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Chalk Up Another Obama Legacy: The Clinton Email Burlesque

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.