WASHINGTON — The email painted a vivid picture of a fast-deteriorating situation in Libya's bloody civil war, complete with snipers shooting people, armed forces on the move and diplomatic personnel preparing to evacuate.
The message, dated April 10, 2011, was forwarded to "H," for Hillary Rodham Clinton, then the secretary of state. It came from one of her closest aides, Huma Abedin, who is now vice chairman of her presidential campaign.
And a U.S. government review of its seven paragraphs has led to an inquiry into how sensitive information got to personal email accounts used by Clinton and some of her top aides and housed on a server at her New York home, two officials with knowledge of the inquiry who asked for anonymity told Bloomberg News. The matter could form the basis for a criminal investigation into whether laws for handling classified material were broken.
The investigation, led by the FBI, comes after the inspector general for U.S. intelligence agencies determined that seven emails on Clinton's server, including the April 2011 one, contained classified information at the time they were sent. The State Department and intelligence agencies now are trying to determine if other material in the emails was classified when sent.
As the controversy has grown around Clinton's campaign, the question of how — and in what form — classified information may have been mishandled has moved front and center.
The Abedin-to-Clinton email gives a clue.
In this case, and the others known to be in dispute, it isn't necessarily a question of a Clinton staff member sending classified documents in whole, or large passages attached to emails. Abedin's email contains information from multiple sources, distilled into a digestible situation report sent to Clinton on a Sunday morning.
There are other examples that suggest Clinton aides drew upon a variety of classified information to produce updates of events in Libya and elsewhere and sent them via email, the officials familiar with the investigation, who weren't authorized to publicly discuss a current inquiry, told Bloomberg News.
Anybody who knowingly emailed classified material to Clinton or her top aides when she was secretary of state could face criminal prosecution, according to current and former U.S. national security officials. Those who inadvertently send or receive classified data could be prosecuted for gross negligence. Clinton, the leading Democratic presidential candidate, isn't a target of the investigation.
"There's a responsibility to safeguard classified information," Michael Hayden, former director of the National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency, said in a phone interview. Failing to protect such data "could get to a level of negligence that criminal penalties would kick in."
The Clinton campaign points out that the 2011 email, made public as part of a Republican-led House committee's inquiry into an attack on the U.S. mission at Benghazi, was labeled sensitive but unclassified. The inspector general, however, has concluded that some of the details were classified and shouldn't have been included.
The email illustrates the challenges that investigators now must sort through in determining what was classified, when it was sent, how was the data compiled and who sent it.
Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, told reporters on Aug. 12 that it's not always "black and white" what should be classified and what shouldn't.
There are several scenarios in which known classified material could have been improperly transferred, according to Hayden and one of the U.S. officials who asked for anonymity.
The most egregious way would be to knowingly strip classification markings from documents or other data, a move that would clearly be a criminal act.
A potentially more probable scenario is that those sending emails blended data from multiple sources that ultimately included or referenced some classified content.
"What you're probably talking about is someone typing a message based on multiple sources in their head," Hayden said.
Clinton faced a barrage of questions during a news conference on Aug. 18 in the Las Vegas area about the matter. When pressed about whether she wiped the server clean, Clinton replied, "What, like with a cloth or something?" She added, "I don't know how it works digitally at all."
Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton's communications director, said in an interview on Wednesday that Clinton "didn't really think it through" when setting up the server for convenience. Given the chance for a do-over, she would do it differently, Palmieri said.