As secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton never had to worry about a permanent government watchdog peering over her shoulder.
But the State Department’s first Senate-confirmed inspector general in five years, who came into office six months after Mrs. Clinton exited, is showing that he is not afraid to criticize the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination ex post facto.
Inspector General Steve Linick, the new sheriff at Foggy Bottom, also has taken on one of Mrs. Clinton’s closest aides, Huma Abedin, in a pay dispute.
In the process, the new IG has paved the way for a nasty turf battle between the intelligence community and the State bureaucracy: The two have squabbled over who controls the review of Mrs. Clinton’s stash of 30,000 privately maintained emails, some of which hold the nation’s secrets.
Mr. Linick, a career federal prosecutor and former IG at a federal housing agency, took over in 2013 from Acting Inspector General Harold Geisel, who was not Senate-confirmed and remained in place during Mrs. Clinton’s entire tenure.
A longtime Foreign Service officer and former ambassador in President Bill Clinton’s administration, Mr. Geisel maintained links to State’s upper echelon — a relationship that stirred criticism from a nonprofit watchdog, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO).
“A confirmed IG is usually in a better position to expose and correct the most challenging — and, at times, controversial — problems that confront his agency,” said Michael Smallberg, a POGO investigator. “Unlike an acting watchdog, a confirmed IG can’t be easily replaced, and doesn’t need to audition with agency leaders for the permanent role. The mere perception that an acting IG is too cozy with agency leaders can greatly damage the office’s credibility in the eyes of whistleblowers, Congress and other important stakeholders.”
Mr. Linick arrived with no State Department credentials, just a resume of conducting criminal investigations.
Last month, he was less than diplomatic when he issued his first public statements on the email scandal swirling around Mrs. Clinton. His counterpart IG for the intelligence community concluded that, contrary to Mrs. Clinton’s previous statements, she did maintain classified information on an unsecured private server at her home in Chappaqua, New York.
“These emails were not retroactively classified by the State Department,” Mr. Linick said in a public statement cosigned by intelligence community IG I. Charles McCullough III. “Rather, these emails contained classified information when they were generated and, according to IC classification officials, that information remains classified today. This classified information should never have been transmitted via an unclassified personal system.”
It was a clear rebuke of Mrs. Clinton’s practices, essentially accusing the nation’s former top diplomat of being careless in handling of government secrets.
The July 24 public statement followed weeks of internal bickering in memos Mr. Linick chose to post online, as if to underscore his independence.
There was a power struggle between one of Mrs. Clinton’s top aides at State, Patrick Kennedy, the undersecretary for management, and Mr. McCullough, who, like Mr. Linick, is a career government investigator. Mr. McCullough wanted a bigger hand in processing the Clinton emails. Mr. Kennedy said he did not need much help.
It was Mr. Linick who invited Mr. McCullough directly into the process of reviewing Mrs. Clinton’s 33,000 emails at the State Department’s Freedom of Information Office. The invitation ultimately created a headache for State bureaucrats and Mrs. Clinton’s campaign team.
That review allowed Mr. McCullough to look at a small sample of emails, which prompted him to send a referral to the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division. It is now investigating Mrs. Clinton’s handling of classified information and the lengths to which the secrets were passed among her Internet recipients.
The CLASSNET system
The Kennedy vs. McCullough chronology began with a June 15 letter from the intelligence community IG to Mr. Linick.
“Thank you for reaching out to my office to assist you in your current review,” Mr. McCullough wrote to Mr. Linick. “My team has briefed your team members on these developments and will continue to refer findings and recommendations as the review progresses.”
The alliance brought immediate fireworks, as Mr. McCullough began chastising State for how it was conducting the Clinton review. In a memo, he criticized State for having Foreign Service officers, instead of trained intelligence officials, review her emails for classified material. He also said State should broaden the operation by bringing in the Justice Department on the examinations since it was defending against Freedom of Information Act lawsuits.
Mr. Kennedy, a longtime State hand, bristled at the intervention.
He fired off a June 25 letter to Mr. McCullough rejecting most of his proposals.
“The Department finds the issues raised by the ICIG are either already addressed in current processes or are inconsistent with interagency practices,” he said, adding that the IG’s ideas “make it more difficult to meet the U.S. District Court order for rolling productions without meaningfully enchanting review process.”
On the eve of the first major release of Clinton emails on July 1, Mr. Linick sounded the alarm in a memo to Mr. Kennedy. Mr. Linick said his staff had discovered “hundreds of potentially classified emails within the collection” and urged Mr. Kennedy to adopt Mr. McCullough’s recommendations.
On July 14, Mr. Kennedy sent another sharply worded memo to Mr. McCullough, rejecting his recommendation that the Clinton emails be stored in a more secure computer network other than a system called CLASSNET. It stops short of transmitting and storing “top secret” material, which Mrs. Clinton is suspected of keeping on her unsecured server.
“As we explained,” Mr. Kennedy wrote, “CLASSNET is a secure, classified intranet system. Should any of the documents in the FOIA review be upgraded to a higher classification than SECRET, they would be moved off CLASSNET.”
Mr. McCullough responded, “Given that it is more likely than not that information classified higher than SECRET is present in this collection, it is prudent to seek an alternative to the CLASSNET system.”
As to Mr. McCullough’s urging State to bring the Justice Department into the review, Mr. Kennedy answered, “As noted previously, department attorneys consult regularly with” Justice.
Mr. McCullough disclosed another sticking point in a July 23 memo to the heads of Congress’ two intelligence oversight committees. He said State had refused his request to provide his staff copies of Mrs. Clinton’s 30,000 emails “on jurisdictional grounds.”
The IG said he wanted possession “so that we could perform sampling and render an independent determination of the sufficiency of the internal controls.”
Aide’s employment problem
The back and forth culminated on July 24 with a public disclosure that Mr. McCullough had sought the FBI investigation.
It prompted Mr. McCullough and Mr. Linick to issue a signed joint statement in which they pointedly said secrets should never have been stored in Mrs. Clinton’s private server and that the material was classified at the time it was in Mrs. Clinton’s possession.
Mr. Linick also has shown a willingness to investigate the employment arrangement of Huma Abedin, one of Mrs. Clinton’s closest confidantes.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, has questioned the arrangement whereby Ms. Abedin worked at State in the Special Government Employee Program while also holding a job at the political consulting firm Teneo Holdings and while working at the Clinton Foundation. The Iowa Republican senator has called this a conflict of interest.
In a July 30 letter to Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Mr. Grassley accused Ms. Abedin of “potential criminal conduct” by collecting $33,000 from State for unused vacation time for which she was not entitled. Ms. Abedin’s timesheets, kept by Mrs. Clinton’s inner circle, showed she worked a full schedule when in fact she was on vacation in Europe, Mr. Grassley said.
Mr. Linick’s office ruled she was not entitled to about $10,000 in taxpayer money. Her attorney has filed a rebuttal justifying the payments, according to The Washington Post.
The IG said in a letter to Mr. Grassley that he is investigating State’s use of special government employees such as Ms. Abedin to see if it is following the law.
Mrs. Clinton’s role in President Obama’s decision not to nominate a permanent IG during her tenure is unclear. In June 2013, Mr. Obama nominated Mr. Linick, who was confirmed the following September.
Last March, when the House special committee investigating Benghazi let it be known that Mrs. Clinton conducted State business exclusively on her home email server, the Project on Government Oversight issued a statement asking why the then-acting inspector general never unearthed the unusual arrangement.
“So where was the State Department’s internal watchdog while Clinton conducted official business through private email housed on a server in her New York home?” wrote David Hilzenrath, POGO’s editor in chief. “The short answer is that, for the four years Clinton served as Secretary, there was no IG at State. The post was left in the hands of a temporary Inspector General — a longtime member of the same diplomatic corps he was responsible for overseeing.”