Allies of Hillary Clinton have been promoting a new defense to her e-mail woes. Jeffery Toobin in the New Yorker and Matthew Miller in the Politico argue that the government over-classifies material, and thus Hillary Clinton should be excused for having classified material on her server. It’s a nice move because it conflates a legitimate policy concern with a specific case of malfeasance in an attempt to make the latter more palatable by linking it to the former.
There is a very good case to be made that the government over-classifies information to the point of it being absurd. Even publicly available information that everyone knows gets classified by the government. Miller has an excellent example:
Intelligence officials also often argue that information is classified even when the same information can be gleaned from unclassified sources. While still at the Justice Department, I once wrote a draft press release that a Department attorney claimed contained multiple pieces of classified information. He accused me of a grave violation of the rules for handling classified information, instructed me to destroy all copies and threatened to refer me for investigation. But I had drawn the release from unclassified sources and had never even been briefed on this particular underlying secret—how could I possibly have exposed something of which I wasn’t aware?
However, the ridiculousness of the government’s policy on classification does not, as much as Toobin and Miller would like it to, absolve Clinton of her responsibilities within the confines of that policy. As a member of the government and its employee, she was bound to follow the same procedures and policies as other government workers. It would have been fair for her to have criticized those policies, but it was not appropriate for her to set up a system that allowed for the easy breach of those policies and then claim the policies should have been different. In fact, ironically, as Secretary of State if she had really thought the policies governing classification were a problem she could have used her authority to change the system. I have heard nothing to indicate that it was a concern for her at all.
Other allies want to excuse Clinton because she (allegedly) never sent any e-mail with classified information – she only received it. This, they argue, while a poor decision, makes her mistake something that should be forgiven as a no-harm, no-foul situation (despite not knowing if any foreign governments hacked Mrs. Clinton’s server). Writing in the New Yorker, Steve Coll distinguishes between Clinton and John Deutch, David Petraeus and Sandy Berger because those individuals were involved in cases where “serious or willful neglect was… much clearer than anything that has emerged about Hillary Clinton’s e-mailing.” It is a fair point – what Clinton did is categorically different from what the others did. However, it still doesn’t excuse Mrs. Clinton’s behavior which, while different, was egregious in its own right.
Secretary Clinton, for her personal political reasons (to maintain control over all her communications and to prevent normal oversight), willfully removed herself from the normal channels of government communication. She decided that her privacy and her ability to control her information was more important than any government policy. She created a situation where she was in a position to receive classified information on a piece of equipment not sanctioned by the government. The fact that she (allegedly) never sent any classified information is irrelevant. She should have known that there was a chance – a good chance – that classified information might be sent to her via e-mail when she became Secretary of State. She created a vulnerability that a foreign government may have been able to exploit.
Miller argues that we should excuse Clinton because the situation was no different than “had she been using an unclassified State Department email account, which, like her personal account, would not have been authorized to receive classified information. “ That is simply incorrect. Had she received classified information on the State Department’s servers, the security procedures, safeguards and technicians involved in State’s computer systems would have been able to be involved. Once it was determined that classified information was sent to her non-classified e-mail, they could have traced how it got there and done forensics to determine if anyone had hacked in. That e-mail system would also, presumably, have been subject to anti-hacking technologies employed by the government. It may be true the government isn’t adept at counter-hacking (see OPM), but it is almost certainly more adept than the individual who set up her home server and Platte River. Finally, she would have the safe haven of having followed proper procedures.
If you jaywalk and get hit by a car, you have no right to then claim the driver should have been more careful. Clinton went outside of the bounds of standard operating procedure and wound up with classified material on her computer. To try and turn around and blame the people who sent it (who do have some responsibility, though of a different nature) or the fact that it was not marked is the equivalent of blaming the driver. When a person creates a situation where she can reasonably foresee injury, then she doesn’t have much of a case when injury occurs.