Although a few dozen of Hillary Clinton's publicly released work emails from her time as secretary of state are now stamped "Classified," the U.S. State Department, and Clinton herself, have maintained these classifications are new.
But the dates for declassification marked by the department on those emails raise questions about the assertion that none of the information should have been handled as classified when it first traversed Clinton's private, home email server.
The declassify dates suggest either that the department did not follow standard government classification regulations, or that it might believe that the information in at least 30 email threads reviewed by Reuters was in fact classified on the original day Clinton sent or received it.
Clinton, front-runner to be the Democratic nominee in next year's White House election, has repeatedly said she did not handle information on her private email account that was classified at the time. The State Department has stood behind its former boss, saying it has seen no proof to the contrary.
Current and former White House officials with responsibility for the government's classified information regime interviewed by Reuters were puzzled at how the declassification dates aligned with the State Department's public assertions.
"The State Department's blowing smoke here," J. William Leonard, a former director of the U.S. government's Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO), said in a telephone interview. "It's clear from the declassification date — that's their tacit acknowledgement this stuff was classified from day one."
The U.S. government prohibits the sending of classified information outside secure networks. Clinton's campaign has been dogged by allegations she may have mishandled sensitive information by using a private email address, run from a server in her home, as secretary of state.
Dates square with classification in 2009
According to a presidential executive order, a government official classifying something for the first time must pick a declassification date at least 10 years "from the date of the original decision," so long as there is no earlier moment when the information loses its sensitivity.
The State Department has made public about 3,500 of the 30,000 or so work emails Clinton handed over to the department late last year. It has redacted and stamped a few dozen of them as "Classified."
In the 30 such email threads examined by Reuters, which all date from 2009, the State Department says all the information was classified for the first time on either June 30 or July 30 this year.
However, the department has given declassification dates that correspond to the date the original email was sent, adding a standard classification period of between 10 and 25 years.
Several of them will be declassified in 2019, exactly 10 years after they were sent. If the department is following government rules, it appears that those emails should remain classified for 10 years from now, until at least the summer of 2025.
Asked whether the declassification dates indicated the department thought the information was classified all along, a State Department spokesman said this was not the case.
"This is incorrect," Alec Gerlach, the spokesman, wrote in an email. "The department's practice in this case is to link the declassify date to the original date of the email, however that has no bearing on its prior classification status."
He declined to explain how this squared with government regulations. Reuters could not rule out the possibility that the department was following the declassification regulations in an unusual way.
John Fitzpatrick, the White House's current ISOO director, said he found it "curious" that the State Department said the classifications were new if at the same time it was tying declassification dates to the emails' original send dates.
The best explanation, he said later, might be that these were not new classifications after all, and the department believed the information in those emails was really considered classified the very day Clinton sent or received it.
The Reuters review of the email threads also found that State Department's redaction markings indicate those messages are filled with a category of information the U.S. government presumes classified from the get-go.