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Former officials detail Obama administration email policies

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton checks her Blackberry upon her departure in a military C-17 plane from Malta bound for Tripoli, Libya, in this October 18, 2011, file photo.

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File

By relying exclusively on personal email to conduct official business, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton operated in a way contrary to the protocol White House officials and other cabinet agencies were told to follow, CBS News has learned.

According to former senior officials in the Obama administration, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the White House was routinely rigorous in ensuring that staff knew that any work-related correspondence on personal accounts had to be referred to their work address.

That meant, for example, that if agency officials were emailed about government business on their private accounts, they had to forward the email to their official White House email account or reply by including that address. Officials often walked around with two devices, for personal and work correspondence, and were put on notice that this was an oversight issue.

The same held true for at least two cabinet agencies. According to a former senior cabinet official, the agency had regular briefings, including meetings with the cabinet secretary and the general counsel about email protocol.

There was also a regular meeting every few months, specifically reminding employees about the email policies. They continuously cautioned that if officials, including the cabinet secretary, used personal email, they opened their personal email to any Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

According to another former official at different cabinet agency, it was conveyed to everyone -- from the secretary on down -- that if they didn't want their personal email subpoenaed or subject to FOIA, they shouldn't use it to conduct government business.

The White House gave individual ethics briefings to cabinet secretaries early in President Obama's first term, but a former official familiar with that process declined to discuss the contents of those briefings and whether email protocol was included.

The former official emphasized that there was no legal requirement for cabinet secretaries to conduct all email correspondence on an official account until the Federal Records Act was revised in 2014. Still, the former official underscored that everyone was put on notice that if they did official work, to make sure it was preserved for federal records.

Neither White House officials nor Hillary Clinton's aides have said whether she was given permission to set up her own system and use only her private email, but she fell into a different category than most cabinet officials. Given her history -- as Mr. Obama's chief rival for the Democratic nomination, a former senator and former first lady -- she came into the post with carve-outs and was given more leeway, allowing her to run a different operation than most of the other cabinet agencies.

Autonomy over personnel decisions was perhaps the most consequential. At the beginning of the Obama administration, former officials said Clinton was given, for the most part, full hiring control. As a result, she surrounded herself with a team of loyalists who developed their own rules and ran their own show, according to one former official.

There were exceptions -- Clinton wasn't able to bring in Sidney Blumenthal, a former aide to President Bill Clinton, and Denis McDonough repeatedly clashed with Clinton's aide Cheryl Mills. The former secretary fought to bring in Capricia Marshall, who became the State Department's chief of protocol and was eventually embraced by the Obama team.

Clinton also had standing weekly meetings with President Obama, as did former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. According to the officials who spoke with CBS News, Clinton could say no to requests in ways that others could not. For example, she refused to go on the Sunday news shows in the wake of the 2012 Benghazi attacks, leaving Susan Rice to fill the hot seat.

Like Clinton, Gates was also in a different tier of Mr. Obama's cabinet. A spokesman said the former defense secretary did not use email, either on a Department of Defense account or personal account, to conduct business. His personal email account was only used for personal correspondence.

The officials that CBS News spoke with said they were not familiar with the guidance within the State Department when it was being led by former Secretary Clinton and cautioned that she did not break the law. However, from their information it appears that at the least, she was operating under a different set of rules than other Obama administration agencies.

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    Julianna Goldman is a CBS News correspondent based in the Washington bureau.