Just how risky and careless was Hillary’s email?

Will Saletan adds some much needed context:

As anyone who’s ever had a security clearance will tell you, the labels secret and confidential mean next to nothing. When I worked on Capitol Hill in the late 1970s, the government gave me a secret clearance on my first day of work, pending the investigation into my worthiness to hold a top secret badge. As far as anyone knew, I might have been a Soviet spy, carting out confidential and secret documents every night and making copies for my handler. But they also knew the risk was low because there was nothing in those documents that the Soviets would have paid a dime for. The same is true of our various adversaries and stuff marked secret today.

Top secret information is another matter, but the stuff that showed up in Clinton’s private email wasn’t so special. Seven of the eight email chains dealt with CIA drone strikes, which are classified top secret/special access program—unlike Defense Department drone strikes, which are unclassified. [emphases mine] The difference is that CIA drones hit targets in countries, like Pakistan and Yemen, where we are not officially at war; they are part of covert operations. (Defense Department drone strikes are in places where we are officially at war.) But these operations are covert mainly to provide cover for the Pakistani and Yemeni governments, so they don’t have to admit they’re cooperating with America. Everyone in the world knows about these strikes;nongovernment organizations, such as New America, tabulate them; newspapers around the world—including the New York Times, where some of the same reporters are now writing so breathlessly about Clinton’s careless handling of classified information—cover these strikes routinely.

The other top secret email chain described a conversation with the president of Malawi. Conversations with foreign leaders are inherently classified.

In other words, even if Russian, Chinese, Iranian, or Syrian spies had hacked into Clinton’s email servers, and if they’d pored through 60,000 emails and come across these eight chains that held top secret material, they would not have learned anything the slightest bit new or worthy of their efforts. The FBI’s discoveries should be viewed in that context.

Yes Hillary broke State Department rules (not the law).  Yes, this was stupid.  But a grave threat to America, it sure wasn’t.

I do think there’s a very real danger for Republicans overplaying their hand here and this just becoming another Benghazi(!)  When you are acting like Clinton gave true national security secrets to the Russians and Chinese (much like pretending that Hillary is somehow directly responsible for the death of the ambassador in Benghazi) this is just one more overblown partisan scandal.  Here’s Drum on the matter:

Politically, though, there’s something we can learn from this. Consider two “scandals.” The first is Benghazi. Hillary Clinton did nothing wrong. It was, essentially, a complete nothingburger. The second was Emailgate. In that one, Hillary unquestionably did things that were foolish at best and possibly criminal at worst. It was a genuine story.

But Republicans treated them both exactly the same. It didn’t matter whether Hillary actually did something wrong or not. They went after her with their usual Whitewater/Travelgate/Vince Foster level of fury, convinced that if only they yelled loudly enough the country would finally see her unmasked as the villain she really is. And they’re still doing it. James Comey has spoken, and no one reasonable thinks he’s on the take for the Clintons. But conservatives are almost unanimous in their shrieking that she is too guilty and ought to be put behind bars. Paul Ryan is now promising a probe of the probe, and idiotically calling for the director of national intelligence to “block” Hillary’s access to classified information while she’s running for president. The only surprise here is that he isn’t demanding that Hillary’s access to classified information be blocked even if she wins.

After eight years of Bill Clinton’s presidency and now four years of Hillary Clinton’s post-cabinet career, Republicans have been crying wolf about Hillary for more than a decade. It’s pretty obvious that they’re going to continue, and that they really don’t care whether she’s actually done anything wrong. I have a feeling the public may finally be getting tired of their games.

And here’s Drum on Republicans insisting on grilling Comey the next day:

I don’t know that this hearing will have any real effect one way or another. But there was no reason for Republicans to hold it other than inchoate rage at not getting the indictment they so desperately believed they were due. It accomplished nothing for their side, since Comey had already delivered a pretty blistering assessment of Hillary Clinton’s “carelessness” and was unlikely to go further in front of Congress. But it did give Democrats a chance to get Comey on record refuting several conservative talking points and conspiracy theories. That was dumb. But that’s what happens when you live in a bubble where Hillary Clinton is an obvious villain and it’s simply inconceivable that she did nothing illegal.

Oh, and last, I want to make the point that how we deal with classification is just a mess.  I had lunch with a couple of colleagues who work extensively with CIA and NSA and one of them said, “I assume if somebody is with classified information for more than 10 minutes, they have broken a law.”  There’s probably stuff in today’s NY Times that is somehow classified “Top Secret.”  Here’s law professor Stephen Vladeck on the matter:

But lest it get lost in the larger headlines coming out of Tuesday’s announcement, Comey also tacitly confirmed the larger point I tried to make back in February — that one of the real lessons to learn from this affair is the unchecked pervasiveness of overclassification by, and in, the contemporary United States executive branch. According to Comey, even though more than 2,100 of the e-mails at issue were subsequently deemed to contain classified information, only 113 were “born classified,” meaning that they referred to information that was properly classified at the time the e-mail was sent. That means that 95 percent of the e-mails deemed classified were only so assessed after the fact — by line-officers responding to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

That statistic is — and should be — staggering.

What it suggests is that government officials, tasked with reviewing documents the vast majority of which are completely innocuous (and often incorporate information in the public domain), are nevertheless trigger-happy when it comes to retroactively deeming such information to be classified. And it’s hard to blame them: Current law creates absolutely no disincentive for wrongful classification; the very worst thing that happens when a wrongful classification is discovered is that the wrongly classified document is — you guessed it — declassified. In those rare cases in which that happens, it comes years later, and often after significant expense. It thus hardly beggars belief that thousands of documents are incorrectly classified every year without being discovered, especially when, as in Clinton’s case, they are classified after the fact.

Anyway, I’ll reiterate that I just don’t think this hurts Hillary all that much.  I just don’t see too many people who would otherwise be voting for her deciding that this means they don’t.  Those supporting her were already doing so despite years of concerns– whether legitimate or not– about her honesty and trustworthiness.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

9 Responses to Just how risky and careless was Hillary’s email?

  1. rgbact says:

    I doubt Petraus or Scooter Libby’s leaks were a grave threat. But they both got charged.

    Is it possible for any issue to hurt Hillary in your mind? I don’t think so. Thats just how partisans think. Now Chris Christie and a bridge tieup…..I remember Democrats and even many Republicans breathlessly declaring that fatal. Voters care about bridges, not emails.

    • Steve Greene says:

      It really does depend upon what a politician does. A typical voter probably doesn’t really care all that much about whether all the rules are followed on classified, but non-critical information. Getting thousands of commuters stuck in traffic for hours for cheap political payback? That resonates. Hillary’s real problem– which has been seemingly under-covered– is that it is clear that she lied through her teeth about the server. In an “ordinary” election, that would really hurt.

      • Mika says:

        “…it is clear that she lied through her teeth about the server.”

        When I read this instantly to my head came the thought: “Does she really know what a server is?” Does it make me a partisan or a male chauvinist? 🙂

      • rgbact says:

        This week’s polls make me think the email thingy isn’t the nothingburger that many on the Left think. I suspect it gets some play at the RNC convention.

      • Steve Greene says:

        I think you are definitely seeing the impact of email in the polls right now. I also think that impact will be dramatically less next month.

  2. Jon K says:

    How they handled clearances 20 years ago doesn’t appear to be the way that they are handling them now. Sure if you have a completely clean record you will get an interim clearance, but I know of someone who had a 15 year old misdemeanor possession of marijuana case on his record and that was enough to deny him interim clearance and he is still waiting six weeks later to be cleared. They don’t just rubber stamp these things. He comes off as an idiot saying that.

  3. R, Jenrette says:

    Thanks for putting some context on the affair of the not so secret after all emails. As a hopeless, non-techie user of an email system designed to be easier for seniors, I can sympathize to some extent with the Secretary’s lack of internet knowledge at the time.

    Even so, the private server in the basement is a step way too far. The Secretary has recognized this and apologized for her admittedly poor judgement.
    The take-away is a concern that she may not have people around her that can say “What are you thinking?!”
    Remember that the ancient Roman tradition was to have a victory parade for a conquering general, who would be accompanied by a slave telling him continuously that he too will die, just to keep things in perspective.

    • Steve Greene says:

      Yep. It would be silly to not admit that Hillary Clinton has some very problematic/concerning traits in a presidential candidate. And I wish it were not so. Of course, compared to Donald Trump it’s like a light summer rain compared to a hurricane.

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