Newest email accusation: Hillary Clinton is not sophisticated

FBI Director James Comey testifying Thursday, July 7, 2016, before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
FBI Director James Comey testifying Thursday, July 7, 2016, before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. AP

The public trove of Hillary Clinton’s emails already had established that she’s not exactly a techie.

She didn’t know how LinkedIn works. She sought help in creating smiley-face emojis on a new BlackBerry. She fought with a fax machine. And she asked a senior aide to loan her a book called, “Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do it Better.”

To many, Clinton’s technological struggles as secretary of State sounded almost endearing, like granny getting on Facebook.

On Thursday, however, that inexpert grasp of technology took on a more serious tone, with FBI Director James Comey telling a congressional panel that, despite decades in posts with access to sensitive information, Clinton lacked sophistication in handling sensitive information and possibly didn’t even recognize basic “classified” markings on documents.

“I don’t think that our investigation established she was actually particularly sophisticated with respect to classified information and the levels and treatment,” Comey said.

Comey’s portrayal of the Democratic presidential candidate as unsophisticated on technical matters related to classified material visibly shocked some lawmakers – Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., muttered, “Good grief!” – and drew questions about the digital security savvy of a person with her sights set on the White House.

The revelations also taint the image Clinton has tried to craft as a modernizer who nudged the creaky State Department into an age of digital diplomacy and, later, as a presidential contender whose snarky tweets and Snapchat trolling of Republican rival Donald Trump showed off her campaign’s social media skills.

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform had called the emergency hearing to hear explanations from Comey about why he declined to recommend criminal charges despite FBI investigators finding that Clinton and her inner circle were at times “extremely careless” in transmitting classified information over a private computer server housed in Clinton’s basement.

A recurring theme in Comey’s nearly five hours of questioning – so long that he was forced to ask publicly for a bathroom break – was Clinton’s purported lack of understanding of the basics of how to safeguard state secrets. In you-gotta-be-kidding-me tones, Republican lawmakers asked Comey repeatedly how it was possible that an official who’d been First Lady, a senator and secretary of state didn’t know the basics of data security.

“A few minutes ago, you also stated that you now believe that Hillary Clinton is not nearly as sophisticated as people thought, is that correct?” asked Rep. Scott DesJarlais, a Tennessee Republican.

“Yeah, I think that’s fair,” Comey replied, before amending his answer. “No, not as people thought but as people would assume with that background.”

Rep. Rod Blum, an Iowa Republican, hammered on this point. He brought up a news conference last August where a reporter asked Clinton whether she’d “wiped” her email server clean before handing it over to FBI investigators. Clinton’s response, delivered with a laugh, was: “What? Like with a cloth or something? I don’t know how it works digitally at all.”

That led to this exchange at the hearing:

Blum: “Would you also assume, director, that Secretary Clinton knew that a server could be wiped clean electronically? That it could be hacked, electronically, not physically? You don’t need a cat burglar to hack a server. Would it be reasonable to assume she knows that?”

Comey, haltingly: “To some level it would be reasonable, to some level of understanding.”

Democrats on the oversight committee couldn’t launch much of a defense to Comey’s testimony that Clinton, for example, “didn’t understand” that a “C” in parentheses in an email thread denoted classified information, so they focused on other avenues of attack.

The Democrats accused GOP colleagues of wasting taxpayer dollars on a witch hunt, of turning on lifelong Republican Comey when he failed to return the finding they wanted, and of diverting FBI attention from more pressing issues such as recent officer-involved shootings of African Americans.

The Republicans, time and again, steered the hearing back to the question of whether it was reasonable that a presidential candidate who’d held several posts involving sensitive material should be so seemingly clueless when it came to data security.

Rep. Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican, repeatedly expressed disbelief that such a senior official wouldn’t have recognized a classified marking.

And sarcasm oozed from Blum, the Iowa Republican, whose questions intimated that he considered the notion far-fetched.

“This would be laughable,” Blum said, “if it wasn’t so serious.”

Anita Kumar contributed to this article.

Hannah Allam: 202-383-6186, @HannahAllam