The Russia Caper: Cutting off your Nose to Spite your Face

July 22, 2017–How now brown cow? Brown cows make chocolate milk, don’t they? And wild presidents make cogent policy. The latest out of Washington is as crazy as a hoot. Early this week President Donald J. Trump had an interview with the New York Times in which he complained about Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The complaints, public and bitter, were enough to tell any official he no longer enjoyed the president’s confidence. For those who serve at the pleasure of the president that’s the time to resign. Instead, Jeff Sessions had a press conference the next day and said he is staying on. After that came the leak of highly-classified material, one or more cables from former Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak which purport to record for his superiors in Moscow the specifics of conversations with Sessions, talks about the prospective Russian policy of a future Trump administration, on two occasions during the 2016 campaign.

First we need to consider the origin of this leak. The contents of Jeff Sessions conversations as reported by the Russian ambassador could only have come from intercepts of Russian cable traffic. That kind of material is among the highest categories of “special compartmented information,”–American spies’ most closely held secrets. An uproar ought to have followed. Mr. Trump, who has repeatedly railed at leakers–especially at former FBI director James Comey who told in Senate testimony of his giving memoranda recording unclassified discussions with the president (which Trump seems to think illegal)–has been silent on this leak. Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, was asked about the leak at the Aspen security seminar which he is attending. Coats professed ignorance, said he would have to check into it. No “this is outrageous, we’ll get this leaker,” no “I’ve already initiated an investigation.” No nothing. The silence says volumes. [Update, July 23: Since this posted, Mr. Trump has tweeted a complaint after all–and repeated his unfounded accusation against James Comey. Apart from the tweet there is no other action, neither investigation nor statement from his own press spokesman.] Although it is possible the leak came from down the food chain, from someone set against Jeff Sessions, it seems probable it came from the White House. For the moment I still accept that explanation.

Now we come to the reports themselves. In his cables Ambassador Kislyak specified he had spoken to Sessions in April 2016, at a side meeting on the evening of Trump’s first big foreign policy speech; and in July, during the Republican convention. Readers of this space will recognize elements that confirm hypotheses posted here for months, since last year. (See “Obstruction Starts to come into View,” June 15, 2017.) The leaked cables demonstrate that Jeff Sessions did have a conversation with Kislyak at the Mayflower Hotel in April 2016, something the attorney general has not remembered, vehemently denied, and–together with other elements of this bill of particulars–impugned the honesty and integrity of anyone who would make claims based on those events. The cables also say Sessions spoke of a Trump policy toward Russia. At the Republican convention Trumpist operatives moved to revise the party platform to take a more pro-Russia stance and weaken U.S. sanctions against Russia. Sessions, in close proximity or perhaps even simultaneously, had that other talk with the ambassador.

In between, in early June, we have the Donald Trump, Jr., meeting with a Russian emissary about “adoption,” Moscow’s code for sanctions, with promises of dirt to smear Hillary Clinton. We have since learned the emissary was not only close to the Russian state prosecutor but that she had provided legal representation for the FSB–the Russian secret police–in fact its unit responsible for hacking.

When I wrote of obstruction coming into view, my point was to show how these pieces fit the pattern of a planned political action. The leak of the Kislyak cables starts to fill in the two key pieces–there had to be a Trump campaign expression of interest (Mayflower), and there had to be a sign the Trumpists were serious and could deliver (Republican platform). In between there was a Russian profer– an offer to the campaign describing what Moscow could do for them. That came at the Donald Jr. meeting, and that was the reason why all the campaign senior officials crowded into that room that day.

Quite disturbing in the latest leak is the new context it puts around Mr. Trump and his top aides. Trump denounced Jeff Sessions and expected him to leave. Trump’s rationale was that Sessions had recused himself on investigation of the Russia Caper. But the reason Sessions had to recuse himself was that he had lied to protect Donald Trump–claiming not to remember the Mayflower discussions, denying any substantive discussions, perjuring himself at a nomination hearing. Suddenly a leak appears that destroys both of the attorney general’s original propositions. The leak also confirms our sense of the first move in the Russia Caper. Someone is surfacing the basic conspiracy just to get rid of one person, one who was loyal before but is now out of favor.

Maybe Trump’s Right–So was Hillary

May 16, 2017–The latest escapade of this dysfunctional White House is the admission that, during the recent visit of Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, President Donald Trump told the visitors secrets shared with us by our spy allies. Evidently in haste to defend the president, national security adviser H. R. McMaster insisted that no operation had been revealed that was not already known, and that no sources or methods were mentioned. Earlier today Mr. Trump himself, relying upon the power of the president to “declassify” information, insisted he had the “right” to divulge the secrets he did. This mess brings us full circle to where we were a year ago when Donald J. Trump’s minions persecuted Hillary Clinton over her use of a private email server, chanting “lock her up!”

There’s quite a bit to unpack here. First, the Hillary investigation, conducted by James B. Comey’s FBI, helped fuel the Trump political campaign as it gathered momentum. As discussed here and elsewhere, Comey’s re-opening of the investigation just before Election Day affected the outcome. So did Mrs. Clinton’s wooden handling of the issue. In this space I argued repeatedly that the movement of classified emails–and the excesses alleged by certain government agencies–were less than simple press bulletins made it appear. Not only was that correct, but recently it turns out that FBI Director Comey exaggerated his claims of the dimensions of the potential leak.

In terms of transgressions, Hillary Clinton’s offense was moving message traffic across a medium (a private server) that had not been approved at a time when the State Department had yet to set its policy for handling this kind of information. There is no evidence the server was ever penetrated or read, hence no indication of a national security breach. By contrast, Mr. Trump personally and physically disclosed secrets to representatives of a nation long our adversary. They were secrets given by an ally. Although U.S. classification policy permits a president to release secrets, foreign government information is typically protected in our system. At a minimum Mr. Trump breached that confidence. National security damage was done.

When the Clinton email scandal first arose, the instant reaction here was not just to show how the issue had been blown out of proportion but to argue that current policy on secrecy makes it virtually impossible for senior officials to do their jobs without violating classification regulations. The Donald Trump faux pas just demonstrates that anew. It’s time to change the policy!

“Mildly Nauseous?”

May 7, 2017–Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director James B. Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee a few days ago that thinking his actions last October 28, scant days ahead of the 2016 presidential election, might have had some impact on its outcome makes him “mildly nauseous.” Poor Jim Comey! He’s had all kinds of rocks thrown at him, he says. “Lordy!” it’s “been painful,” he says. All this is uttered in a tone of wonderment as if it’s a surprise people might connect any FBI action–more specifically the re-opening of the Hillary Clinton email investigation on the eve of the election–to her defeat. Perhaps Mr. Comey doesn’t know (but if he does not, he has no business being in charge of the nation’s primo investigative agency). The fact is that lots of people have been talking about Comey’s action in exactly those terms since October 29, 2016. Readers of this space, for example, saw two commentaries on Director Comey’s actions (“Spooks Gone Wild!!”, posted that same day; and “Obama and Comey,” November 2, 2016), both posted before Election Day, that worried Mr. Comey’s actions would have the precise effect they did.

A couple of weeks ago the New York Times (April 23, 2017) ran an extensive investigative piece by journalists Matt Apuzzo, Michael S. Schmidt, Adam Goldman and Eric Lichtblau that explored the inner workings of the FBI’s decisions in this case. They quote candidate Donald J. Trump saying, “This changes everything!”

The point is the impact of Comey’s actions was obvious, not hidden in any way. In an email to the work force Mr. Comey explained that not informing Congress of the resumed FBI inquiry– which would have conformed to the Bureau’s standard operating procedure– was wrong. The authors of the Times story quote Comey’s email: “It would be misleading to the American people were we not to supplement the record.”

Let’s review the byplay. Director Comey could have followed Bureau standard procedure, which would also have conformed to the instructions he had from the Attorney General. What he did went outside both those rubrics. That requires some significant rationale. We now know the FBI had several related investigations underway at the same time. Trump political operative Paul Manafort was under investigation for acting as an illegal foreign agent for Russian and Ukrainian interests. Other Trump operatives, separately or together, were potential subjects of an investigation into Russian political actions in the United States. Whether these were different investigations or the same one we don’t yet know. We do know that the Director of National Intelligence and the chief of the Department of Homeland Security had already gone on record, in early October 2016, charging that Russia had been conducting these actions. So far as we know at this writing, the FBI was resisting public reference to its own inquiries in this area. Had Mr. Comey’s concern only been whether he was misleading Americans if he did not own up to re-opening the Clinton email affair, he could have preserved an equal political footing by simultaneously revealing the Trump-centered inquiries.

Instead Director Comey, in a charged political atmosphere, was willing to confirm to the public an investigation targeting Hillary Clinton but not to place the Trump campaign in the same soup. His resignation ought to have been on President Obama’s desk the day after the election. Now he is only “mildly nauseated?” Rubbish!

This is not about Mr. Trump’s margin of victory, or Ms Clinton’s political mistakes that cost her the election. It is not about politics per se. It is about an action by a security agency that had any political impact at all–and about the actions of a director who knew, but stubbornly refused to acknowledge, his actions had that effect. The most plausible explanation for Comey’s actions–the argument I made at that very time–is that he was attempting to avoid criticism of the FBI (from Republicans) for alleged inactions in the email affair. If so, Mr. Comey was putting the FBI’s–and his own–interests ahead of those of the entire American political system. For that reason alone he should be gone.

Now Director Comey is on Capitol Hill asking for an unregulated extension of government surveillance powers, the so-called “Section 702” eavesdropping provision of the USA Freedom Act, set to expire this year. The head G-Man insists the spy powers are absolutely necessary. But now Mr. Comey has credibility and judgment problems. Americans can no longer believe what he says nor can they trust his judgment. That is the price of the FBI’s election interference.

Trump and the Hack: Whose Witch Hunt?

January 6, 2017–Yesterday Director of National Intelligence James Clapper sat before the Senate Armed Services Committee and, referring to president-elect Donald Trump’s jibes at U.S. intelligence, said “I think there is a difference between skepticism and disparagement.” As Clapper said that you could see Robert S. Litt, the DNI’s general counsel, sitting behind him. Litt has been referred to here as a consigliere, and also sat at Clapper’s side when the Fearful Leader perjured himself, swearing to a different Senate committee a few years ago that U.S. intelligence had no collection programs aimed at masses of American citizens. This time around you could see Litt let his head fall, hold it in his hand, and shake it “no.” His gestures suggested the consigliere had a bad feeling about what was happening around him.

Today that is confirmed. General Clapper and the mavens of the intelligence community made their pilgrimage to Trump Tower in New York and presented their detailed findings on the Russian hack to the incoming president. I had thought Trump would give them the courtesy of at least pretending to think over their brief for a day or so but, no, hardly were they out the door when Mr. Trump disparaged the spooks’ findings on Russian hacking as a witch hunt.

Trump looks set to win the public relations contest. Not only have his spin doctors–and the president-elect himself–hammered constantly to repackage a question of a covert influence operation from an historical adversary as a mere case of political sour grapes, but U.S. spooks have left themselves vulnerable to that tactic. The DNI has now had three runs at this affair: a joint statement he issued with the Director of Homeland Security on October 7, 2016; a joint report with DHS last week, and yesterday’s Senate hearing. In all three instances Clapper chose to go with anodyne pronouncements that gave hardly any detail regarding the Russian hack that affected an American presidential election, buried those details released among a mass of generic B-S regarding protective measures against hacking, or submerged it among descriptions of hacking by other states and entities. On top of that DNI Clapper failed to restrain FBI director James Comey from the related action of calling in the computers of the ex of a senior Hillary Clinton aide which, apart from anything else, served to muddy the waters about charges of a Russian hack. All of these actions exhibited exaggerated fears for secrecy–and show why here we call the DNI a Fearful Leader. The effect of Fearful Leader’s actions and omissions has been to leave daylight for Mr. Trump to manipulate this matter as an artifact of politics rather than national security.

Donald Trump’s stance of stiffing those he regards as witch hunters now requires him to point out the real enemies. Top of the list has to be U.S. intelligence. You can see the purge coming.

 

Part 2

January 7, 2017–In his Op-Ed piece in today’s New York Times, former CIA deputy director Michael Morrell write, “Mr. Trump’s attacks on the agency surprised me, but they shouldn’t have.” Precisely. This space has been commenting on the attacks for many weeks now. The president-elect chose to make intelligence a political football as an alternative to accepting a serious objection to his simplistic attitude toward Vladimir Putin and Russia. The head-in-the-sand obtuseness of U.S. intelligence under Fearful Leader Clapper helped make Trump’s maneuver feasible.

Yesterday we commented on the shortcomings of previous releases and reports from Director Clapper that were so bland and uninformative they permitted Mr. Trump to dance away from their implications. Yesterday DNI Clapper and his agency directors had their detailed briefing with the president-elect. Afterwards the DNI released an unclassified background paper that purported to detail the charges against Russia for hacking the U.S. election. The news commentaries today, Mr. Morrell’s article, and many other speculations, are based on that summary paper.

Unfortunately the DNI presentation again illustrates the same deficiencies already noted here. Barely more than one quarter of the 25-page “intelligence community assessment” is actually substantive. There is almost as much blank paper (cover and back covers, contents, title pages) as that. Five more pages are given over to explanations of what is an intelligence report, a scope note, and tabulations of the probability levels the spooks attach to judgments that range from “remote” to “almost certain.” By far the meatiest element in this report is an only tangentially-related paper–years old we are told, and as lengthy as the entire substantive hacking report–of the way the broadcast outlet RT Television essentially functions in the same fashion as the Voice of America.

The substantive report contains three “key judgments.” These were by nature assessments, not facts. The only real factual statements were that Vladimir Putin ordered the hacking campaign, and that the Russians did not target or compromise systems involved in vote tallying. The analysis underlying these conclusions lies in a five-page paper jointly produced by the CIA, NSA, and FBI, labeled “a declassified version of a highly classified assessment . . . [that] does not include the full supporting information on key elements of the [Russian] influence campaign.” Aside from such public record details as when various Russian outlets, including RT Television, began their coverage of the U.S. election, and characterizations of the content of Russian media coverage and the statements of notables, there is very little in this report. In terms of the massive hacking, the most substantive elements say that Russian intelligence gained access to Democratic National Committee networks in July 2015 and maintained that access at least through June 2016. Russian military intelligence (GRU) joined in by March 2016, compromised personal email accounts of officials and party figures, and within two months “had exfiltrated large volumes of data.” That’s it.

“Scope Notes” are of little value when their purpose is to disguise lack of content. U.S. intelligence understandably wanted to safeguard its sources, and wished to preserve a step-level distinction between the depth of the information it provides top officials versus the public, but General Clapper again failed to make his case to the public, and to Donald Trump the issue is politics, not intelligence. Trump’s response was to declare he will order an investigation of how NBC News found out about some things in Clapper’s report. He referenced hacking by outsiders (including, but beyond) Russia, and said he will seek a report by late April 2017 regarding general countermeasures against hacks. The only Trump statement recognizable from the U.S. intelligence report is his insistence no voting machines were tampered with.

 

Pearl Harbor, the Emails, and the Purge

December 11, 2016–How often hopes are dashed! I had been working up to do something around the 75th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor when the latest email developments emerged. Sad for me, the absolutely crazed email scandal must take precedence, so I’ll turn to that. The Russians, the elections, the CIA and FBI, Trump–it all swirls around in some cosmic stew, morphing repeatedly into new configurations that lead in unanticipated directions. Let’s start by reviewing where this story came from.

For Americans it began with the “Clinton emails.” Readers of this space will recall our refrain that Clinton was being lambasted for creating communications channels that were legal at a time when authorities had yet to order the emails  preserved as government records, and for handling “classified” information when no one knew what was actually secret, and where a lot of the heat was generated by after-the-fact attempts to make secret what had not been. The argument here has been that Hillary’s alleged transgressions were no different than those of many high officials and that–to the extent any of this should be deemed illegal–it’s time to change the law so that the conduct of policy can be straightforward.

For some foreigners the story begins much earlier, with so-called “cyberwar.” The latest reportage maintains that as early as the presidential campaign of 2008, Chinese hackers penetrated the online communications of both Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns. Over the past two years a new wave of this activity, traced to Russian sources, has again penetrated private communications. At first this was represented as only those of the Democratic National Committee, but later the circle of victims expanded to the Clinton campaign committee, and to the personal account of committee chairman John D. Podesta. Latest reports add the Republicans to the victim list. (NOTE: No reports claim that any of the Clinton emails from the original controversy are involved in this one.) Cyberwar turned into political warfare when the (alleged) Russian hackers began leaking inside information from the Democratic emails in a way so as to damage Hillary Clinton’s election campaign.

During the summer of 2016 the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) let it be known it suspected Russians as the hackers responsible for these penetrations. In the fall our Fearful Leader– the Director of National Intelligence– and the Department of Homeland Security together repeated that message on October 7. In the days since the election, says new reporting, the Central Intelligence Agency affirmed the conclusion the Russians are behind the hacking, traces it to the Russian military intelligence service GRU, identifies specific officials supervising the project, and finds the activity part of a political warfare plot to influence American politics.

Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump used the Clinton email issue as a political weapon to impugn Hillary’s discipline and even insinuate criminality. When charges of Russian hacking first surfaced, Trump not only denied that, he invited Russia to hack Hillary in search of missing emails. When intelligence agencies began confirming the hacking charges, Trump denied the substance again, and charged the spooks with being off their rockers. His spindoctors refute the most recent allegations by charging intelligence with being the same people who told us that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Trump is clearly set to purge the intelligence agencies–something predicted here before the election.

Meanwhile there is the most curious behavior of the FBI director. Having found that Mrs Clinton had not committed criminal acts in her handling of email (June 2016), Director James Comey chose to resurrect that issue just ten days before the election in a way that was most damaging to Clinton: action aimed not against her but the estranged husband of a close aide, with no actual knowledge or even suspicion that classified information was involved, and against advice of both Fearful Leader and the Attorney General not to do it. If it now emerges that Comey knew the Russians had hacked Republican computers and kept that quiet, while drawing attention to leaks aimed at Democrats, that raises serious questions about whether Director Comey had political intentions, especially in the context of his sudden late-campaign action that also damaged Democrats.

Maybe I can get Pearl Harbor in here after all!!!– One of the arguments about Pearl Harbor that has raged down through history is whether the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941 represented the last step on a back door road to war. Historians Charles Beard and Charles Tansill were among the first to assert that President Roosevelt sought to provoke Japan as a means of getting the US into World War II. There have been other versions of this story too–Winston Churchill did it, factions within the U.S. government did it, there have even been allegations that Adolf Hitler did it, prodding Japan to attack the Americans. The 2016 election is sure to echo down the years–and there will be disputes about the outcome. Did the Russians engineer it? Did the FBI? Did Mr. Trump win the election? Did Hillary Clinton lose it? Meanwhile Donald Trump is set to purge the intelligence community.

Obama and Comey

November 2, 2016–Today’s 90-second comment: Barack Obama has finally taken notice of the mess at FBI. The president says America doesn’t work this way; we don’t operate on incomplete information. Here he breaks ranks with the spooks he has steadfastly protected all through his administration. It is not difficult to discern why–Director James B. Comey’s actions over at the Bureau, threatening to derail the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, also aim at his legacy. A Trump presidency would seek to dismantle everything Obama has accomplished. That is one reason Obama has been on the campaign trail for Hillary, and it also marks the beginning of an assault on the FBI that is sure to intensify.

The latest developments over at the Bureau are reports the gumshoes  sure enough did treat the Huma Abedin/Tony Weiner laptop investigation differently than their other cases. FBI apparently stopped work on a pair of other inquiries that had political overtones–one into Trump aide Paul Manafort, the other into links between donors to the Clinton Foundation and Ms Clinton while in office as secretary of state. If true, this indicates the FBI acted to avoid interference in the U.S. elections, until the latest stupidity.

If you reject the idea Comey is acting as a Republican stooge, there is only one logical explanation left : FBI acted in hysteria over allegations that secret documents populate the Abedin/Weiner laptop. That brings us back to where we began the other day–the secrecy system is being administered in a way that makes it impossible for top officials to do their jobs.

As for the FBI, cancel their expressions of interest in the deal where they are enticing investors to pay for their new headquarters in a Washington suburb. Let them stew in their dump downtown.

And for secrecy, we have reached the point that the secrecy system has damaged the American electoral process. That is true damage to U.S. national security, much more than the content of any email the FBI may possibly find.

Spooks Gone Wild !!

October 29, 2016–By now you would have to be an ostrich out in the Australian outback with her head in the sand not to have heard the latest blast from the Federal Bureau of Investigation–the FBI is re-opening the Hillary Clinton email case on the strength of unspecified, mysterious, material allegedly found on laptop computers shared by Clinton aide Huma Abedin and her separated husband, Anthony Weiner. This requires comment, both in particular and from a broad perspective. Sadly, my house requires upkeep and painting, and I’ve not been able to spare the time the latest horror deserves, but let me put in a few words now. My guess is this story continues to spiral out of control and will be there for further comment in coming days, even weeks.

First of all, the Bureau was investigating Anthony Weiner, not Hillary at all. Of course, it was inevitable, in these last days of a presidential election, where the underdog has been desperately trying to use the Clinton email secrecy issue as a claw to recover lost ground, that a blow struck at Weiner/Abedin would reverberate as a shakedown of Clinton. The Trump campaign is taking it precisely that way. If FBI director James B. Comey thought it would be taken any other way he is foolish–and no one thinks that of him.

So, why this? Why now? Director Comey has been under strong fire from Republicans for, supposedly, shielding Clinton in the original investigation, which found the issue did not merit additional investigation. To revive the investigation might get the FBI a little credit, and at this time in a critical political campaign, a lot of ground with Republicans. The timing is doubtless partly due to this, partly due to the discovery on computer drives seized from Weiner of the Abedin/Clinton material. Comey probably calculated that if he delayed action, that fact was sure to leak, adding to FBI’s political problems. Unfortunately by the action he took, Comey buys into an even bigger problem.

I’ll return to the specifics of the secrecy investigation in a moment, but first a crucial point absolutely needs making: the “October Surprise” revival of the Clinton email investigation absolutely insures that, whoever wins the election, it will be followed by a purge of the intelligence community. Ms Clinton will be furious at the way FBI handled this matter. Comey’s tenure at the Bureau expires in the middle of the next president’s presumptive second term and you can be certain he’ll be unable to protect anyone the White House decides to go after. Comey himself will be frozen out of the halls of glory. If Donald Trump becomes the next president, he will purge because he’ll know that whoever fixed the cards against Hillary can tell that story on him, representing an incredible political danger. Plus, the unnamed culprits could do the same to the Donald, so they must be stamped out.

Yet I say purge of the whole intelligence “community.” That is the entity of sixteen agencies (or however many there are today) under their Fearful Leader, General James Clapper. In Spanish there is a slang word, flojo, literal meaning “flimsy” but used for pathetic weakness. Clapper’s “leadership” falls in that category. Running around with his hair on fire about North Korean missile tests and ISIS militants under every rug, Fearful Leader first casts our own intelligence officers as the greatest danger to American national security, and then he stands aside while James Comey takes an action that undoubtedly does affect national security. Obama was wrong not to get rid of Clapper when Fearful Leader escalated the NSA blanket surveillance scandal by perjuring himself before Congress. Now Clapper has been ineffectual in the face of an FBI action that may derail the prospects of Obama’s favored successor. Add to that that Clapper is unable to energize the CIA to do anything useful in the real ISIS war, in Syria, and you have an intelligence mess across the board.

There’s more painting to do and I have to go. But before I leave, a few words about the actual stimulus here. Director Comey does not know there’s any problem here. He supposes that because the computer was, in part, used by Huma Abedin, it may contain some of the same emails that have figured in the controversy over the Clinton emails and their classification status. Even if so, where’s the beef? For there to be a secrecy issue at all, Hillary Clinton needs to have sent emails with secret information from the Abedin/Weiner computer to another link that was not secure. Message traffic that is retrospectively graded secret does not count. Messages that copied Abedin at this address along with sending to her at other places (ever done that?) do not count. Messages that Abedin sent Hillary do not count. Messages that were mistakenly addressed do not count.

Readers of this space will know I have said repeatedly that the email controversy shows that the security regulations need to change once the system becomes so awkward a senior official cannot function without breaking the regs. This business of the alleged security violation over a secondary computer shows exactly what I mean. It becomes impossible to conduct the business of government this way. The system needs to change.

What’s Secret, Hillary? Who’s Careless, Trump?

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.

Hillary’s Emails: Overclassification “Run Amok”

January 30, 2016–The spokesman’s statement was redundant. “Overclassification” means crazy, excessive secrecy. To say that it “ran amok” is repetitious. Brian Fallon, Hillary Clinton’s spokesperson, nevertheless had a point–and you read it here, first. Last August, as a matter of fact (in “Hillary’s Emails: Bursting the Secrecy Bubble,” August 22, 2015). The State Department announced on Friday that twenty-two of the Hillary Clinton emails examined by authorities contained information graded “TOP SECRET” or above. Those emails will now be separated from the court-ordered release of Clinton electronic messages and made secret. Guess what? That’s a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey.

We are close to six months after the piece in this space, cited above, predicted that secrecy authorities would comb over the Clinton email, find things they prefer not be out, and try and squelch public distress by means of imposing secrecy. Well, Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) inspector general I. Charles McCullough, III, has done just that. The 22 emails are his hit list, possibly (but perhaps not) approved by Fearful Leader James Clapper, the man who issued an official ODNI directive designating officers of the United States intelligence community as the greatest threat to national security the U.S. faces.

In an interview last week on National Public Radio, Hillary Clinton commented on one of the TOP SECRET messages, one that informed her about an article on the drone war that was appearing in the New York Times. “How a New York Times public article that goes around the world could be in any way viewed as classified, or the fact that it would be sent to other people off the New York Times website, I think, is one of the difficulties people have in understanding what this is about.”

Just so. But ODNI’s hit on Clinton is a real one. It happens this way: there are plenty of things ODNI–or the CIA, or the NSA–don’t want out in public. In their secrecy game, if ODNI (or one of the others) do not themselves declassify information, then it’s still secret, even if everybody in the world knows it. So if the Times gets a leak and prints it, the newspaper is dealing in secret information. Meanwhile, government officials need to know what’s in the papers so they can respond when the media or the public asks about it.

It’s perfectly understandable that someone sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton an email containing the text of what the Times had reported, including whatever ODNI or anyone else deemed to be TOP SECRET. Right now you can go to the State Department’s Electronic Reading Room and see precisely equivalent messages that have since been released: to the U.S. Ambassador in Thailand warning the Times had the CIA black prison story; to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice containing the text of the Times story reporting that CIA officer Jose Rodriguez had ordered the secret destruction of videotapes that were evidence in a criminal case. You can easily imagine other examples that should be there–like the cables that must have flown around when the press reported that an American sought by Pakistani authorities for killing Pakistani citizens in a street incident was linked to the CIA.

So, let’s call a spade a spade–what just happened was that the spooks coerced the State Department into invoking secrecy, casting a cloak of classification, over material that was not designated secret by an “original classification authority”–as per government regulation–that had been in the public domain for many months, and that is subject to a court order compelling its release. As Barry Goldwater once said about CIA lies over Nicaragua, “This is no way to run a railroad!”

Last August I gave other recent examples of officials hoist on the petard of secrecy rules–and made the point that the officials against whom the rules are actually enforced–those who pay the price–are the people far down the food chain. The truth is that we are, all of us, being hurt by secrecy run amok. When the country reaches the point when officials cannot do their jobs without criminal violation of secrecy regulations, then it’s time for the regulations to change, not time to throw Hillary in jail. While we’re at it, it is time to understand that the security services have ceased being arbiters of necessary secrecy–if they ever were–and have become information manipulators seeking political, and other, advantages.

Hillary’s Emails: Bursting the Secrecy Bubble

August 22, 2015–A quick note today and I’ll come back again soon. You’ll have heard me often enough talking about the mind-deadening effects of government secrecy. Consider this: Hillary Clinton, the possible Democratic Party presidential candidate and former secretary of state in the Obama administration, is losing ground in opinion polls for an issue that revolves around the handling of secret documents, or more precisely, whether classified information was sent by her in private emails. The opinion poll losses are a real political cost.

The simple fact is that the public does not even know if Hillary really mishandled secret information.  We simply know there is a possibility, based on a survey by unnamed State Department officials of a small cross-section of the message traffic that moved across her circuits. Mind you, the likelihood is high that some classified information was transmitted this way, but there is a huge difference between a two-year old email that announces Secretary of State Clinton will make a secret visit to Afghanistan tomorrow, versus one that contains key information about, for example, the private U.S. opinion of the latest Israeli approval for building additional settlements on the West Bank. Plus the likelihood is also high that whomever conducted this survey decided some of what passed by email should have been classified at the time but was not.

Problematic classified information represents only a small fraction of what gets made secret. Often the need for secrecy is short-lived, as in Hillary’s itinerary. Sometimes the secret is merely what (open) information someone is looking at. Other times the secret is low-grade, such as the rate of casualties for U.S. forces in battle in the last week, month, or other reporting period.

The probability is high that most of what transitted Hillary’s server and phone was this kind of material. Some of the rest is a phony charge, as in seems important enough to classify today but was not then.

But the system is so crude it does not make a distinction. For example, Chelsea Manning is in prison today for Wikileaks releasing hundreds of thousands of classified messages. Big secrets? Did you look at them? Probably 98 percent of what was in that leak was of the low-grade variety. (There’s a reason for that, too: Manning was on an interagency network for sharing where the participating agencies and armed services were putting only their lowest-grade stuff out. There’s a whole conversation to have about what really happened with the 9/11 Commission’s demand the government “break down walls” between agencies, but this is not the time for it.) The story with Edward Snowden was different, but the point is that Hillary, Manning, and Snowden are all accused of precisely the same thing.

Here’s more: President Barack Obama’s White House put out a release a few months ago that revealed the name of the CIA station chief in Afghanistan. Technically Mr. Obama is guilty of the same offense as Hillary, mishandling classified information. Former CIA officer John Kiriakou was sent to prison for this. General David Petraeus, CIA chief and ex-commander in Afghanistan, was convicted and sentenced for this. Scooter Libby, a senior acolyte of our former vice-president, Dick Cheney, was convicted of obstruction of justice in connection with an episode where their office deliberately leaked classified information naming a CIA officer. Obama’s gaffe had been inadvertent. During earlier presidential campaigns there were charges against John Kerry and Bob Kerrey both, concerning things they did in Vietnam, that revolved around leaks of still-classified information, or based on just-released information. In the 1990s CIA director John Deutch was found to have classified materials at his home.

I submit to you that when the secrecy system reaches the point that senior officials routinely fall afoul the regulations for handling classified information, the system is out of control. We need a system that safeguards real secrets, high-grade information, not one capable of shifting political opinions in presidential elections based upon public misunderstanding of the secrecy system, and obscure officials’ assertions of blanket national security claims. Change the system. The alternative is that one day the secrets will swallow the government.