Why the Hillary Clinton email imbroglio isn’t just politics

August 21, 2015

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign event in West Columbia

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at a campaign event in West Columbia, South Carolina, July 23, 2015. REUTERS/Chris Keane

In Las Vegas a few days ago, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seemed to almost crack. Correspondent Ed Henry — yes, representing Clinton nemesis FOX News, but still a journalist with undoubted chops — asked her: “Did you try to wipe the entire server?” Clinton answered, in this order: a) “I have no idea.” b) “What? Like with a cloth or something?” and c) “I don’t know how it works digitally at all.” As she left the room. she delivered a final riposte to the assembled press: “Nobody talks to me about it other than you guys.”

Nobody? In a week when the State Department told a court that 305 emails from her private server were being reviewed for security breaches? How did Hillary Clinton, the better half of a couple that has batted away this kind of scandal for a quarter-century, start sounding like a cornered Richard M. Nixon in a pink pantsuit?

Actually, the answer has a lot to do with Nixon.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton answers questions from reporters following a campaign town hall meeting in Dover

Hillary Clinton answers questions from reporters following a campaign town hall meeting in Dover, New Hampshire, July 16, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Let’s be clear up front: We are not by any stretch talking Watergate here. But Clinton’s email scandal — like many modern political scandals — is being given Watergate-like treatment. The scandal is now being fueled not just by journalists with fitful attention spans or congressional committees rabid with partisanship, but by the formidable investigative apparatus that Nixon and Watergate left behind as their gifts to the American political system.

A lot of physical and digital ink has already been spilled over Clinton’s emails, so let’s be brief. On the first day of Clinton’s Senate confirmation hearings, an aide began setting up the private email account and server that she used instead of State Department email to do her public and private business throughout her tenure in office.

This spring, the State Department — spurred by Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), head of the House committee investigating Benghazi — asked former secretaries of state for any emails they had on private servers. Clinton decided which emails to turn over and which ones to withhold and erase.

Things might have ended there, sputtering and inconclusive. But the Republican chairmen of the Senate intelligence and foreign relations committees asked the inspectors general of the State Department and the intelligence community to investigate whether any classified information had been kept on private email servers.

nixon-press-conf.2

President Richard M. Nixon during a press conference on Watergate. REUTERS/Nixon Presidential Library and Museum

Federal inspectors general have existed for a long time, but their offices were greatly strengthened after Watergate. In 1978, legislation established new inspectors general for the different intelligence agencies. These officials multiplied past the point of redundancy. In 2010, some of their functions were consolidated in a new office of the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community.

The first occupant of the office, former FBI agent Charles McCullough, examined Clinton email messages that the Benghazi committee had extracted from the State Department and said he had found classified information in them. McCullough tried to get wider access to the Clinton emails in State Department custody. But the department’s undersecretary for management resisted, and the Clinton campaign claimed that the emails he cited hadn’t been classified at the time they were sent.

The State Department, however, also has an inspector general. The nominees used to be appointed by the secretary. But 1980 legislation made them presidential appointees confirmed by the Senate — that is, far more independent. During Clinton’s tenure at the State Department, a non-Senate-confirmed acting inspector general held the office. But in 2013, the Senate confirmed former federal prosecutor Steve Linick for the post.

Linick announced that the emails McCullough cited had in fact contained classified information at the time they were sent, though they may have not been marked as such. He also invited McCullough to share the investigation. At the end of July, a joint statement by the two inspectors general sought the intervention of the FBI, to which Clinton has now, finally, handed over her private email server.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton walks away after answering questions from reporters following a town hall campaign stop in Nashua

Hillary Clinton walks away after answering questions from reporters following a town hall campaign stop in Nashua, New Hampshire, July 28, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Clinton’s lawyer says the data on the server was erased by the time it was handed over. The consensus among forensics experts seems to be that much of the information can be recovered.

Political people who have commented on the controversy point out that it is the result of the overclassification of government information. They say it also shows a failure by the intelligence community to admit that the dividing line between classified and unclassified information is murky and is breached all the time.

I sympathize. It has been many years since I worked for the State Department — as special assistant to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, when he was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations — but the debate hasn’t changed much. Even then, before Watergate made the federal investigative apparatus so much stronger, you bought yourself a world of trouble if you didn’t show the proper respect toward the bureaucratic system and the people who administer it. The first time I ran up against the State Department’s classification system, the problem involved a burn bag — literally, in those days, a bag in which the day’s classified cables were deposited — and the fact that I hadn’t properly disposed of it. Since this was my first offense, the penalty was that I had to write an explanation of exactly what had happened and how I was going to keep it from happening again — ever.

I wrote something clever and arch. I was lucky that the first person who saw it was a prince of a career employee named Joseph Meresman, now deceased. Meresman explained — with more patience than I deserved — that, yes, the rules were silly; and, yes, the material in all probability shouldn’t have been classified in the first place. But I was stupid not to show some prudent respect for the people who had the tedious job of enforcing the rules and thought they were helping their country by doing so.

He pointed out they would be around longer than I would. And they had a way, he said, of getting back at people who they thought held them in contempt.

And that was before the culture of post-Watergate reform had fully taken effect. The institutions forged by the Watergate scandal are now in full flower. They are as close to permanent as anything in contemporary U.S. politics, relatively immune from the vagaries of elections and the journalism business. Their personnel have the staying power to keep pursuing the people they think have tried to put themselves above the rules.

Clinton may survive these institutions. But it no longer seems prudent to put her chances at more than 50-50.  


4 comments

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This opinion article is very unconvincing, rambling all over the map. No discussion is made of what written protocols were in place over this time frame for emails. What instructions were given specifically to the Secretary of State about emails, how confidential emails are marked and handled, etc.

I think this is much ado about nothing big time.

Posted by Telstar | Report as abusive

“Let’s be clear up front: We are not by any stretch talking Watergate here”

Are you kidding?

This is much more serious than Watergate. Watergate was a burglary by political operatives against political operatives.

This is our Secretary of State compromising highly sensitive material! The details are just dripping out, despite her best efforts to obfuscate and delay, which itself is a scandal.

But, for example, we know at least one email was related to the security situation in Benghazi. What if that information was compromised and used to help plot/plan the attack on the embassy? Is that really that far fetched, or simply common sense?

And, why did she even use this system in the first place? To keep secrets from the American public. That, too, is scandalous.

Posted by schmidtyfi | Report as abusive

I hope that the DNC and Obama simply abolish federal elections and let him keep the crown for life.

Posted by Empress_Trudy | Report as abusive

How does the author know that this isn’t worse than Watergate?

Posted by Mainer1776 | Report as abusive