Did Hillary Clinton violate protocol by using burn bags?

Top Clinton aide Huma Abedin says that the former secretary of state more than once used burn bags to dispose of personal documents during her time at the State Department, despite an obligation not to destroy federal records.

Kevin Lamarque/AP/File
In this Oct. 18, 2011, file photo, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton checks her Blackberry from a desk inside a C-17 military plane upon her departure from Malta, in the Mediterranean Sea, bound for Tripoli, Libya. Questions have been raised as to whether Clinton improperly used burn bags to dispose of her daily schedules while secretary of state.

Huma Abedin, a top aide to presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, revealed in a deposition last week that her boss destroyed her schedule as secretary of state on more than one occasion.

Clinton faces multiple lawsuits seeking public records of the time she was at the helm of the US State Department. Although Abedin was deposed relating to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit looking into Clinton’s emails, Abedin's admission sheds light on a different matter related to Clinton’s schedules.

“If there was a schedule that was created that was her Secretary of State daily schedule, and a copy of that was then put in the burn bag, that ... that certainly happened on ... on more than one occasion,” Abedin told lawyers representing Judicial Watch, the conservative organization behind the emails lawsuit, according to the New York Post.

Clinton previously admitted to destroying "private personal emails" when she was secretary of state, but neither she nor anyone close to her had made any reference to destroying public records until Abedin’s reference to using burn bags, containers that hold sensitive or classified documents that will be destroyed.

A former State Department official told the Post he had never seen a diplomat destroy a daily schedule during his eight years in the department, because their schedules were made available to a variety of State Department employees and US officials.

“I’ve never seen anyone put their schedule in the burn bag – because every one of them had a state.gov email address and therefore their daily schedules became public records, as required by law,” Richard Grenell, former diplomat and US spokesman at the United Nations, told the Post.

Experts predict the circumstances surrounding the destroyed records will be intensely scrutinized. The Associated Press has been trying to obtain access to Clinton’s schedule and public and private calendars through Freedom of Information Acts from January 2009 to February 2013, and the wire service sued the State Department for the schedules in 2015.

Yet some have pointed out that any destruction of Clinton's schedules would not have been without precedent. It was standard protocol for the President George W. Bush’s staff to destroy his schedules, according to Brad Blakeman, a former scheduler for the president.

“The [president’s] schedule was not classified but it was deemed ‘highly sensitive.’ Instructions were given at the White House and on the road that schedules would be disposed of through the use of ‘burn bags’ and/or shredding,” Blakeman told the Post.

However, a decision by Clinton or her staff to use burn bags for her schedule would demonstrate “a skewed sense of security,” said Blakeman, since Clinton's staff disposed of the secretary’s schedule as if it were classified but did not take similar precautions with her emails.

Earlier in the Judicial Watch investigation into the former secretary of state’s private email server, Abedin expressed frustration that Clinton’s unconventional email practices interfered with her job, according to the Post.

In one case, an important message went to spam, meaning Clinton "wasn’t able to do her job, do what she needed to do," Abedin testified, explaining a November 2010 email exchange in which she recommended putting Clinton on a state email or releasing her email address to the department so her messages wouldn’t wind up in the spam folder. Clinton responded, agreeing her email setup was “not a good system,” and said she was considering “a separate advice” but wanted to avoid “any risk of the personal being accessible.”

Clinton was interviewed by FBI investigators on Saturday. On Monday, FBI director James B. Comey said that the former secretary of state and her staff had been "extremely careless" with emails, but that "no reasonable prosecutor" would seek charges against them. Late last week, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said that she would accept any recommendations from the FBI. 

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