Security experts say that if Hillary Rodham Clinton retained her government security clearance when she left the State Department, as is normal practice, it should be suspended now that it is known her unprotected private email server contained top secret material.
“Standard procedure is that when there is evidence of a security breach, the clearance of the individual is suspended in many, but not all, cases,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. William Boykin, who was deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence in the George W. Bush administration. “This rises to the level of requiring a suspension.”
A State Department official declined to comment on whether Mrs. Clinton still holds her clearance or whether it is under review by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, which awards and suspends security clearances.
“The department does not comment on individuals’ security clearance status,” the official said.
Mrs. Clinton is the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. A campaign spokesman did not reply to a query, but she did get a vote of support from a key congressional Democrat.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, said Thursday there is no evidence Mrs. Clinton herself sent classified information and that the emails now under scrutiny were not marked classified at the time she sent them.
She said, as someone who regularly handles classified material herself, the emails she’s seen don’t indicate that they were classified, suggesting that Mrs. Clinton wasn’t breaking any rules by handling that information on an email server she set up herself at her home in New York, rather than using the State Department’s regular system.
“Every official who writes classified material, whether in email or on paper, must mark the information as classified,” Mrs. Feinstein, California Democrat, said in a statement released by her congressional office. “They would also be required to use a separate classified email system to transmit the information. The emails identified did not contain these markings.”
Exiting senior Cabinet officials, such as Mrs. Clinton as a former secretary of state, typically take their clearances with them. The practice allows them to be called on to offer advice to their former department or to serve on boards and commissions that might handle classified data.
“I have no doubt she has retained her security clearance,” said a former senior intelligence official who worked in several different national security offices. “It’s almost automatic for somebody in that position for, as a courtesy, to retain full security clearances. And I think it should be suspended immediately until this is cleared up.”
This source said James R. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, has that authority.
The FBI is investigating the lengths to which classified information kept by Mrs. Clinton on a home email server, on which she exclusively conducted State business, was leaked to other parties.
Agents are acting on a referral from I. Charles McCullough III, the inspector general for the intelligence community. In a sampling of 40 of Mrs. Clinton’s 30,000 emails turned over to the State Department, he found four that contained classified data. He believes hundreds of additional emails also contain secrets.
On Tuesday, the scandal deepened, as Mr. McCullough sent a memo to the House and Senate intelligence committees that said two emails contained top secret information that was compartmentalized as Special Intelligence (SI) and Talent Keyhole (TK). The two codes mean that the material came from communications intercepts of a foreign target and also from military spy satellites. Such data are considered the crown jewels of intelligence, for which access is greatly restricted.
Intelligence officials are aghast it sat in Mrs. Clinton’s at-home server, susceptible to hacking by adversaries such as China and Russia.
“SI information is not just top secret,” said the former intelligence official, “it’s compartmented. It’s the highest level of classification you can get. It’s code word. It’s extremely sensitive.”
“You have a massive spill, a massive leak of classified information,” the former official said. “The responsibility for that server is on Hillary Clinton directly.”
Mrs. Clinton, and presumedly some aides, personally decided which of her emails she would turn over to State in December. The remainder, she has said, were wiped clean from her server.
State is releasing them in batches, once cleansed of classified information, in response to Freedom of Information lawsuits and a judge’s order.
“A reluctance to cooperate with getting to the bottom of it and clearing it up immediately, that is the reason her security clearance should be suspended immediately,” the former intelligence official said. “Anybody in her position who was resistant to cooperate to get it cleared up would have their clearance suspended.”
Earlier this week a former chairman of the House intelligence committee, former Rep. Pete Hoekstra, charged that Mrs. Clinton had to have known that the information she was emailing was classified, even if it wasn’t so marked at the time.
Bart Bechtel, a former CIA clandestine service officer, said he considers Mrs. Clinton’s security breach greater than that of retired Gen. David Petraeus. The former CIA director pled guilty to mishandling classified material.
“In my opinion, not only should she have any clearances rescinded, she should be prosecuted to a greater extent than Petraeus,” Mr. Bechtel said. “This blatant disregard for regulations and security is egregious. If she does not suffer severe consequences, it will demonstrate how corrupt the entire Obama administration is.”
A self-styled grass-roots group, Special Operations OPSEC, has written to Secretary of State John F. Kerry demanding he suspend any clearances for Mrs. Clinton and three former aides: Jake Sullivan, Cheryl Mills and Huma Abedin.
“We at OPSEC strongly believe that every email passing through the email@example.com server has been compromised and is now available in the raw intelligence data files of a number of hostile security services around the world,” said the letter, signed by Scott Taylor, the group’s president. “This is a serious breach of our nation’s diplomatic, operational and strategic security.”
Mr. Taylor is a former Navy SEAL and is a Republican member of the Virginia House of Delegates.
OPSEC says its mission is “focused on protecting U.S. Special Operations Forces and national intelligence assets and operatives from political exploitation and policies, and the misuse of classified information, that unnecessarily exposes them and their families to greater risk and reduces their effectiveness in keeping Americans safe.”
The group was highly critical of President Obama using the killing of Osama bin Laden by SEAL Team 6 as a re-election campaign theme.
• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.