“Enough of the emails,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders in Brooklyn-ese, while turning to Secretary Hillary Clinton during their first debate on Oct. 13, 2015. Sanders won loud applause for what seemed a gentlemanly gesture in withholding criticism for her use of a private email server for classified information.
But when Sanders said “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails,” I had a flashback to a House hearing three decades ago on large liberties taken with the law during the Iran-Contra affair under President Ronald Reagan. Beginning his testimony, then-Secretary of State George Shultz made the mistake of saying, in effect, who cares about laws being violated: “The American people are tired of hearing about Iran-Contra.”
Rep. David Obey, D-Wisconsin, was quick to respond: “Mr. Secretary, I did not take an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States until I got tired.”
Well, we intelligence professionals also took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic. There was no “until we got tired” – or even “until we retired” in that oath. It has no expiration date. Congressman Obey’s persistence and tenacity offer a model for patriots.
It has been six months since Sanders’s magnanimous gesture let Clinton off the hook for playing fast and loose with laws passed to protect classified information. During subsequent debates, everything but the kitchen sink has been hurled at the candidates, but there has been little appetite for asking Secretary Clinton what she thought she was doing, and why she decided to ignore security safeguards. (The reason often given – because she liked her Blackberry so much – does not withstand close scrutiny.)
While “mainstream” media have largely avoided the issue, it did get mentioned during the March 9 debate in Miami. Longtime news anchor for Noticiero Univision, Jorge Ramos, asked Secretary Clinton whether she would quit the presidential race if she were indicted for putting classified information on her private email server. She replied: “Oh, for goodness sake, it’s not going to happen. I’m not even answering that question.”
But this is too important an issue to sweep under the rug. It is not only we veteran intelligence professionals who are alarmed at what appears, at best, to be Clinton’s carelessness and, at worst, her deliberate attempt to conduct her affairs in complete secrecy, avoiding the strictures of, for example, the Freedom of Information Act, which can give the people and historians access to public records in the future so they can understand how government decisions were made. So researchers who care about democracy care.
It is also the FBI that cares, and the National Security Agency, which is responsible for ensuring secure communications, cares. And so do all who may have sent a sensitive piece of intelligence to her that she, in turn, might have put on her unclassified system. If Americans at large were briefed on the potential national security implications, they too would care.
One of the distinct advantages of the collegial way we operate in Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) is that when, as now, one of us needs input from tried and trusted specialists, it is immediately at hand. So, I consulted several of my colleagues with special knowledge of these matters.
A Severe Compromise
For technical commentary on this issue, I turned to a specialist VIPS colleague named William Binney, who worked for NSA for 36 years. Binney co-founded NSA’s SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) Automation Research Center, and retired from NSA as Technical Director. He said he shares my very strong feelings on the issue. He told me the following:
“The email issue with Secretary Clinton is one of the most severe compromises of security I have ever known. After all, if the Chinese, Russians and other hackers can penetrate the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) servers and take the records of over 21 million U.S. citizens that over the years have applied for security clearances, then penetrating Hillary Clinton’s private server would be a piece of cake. Such penetration would yield insight into decision making at the highest level of the U.S. government, including what might be revealed in emails with the President.
“This is worse that the compromise of predominantly lower-level data by Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning and gives insight into planning at the highest levels in Washington – something that even all the torrent of data exposed by Edward Snowden could not provide. Reports that Clinton instructed subordinates to delete the security classification line on sensitive reports and email them to her, suggests a total disregard for the need to protect classified information and arrogance in deeming herself above lawful regulations governing the handling such data.
“We might as well have had an in-place mole at the highest level of our government. The FBI/Department of Justice would have already indicted lesser officials for less. Certainly, Clinton is receiving special treatment. It is a safe guess that FBI investigators are seething over their inability, so far, to pursue the case against Hillary with the vigor it merits.
“The case of Gen. David Petraeus comes immediately to mind. There was mucho seething at the FBI, when Petraeus gave his mistress classified documents of extreme sensitivity, lied about it to FBI investigators, and was let off with a slap on the wrist.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Gen. Petraeus: Too Big to Jail.”]
With the aim of getting expert commentary from an operational perspective, I turned to Scott Ritter, who served on Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf’s staff during the first Gulf war, before he became chief U.N. weapons inspector for Iraq. Here’s what Ritter had to say:
“I can say that NSA/JSOC (and even U.N. teams such as the one I was running in Iraq) would LOVE for a foreign official at the secretary-of-state level to use a private server for official communications. One need simply to mimic a cell tower (the Stingray technology in vogue today would suffice) and you instantly have access to everything such an official does/says/types on a cell phone. That senior official would no longer have the unique identifiers and encryption that an official server would provide.
“By the way, it is no longer a secret that we targeted the unencrypted communications that Saddam Hussein and his closest advisers sent out, not just the encrypted ones. Any communications traffic analyst will tell you that simply reading the unclassified traffic provides a plethora of actionable intelligence – particularly since the communications intercepted are in real time.”
In the Field
So what can happen in the field – in combat areas and in places like Kabul – when regulations governing the handling of classified information are disregarded? For perspective on this, I turned to Matthew Hoh, Marine Captain in Iraq and later a senior State Department official in Afghanistan. He answered:
“Ordinary Americans need to know how serious this is. Just last week we witnessed one example of what could have happened when Secretary of State John Kerry was visiting Kabul and the Taliban tried to attack him with rockets. Whenever the President, Vice President, Secretary of State or Defense, Joint Chiefs Chairman, or a congressional delegation visits Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iraq, the planning and arrangements are secret. But this is the type of information that could be sent over Clinton’s personal email, hacked, and gotten a senior American official killed.
“Another example would be Clinton discussing information relating to intercepts of foreign leaders. It’s possible in her correspondence she could mention something regarding Putin, Cameron, Modi, et al. that we capture via SIGINT. That would not only be an embarrassment; it would blow that capability for such access (and squander the millions of dollars spent in creating it). Fortunately for the other world leaders, they don’t seem to have been as arrogant or dumb (or both of the above) in insisting on using non-secure communications.
“Was it not amazing that Clinton protégé, Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland, plotted the Feb. 22 coup in Ukraine with the U.S. Ambassador in Kiev on an insecure telephone! Wonder where Nuland got the idea that was all right.
“Only transmitting and sharing classified information via email through the secure email and internet system used by the U.S. government also prevents accidental transmission of secret information to people who should not receive secret information. It’s a closed system. Only those with the approved clearance and an authorized email account can receive the email. So you can’t accidentally type in the wrong name of a contact who is not trusted, is not a U.S. citizen, does not have a security clearance, etc. and send them an email with classified information.
“We’ve all done that with our email, type in the wrong name and send someone an email by accident. Or we’ve forwarded an email string with a chain of information somewhere down the body of the message that you didn’t want the recipient to see. By transmitting classified information via her personal email account Hilary Clinton could have very easily sent classified information to someone by accident. Of course, as everyone who uses email knows, once you send a message you have no control over where that message gets sent after you hit send. So, once she forwarded an email with classified information that information could be sent to anyone, anywhere in the world whether on purpose or on accident. That’s why you don’t transmit classified information outside the secure system.
“Another question: What information regarding her dealings outside of her official capacities may have been targeted? What I mean is besides U.S. government secrets that she possibly exposed were Clinton’s own secrets – perhaps a quid pro quo or two regarding foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation. Such information could be used against her as political blackmail. What information could have been captured by a foreign power that could be used if/when Hillary Clinton came to office as President to gain leverage over her?
“Undoubtedly, if she wins election, her first priority will be re-election. So, my concern is not just for information that she could have compromised as Secretary of State that would have harmed the U.S. from 2009-2013, but what information has been compromised that could be used against her as blackmail if she is in the Oval Office?”
So whether Sen. Sanders is right or not – that “the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails” – Hillary Clinton’s carelessness and entitlement in brushing aside the lawful security rules that apply to other government officials is an issue that bears on whether she has the character and judgment to be President.
In December 2011, when then-Secretary of State Clinton was busy denouncing Pvt. Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning for leaking evidence of U.S. government wrongdoing, Clinton declared: “I think that in an age where so much information is flying through cyberspace, we all have to be aware of the fact that some information which is sensitive, which does affect the security of individuals and relationships, deserves to be protected and we will continue to take necessary steps to do so.”
For leaking mostly low-level classified information to the public so the people could know about illegal or questionable acts by the government – none of the data top secret, the level that some Clinton emails have now been stamped – Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison.
But it seems that the applicable legal standard — or double standard — is that the more sensitive the security breach and the higher the status of the offender the lighter the punishment. For instance, Gen. David Petraeus divulged top-secret/code-word information to his biographer/mistress and lied to the FBI about it, but received only a misdemeanor citation (a fine and probation but no jail time) for mishandling classified material.
If that pattern is followed – and since Secretary of State Clinton outranked Gen. Petraeus – she might well expect even more lenient treatment, but her behavior might be something that the American voters would want to consider before giving her a promotion to U.S. President.
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). He was an Army infantry/intelligence officer and then a CIA analyst for a total of 30 years.