In the ever more astounding Clinton email striptease, which has now hooked up with the Anthony Weiner sexting scandal, a player who deserves a lot more mention than he’s been getting is President Barack Obama. True, it was Hillary Clinton, not Obama, who squirreled away State Department business on a private server, and then brought us the contortionist performance of denials, deletions, evasions and professed ignorance that “(C)” on a State Department document stands for “classified.”* It is Clinton’s longtime top aide, Huma Abedin, who has some explaining to do about how emails pertinent to the Clinton server saga arrived on the computer of her now-estranged husband, Weiner, who is currently under FBI investigation for allegedly sending sexually suggestive messages to a teenage girl.
But it is Obama who presides over the administration whence came this mudslide of wayward emails, classified information, pay-for-play opportunities and a Justice Department that has itself become part of the scandal. And it is at the president’s desk that the buck — or the mudslide — is supposed to stop.
It was Obama who tapped Hillary to be secretary of State. It was Obama’s administration that apparently shrugged off at the time Clinton’s extensive use of a private server (though Obama himself was among those who corresponded with her on her private account). It was Obama’s administration that allowed Hillary and Bill Clinton to spin the tangled web of connections between the State Department and the Clinton Foundation.
It is Obama who presides over an administration that failed to police a setup in which — as FBI Director James B. Comey finally told the press this July — Clinton or her colleagues “were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.” As we now know, Clinton used her personal domain extensively while traveling abroad, and according to Comey, the FBI assesses “it is possible that hostile actors gained access.”
On all these fronts, the Clinton email saga is yet another of Obama’s legacies, along with the unaffordable Affordable Care Act, and an Iran nuclear deal that paves Iran’s way to the bomb. And what, precisely, does this Clinton-email legacy help to enshrine in America’s political culture? There are plenty of big things in play here: a self-interested disregard at high levels for matters of national security; the reek of crony favors; the subordination of rule of law to an amorphous official narrative, with corrosive effects on the American system of justice.
But if we look for a bottom line, it’s a code ruinous to the foundations of the American republic, and neatly summed up by George Orwell more than 70 years ago, toward the end of Animal Farm: “Some animals are more equal than others.”
Take, as one of the most glaring aspects of this tale, the administration’s approach to the handling of classified information. Let us specify that even in a free society, there is some information that for reasons such as national security must be kept secret. But the temptation for any administration is to exploit that authority to impose and enforce secrecy in service not of the American people, but of the political agenda or self-interest of those in charge.
Obama took office in 2009 promising to run the most transparent administration ever. Instead, he has run an administration so secretive that in 2013 the Committee to Protect Journalists released a report on “The Obama Administration and the Press,” documenting a Washington climate in which “government officials are increasingly afraid to talk to the press.” Why? Because “those suspected of discussing with reporters anything the government has classified as secret are subject to investigation, including lie-detector tests and scrutiny of their telephone and email records.” Among 30 veteran journalists interviewed in Washington for this CPJ report, not one could recall any precedent rivaling the aggressive nature of “the administration’s war on leaks and other efforts to control information.”
Exhibit A in this Obama administration campaign to control information is the case of Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, a former contractor with the State Department, who, in the face of a possible 15-year sentence had he been convicted at trial, pled guilty in 2014 to leaking classified information to Fox News reporter James Rosen, and was sentenced to 13 months in prison.
The Stephen Kim case dated back to 2009, Obama’s first year in office. That spring, North Korea carried out its second nuclear test, as well as a ballistic missile test. On June 11, 2009, Rosen published an article describing how the CIA, based on information from “sources inside North Korea,” expected North Korea might respond to a Security Council resolution condemning its actions.
The CIA information Rosen cited was so broadly obvious in any event that in reading his article at the time, I wondered if those secret CIA sources were perhaps the usual “foreign diplomats” penned up in their Pyongyang enclaves and routinely cited in the press. Chiefly, the CIA had learned that North Korea would respond to a UN condemnation with another nuclear test — an event that did not actually take place for another four years.
But it was clear that classified information, however banal, had leaked. Federal agents began an investigation targeting Stephen Kim. They also targeted Fox’s James Rosen, who was described in a search warrant as a possible criminal co-conspirator — though he was never charged. In 2010, a grand jury indicted Kim for disclosing secret information and making false statements. After a four-year stretch of legal miseries, Kim went to prison. According to the CPJ report, his case was one of more than half a dozen felony criminal prosecutions conducted on Obama’s watch under the 1917 Espionage Act, against government employees accused of leaking classified information to the press. This was an extraordinarily vigorous use of the Espionage Act, noted the CPJ report, “compared with a total of three such prosecutions in all previous U.S. administrations.”
The Kim case had a chilling effect on the press, and its sources in government. As New York Times national security reporter Scott Shane told the CPJ, “There’s a gray zone between classified and unclassified information, and most sources were in that gray zone. Sources are now afraid to enter that gray zone.”
In creating this unprecedented climate of secrecy, was Obama aiming to serve the interests of national security? It’s soothing to entertain that idea. Except, even as federal agents began delving into the correspondence and related doings of Kim over the leak of a single classified document, even as press sources in government were drying up not only on classified information, but also unclassified, Kim’s top boss at the State Department, Hillary Clinton, was already operating her nonsecure home-server email setup. Apparently with no controlling authority whatsoever.
While Kim was seeing his career destroyed and his life ruined, en route to a prison sentence, Clinton was conducting email traffic on a private server that ultimately included — according to Comey in his July 5 statement to the press — 110 emails in 52 email chains that contained classified information at the time they were transmitted; “eight of those chains contained information that was Top Secret.”
As we all know, having laid out a case against Hillary and her aides involving “extremely careless” handling of “very sensitive, highly classified information,” Comey then overstepped his authority to advise publicly against prosecution. Obama’s attorney general, Loretta Lynch, fresh from her untoward private meeting with Bill Clinton, declined to prosecute. Case closed.
Or at least, closed until last Friday, when Comey sent a letter to Congress saying the investigation was being reopened, following the FBI’s discovery of emails pertinent to the Clinton server on a computer of Huma Abedin’s husband, Anthony Weiner.
The message the Obama administration sent early on to the American press and public with the Kim case, followed by others like it, was that classified information was being handled with such care, with such concern for national security, that leaked information from a single classified document could land a man in prison. That was the narrative. Whatever the effects on national security, the visible result was to help insulate the Obama administration — especially the State Department — from inconvenient coverage by the press.
It was in that Obama administration hothouse that Clinton’s email ventures sprouted into the digital kudzu that has now turned up on a private computer used by a man allegedly making sexual forays on the internet. While debates rage over the integrity of the FBI and the attorney general, federal investigators at this late date — with the presidential election just a week ahead — are culling through the 650,000 emails on the Weiner computer to see if any of them contain classified information, transmitted into the rough for the convenience of Obama’s former secretary of State, now running for president.
This landscape, with its manifold obscenities, on so many levels, is yet another of those Obama legacies that is going to need a lot of cleaning up.
*[Correction: As a number of readers have pointed out, and Andrew McCarthy explains, “(C)” is applicable to classified information at the confidential level.]