July 28, 2016–There’s a significant slice of folks out there who think Hillary Clinton ought to be in jail. This latest business of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump inviting Russian spies to hack U.S. computers to track down allegedly missing Clinton emails is typical of the genre. But what we’re really talking about is imagined transgression versus truly stunning betrayal. Don’t fall for it!
Readers of this space will know that when the Clinton email scandal broke, now more than a year ago, the very first pieces you saw here explained how phony were the breach of secrecy charges. I’ll refrain from going back over those details and just make a few central points. First, not until 2009 did the Department of State have any regulation regarding officials’ use of private channels, not until 2012 did the National Archives and Office of Management and Budget issue rules requiring agencies to actually manage electronic messages sent thereon, and not until 2014 did the State Department actually ask former senior officials, including but not limited to Clinton, to hand over copies of their electronic messages. Clinton may indeed have lied in responding to those inquiries, but she was not in violation of regulations. In columns posted here I showed that a range of other senior officials had done the same. Both Condi Rice and Colin Powell were later shown to have been dissembling when they initially denied ever using private channels.
My second point concerned the arbitrary operation of the secrecy system. Much of the fancied Clinton secrecy violation was the product of after the fact judgment by unnamed officials of the CIA and other agencies. Director James B. Comey of the FBI acknowledged as much on July 5 of this year, when the Bureau formally ended its investigation of the Clinton emails. Over three thousand emails–a little more than ten percent of those Ms. Clinton handed over–were found to have sensitive contents. Of those, 2,000 were found to have been retroactively graded classified, and another 1,000 contained a category of information, deemed “sensitive but unclassified,” which really doesn’t belong in the secret vault at all. Eight emails were judged to contain Top Secret information, an equal number confidential, and 36 messages plain secret info. Moreover, those messages appear in chains, where Secretary Clinton reacted to messages in ongoing conversations, and where the actual insertion of the information could have been by anyone.
My conclusion at the time bears repeating: when the regulations become so onerous that top officials cannot do business without violating them, it’s time to change the regs, not persecute the officials.
As a historian I deal with government secrecy every day. I make requests to open secret records, make arguments for why documents should be opened to the public, or desist, agreeing or begrudging claims that continued secrecy is justified. But secrecy can be phony just as it can be real. One of the supposed Clinton violations concerned a newspaper story about the drone war, the text of which was forwarded to Clinton, then traveling, so she would be able to respond to reporters’ queries. It happens the CIA considers everything about drones Top Secret–so it charges the secretary of state with dealing in Top Secret information she could have read in the newspaper. That is phony secrecy.
Contrast it with an example from my current book, which deals with the battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944, the largest naval battle in history. Arguably the two biggest Top Secrets of World War II were the development of the atom bomb and the fact that the allies were reading their adversaries’ coded radio messages, a form of intelligence called “ULTRA.” Extraordinary measures were adopted to protect the secrecy of ULTRA, including never identifying the source. In the battle of Leyte Gulf a powerful Japanese fleet transits through the Philippines to the Pacific side of the archipelago to engage the Americans. In the book I show how America’s Pacific commander, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, threw security to the winds in order to warn of the emergency, and identified ULTRA in a dispatch to subordinates that gave a position for the Japanese fleet on the Pacific side of the islands. That was a real security breach. No one even criticized Nimitz for his deliberate action.
Today Donald Trump invites Russia to hack in search of Hillary Clinton emails. That would be a true cyberattack–a security breach–an intelligence penetration, and an intervention in United States politics. The act is not fundamentally different from the political terraforming the CIA accomplished with its covert operations in various lands. At its heart Trump’s is an act of disloyalty. Sounds like The Manchurian Candidate.
During 1944’s presidential campaign, Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey, who knew the secret of the codebreaking, thought to employ it to charge Franklin Roosevelt with dereliction for Pearl Harbor. Instead Dewey kept his silence after the visit of an emissary from Army chief of staff George C. Marshall. That was being careful.
The politics has fallen very far when citizens want to jail the former secretary of state for doing her job, while political adversaries invite foreign spying merely to obtain votes.