THE DEFINITIVE Clinton E-mail Scandal Analysis
Below is the most comprehensive analysis of Hillary Clinton’s e-mail “scandal” you will find anywhere. There certainly are some legitimate questions about what happened and Secretary Clinton’s judgement in this instance, but those questions have yet to be answered in full and are unlikely to show anything terribly scandalous on Clinton’s part (and have not thus far). The real scandal is the Republican partisan witch hunt against Hillary masquerading as a Benghazi investigation and the media’s terrible, relentless coverage of this issue as a major “scandal.”
Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse October 21, 2015
By Brian E. Frydenborg (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter @bfry1981) October 21st, 2015 (See September 2016 follow-up article: Clinton E-mail / Server: What You Need to Know: Clinton Not Careless, Real Issues Overclassification & Classified Info Sharing Practices)
Updated 1/30/2016 (see end of piece)
Updated and expanded slightly throughout the evening of 10/21; major update on security section, including information on encryption, coming very soon
Note: all of the thousands Clinton’s publicly released emails can be easily browsed, searched, and read here
How to Create a “Scandal”: E-mailgate as Benghazi 9.0
AMMAN — If you understand the political history of the Clintons, Hillary’s e-mail “scandal” is but the latest in a long line of faux “scandal” witch hunts. Manufacturing scandals has often been a smart (and profitable) political ploy on the Republican side, even if it is cynical and plays to the very worst tendencies of American politics and culture. Throughout Bill Clinton’s presidency, the Clintons were assaulted by constant partisan investigations. To this date, the only proof of any wrongdoing on the Clintons’ part in any of these so-called “scandals” was when President Bill Clinton committed perjury when being interviewed about his sexual relationship with a White House intern; the investigation that produced the finding that he had committed perjury cost taxpayers over $50 million. The other Republican witch hunts on Bill and Hillary Clinton have turned up zero proof or admission of guilt on the part of the Clintons, with the single exception of an admission of a single sexual encounter between Bill Clinton and Gennifer Flowers long ago.
Now, we have a new pair of “scandals,” one about Hillary’s e-mails and her e-mail server that Republicans are almost certainly praying will yield some sort of damning personal evidence against Hillary Clinton in relation to the other supposed “scandal,” the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya that killed four brave American public servants, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens.
Just as in the past, there truly is a “vast right-wing conspiracy” (to use then-First Lady Hillary Clinton’s words from 1998) against her and her husband. The strategy is clear and effective: throw enough mud and crap and tar at someone, and some of it sticks, some of it stinks. From a distance, people just assume that this is the natural look, smell. Hence the term “Clinton Fatigue,” a nonsense term used by partisans to slime the Clintons. This helped to damage Bill Clinton’s presidency throughout his two terms. “Scandal” after “scandal,” “investigation” after “investigation,” and the only thing that turned up was that Bill Clinton cheated on his wife, provably occasionally, possibly more than that. The most inexcusable thing Clinton did politically was mess around sexually with Monica Lewinsky, simply because it empowered his enemies to tar and smear him to such a dramatic degree. He left office with a high approval rating, but that mud and tar and crap rubbed off on Al Gore, Bill Clinton’s vice president, and was a huge portion of the basis of George W. Bush’s campaign to “restore honor and dignity to the White House;” without this collateral damage done to Al Gore, it is almost inconceivable that Gore would have lost and that Bush would have won, since the actual election was won by Bush by a historically razor-thin margin.
The primate-like fling-a-bunch-of-crap-at-your-political-enemy approach is alive and well and serves as the main Republican strategy against Hillary Clinton. Republicans have been at this for some time, politicizing the tragedy at Benghazi (a objectively relatively fairly minor tragedy given the sheer scale military blunders in recent American history) to perpetuate an aura of endless suspicion and doubt around Hillary. They tried to use the same tragedy against Obama in the 2012 election cycle, and it was a disaster. Mitt Romney famously tried to attack Obama over this in the second presidential debate in October 2012; Obama skillfully brushed off the attack, and it was a disaster which backfired badly on Romney (see part 1 and the more devastating part 2 of the Benghazi discussion during the debate here). After that debate, Romney more or less avoided attacking Obama on foreign policy for the rest of the campaign, and, in any event, we all know the Romney was not sworn in as president the following January.
Of course, Republican being Republicans, they did not learn from this or let it go. Since attacking Obama is more or less useless as Obama is not running for office again, the focus of Republican fire switched even more so to Hillary Clinton when it came to the Benghazi “scandal” because she was expected to run for president. Since the attacks in Benghazi, there have been eight completed investigations: one internal State Department investigation, two bipartisan investigations led by the U.S. Senate; and five Republican-dominated investigations from the U.S. House of Representatives; every single one came out exonerating Clinton and made it clear that main the reasons for the lack of security were procedural, bureaucratic issues and misjudgments that occurred lower in the chain of command than the offices of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or President Obama, and rather than any cover-up or deliberate attempt to mislead the American people after the attack, confusion was generated merely by some unclear and conflicting messaging coming from different parts, offices, and agencies of America’s vast national government, messaging that was fair to question at the time but is hardly a major “scandal.”
Predictably, Republicans have decided it is time for a ninth Benghazi investigation (will the marathon ever actually end? Remember, this is a Republican Party that has voted against Obamacare fifty-five times in the House since it became law), dominated by Republicans from the House of Representatives (like five other investigations) and chaired by right-wing firebrand and shrill grandstander Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina. Since neither the Benghazi “scandal” or Hillary’s e-mail “scandal” can stand on their own legs as scandals, this devoid-of-gravitas political freshman, who rode into office in 2011 surfing atop the Tea Party tsunami, has decided that the best thing to do to make a whole scandal is to combine the two faltering scandals into one. So, on the assumption that there must, just must, be something, some shred of a farce of a circumstantial link in Hillary’s e-mails to prove… um, something bad about her, let’s continue on ground where eight investigations have already gone before. Yep, most assuredly worth an investigation. Thus, Gowdy and the other Republicans on the committee are now focusing the Benghazi “investigation” on Hillary’s e-mails.
Yes! That other “scandal!” Now we can get to the bottom of…something.
Yep, you’ve heard all about it! Hillary did… something… with her e-mails. Something about a server in her house when she was Secretary of State. Yeah that, um, has to be bad, right? Because Republicans are saying it’s bad. Over and over again. So… there must be something bad… about the server? Or the fact that she had an e-mail server at home, in the house she shared with Bill Clinton? So, yeah, a server in the house of a former President, and of former First Lady, former U.S. Senator, and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, sounds… really irresponsible? I’m sure there’s no security at all and anyone can hack anything from there, right? Um… right? Or, maybe it wasn’t so crazy? Hmmm…
Sure, you’ve seen the headlines, but there’s nothing juicy about “e-mail server” in a headline. There’s no sex, no violence, no cash bribes… try to imagine a House of Cards episode based on a “scandal” this tame and you can imagine the worst possible episode of House of Cards. This goes back to the muck/mud/crap approach. See, almost no one actually reads the articles about an “e-mail server scandal.” Not with ISIS, Syria, the Iran nuclear deal, Donald Trump, Game of Thrones, mass shootings, refugees, and so many other more exciting headlines. Nope. People see the headlines, the non-stop front-page deluge of this story and that story related to the e-mails. But almost no one actually reads those stories. They sound boring, and people just assume it’s bad because it keeps getting coverage and the Republicans act like this is the greatest threat to U.S. national security since 9/11 or the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. With all the other stories, almost the only press coverage Hillary Clinton has been getting all spring and summer has been about the e-mail scandal, especially on TV news, where most Americans get their news and more so than any other source. Over these months of coverage, has anything specific turned up that has shown Hillary to have lied, betrayed American interests, been corrupt, of behaved incompetently in a way that had serious consequences for the United States of America? No, of course not. But, they haven’t seen all the e-mails yet so… THERE MIGHT BE! The headlines for some time now have consisted of “There Might Be Something Bad, But There Isn’t Yet, But, Hey, We’ll Keep Covering This Story Almost Daily Anyway.”
Benghazi Committee Hits “Send” For E-Mail “Scandal”
So how did this whole e-mail thing start?
It was uncovered by the investigation of the current Republican-dominated House special committee (the sixth House committee, eighth Congressional committee, and ninth committee overall).
The committee uncovered that Clinton has never actually used a @state.gov e-mail address while Secretary of State. Instead, she used a private e-mail address on a server she set up inside her own home, the home in Chappaquiddick, NY, that she shares with Bill Clinton. The State Department as a whole either was not aware of this or chose to do nothing about it.
Almost two full years after she stepped down as Secretary of State, the State Department requested all her relevant e-mails in response to the current Benghazi committee investigation. In response, she and her people turned over 30,490 messages to the State Department that they determined were work related, but erased 31,830 messages that they classified as personal to Clinton and not related to her role as Secretary of State after individually reviewing each email; the Department of Justice maintains that she had the authority to delete the emails she regarded as personal. Her private server was then wiped clean.
When confronted with why this separate e-mail server had been set up, the scandal was not helped by Team Clinton’s response: other officials have taken at least a somewhat similar path, including, especially, Colin Powellwhen he was Secretary of State, they said; they claimed that this is more of a politically driven-issue than a substantive one; they told us we should trust in her as a public servant that the relevant work-related e-mails were turned over. When she finally personally addressed the media over this controversy this March, her main explanation was one of convenience:
“When I got to work as secretary of state, I opted, for convenience, to use my personal email account, which was allowed by the State Department, because I thought it would be easier to carry just one device for my work and for my personal e-mails instead of two Looking back, it would’ve been better if I’d simply used a second email account and carried a second phone, but at the time, this didn’t seem like an issue… the vast majority of my work emails went to government employees at their government addresses, which meant they were captured and preserved immediately on the system at the State Department… I took the unprecedented step of asking that the State Department make all my work-related emails public for everyone to see.”
I will be completely honest: I am a Democrat and a big fan of Hillary Clinton, and I find this a totally reasonable explanation. But I don’t think that I am being biased at all. See, Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State was not one rigged by scandal; the Benghazi incident was the clear low point, by far, of what was generally thought by many Republicans as well as Democrats and people all over the world to have been a positive, solid performance as Secretary of State by Clinton. This was not a woman under constant investigations of personal wrongdoing with credible scandals dogging her tenure throughout; after eight investigations into Benghazi, there is now no serious doubt that she was trying to cover anything up; and any other speculative, imagined scandals are just that: speculative and imaginative, not based on any facts or evidence of wrongdoing or the existence of a real scandal. Both Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice under Bush were also generally thought to have put in good stints as Secretary of State. If they had done the same thing and issues had been brought up regarding either of them in the same position, I would have given them the benefit of the doubt just as I am giving Hillary the benefit of the doubt that, in the absence of any major scandals or evidence of personal wrongdoing, there was no cover-up, no deliberate attempt to hide anything. The same would go for any public servant, regardless of party, who had a generally clean record devoid of a series of major personal scandals tied directly to their individual behavior.
Hillary Said She Is Sorry And Took Responsibility
Clinton, from her first public comments on this issue back in March, has admitted her approach was not the best; this position evolved to her saying“It clearly wasn’t the best choice. I should’ve used two emails: one personal, one for work,” and adding that “I take responsibility for that decision,” while most recently she said that she made a “mistake” and accompanied that with a full-fledged apology. President Obama also recently characterized her decision on using exclusively using a personal server as a mistake but also added that it “is not a situation in which America’s national security was endangered” and echoed Clinton’s husband when he added “The fact that for the last three months this is all that’s been spoken about is an indication that we’re in presidential political season.”
Every public official has lapses of judgment, every public official makes mistakes. The real and most important questions we can ask in such situations are:
- Were laws or rules broken? (no, not that we know of, and it is unlikely this will be found to be the case)
- Has any significant harm come from the acts in question? (no, not that we know of, and it is unlikely this will be found to be the case)
- Is the accused being cooperative and transparent? (yes, to an unprecedented extent)
- Is this part of a larger trend or an isolated incident? (it’s an isolated incident)
- Can we learn lessons from this to avoid similar problems in the future? (yes, the relevant agencies are in the process of doing this, and this should be the focus of the Select Committee on Benghazi, though apparently it isn’t)
Predictably, Republicans, and disturbingly, the mainstream media, though, have instead continued since she gave that press conference in early March of this year to provide an endless supply of discussion and stories and coverage along the lines of “what if there was something… incriminating in those personal, deleted e-mails!? WHAT IF!? IT’S POSSIBLE THERE… MAY BE… SOMETHING! We haven’t found anything specifically damning yet, but… MAYBE WE WILL!” Yep, over half a year of major media coverage on Hillary Clinton boils down to that, and this has resulted in what Nate Silver terms a “poll-deflating feedback loop” that certainly hurt her more than just a little).
Bill Clinton, though hardly a neutral observer, was pretty much right when he said in an interview that “I’ve never seen so much expended on so little.” He notes that the media was eager for a competitive race for the Democratic nomination, adding that “I think that there are lots of people who wanted there to be a race for different reasons. And they thought the only way they could make it a race was a full-scale frontal assault on her. And so this email thing became the biggest story in the world.” He was also pretty on-target when he remarked that
“The other party doesn’t want to run against her. And if they do, they’d like her as mangled up as possible. And they know that if they leak things and say things that that is catnip to the people who get bored talking about what’s your position on student loan relief or dealing with the shortage of mental health care or what to do with the epidemic of prescription drugs and heroin out in America, even in small towns in rural America, or how you’re going to get jobs into coal country given how much they’ve lost in the last 20 years.”
But it’s a bit more complicated up close, so let’s go into some details.
The Issue of Legality/Propriety: Clinton Clearly Within Law, Rules
From what we already know so far, there is zero evidence that Clinton violated the law in any specific way, which required, at the time, that her relevant work records be preserved for posterity. There are arguments as to which staffers—her personal staffers or more bureaucratic State Department staffers—should have reviewed her emails to determine which were “work” and which were “personal,” but as far as the specifics of any laws that were on the books at the time, there is zero evidence that Clinton broke any laws. As far as the rules at State (read the rule book here), while the State Department at the time strongly urged its staff to “avoid” use of personal e-mail as a “general policy,” there is clearly no ban, discretion is clearly left to staffers, and if anyone was going to have more leeway and discretion it would the person who was Secretary of State. And there was never a Secretary of State who before had been First Lady. It does seem there was room for improvement and more coordination and clarity, to be fair, but no explicit violations are known to have taken place. If there is not yet a standard operating procedure for the recovery of such information from personal servers, that is not at all the fault of Clinton. Of course, we can’t know for sure that she did not break the law. We also can’t know for sure that she has not murdered anyone, doesn’t drink blood, and isn’t fond of cocaine. But in the absence of any evidence pointing to such behavior, it is unfair and unreasonable to assume that there is any serious likelihood that there was. And given Clinton’s public record is not one of her being caught in scandals that demonstrate any patter of being deceptive or misleading while in office, it would be especially unfair to assume she had relevant work e-mails deleted purposefully and knowingly. In the future, it would be great if there were standard procedures in each agency for transferring such content and for classifying such content as “work” or “personal.” Maybe in the future, such use of personal email servers will be completely against the rules. It wasn’t when Clinton was in office, and we are in somewhat uncharted territory. None of this is on Clinton, but the questions raised are important and we can be certain they are being and will be dealt with in light of this situation. Speaking of classified…
It’s Classified… or, Is It? And What Does That Even Mean?
In examining the issue of classified information in regards to Clinton’s server, it is important to note that the world of U.S. Government classified material is both extremely confusing and plagued by incorrect popular assumptions. As Jeffrey Toobin, one of America’s great legal scholars, recently explained in The New Yorker when addressing this “scandal,” there is no standard definition within the government on what is classified and what is not. What is classified at the Department of Defense may not be classified by the State Department. What is classified at the Department of Homeland Security may not be classified at the CIA… and so on and so forth. Furthermore, information is often classified on a basis that has nothing to do with national security. For example, two of Clintons’ e-mails that were not marked as classified at the time they were sent but were after the fact (this happens often) were even questioned by intelligence officials for having been marked classified at all, with these officials complaining about a general overclassification of material (on a side note, to see a great example of the speculative, biased reporting I am taking about, and example by a highly questionable, at least partially discredited source who made false claims about being a spy, is a bullying defender of the NSA, and recently may have been outed as having sent pictures of his penis to someone, see this article’s discussion of the same issue). Of the two e-mails, one was just a discussion of a news report, the other could have come from information available outside of government channels; neither were marked classified at the time they were sent to Clinton. This is all related to the massive problem of rampant overclassification of information by the government; experts and officials estimate that between 50% and 90% of all classified material could even be disclosed without any detrimental effecton national security.
Thus, a headline could be generated “Classified Email Passed Through Clinton’s Server,” but a more accurate headline would be “E-mail Was Sent to Clinton That Was Later Classified but Maybe Should Not Have Been Classified” (though that doesn’t sell papers, now, does it?). Such headlines do raise questions, but have the effect of being communications coming from a student in the middle of writing a paper: a lot can change before the paper is done and it would be better to just read the final version. Imagine reporting a paper as it is still being researched to the tunes of dozens, even hundreds of articles… Something of a farcical exercise here, to be sure.
The questions raised, of course, are most certainly valid, thought, and some material that should not have passed through Clinton’s personal server mayhave done so; however, as of now, nothing is known to have been classified at the time, even after four months of releases, and there is still no evidence that Clinton herself initiated sending anything that is questionable with only a few slight, apparently unalarming exceptions. And legally speaking, Clinton cannot be prosecuted for any criminal wrongdoing unless she both knew what she was handling was classified and purposefully disclosed this to someone she knew was unauthorized to see it. It is therefore very unlikely that it will ever be possible to prove any wrongdoing even if it is found that Hillary herself sent classified e-mail to someone who should not have received it (and again, so far there is zero evidence that this happened). And it is fairly likely that most of (and possible that all) the information labeled classified either at the time or after it passed through Clinton’s server (and, again, there is no definitive proof of the former) did not even need to be considered classified, as the above discussion makes clear.
Some common sense is in order here: if Clinton herself has not sent anything she knew was labeled classified, and people sent her information that was later classified—whether it should or should not necessarily have been so so labeled—that’s not really on Clinton. If people sent her material that should have been classified but was not, and she opened the email anyway, let’s think about this for a second: how would she know what the material even was until she had already opened an e-mail that was not marked classified? And, frankly, in terms of incoming communication, I don’t think a typical Secretary of State generally spends much time evaluating the level of classification of incoming email; if anything, that is the definition of a bureaucratic staff task, below Secretary-of-State-level without a doubt. This is similar to the Benghazi issue, then, at least in this regard.
Another aspect to consider is that this involves new types of technology and a new series of issues a slow moving behemoth-of-a-bureaucratic-institution like the State Department is behind in adjusting to; more than anything else, this “scandal” is a symptom of twenty-first-century growing pains for an institution that is decidedly twentieth-century in manner. The system for classifying information and accessing it before the Internet age worked well, when people generally worked in their offices and that was that. Now, in the mobile, smartphone age, that type of work style is out-of-step with the times, as is the antiquated State Department system that has failed to keep up with the times, is time consuming and cumbersome, and forces you be stationary in an office to access and review classified information or even to classify or declassify material to begin with; it is also totally incompatible with mobile networks, forcing staff to often choose between security and the need to quickly pass on and access information while not physically in the State Department. In fact, the technology at the State Department was considered so behind-the-times that it was not uncommon for State Department staff to prefer and often work on their homes systems using personal e-mail addresses.
Communications and technology competence within the U.S Government has actually been a major problem in recent years. Keep in mind that in 2001, we saw that the government was very poor at sharing intelligenceacross different agencies; otherwise, signs pointing to the 9/11 attacks might more forcefully have been recognized and more preventive action may have been taken. The Pentagon under Rumsfeld did a terrible job of setting uniform standards for prisoner interrogation, helping to lead to Abu Ghraib; the State Department and the Pentagon had a dysfunctional relationship in the early years of the occupation of Iraq; and most recently, the Department of Veterans Affairs has been dealing with a massive backlog of its veteran patients and the Obamacare website launch was a total disaster; these are just a few examples of the oversights, dysfunction, and mishaps typical within the U.S. Government when it comes to technology and communications.
Thus far, over 12,000 emails and almost 20,000 pages of material have been released, with 403 of these e-mails today being considered classified and currently under review; however, of the 403 that have thus far been reviewed, none were officially labeled as classified at the time they came to Clinton’s attention, though this review is not yet complete. Almost all of these 403 e-mails are labeled with the lowest possible classification rating, and it appears thus far that the number of e-mails beyond that lowest level is in the single digits. There are, however, some confusing disputes as to whether or not a small number of e-mails should have been regarded and handled by Clinton as if they were marked classified even though they were not (as that they may have contained classified secrets even without having a classified label) and whether some were specifically labeled classifiedthough whether this was the case has yet to be determined.
Those crying foul when comparing Clinton’s situation to that of former General and CIA Director David Petraeus would do well to remember that Petraeus confessed to knowingly divulging classified information to his mistress.
The E-mail Release… Schedule?!?
The State Department actually came up with a sensible plan to release all of Clinton’s e-mails at once, after what is understandably a lengthy review process, as all the other relevant agencies in any emails relevant to them have to make their own rulings on whether and/or how to classify the material. But the District Judge Rudolph Contreras ruling on the relevant case—a Freedom of Information Act request from the press—ruled perplexingly instead that the State Department must release the e-mails in batches on a rolling basis, rejecting the State Department’s sound proposal. Furthermore, he later rejected State’s response offer to release batches every sixty days, and instead ordered that they be released every thirty days. I am honestly not sure why a federal judge is micromanaging how an executive agency like the State Department releases its records, and why it is appropriate for a judge to make a distinctions between a full-release in six months and partial releases every two month vs. every month. In all three cases, the e-mails would have been made public prior to any of the 2016 political nomination contests and far before the general election. After spending hours looking at this specific decision, it is odd that there not much of an explanation or much scrutiny regarding such a decision in the media. The way the judge ruled ensured a near constant focus on this in the public eye over many months and this over just parts of the (not the full) picture. One would be forgiven for thinking the ruling was designed to create maximum exposure of the issue; instead of a long movie we’re getting a whole TV series, complete with constant running commentary and speculation about the next episodes. For her part, Clinton has been saying for months that she wants all the relevant e-mails released as quickly as possible, but monthly batches is probably not what she had in mind.
Apart from the main body of e-mails, the e-mails related to Benghazi were released first, nearly 300 of them. Nothing particularly incriminating or damning was contained in them; rather, they show Clinton going about her job and trying to get to the bottom of what happened, as well as the inner workings of an American Secretary of State and her staff. Later, a very small number of additional e-mails (nine and portions of six others) were submitted by a close Clinton confidante—Sidney Blumenthal—that also dealt with Benghazi, and late last month, the State Department uncovered an additional 925 e-mails related to Benghazi (can we see how forcing them to rush and release under pressure may not be best approach?).
Starting at the end of June, the State Department began releasing more of Clinton’s e-mails in the court-ordered, court-schedule batches. Much of them involve the mundane and show a new Secretary of State adapting to her new role. Another batch was released at the end of July, still anothermassive batch at the end of August. The latest disclosed batch was released at the end of September. Some of these e-mails show everything from Clinton’s taste in television shows to her sense of humor. At least six e-mails Clinton herself sent contained what apparently later became classified information, but officials with access to them did not seem to think any harm was done in the process or that the information was particularly sensitive.
All of the released e-mails can be read, browsed, and searched through online here.
About Those Deleted Personal E-mails…
In order to look into who was sending material that perhaps should have been labeled classified, how it was sent, and how it was labeled the way it was, the FBI opened an investigation (not one focusing on Clinton and not a criminal one, contrary to an acknowledged major reporting error from The New York Times). As part of the investigation, the FBI now has Clinton’s server and will probably be able to recover some of her e-mails her staff labeled personal and deleted. Much of the focus on the ongoing investigation, appropriately, is on whether the main problem is in the decisions of the people who sent the information under review to her personal server. As of yet, if it was able to recover any of the those e-mails labeled as personal by Clinton’s team, no information on any of them has been released by the FBI.
Also, apart from any official investigation, a Republican senator obtained and released information from e-mails of an employee of the company maintaining Clinton’s server backup that mentioned an entity tied to the Clintons sought to greatly reduce the time period covered by backups this August, and this single employee muses that there could be a cover-up but we are shown no evidence to support this; this is far from a complete picture, it clearly does not involve a review or access to all the company’s e-mails and communications on the subject, and it is not any kind of an official statement from the company. Since she has been for some time and is currently a private citizen (though one running for president), this may very well be a legitimate effort to protect her own privacy. Until we know more about this (and we know very little about it), there is no reason suspect anything nefarious is at work here. With the Clintons as high profile as they are, it is highly conceivable that the instance of a single employee at a company maintaining the backups for Clinton’s server voicing the possibility of a cover-up (of what, exactly?) is just the musings of single employee with his own strong opinions about the Clintons; at this point we just don’t know. This is why leaks that come in the middle of ongoing investigations should always be taken with a grain of salt.
Security: Clinton’s One Weakness?
Amid all the talk of the security of Clinton’s e-mail server, it should not be forgotten that even our government networks have not been terribly secure, and that this has been the case for years, including in 2007 for the Secretary of Defense’s unclassified government email account. And the situation is only getting worse. That’s not to say that her e-mail server had the same level of security as a State Department server, but with all the hacking going on, it might not have made a difference.
Of course, that does not get Clinton off the hook. Where Clinton is most vulnerable in this situation is, in fact, on issues of the security of her server. The aforementioned FBI investigation is also looking into how secureClinton’s server actually was. What we do know is that the Clintons paid a State Department staffer—Bryan Pagliano, who had earlier run IT for Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign—to run the server. The State Department is not commenting on the situation with Pagliano because there are “ongoing reviews and investigations,” and he is not answering questions on the basis of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to avoid incriminating himself (possibly because he may have violated a regulation that forbids non-government outside work compensation to exceed 15 % of his government salary and did not list the income from the Clintons as required by State), though Team Clinton has urged him and all relevant current and former aides to cooperate with investigators. We know that several colleagues and staffers of Clinton’s expressed concerns about the system’s security. We know there were attempts to hack into her serverusing SPAM, but, let’s be honest, SPAM is usually fairly obvious and requires you to click on an attachment to work, and Clinton at that point would likely have had enough experience using e-mail to recognize this message as SPAM and at the very least would quite likely have known not to click on the attachments. In any events, there is no evidence that hackers succeeded in obtaining sensitive information from Clinton’s server or even managed to hack into it at all. The FBI is also currently looking into whether foreign intelligence was able to spy on Clinton’s e-mails (no evidence yet), but even her successor, John Kerry, thinks that his official State Department e-mails are “very likely” being spied upon by the Russians and/or Chinese, so this goes back to my earlier point, that whether she had a private e-mail server or not, Clinton would have still been vulnerable.
The important question is: was her e-mail server less secure than a government server? Probably, but at the same time (and I have yet to hear anyone raise this!) if we—and apparently the State Department—had been unaware of the existence of the server for so long, perhaps foreign governments would also have been unaware, i.e., since they would have been targeting State Department servers to begin with, perhaps Clinton’s information would have been more secure on a private server not because of it technical safeguards but because it was more under-the-radar. At this point, it’s all just speculation, either way.
But we also know that, in the words of Hillary Clinton, “the system we used was set up for President Clinton’s office. And it had numerous safeguards. It was on property guarded by the Secret Service. And there were no security breaches.”
Still, the fact that she exclusively used a personal server to exchange e-mails does raise the questions mentioned above, and there were probably a set of additional risks doing so added to the equation. There are cases to be made that these risks both did and did not offset the risks that already existed with security of the State Department’s official servers, and this remains to be see until the conclusions of the investigations. That her use of a personal private server could very well have increased the security risks and increased the chance of exposure of sensitive, if not necessarily classified, information is certainly a distinct, perhaps even likely, possibility, one that must be acknowledged, but at the same time not overblown. President Obama’s characterization of this as a “mistake” that is unlikely to have done major damage seems to be a fair and accurate characterization based on what we know thus far.
If this was a revelation from the Select Committee on Government E-mail Reform, we could say job well done to the committee, and this would all make sense and be relevant. Since this is all coming out of the Select Committee on Benghazi, this is simply ridiculous. Regarding the Committee itself…
The Select “Selective” Committee on Benghazi and the Media’s Complicity in Nonsense
When it comes to all these accusation and inferences, after enough time, the mud sticks, the crap smells, and after seeing this constant barrage of headlines, even though no one can actually explain how any hard evidence against Clinton has come out of this, people just assume bad things about Hillary and what was going on with her e-mail server, whatever that may be even though nothing yet has been shown to have been going on. And in fact, the recently former prospective successor to Speaker of the House John Boehner (who touchingly announced plans to resign from his post and Congress after the Pope’s visit made him cry a lot and realize there is more to life than dealing with crazy Tea Party Republicans), California Representative and House Majority Leader (the #2 Republican post in the House behind the Speaker of the House) Kevin McCarthy, confirmed as much, that the main point of the committee investigating Benghazi was to tear Hillary down and derail her campaign. His specific words were:
“Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s untrustable. But no one would’ve known any of that had happened had we not fought and made that happen.”
He tried to backtrack his statements, and soon after withdrew himself from consideration to succeed Boehner (there were also rumors of an affair with a female congresswoman). But the cat was out of the bag, and Team Hillary is relishing this “gift” from McCarthy, which has been the catalyst for a dramatic turnaround for Clinton’s campaign and in her press coverage, culminating in her “spectacular” debate performance earlier this month. If that is not enough, a recently fired Republican staffer (who is suing on that grounds that he was illegally fired for not playing partisan politics) on the committee came out and confirmed the same thing: that the committee is a witch hunt against Clinton, and shortly after that another Republican congressman voiced the same opinion. Yep, that’s three Republicans—the House Majority Leader, another congressman, and a staffer who worked on the actual committee—who blurted out that the new Benghazi committee is mainly motivated by partisan politics, even if one of the three (McCarthy) recanted.
And yet, the mainstream, respectable media (let alone right-wing media, for now) keep playing into the Republicans’ hands: no matter how outrageous, inaccurate, nonsensical, downright false, or blown out of proportion Republicans’ claim are, the more noise they make, the more coverage their tantrums receive in the mainstream press and the more their positions are presented as simply the other side of a coin, equal in validity to other far more sound positions. Thus, we have “debates” on the existence of man-made climate change/global warming, the existence of evolution, whether Planned Parenthood is an abortion factory or selling baby organs harvested from live fetuses on a mass scale, whether illegal immigration is a growing problem, the validity of Obama’s identity as an American who was born in America and eligible to be president, the list goes on and on, and now, it’s Clinton’s e-mail server and Benghazi. To a degree, the media does come down on the side that, yes, some of these “debates” are silly; but to another degree, the media does not quash these things at their inception, instead giving oxygen to these inane counter-“arguments” and allowing them to gain traction and be considered valid positions. Of course, the fact that Republicans are the ones as a group taking these inane positions while simultaneously perpetually calling the mainstream media biased in favor of liberals—and thus creating the myth of “the liberal media”—is a clever double game, pressuring the media to cover their side more leniently than they should. But it cannot all come down to that, and, in the end, the TV media at least has failed to do their job properly. In this case, it is problematic that the media did not really question Gowdy’s committee before McCarthy’s stupendous gaffe.
As Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy and his Republican colleagues prepare to publicly confront Clinton when she comes to town to testify publicly before their committee on Thursday, there is bipartisan rancor surrounding the proceedings. Chairman Gowdy and Democratic Ranking Member (the head minority position on the committee for Democrats) Elijah Cummings are already feuding over the purpose and conduct of the committee. Democrats and even several Republicans, as I have noted above, are doing the same. When they first decided to call her publicly as witness over the summer, Clinton seemed vulnerable, and her campaign was losing steam to Bernie Sanders. Now, after McCarthy’s gaffe and her own top-notch debate performance, Hillary is coasting on a wave of positive publicity and seems to have more than regained her footing; you get the sense that Republicans are nervous that this may very well backfire against them, much like Romney’s attack against Obama on Benghazi backfired in 2012 and other past overzealous investigations of the Clintons backfired before. Still, the committee’s Republicans seem likely to try to pounce on Clinton like a mangy, starving pack of dogs attacking a strong, fit, well-fed lioness.
However, at the worst possible moment for Chairman Gowdy, rather than there being increasing doubts about Clinton and her credibility, there are increasing questions about the Committee’s credibility as well as his own, concerns being raised not only Democrats in general, pundits, and the media, but also some Republicans and even the Democratic members of the committee itself, and these concerns threaten to destroy everything Gowdy has been working towards as committee chair this past year-and-a-half. Gowdy himself acknowledging all this in an interview with Politicoreporter Rachael Bade. To be fair, in his public statements as the committee’s chairman, Gowdy has maintained an air of nonpartisan impartiality. At the same time, were a committee chair to consistently express himself throughout a very sensitive investigation in the middle of a presidential election cycle in an overtly partisan manner, this would just be bad politics and harm whatever purposes—whether substantive or political—he and the committee had, destroying its and his credibility from the start. Despite his claims to the contrary—that he is not focusing on Clinton and her personal aides—his actions very much contradict this, and his actions speak much louder than his more measured words. He even made the generally rare move in naming a witness ahead of time in the case of Clinton’s close personal aid and confidante, Huma Abedin, who had almost no relevance to the Benghazi attacks but was called as a high profile witness anyway. And, of course, let’s not forget Gowdy has previously demonstrated his ability to be extremely partisan in previous Benghazi hearings.
Perhaps most embarrassingly, Gowdy himself committed a careless, inexcusable blunder of the type he is accusing Hillary Clinton of committing while Secretary of State. See, Gowdy recently accused Clinton of endangering, in his words, “not only national security but human lives” by sending and receiving e-mails that contained the name of a CIA sourcethrough her personal server; such information is “some of the most protected information in our intelligence community,” said Gowdy (sounds pretty serious, right?). Well, it turns out that the CIA does not consider the sources’ identity classified at all; Ranking Member Cummings wrote a public letter to his committee colleague Chairman Gowdy explaining that the CIA had informed him that Gowdy’s claim that the source’s name was classified and that Clinton therefore had been irresponsible with highly classified information was false, and that none of the information exchanged in 127 e-mails between Clinton and her confidante Blumenthal contained any classified information, with Cummings’ characterization confirmed independently by Newsweek. Gowdy did not back down even though the source was publicly known at the time to have been be in contact with the CIA for years and the CIA chose not to redact the source’s name. Gowdy, in an attempt to bolster his case, released the e-mails in question to the public along with a sniping public letter in response to Cummings’ letter. In this letter, Gowdy wrote that “Sources and methods of intelligence are among the most closely guarded information our government has. We will continue to redact that information and treat it with the highest level of confidentiality and sensitivity, and we would advise you to do the same.” The only problem is, Gowdy had failed to notice that the State Department had not redacted the source’s (non-classified) name in the e-mail copies it had sent to Gowdy, so that when Gowdy released these e-mails (which he was apparently so strongly focused on and concerned about) to the public, he released the source’s name to the public in the process. That’s right: the name he was so worried about was not a piece of information Gowdy even took the most basic cursory steps to prevent public release of and he accidentally released the name because of sheer carelessness. He even did so before the State Department had completed its review process for releasing the e-mail to the public.
If anything, the hearing is likely to empower Clinton, showcasing her strengths while broadcasting her critics’ weaknesses for all to see. And in the long run, it is far more likely that the Select Committee on Benghazi’s uncovering of Clinton’s private e-mail server will only help make Clinton a much stronger candidate than she would have been otherwise. From the large portion of e-mails that have already been released, none making Clinton look bad, incompetent, or unprofessional, we are seeing the destruction of the Republican Party’s last semi-effective attack against Clinton: that she is not open, that she is dishonest, that she has something to hide regarding her actions on Benghazi or maybe even engaged in a cover-up. By having so many investigations, and now spending all these many months focusing on her e-mails, whether the relentless questioning from Republican Congressman and presidential candidates or the nonstop focus of especially the conservative media but also the mainstream media, the Republicans are essentially prematurely playing their last effective handagainst Hillary—the perception that she is untrustworthy—well over a year before the general election. If—and it is seeming more and more like when—Clinton’s e-mails exonerate her with an unprecedented level of transparency, the Republicans’ ability to attack Clinton on her trustworthiness will be the weakest, most diminished it has ever been. It is as if they are pinch hitting the spot of their best and current pitcher in fourth inning, leaving little down the stretch for the more critical innings.
Hillary’s E-Mail “Scandal” as Part of the Big Picture
Yes, in the short term, during the summer before the election, the Republicans managed to sag Hillary’s poll numbers. Now, a resurgent Clinton, as sharp as anyone in politics, comes to Washington tomorrow to confront Gowdy and his Republican colleagues on the Select Committee on Benghazi. They think they are putting her on trial, think that they can score some political points at her expense, with much of the country and media watching, and just while Clinton has shrugged off a slump and seems to be hitting her stride. And after months of pouring over her e-mails, they are right where they have started: with nothing substantive or specific that can do much damage to Hillary, and no new useful information about the attacks on Benghazi that will bring the victims’ families a deeper sense of justice or contribute in any way to meaningful reforms (apart from regulations of personal email use, hardly a towering achievement or the design of a committee nominally focused on Benghazi). A Republican Party in a state of implosion and disarray that seems unable to even decide on a new Speaker of the House is challenging one of the ablest Democratic politicians of this generation to combat on Capitol Hill. Additionally, with some fourteen years between today and the 9/11 attacks and a “huge” assist from Donald Trump, Republicans overplaying their hand on Benghazi and trying to blame Obama before and Hillary Clinton now for the Benghazi attack has left them vulnerable to renewed, quite legitimate criticism of Republicans’ failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks when they controlled the Executive Branch through the George W. Bush Administration. It is a particularly glaring hypocrisy that the Republicans never pursued investigations into 9/11 and Republican-led and Republican-mismanaged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—each of which cost thousands of American lives—with the same zeal and demand for detail they are now displaying in the investigations into an attack in Benghazi under a Democratic president’s watch that cost four American lives. And with a whole host of issues the American public as a whole are deeply concerned about, it is quite telling that Republicans are focusing most of their energy on things like a caricature of Planned parenthood, a myth of illegal immigration being a major and growing threat, and, ostensibly, an investigation into a terrorist attack from three years in Benghazi ago that killed only four people (though one was an ambassador) and has already been investigated eight times, but an investigation that is actually and clearly focusing on Hillary Clinton and her e-mail woes.
Months ago, Republicans were gleefully trumpeting Hillary’s e-mail problems, certain they would prove a major screw-up or cover-up on her part, and thus do enough damage to derail her bid for the presidency. Now, going into tomorrow’s hearings, it is not Clinton who should be afraid. (And I was sure right about that! See my later article: Benghazi Hearing: GOP’s Embarrassing Shame, Clinton’s Triumphant Vindication)
UPDATED: January 30th, 2016
Thanks to the media and Republicans, just a few days before the Iowa caucuses this political zombie is again back from the dead and refuses to die. A typical example of the more abysmal news coverage is provided by The Hill with its article headlined: “FBI’s Hillary Clinton email investigation not letting up.” Far past the opening paragraphs, the article notes that “Officials have indicated that the bureau is not targeting Clinton specifically, however, but is investigating whether any information on her account was mishandled,” and, towards the end: “It might not be Clinton herself who faces the music for any potential crime, however. The former secretary of State did not appear to send most of the emails now marked classified. Instead, they were largely sent or forwarded to her by aides.” So, Clinton is not even the “target” of the headlined “Hillary Clinton email investigation?” Perhaps the editors could have come up with a better label for the investigation then…
As noted above, the State Department began releasing Benghazi-related emails this past May; starting in June, it began releasing monthly court-ordered batches of the rest. The, eighth, final court-ordered batch’s release has been delayed because of the historic, massive snowstorm that just blanketed the Washington, DC, region and because of a mistake by the State Department regarding interagency coordination on reviewing the e-mails, but a small portion of the final batch was released Friday. Like all the other e-mails out of the tens of thousands already released, these new e-mails contained nothing incriminating for Clinton. What was learned recently is that twenty-two emails were subsequently upgraded by the State Department to one of the highest levels of classification possible—“top secret/S.A.P” (special access programs)—at the request of intelligence agencies. The rest of the e-mails that were later classified were almost all classified with the lowest possible level of classification. Some of the classified e-mails reviewed in the past have dealt with Clinton and others discussing information publicly available in news reports or other types of public reports about sensitive programs like the covert U.S. drone warfare program; Clinton recently indicated that the some or all of small number of e-mails later labeled “top secret/S.A.P.” now receiving special scrutiny fit this description and were discussions of media reports publicly available to anyone. Other senior officials, including a senior intelligence official, confirmed that at least some of these e-mails were concerning publicly available information about drones and termed these e-mails “innocuous.” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Ranking Member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, noted that Clinton did not author any of the recently referenced e-mails. In addition, of the two other e-mails previously revealed as subsequently having been labeled as “top secret,” one involved a discussion of drones and the other involved a discussion of North Korea using publicly available information. Even though such information is publicly available, agencies still classify such information, up to and even including discussions about such reports. In terms of the entire body of e-mails subsequently classified by one or more agencies, as before, still almost all of them were sent to, not by, Clinton, though no details as to the especially sensitive twenty-two e-mails have been released other than their classification level. And what has been confirmed repeatedly throughout these proceedings was just again confirmed, even regarding these twenty-two emails: that none of the emails in question were labeled as classified at the time they were sent or received or were.
As has been the case over the many months since the e-mail story broke, still nothing Clinton has done has yet been shown to have harmed national security or American interests. Even with the recent revelation of the twenty-two e-mails subsequently labeled a very high level of classification, until any specifics are released about what type of information was in these e-mails and why they were classified, there really is not much of story here at all, just more of the endless, tedious speculation that the media hopes will sell more papers and that the Republicans hope will bolster their numbers (or Sanders’) against Clinton.
There are other details of a but more ominous nature: a letter written by the inspector general for the America’s intelligence agencies was recently sent to the Republican Chairmen of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence first mentioning that some of the e-mails were subsequently labeled “top secret/S.A.P.” but this letter not released to the public. Somehow, that letter was passed on to Fox News (out of all possible outlets…) and Fox then released it to the public, two weeks before the Iowa caucuses where Sen. Bernie Sanders and Clinton are polling neck-and-neck, suggesting that politics was at least partly behind the letter’s release.
Further update to be released at the conclusion of the FBI investigation
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