A picture is emerging from multiple concurrent investigations into Hillary Clinton’s handling of sensitive national security information during her tenure as secretary of State. The picture is of a culture, fostered by the secretary, of lax security and inappropriate handling of classified information.
The intelligence community has now flagged 305 of Clinton’s emails for further review to determine if they contain classified information. Reuters, in its own review of emails already released to the public, claims that “dozens” of Clinton’s emails contained information that should have been classified.
And the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia ruled on Thursday that Clinton’s use of a personal email server to handle her unclassified correspondence violated government policy. The judge allowed the Federal Bureau of Investigation to expand its investigation to search for deleted emails on her server and thumb drives, and he ordered the State Department to review any deleted emails that are recovered.
Thus far, the investigations have focused on whether Clinton or her advisors violated U.S. law by mishandling classified information. It is increasingly clear that the answer is yes. However, it is likely that, in the end, only a very small number of emails will be found to have technically violated U.S. law.
It can be difficult to prove that information should have been classified, because you can often find an unclassified source to back up the classified fact you may have inadvertently disclosed, allowing you to claim that you were merely conveying someone else’s unclassified claim, not confirming a classified fact. “I’m not confirming that the U.S. runs a secret drone campaign; just commenting on what our policy should be if such a program hypothetically existed.” If so, Clinton and her aides are likely to get off with a slap on the wrist.
Hillary Clinton’s Culture of Lax Security
Legalities aside, however, it is clear that the Clinton State Department was extremely lax in its treatment of sensitive and classified information. I read a small selection of Clinton’s emails, which are gradually being made public by the State Department after review. They are available on the State Department’s website, but more easily searchable through the Wall Street Journal.
The State Department has redacted material from many of these emails. The very fact that the emails need redacting is proof that the information should have been handled more carefully, and probably should have been classified. For example, in March 2011 Huma Abedin, one of Clinton’s aides and, so far, the worst offender in the unfolding drama, sent a “status report on Chris Stevens mission to Benghazi.” The next sentence is redacted. The sentence may have contained specific details of the ambassador’s location and itinerary.
Such information about the planned movements of high-ranking U.S. officials is valuable for terrorists who could use it to plan an attack, and this sort of information is routinely classified. This is the sort of information that should not have been sent over an unclassified system, as evidenced by the State Department’s redaction of it (or of something similar).
Other examples of information I found in a cursory review of the emails that probably should have been classified include the following.
Hillary Clinton forwarded a message from Sidney Blumenthal in December 2012 on “Benghazi intel” sourced in part to “the highest levels of European Governments, and Western Intelligence and security services.” Others have raised questions about the ethics of Blumenthal’s consulting for Clinton. But equally worrisome is that Blumenthal felt comfortable relaying information from high-level intelligence officials over an unclassified system, and that Clinton felt comfortable forwarding it on.
Sandy Berger gave advice in 2009 about diplomatic negotiations with Pakistan on how to pressure them to crack down on militants. If Pakistani officials had access to this email, they would be better prepared to negotiate with Clinton and bargain for more U.S. aid while concealing their support for militants. Preserving the confidentiality of internal discussions helps strengthen U.S. officials’ hands in international diplomacy.
Abedin sent a “Behghazi Update” in 2011 with details about the internal machinations of the Libyan Transitional National Council and an assessment of the repercussions of the capture of Qadhafi’s family members. These are straightforward intelligence reports from the field.
It is troubling that Clinton and her advisors regularly sent such information over a private, non-governmental unclassified system. But it is equally worrying that the State Department continues to claim this information was unclassified. These emails contain information that could have damaged U.S. national security if disclosed at the time they were written—but the State Department persists in claiming they did not contain classified information.
While most commentators have complained about a culture of over-classification in the government, it appears that the State Department under Secretary Clinton had a pervasive culture of under-classification. That would explain why the intelligence community’s review of Clinton’s emails has found far more classified information than the State Department’s review did.
Classification Reforms Are Overdue
Today, a couple years after the emails were written, there is little danger in publicizing them—which suggests one possible reform to the classification system. While most commentators have called for reforms to mitigate over-classification, a better reform is for the U.S. government to shorten the time frame for automatic declassification review to a maximum of ten years.
Under current law (Executive Order 13526), classified information is supposed to be classified for ten years, after which it is automatically queued for review and, if disclosure is deemed non-harmful, public release. However, the author may choose to extend the classification to 25 years instead of ten. In my experience in government, we always did. Virtually all classified information is classified for 25 years, and then only selectively released with ample redactions and withholdings. The long waiting period slows down the work of historians, scholars, and journalists for no discernable gain.
Worse, the queue is getting longer and longer. The Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series, which publishes the internal deliberations of past administrations and is an invaluable source for historians, has been lagging behind its publication schedule. In theory, they are supposed to be able to publish documents from 25 years ago; in practice, they are still publishing documents from the Nixon and Ford administrations, 40 later.
If Clinton’s email scandal leads to reform of the declassification process, it will accomplish some good. We do not need to classify less information or classify it less stringently. Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks have made it nearly impossible to keep anything classified. If anything, we need stronger safeguards for classified information—and a better, faster process for declassification.