Incompetence or Indifference? The Continuing Story of the Clinton Emails

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The Hillary Clinton email scandal continues, as more and more questions are raised about her handling ….

Oh, let’s get serious. No one who’s paying attention at this point can seriously think there hasn’t been some major skullduggery, jiggery-pokery, mopery, dopery, misfeasance, malfeasance, nonfeasance and straight-up downright criminality with the Clinton email server. The game now is watching the Clintons quibble about the meaning of “is” until they finally manipulate everyone into submission through pure boredom.

One of those running theatrical events is Hillary’s assertion that

"I did not email any classified material to anyone on my email," Clinton told a massive gathering of story-hungry reporters during a March 10 press conference at the United Nations headquarters in New York, shortly after the existence of her private email server was uncovered.

"There is no classified material," she said then, "so I’m certainly well-aware of the classification requirements and did not send classified material."

The emphasis is mine, and one would certainly hope that she is well-aware of the classification requirements, as she, as secretary of State, was the senior classification officer for the Department of State.

Of course, now her story is:

I am confident that I never sent nor received any information that was classified at the time it was sent and received.

The New York Times, in the most recent edit of their article on the potential criminal investigation for mishandling classified information, put Clinton’s defense this way:

It is not clear if any of the information in the emails was marked as classified by the State Department when Mrs. Clinton sent or received them.

The Times goes on to say:

In the course of the email review, State Department officials determined that some information in the messages should be retroactively classified. In the 3,000 pages that were released, for example, portions of two dozen emails were redacted because they were upgraded to “classified status.” But none of those were marked as classified at the time Mrs. Clinton handled them.

The thing is, I – like most everyone else in the intelligence community – have dealt with and even written classified documents, and pretty well the first rule you learn is that when you’re writing a document it’s your responsibility to see that it’s properly classified. Especially when you’re a classification officer under Executive Order 13526 that defines the classification system. (See Section 1.3)

Now, it’s not impossible that something will be reclassified upward after it’s first written. This especially shows up because of something called the “aggregation problem” – pieces of data that are, say, classified CONFIDENTIAL on their own may become SECRET if they’re together. I wrote about classification at length in one of the pieces on Ed Snowden, so I won’t repeat it here. Basically, though, you’ve heard people talk about the need to protect “sources and methods.” The point of aggregation is that a document talking about “sources” may not be super sensitive: pretty much everyone knows that the intelligence services listen to radio traffic. And pretty much everyone knows that NSA is good at decrypting encrypted traffic. But when you combine the two to say that Elbonian cellular radio calls are being intercepted and that you can decipher the Elbonian’s cellular traffic, then that gets pretty sensitive.

That said, though, the State Department’s guidelines are pretty specific. They say one should classify anything about

  • (A) Military Plans, Weapons Systems or Operations
  • (B) Foreign Government Information
  • (C) Intelligence Activities, Sources, Methods, Cryptology
  • (D) Foreign Relations and Confidential Human Sources.
  • (E) Scientific, Technological or Economic Matters
  • (F) Safeguarding Nuclear Materials or Facilities
  • (G) Vulnerabilities of Systems, Installations and Plans
  • (H) Weapons of Mass Destruction

I highlighted two of them in particular, because my first thought reading that list was that beyond yoga lessons, what does a secretary of State have to write about professionally besides those things?

The Daily Mail published some of the emails that were classified, after they were redacted and declassified. Sure enough, the parts that were classified were classified, usually, under section (B) or section (D).

Now, maybe I don’t have the high-level view, but how hard is it to see that discussions of Senator Jim Webb’s visit with Aung San Suu Kyi might fall under category B? Or that an email from the Jordanian minister of foreign affairs, Nasser S. Judeh, that was already made confidential by the Jordanians, would also be at least CONFIDENTIAL to us? It would require complete incompetence to not see that.

Honestly, I just don’t buy it. Anyone who had any intention of following classification rules would have known that these emails should be classified. They were completely indifferent to the rules the State Department itself laid down.

So, incompetence at following simple rules, or indifference to the rules that exist to protect national security? Which would we rather have running the country?