Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Hillary Clinton "Top-Secret" Email Controversy Explained

One of the most exasperating things about the Clintons is that so many of their political problems are self inflicted.  The most recent example is Hillary Clinton's use of a private e-mail server reportedly for "convenience."  Other stories have suggested that she was not alone in employing the practice, but with an eye toward running for the presidency, why give an opening to her enemies? Whether or not there is any legitimacy to claims that she had truly classified or "top secret" information on the server remains to be seen as explained in a piece in Vox.  As we have seen from the Benghazi circus, Republicans will use the claims against Clinton whether they are true or not.  Again, why give them an opening?  Here are article excerpts:

The saga of Hillary Clinton and her emails took an unusual turn on Friday: the State Department announced it is withholding 22 emails because they contain information marked "top secret." And Clinton's campaign immediately objected, putting out a statement demanding that the emails be released.

So what is going on here? Why are these emails top secret, why is it a big deal, and why would Clinton, of all people, want them released?

It's impossible to know the answers to those questions with absolute certainty without seeing the emails. But the key dispute is over whether the classification shows that Clinton was emailing out highly sensitive secrets or if these were everyday emails that just got swept up in America's deeply broken classification system. There's some real reason to believe that the latter is at least possible. Here's what we know and how to parse this latest email controversy.

This might seem unimportant. If it's top secret, then it must be really sensitive, right?
Not necessarily. A large proportion of documents that our government classifies are not actually that sensitive — more on that below. So the key thing now is to try to figure out: Were these emails classified because they contain highly sensitive information that Clinton never should have emailed in the first place, or because they were largely banal but got scooped up in America's often absurd classify-everything practices?

[O]ne good way to make an informed guess is by asking whether the emails were classified at the moment they were sent or whether they were classified only later. The reason this matters is that if they were immediately classified top secret, then that is a good sign that they contained information that is known as "born classified" — that it was information in itself obtained by classified channels or because it was generated internally by classified means. 

[I]f the information were classified only later, then that would indicate it was more banal, or that it was not classified for any reasons particular to the emails themselves. Again, see below on how a boring email could become marked as top secret.

According to a statement by the State Department, "These documents were not marked classified at the time they were sent."

In other words, they do not contain information that was "born classified," but rather fall into the vast gray area of things that do not seem obviously secret at the time but are later deemed that way — not always for good reason.

The American government's system for classifying things as secret is widely considered a giant mess, by which agencies reflexively overclassify things, and the reasons for classifying often make little sense. It is thus extremely easy to imagine that Clinton's emails were classified not because they contained super-sensitive national secrets, and possibly not for any good reason at all, but rather just as a product of America's broken classification system.

This goes back to 1982, when the Reagan administration began a program of such aggressive classification that the unofficial slogan was, "When in doubt, classify." This waned under Bill Clinton but shot back up dramatically under George W. Bush, so much so that by 2004 the mere bureaucracy for classifying documents cost $7 billion per year.

The problem, in other words, isn't that the rules for classification are too strict. It's that the rules are unclear, messy, or contradictory, to the degree that the rules exist at all, and individual people and agencies have learned to overclassify to stay on the safe side.

The problem has grown so severe that it has hampered even the ability of American intelligence officials and policymakers to access the information they need to do their jobs. The head of the 9/11 Commission, Richard Ben-Veniste, told Congress in 2005 that "the failure to share information was the single most important reason why the United States government failed to detect and disrupt the 9/11 plot." He warned, "Information has to flow more freely. Much more information needs to be declassified. A great deal of information should never be classified at all."

Unfortunately this story will be immediately politicized, polarizing people into seeing Clinton as absolutely guilty or absolutely innocent.

The Associated Press got a little carried away in writing this up, declaring that the government had "confirmed" that "Hillary Clinton's unsecured home server contained some of the U.S. government's most closely guarded secrets." Maybe this will turn out to be true, but at present we have no idea that it is, and it strikes me as irresponsible to assert this when anyone who has reported on the government's overclassification addiction knows that classified information is just as likely to be banal as is to be "the US government's most closely guarded secrets."

It makes sense why the Clinton campaign would want these emails released. If they remain top secret, then this will give her Republican opponents an opening to accuse her of bandying highly sensitive secrets around on her private email account, and thus paint her as dangerously irresponsible.

The Clinton campaign's statement is obviously meant to imply that the emails are harmless enough to be immediately released and thus do not contain anything particularly sensitive. But it's also possible this is just a clever bluff.

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