly” State Department employees through interview requests.
Schiff is now accusing Pompeo of failing to live up to the level of transparency he demanded of the Obama administration, saying Sondland’s messages are “deeply relevant to this investigation and the impeachment inquiry.”
Republicans, led by Jordan, the top Republican on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, defended the State Department’s decision to delay the testimony and records disclosures.
“We fully understand why the administration made the decision they did,” said Jordan, who claimed that Schiff misrepresented Volker’s testimony and therefore could not be trusted with other such testimonies.
Meadows challenged Schiff to prove that Sondland used a personal device, although neither Sondland nor Volker denied the allegation.
Experts in both parties have said that ambiguity in the State Department’s rules and policies on the retention of various messaging applications have long been a problem. Kaylin Minton, a spokeswoman for the House Foreign Affairs Committee Republicans, noted that the State Department authorization bill, which passed the House this summer, “attempts to push the department toward adopting uniform guidelines on the issue.”
“We need to reform our protocols to keep pace with advancements in technology,” she said.