Exclusive: Hillary Clinton and Her Staff May Have Compromised Counterterrorism Ops With ‘Sloppy’ Communications

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Hillary Clinton speaks at the UFCW Union Local 324 in Buena Park, California, on May 25. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Updated | A retired senior State Department military adviser claims that Hillary Clinton’s “sloppy communications with her senior staff” when she was secretary of state may have compromised at least two counterterrorism operations.

Bill Johnson, who was the State Department’s political adviser to the special operations section of the U.S. Pacific Command, or PACOM, in 2010 and 2011, says secret plans to eliminate the leader of a Filipino Islamist separatist group and intercept Chinese-made weapons components being smuggled into Iraq were repeatedly foiled.

Johnson says he and his team eliminated the possibility of other security leaks before settling on the unprotected telephone calls of the secretary of state and her aides as the likely source—though he quickly adds they have “no proof.”  

“I had several missions that went inexplicably wrong, with the targets one step ahead of us,” Johnson tells Newsweek in an exclusive interview.

Clinton’s spokesman Nick Merrill calls the allegations "patently false."

Johnson's target in the Philippines was Umbra Jumdail, also known as Dr. Abu, the founder of the Muslim militant group Abu Sayyaf, which the State Department officially designated a terrorist organization in 1997. U.S. advisers were assisting Filipino military units.  

“We had good intel. We knew where he was,” says Johnson, who worked in U.S. Air Force special operations with Army Green Beret and Navy SEAL units for more than 25 years before joining the State Department in 1999. “He would be gone three hours before, sometimes as little as a half-hour before” the counterterrorism teams moved in. “We knew he was getting tipped off somehow. We just didn’t know why.”

They began to investigate. The U.S. team advising the Filipino forces swapped out one local counterterrorism unit it was working with for another in an effort to locate the source of the leaks, Johnson says. But Dr. Abu still managed to elude them. The reason, he believes: unsecure chatter between Washington and the U.S. Embassy in Manila.

“Anyone can just sit outside the embassy and listen,” with off-the-shelf eavesdropping devices, he says. “We suspected the leaks [came from] somewhere at State at the time.”

As a dramatic solution, the Special Operations Command stopped giving advance warning to senior State Department officials about raids, Johnson says. Whatever the cause, the leaks stopped. In February 2012, Dr. Abu and two other senior militants were eventually killed in what was described as “a U.S.-backed airstrike.”

Around the same time, a U.S. special operations unit was tracking agents from the United Arab Emirates, who were suspected of buying advanced remote-control bomb devices from China to use against U.S. troops in Iraq. Their main smuggling route led through Thailand. U.S. counterterrorism agents set a trap for them in Bangkok, Johnson says, but “word of it leaked.” He suspected the “sloppy” communication habits of Clinton and senior State Department staff were to blame, but again, he admits, “I had no proof.”

Johnson, who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and now supports Senator Bernie Sanders, says he had previously witnessed the lax communications habits of Clinton and her aides. In January 2010, Clinton was in Honolulu to give a speech on the administration’s “pivot” to Asia when news of the Haiti earthquake broke. She retreated to the secure communications facility in the basement of Pacific Command headquarters to make calls to various military officials and humanitarian groups to help organize a response to the catastrophe. But she also “needed to talk to her senior staff on Mahogany Row,” her seventh-floor executive suite back in Washington, Johnson recalls.

The only problem: She did not readily have any secure telephone numbers or email addresses for her staff members because they were all using personal servers and phones. Security had prevented her traveling aides from bringing their personal cellphones into PACOM headquarters. They appealed to Johnson for an exception, but he refused, citing alarms and lockdowns that would be automatically triggered by any attempt to bring unauthorized signal-emitting units into the building.

Clinton came up with a work-around, Johnson says. “She had her aides go out, retrieve their phones and call the seventh floor from outside”—on open, unsecure lines, he says.

“My relationship with that group started downhill when I refused to let them bring phones and computers into my office [at the Special Operations Command],” Johnson recalls. “It was really an eye-opener to watch them stand outside using nonsecure comms [communications] and then bring messages to the secretary so she could then conduct a secure [call] with the military” and the State Department.

State Department security officials warned Clinton’s senior aides about the risks of using unsecure devices right after they came into office in January 2009, according multiple media accounts and the department’s inspector general report, which was published on Tuesday. The security briefing would hardly have seemed necessary after decades of revelations that foreign intelligence services and hackers were breaking into U.S. government computer networks. But the State Department’s devices and systems were “so antiquated,” according to a former top official quoted in the report, “that NO ONE uses a State-issued laptop and even high officials routinely end up using their home email accounts to be able to get their work done quickly and effectively.”

So it was with Clinton and her staff. Plus, they were “dedicated [BlackBerry] addicts,” according to one of many such accounts in The Washington Post and elsewhere over the past year.  

Johnson says the email scandal dogging Clinton “could've been avoided if the CIA gave her a secure phone. She requested one,” he adds, “but they turned it down.”

A CIA spokesman said the agency could not immediately comment without studying the matter further.

The inspector general’s report does not have Clinton’s name in its title, but Tuesday’s headlines leave the impression it’s all about her. In fact, as the report notes in depth, her immediate predecessors and their staffs ignored the security rules too.

“For instance,” it says, “more than 90 department employees who served on the immediate staffs” of her immediate predecessors Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell "periodically used personal email accounts” to conduct official business. The report also fingered Jonathan Scott Gration, a former U.S. ambassador to Kenya, for using “non-Departmental systems on an exclusive basis for day-to-day operations.”

Powell, secretary of state during the first term of President George W. Bush, admitted to the inspector general “that he accessed [his personal] email account via his personal laptop computer in his office, while traveling, and at his residence, but not through a mobile device.” Rice, who succeeded Powell, “did not use either personal or Department email accounts for official business,” the inspector general reported. As for her staff, “only one acknowledged the use of personal email,” the report said.

Yet the use of personal email for government purposes seemed to explode in the second year of Clinton’s tenure when “more than 9,200 emails were sent within one week from [senior State Department executives] via “16 web-based email domains, including gmail.com, hotmail.com, and att.net,” the inspector general reported.

With more than six months to go until the presidential election, the FBI investigation into Clinton’s handling of classified material is continuing with no “external deadline,” according to FBI Director James Comey. He has, however, “acknowledged that there is pressure to wrap up the matter promptly and thoroughly,” The Washington Post reported.

For her part, Clinton has toggled between admitting she made “a mistake” with her handling of emails and insisting that “what I did was allowed. It was allowed by the State Department," she said last September. “The State Department has confirmed that.”

All of which disturbs Bill Johnson, now retired in Florida after nearly 40 years of military and State Department service.

“For the most part, my work with Secretary Clinton was spent working on common goals,” he says. “She once told me that when she spoke of ‘smart power,’ it was me she had in mind.”

Today, he says, “I wouldn't be so hard on her if she had simply admitted that what she did was wrong."

“But to insist she's done nothing wrong,” he adds, “is beyond the pale.”

This story has been updated to include a comment from Clinton's spokesman.