WASHINGTON — State Department staffers viewed Hillary Clinton's use of a personal email account as a symptom of a deeper divide — and distrust — between her tight inner circle and the professional bureaucracy she led, two former staffers told BuzzFeed News.
Clinton, who used her own "clintonemail.com" domain and never had a government email address during her time at State, has not answered questions this week about the account's security — or a more fundamental question: why she never used a State Department email in the first place. Some think the fact that she used the personal account, and went to extra lengths like setting up her own email server, is a symbol of mistrust between her and the career State Department officials.
"They never trusted anybody" at State, one former State Department official said of Clinton and her coterie. The former official said that everyone in the State Department press office at the time was familiar with the practice and found it "strange."
"There definitely was a small circle of insiders whose names you know, who played a ferocious sort of gatekeeper role, much more so than with the current guy and with the predecessor," said a current State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Even the most powerful FSOs in high positions had to go through less than a handful of gatekeepers."
But the officials also didn't quite agree on the specific concern behind Clinton's insular operation. A second former official suggested her circle circle was less worried about the staffers she worked with than with the technical staff who might have access to her email. The current State Department official, cast the divide between Clinton's inner circle and the rest of the department in less personal terms.
"There was a distrust of the inevitability of leaks, a distrust of people being loose with email, a distrust of FOIAs," the current official said, adding that that mistrust seemed misplaced because at the State Department "even people who were deeply disappointed with Syria and Ukraine policy are pretty sympathetic to the Democrats and have a lot of loyalty."
The current official said the email flap had left a "very unpleasant aftertaste" in the mouths of many diplomats, who "absolutely have to use work email both for transparency reasons and for internet security reasons and also because it's the professional thing to do in any professional setting."
In a statement, Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill dismissed the idea that the former secretary was insular or did not trust others in the department.
"Our relationships weren't based on domains, they were based on our intense respect for the work and those dedicating their lives to doing so," Merrill said. "This was a very inclusive secretary of state. It was something she worked hard at because she viewed it as critical. From building-wide town halls to breaking with protocol to hear from junior staff, she placed a high premium inclusivity, and was grateful for support from all levels of the department."
Virtually all federal agencies navigate a cultural divide between the politicians appointed to lead them and the career civil servants who make up the vast bulk of their staff. In Clinton's case, she imported an unusually large staff, battling the White House tooth and nail over mid-level appointments. Some of the aides Clinton brought to the department — notably Cheryl Mills, her chief of staff, as well as Philippe Reines and Huma Abedin — were longtime Clinton associates known for their loyalty to the family, rather than for foreign policy expertise. Some of them were even accorded a "special government employee" status in which they were allowed to both work for the State Department and have jobs in the private sector. This arrangement is under renewed scrutiny on Capitol Hill as a result of the emails revelation.
Some former aides downplayed the notion of an unusual rift between Clinton's inner circle and the rest of the agency.
"There's always some tension between political appointees and career officers, just like there is in any workplace where a bunch of new people showed up," said Alon Sachar, who served during Clinton's tenure as an adviser to the special envoy on Middle East peace and to the ambassador to Israel. "It's natural and it happened under Republicans and Democrats that I worked for. But in my experience, Secretary Clinton and those she appointed held career officials in the highest regard. They relied on us, were integrated with us, and considered us equals in the foreign policy team."
Jonathan Prince, who worked under Clinton at the State Department from 2009 to fall 2010 and was on the list of special government employees, dismissed as "garbage" the idea that Clinton's use of private email was intended to shut out career State Department officials in favor of political aides.
"Hillary emailed with senior [career] people," he said. "I was on the email chains with her sometimes, and two-thirds of the people on the email chains were career people. She probably emailed with a hundred people at the State Department."
One of the former career State Department officials also estimated that Clinton emailed with roughly 100 people within the department, because she would email directly with assistant secretaries of state and up. Last week in statements to reporters, a Clinton aide also used the figure, noting that "if [Clinton] emailed one of the 100 State Department officials she regularly corresponded with, State had it in their servers already and HRC's office replicated that to ensure it was all there."
"I had the email address," Prince said. "It wasn't like only Philippe and Huma and Cheryl emailing with her. All kinds of foreign service people had her email address. It never even occurred to me that it was weird."
Two of the former State Department officials said that use of personal email is fairly common in the State Department because employees can have trouble accessing government systems while on the road. "Sometimes when you're trying to work with certain documents or move things around it's easier on your personal laptop," one said.
But rank-and-file State employees also have an official address to conduct government business; Clinton did not. Clinton has not publicly said why she chose to set up her own email system, instead floating through allies that she may hold a press conference on the issue this week as the story mushrooms around her.
Regardless, if it was an attempt to seal off Clinton from unknowns at State, it was may have been a pointless one. One former administration official said that the distrust between Clinton might have been real, but that using a personal email wouldn't have insulated Clinton.
"That (distrust) may be true but I don't quite see how they're connected," the former official said. "Obviously within any agency there are people with political agendas that don't match yours, but I don't get how the email would protect Hillary or her inner circle from them. If she used a State.gov account, it's not like anyone in the Department would have access to it in any event."