WASHINGTON— Hillary Clinton’s campaign said Wednesday that emails on the private server she used when she was secretary of state contained material that is now classified, the clearest explanation thus far of an issue that has roiled her bid for the presidency.
At the same time, the campaign sought to play down the disclosure by saying the material had been retroactively classified out of an abundance of caution by U.S. intelligence agencies.
“She was at worst a passive recipient of unwitting information that subsequently became deemed as classified,” said Brian Fallon, a spokesman for Mrs. Clinton’s campaign.
Mrs. Clinton has been criticized for using a private email server when she was in office. Since 2013, the server was maintained by a small Denver company and stored at a secure data center in New Jersey until it was turned over to the FBI last week. Her use of the server has prompted an FBI counterintelligence investigation.
Republicans portrayed the Clinton campaign’s disclosure as a tacit admission that her previous statements about the partisan direction of the investigation were in error. Earlier this year, Mrs. Clinton said “there is no classified material,” before shifting her emphasis to say she didn’t receive any materials marked as classified.
“Secretary Clinton has repeatedly made false claims about her email records, and her charge that these investigations are partisan have been widely ridiculed. If she and her campaign are having a change of heart, she should personally admit the truth and retract her false statements,” said Kevin Smith, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner.
The campaign’s latest statements add to the emerging picture of how Mrs. Clinton handled email stored on the private server between 2009 and 2013.
The firm hired to handle the server in June 2013 after Mrs. Clinton left office was a 40-person company in Denver more accustomed to handling tech chores such as network monitoring and cybersecurity for banks, law firms and construction companies. The company’s Facebook page features photos of its sales team dressed as nurses and patients inspired by the 1975 film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Platte River Networks didn’t know about any classified material on the server, a spokesman, Andy Boian, said Wednesday.
Mr. Boian said the Clinton server was picked up at the Clintons’ home in New York and moved to a “secure data center in New Jersey,” where it operated until last week. He said the computer was operational when Platte River took possession of it. “It was an email server,” he said, “That’s what they used it for.”
Pointing to two emails that helped spark the FBI probe, the Clinton campaign said State Department officials considered the material unclassified at the time it was sent. The controversy, said Mr. Fallon, amounts to a dispute between different agencies within the Obama administration about what constitutes classified material and what should be released publicly.
Here are two emails sent to Hillary Clinton that helped spark the FBI probe, as reported by Fox News.
“When it comes to classified information, the standards are not at all black and white,” said Mr. Fallon on a conference call with reporters.
The two emails in question were written by lower-ranking State Department officials and forwarded to Mrs. Clinton by top aides Jake Sullivan and Huma Abedin, who both now work for her Democratic presidential campaign.
An inspector general for the intelligence community said earlier this year he found four emails containing material that were classified at the time they were written.
Fox News on Wednesday identified two of them as being emails that already have been released publicly as part of an investigation into the death of the U.S. ambassador in Benghazi, Libya. Both the State Department and the Clinton campaign say neither was classified at the time they were sent to Mrs. Clinton.
Mrs. Clinton has long said her use of a personal email server for government business was legal. She also has said she didn’t send anything deemed classified. State Department rules discouraged private email use for unclassified email but didn’t forbid it.
Critics say her server may have been vulnerable to hacking and that her arrangement gave her and her attorneys the power to determine what material was turned over to the government and what was destroyed. She has said the use of a private server was unwise in hindsight and that she should have used government email. “I take responsibility,” she said Tuesday at a news conference in Las Vegas. “In retrospect, this didn’t turn out to be convenient at all, and I regret that this has become such a cause célèbre.”
It still isn’t clear why Mrs. Clinton chose Platte River to manage the server. Mr. Boian said Platte River had submitted a proposal for the work and won the contract.
Before service providers are authorized to handle classified material, they must undergo a “long formal procedure” to ensure that they have the security measures in place to prevent unauthorized access to the data, said John Pescatore, a former National Security Agency employee who is now a director at the SANS Institute, a computer-security training organization.
Former employees described Platte River as a tightknit company, but an unlikely home for the correspondence of a former secretary of state. The company was formed in 2002 by Treve Suazo, Brent Allshouse and Tom Welch, who had met at another Denver technology firm. Mr. Welch is no longer with the firm.
“Platte River Networks is not under investigation,” Mr. Boian said.
Platte River specializes in handling information-technology services for Denver-area companies. Until they were removed from the company’s website, the company listed a local construction company, bank and law firm as reference customers.
Platte River handled computer services for Denver Transit Partners LLC, the organization building a 35-mile commuter-rail line in Denver, according to Denver Transit Partners spokeswoman Laura Rinker.
Until this week, the Web page listing the company’s top executives featured photos of their vehicles instead of the standard corporate headshot. Mr. Suazo, the CEO, sported a 2014 BMW 535; Mr. Allshouse, the chief financial officer, the Sierra 2500HD pickup.
Now that they have possession of the server, federal investigators may be in a position to examine even contents that were deleted. Even deleted messages can be recovered from the server’s hard drive, using forensic technology, unless someone took deliberate steps to overwrite free space on the computer’s hard drive.
Mrs. Clinton’s personal attorney said in a letter to Congress that as of March no work emails were left on the server.
In addition to the FBI probe, Mrs. Clinton’s use of a personal email server has prompted a number of lawsuits.
On Thursday, a federal judge will hear from lawyers in one such case, filed by conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, which contends the U.S. government hasn’t made a good-faith effort to find correspondence involving Mrs. Clinton and her senior staff.
As part of that suit, the State Department told the court Wednesday it couldn’t locate BlackBerry smartphones or other electronic devices for Mrs. Clinton’s former aides. The devices were likely “destroyed or excessed” in accordance with Department procedures, said State Executive Secretary Joseph Macmanus in a court declaration.