Commentary: The (likely) real story behind Colin Powell’s email advice to Hillary Clinton

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell blamed Hillary Clinton for “trying to pin” her email scandal on him.

Former U.S. Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright (from L), Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton join U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R) onstage for a ceremony before breaking ground on the U.S. Diplomacy Center museum at the State Department in Washington September 3, 2014. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Earlier last week, the New York Times, citing FBI notes from an interview with Hillary Clinton and an upcoming book, reported during a dinner conversation in 2009, Powell advised Clinton to use a personal email account as an efficient way to communicate. Powell says he has no recollection of the conversation, though he did write Clinton an email after she started using her private email server, describing his limited use of a personal AOL email account.

The media on this story missed the context, and simply played it as a he said-she said piece. Here’s the likely full story.

The Full Story

What was almost certainly in the email Powell sent Clinton was the story of his successful efforts to drag the State Department into the modern age. I worked for State during that period of time, and watched it happen.

When the rest of the world was working on PCs and using then-modern software in their offices, State clung to an old, clunky mainframe system made by the now-defunct company WANG. WANG’s version of a word processor was only a basic text editor with no font or formatting tools. Spell check was an option many locations did not have installed. IBM had bid on a contract to move State to PCs in 1990, but was rejected in favor of a renewal of the WANG mainframes.

WANG email, itself seen inside State Department as a major innovation when launched in 1991 (dates are approximate, as upgrades took place globally on a rolling basis), worked only inside the Department until around 1995 or so, when it could finally be used to send and receive outside email via a cumbersome workaround. Until then, State could not communicate by email with any other government agency, never mind a public rapidly moving online.

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Until Powell demanded the change, internet at State was limited to stand-alone, dial up access that had to be procured locally. Offices had, if they were lucky, one stand alone PC off in the corner connected to a noisy modem. If you wanted to use it, you needed in most cases to stand in line and wait your turn.

Leading By Example

Powell, coming out of the military where information is seen as a force multiplier, did what he had always done, lead by example. He demanded desktop internet and email for himself, and told everyone about it. He then demanded the same for ambassadors overseas.

When the sky did not fall via these “tests,” he used his full powers as Secretary of State to overcome multiple bureaucratic obstacles and implement desktop internet for State worldwide. It was a massive game changer. I remember receiving internal staff-wide messages from Powell, saying that he checks his email and the news online when he enters the office, even before his paper memo stack, and we should, too!

Without Powell, the arrival of modern communications at State would have been delayed for years.

So What Did Powell Tell Clinton About Email?

Despite Clinton’s claim that Colin Powell “told her” to use commercial email for her government business, it is very unlikely that is what he said.

The way I see it, there’s about a 99.9 percent probability that he discussed his signature accomplishment at State with her, and cited his own limited, almost experimental, use of an AOL email account, as an example of how to break down the technical, security, bureaucratic, and cultural barriers that still plague the State Department today.

After all, if the boss does it, so will the staff. In Powell’s case, that was a positive example. What example did Clinton set?

(Disclosure: Following the publication – during Clinton’s time as secretary of state – of my book critical of the State Department’s role in the Iraq War, the department unsuccessfully carried out termination proceedings against me. Instead, I retired voluntarily.)

About the Author

Peter Van Buren, who served in the State Department for 24 years, is the author of "We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People,” a look at the waste and mismanagement of the Iraqi reconstruction. His latest book is "Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent." @WeMeantWell

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.