WASHINGTON — The State Department has discovered a dozen emails containing classified information that were sent to the personal email accounts of Colin Powell and close aides of Condoleezza Rice during their tenures as secretaries of state for President George W. Bush.
Two emails were sent to Powell's personal account, and 10 to personal accounts of Rice's senior aides. Those emails have now been classified as "confidential" or "secret" as part of a review process that has resulted in similar "upgrades" of information sent through the personal email server that Hillary Clinton used while she was secretary of state from 2009 to 2013. The State Department did not say who sent the emails to Powell or to Rice's aides.
It is against the law to have classified information outside a secure government account.
Of the nearly 30,000 emails from Clinton's server that have been released by the State Department under a court order, 18 emails sent to or from her have also been classified as secret, while 1,564 others have been classified at the lower level of "confidential."
Last week, the State Department said 22 emails had now been classified as "top secret" and would not be released with part or all of their contents redacted, or blacked out. A review of 3,700 more emails by the department and intelligence agencies continues.
The designation of emails by two other secretaries of state underscored how discussions of sensitive issues of the nation's diplomacy have sometimes been conducted on email accounts outside the department's computer networks. Clinton's campaign team has cited the use of personal email by other secretaries of state to suggest that the controversy about her email server has been exaggerated for partisan reasons during the 2016 presidential campaign.
The State Department's inspector general, Steve A. Linick, wrote in a letter Wednesday that a review of communications with four other secretaries of state had uncovered the 12 emails and that they should be removed from the department's archives. Even though the emails were not marked classified at the time, Linick said the information in the emails should have been recognized as secret or confidential because of the subjects and annotations cautioning against distributing the emails widely.
Linick wrote to the undersecretary of state for management, Patrick Kennedy, "the substance of the material and 'NODIS' (No Distribution) references in the body or subject lines of some of the documents suggested that the documents could be potentially sensitive."
Powell, in a telephone interview, strongly disputed the department's designation, saying he had reviewed the two emails with the inspector general's office and responded incredulously, "What are you talking about?" The emails, he said, were sent by two career ambassadors and forwarded to him by his executive assistant, something he encouraged for important or urgent matters.
One involved a kidnapping in the Philippines, the other general views on the situation in the Middle East. Both, he said, were now considered "confidential."
"That is an absurdity," he said. If two seasoned diplomats could not discuss their views with the secretary in unclassified emails, he said, "we might as well shut the department down."
Rice, now at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, was not available to comment, but her chief of staff, Georgia Godfrey, said she did not use email or have a personal email account while secretary. She noted that the inspector general said the email in question involved "diplomatic conversations" sent to her assistants and contained "no intelligence information."
The existence of the memo was first reported by NBC News. The New York Times later obtained a copy. It was marked "not for distribution" and was intended to give the State Department 10 days to respond to the recommendations Linick made about handling the newly classified emails and the archives of the secretaries, who also include Madeleine Albright and John Kerry.
The premature disclosure appeared to reflect escalating tension between two inspectors general leading the investigation into Clinton's emails — as well as between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, issued a statement accusing Republicans of running a "multimillion-dollar political sideshow aimed at derailing Secretary Clinton's presidential campaign."
"The truth couldn't be plainer: The private-email problem is not a Hillary Clinton problem. It's a governmentwide problem that's existed since the advent of email itself," the statement read.
A cover letter accompanying the State Department inspector general's memo, distributed widely on Capitol Hill on Wednesday night, expressed irritation that some lawmakers had been briefed about the memo's contents even though it was not completed and the State Department had not been given enough opportunity to respond to it.