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.


John Kerry, Shame on You!

December 19, 2014 (Update)–Nearly two weeks since Secretary Kerry’s  clumsy intervention, and ten days after the Senate report was finally released. There have been zero Americans killed in international protests, and, in fact, no protests of any consequence. You might want to scratch your head and wonder, “what was he thinking?”

December 7, 2014–The Secretary of State of the United States has now taken a hand in the wrongheaded effort to head off release of the investigative report in the Senate intelligence committee’s inquiry into CIA torture programs. Secretary John Kerry this week telephoned committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein to make his case. As reported in the press Kerry referred to alleged national security implications of a release of the torture report and to supposed dangers from jihadists who learn of CIA torture. This whole line of argument is so wrong in so many ways–and John Kerry should be ashamed to be lending himself to this phony exercise.

National security implications? Frankly, the most important national security implications of CIA torture have been for U.S. allies, who have largely adhered to international conventions prohibiting torture, and are embarrassed to see the leader of their pack engaged in such awful behavior. In the United Kingdom CIA torture has led to a court judgment against the Crown. In Poland CIA collaborators are under criminal indictment. In the European Union legal actions are ongoing and will undoubtedly create further embarrassment. Meanwhile, in the United States there has been a concerted effort to evade accountability–or even an open accounting. That perception of evasion is surely more damaging than owning up to what has been done in the name of American democracy.

As for the jihadists I guarantee you that they have believed all along that captured Islamists are tortured. An investigative report which confirms that will add nothing to the pot. It could perhaps even help by documenting that the torture was not practiced even more widely.

Some sources are saying the Kerry phone intervention had White House support. This is an awkward matter since President Obama is on record in favor of releasing the report, but it is consistent with analysis in this space that Obama chief of staff Dennis McDonough’s role has also been designed to forestall release and/or diminish the report if it appears.

John Kerry is the last person who should be involved here. Kerry started off in politics as a Vietnam veteran opposing the Vietnam war. at the exact same time Mr. Kerryvoiced his opposition. Today he defends torture? Shame on you, John Kerry!

CIA Torture Update: In another last-ditch defense, anticipating the Senate committee will go ahead and release its report, the CIA’s torture impresario, Jose A. Rodriguez is in the “Outlook” section of today’s Washington Post to say that torture was legal and that it “proved effective by any reasonable standard.” Along the way he alleges that Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, as Speaker of the House back in 2002, had been briefed on the torture and denied that fact. In my book The Family Jewels I explored the evidence on this claim in detail. It was controversial in 2009, right after Mr. Obama released the Justice Department memoranda on the supposed legality of the torture. Pelosi is correct. The same CIA document on which Rodriguez relies in this article, to allege Congress was briefed on torture forty times, lists a different congresswoman, not Pelosi, as attending the briefing to which Rodriguez refers. Equally to the point, one purpose of the Senate inquiry was to establish whether the torture had been effective–by “any reasonable standard” or any other–and the investigation is widely reported as establishing that it was not. So far the airwaves have been dominated precisely by cheerleaders for torture like Rodriguez. It is high time to have some official pronouncements that are less self-interested. Suppressing this report means deep-sixing that evidence.

As for Mr. Rodriguez’s allegation the torture was legal– those Justice Department papers have been widely rejected as statements of applicable law, refuted in reviews of professional responsibility, and were even re-argued in other memoranda at the time to reduce the scope of the original errors. Mr. Rodriguez, it should be noted, is the CIA official responsible for the destruction of videotapes of the CIA torture. Those tapes documented criminal offenses and their destruction can presumptively be construed as an obstruction of justice. Suppressing the Senate report on CIA torture serves the same end. Let’s have no more of this cant!