The SEKRIT Drones in Hillary’s [Staffers’] Emails

From the start of the Hillary Clinton email scandal, I’ve maintained that there are real reasons to be critical of her use of a private email.

There are big governance reasons to be concerned that Clinton has been in control of all her official emails, including that the emails will get destroyed or hidden from FOIA and Congressional requests.

But there’s also the question of whether whatever sensitive communications she had — potentially including classified information — were safe on a server run out of her Chappaqua home. While the State Department’s own emails have been notoriously unreliable — they have been compromised both in the WikiLeaks leak and in persistent hacks in recent years– if foreign adversaries learned of her private server (and remember, it’s very hard to hide metadata from someone who is looking), her communications would be even easier to compromise.

[snip]

[T]he system is also broken because it has been permitted to become a tool the powerful use to control their own image (and thereby accrue more power). After the years-long witch hunts under her spouse’s Presidency, Clinton might be forgiven for wanting to maintain complete control over her own communications (except for that whole bit about democratic accountability). But she is of course doing it to serve her own Presidential aspirations.

Not only are there real governance reasons it was wrong, but it was an own-goal given that she knew Republicans would pounce on anything that hints of corruption (even though most GOP presidential candidates have done the same thing). In the grand scheme of things, however, I’m most interested in fixing the email and accountability problem, because it has been a recurrent problem since Poppy Bush tried to destroy some PROFs notes to cover up the Iran-Contra scandal.

That said, much — though not all — of the reporting on it took a decidedly irresponsible turn when Intelligence Community Inspector General Charles McCullough revealed that two emails from the emails on Hillary’s server had been determined to contain Top Secret information. Such reporting was led by former NSA official John Schindler whose piece in the Daily Beast bore this headline.

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Schindler might be excused for a headline editors gave his piece to drive clicks and scandal — and indeed, in some parts of his article he was more disciplined in specifying whose emails these were — but he nevertheless used the formulation “Clinton’s emails” when claiming she had satellite-derived information on her servers.

Most seriously, the Inspector General assessed that Clinton’s emails included information that was highly classified—yet mislabeled as unclassified. Worse, the information in question should have been classified up to the level of “TOP SECRET//SI//TK//NOFORN,” according to the Inspector General’s report.

This left the suggestion that as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sat down with some SIGINT reporting, transcribed it, and then sent it off to her staffers. That, in spite of repeated clarifications from official sources that Hillary was in no way a target of the FBI inquiry into this.

Dianne Feinstein clarified the point yesterday: the issue is that Hillary received emails that had information claimed to be classified, not that she sent them.

There has been a lot of press coverage recently of allegations regarding Secretary Clinton’s email. Unfortunately, much of the coverage has missed key points.

First, none of the emails alleged to contain classified information were written by Secretary Clinton.

The questions are whether she received emails with classified information in them, and if so, whether information in those emails should have been classified in the first place. Those questions have yet to be answered. However, it is clear that Secretary Clinton did not write emails containing classified information.

Again, nothing obviates all the blame that Hillary chose to rely on an unclassified email system, but it’s one thing if Hillary were sending Top Secret information across an unprotected server, and yet another thing if she received emails that might have been derived from Top Secret information, but were not marked as such or even evidently sourced from Top Secret information. Or even — given that some of the people and agencies in question aren’t entirely trustworthy when they make claims of secrecy — that publicly available information was deemed Top Secret.

At least according to the AP (in a story sourced to US officials, so potentially some people in DiFi’s immediate vicinity), that’s what happened.

The two emails on Hillary Rodham Clinton’s private server that an auditor deemed “top secret” include a discussion of a news article detailing a U.S. drone operation and a separate conversation that could point back to highly classified material in an improper manner or merely reflect information collected independently, U.S. officials who have reviewed the correspondence told The Associated Press.

[snip]

The drone exchange, the officials said, begins with a copy of a news article that discusses the CIA drone program that targets terrorists in Pakistan and elsewhere. While a secret program, it is well-known and often reported on. The copy makes reference to classified information, and a Clinton adviser follows up by dancing around a top secret in a way that could possibly be inferred as confirmation, they said. Several officials, however, described this claim as tenuous.

But a second email reviewed by Charles McCullough, the intelligence community inspector general, appears more suspect. Nothing in the message is “lifted” from classified documents, the officials said, though they differed on where the information in it was sourced. Some said it improperly points back to highly classified material, while others countered that it was a classic case of what the government calls “parallel reporting” — different people knowing the same thing through different means.

This is CIA claiming secrecy for its drone operations!!! The ongoing FOIAs about CIA’s acknowledged role in the drone war are evidence that even independent appellate judges don’t buy CIA’s claims that their drone activities are secret. Just yesterday, in fact, DC Judge Amit Mehta ordered DOJ to provide Jason Leopold more information about its legal analysis on CIA drone-killing Anwar al-Awlaki, information the CIA had claimed was classified. Indeed, Martha Lutz, the woman who likely reviewed the emails turned over, is fairly notorious for claiming things are classified that pretty obviously aren’t. It’s her job!

I’m all in favor of doing something to ensure all people in power don’t hide their official business on hidden email servers — right now, almost all people in power do do that.

But those who take CIA’s claims of drone secrecy seriously should be mocked, as should those who deliberately obscure the difference between receiving an unmarked email with information claimed to be classified and those who transcribe information from a properly marked classified document.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

28 replies
  1. scribe says:

    Unsurprising that the Rethugs are making anything they can out of this. It’s in their DNA, especially when it involves a Clinton.
    .
    Also unsurprising that HRC would wind up using a private account, for all sorts of reasons. Of course, as SecState she likely would have known, or been able to suss out, that we were listening to Merkel’s “Handy” (the German term for a smartphone) and, indeed, all the comms in all the European governments by or to anyone of importance there. And someone as intelligent as she would have easily been able to suss out that if we can do it to them – regardless of the security devices and such they put on their systems – someone else can do it to us.
    .
    What leaves me wondering is why Obama has been allowing her to be hung out to dry like this. Other than she’s a girl and he still holds a grudge from back when. A few quiet words working their way Down From Above to the minions in the intelligence community, combined as necessary with immolating the careers of the insubordinate who let their partisanship override their obedience, would have sufficed to smother the leaking upon leaking from bureaucrats who should know better that has been driving this.
    .
    This is not to say that espionage and information leaking out is a “bad thing”. A good case can be made that lousy Western security practices which facilitated Warsaw Pact spying made it clear to them we were not attacking them and prevented misunderstandings which almost (3X in the fall of ’83, for one example) resulted in global thermonuclear war.

    • Bill Michtom says:

      You wonder why Obama lets bad things happen to HRC? Not stopping bad things is 2nd on Obama’s top 10 list, right after making bad things happen.

  2. Denis says:

    You seem to be falling all over yourself to run interference for HRC. This piece is overflowing with twisted info and bogus assertions. Is this a gender thing or a liberal thing?
    .
    For instance, you’ve taken Feinstein’s release and passed it on hook, line, and sinker w/out your normal sharp eye, sharper criticism, and serial F-bombs.
    .
    Note, as but one example of how twisted this DF BS is, how DF generalizes from two Emails to all of HRC Em’s when DF says: “However, it is clear that Secretary Clinton did not write emails containing classified information.”
    .
    Whoa!!! Clinton did not write any classified Em’s on her personal computer, or any at all??? Ever? Seems to me that’s one of the things the public would like to know before we get too much further into this election.
    .
    I also take note of how you (and DF) have morphed the issue into what HRC “wrote.” The issue is, first, what classified info was on her personal computer, and, second, what classified info did she send from her personal computer. Whether or not she wrote classified Em’s herself is a diversion.
    .
    I think folks should stop referring to HRC’s computer as a “server.” That, alone, implies she was sending out Em’s from it in response to requests from other computers. If she was requesting and receiving Em’s on it, it is more of a client. Better to call it what it is: her personal computer. That’s what they called Sterling’s computer and Drake’s computer.
    .
    Which brings me to the last point you seem to be glossing over to stay good with the girls: The fact that the Em’s were not marked Top Secret doesn’t mean they weren’t top secret. It likely means that whoever illegally received them on the personal computer stripped the classification. The issue is not even whether they should have been classified. If the were erroneously classified, they were still classified nevertheless and that makes their possession on a private computer a felony.

    • bloopie2 says:

      On your last point, does that mean that if someone in the government accidentally sends me (to my own personal computer, and I’m a nobody) an email containing classified information, and that email resides on my computer, then I have committed a crime? That doesn’t make sense. There must be some common sense qualifications to that rule.

      • Denis says:

        Well, it’s a good point, bloopie. If someone sends you kiddieporn and the govt finds it on your computer, is your defense that you didn’t know it was there likely to keep you out of jail? Kinda’ doubt it.
        .
        To make it worse, Obama’s DoJ is beginning to push the legal theory that if you delete anything on your computer at any time that could be considered evidence, even if the deletion is before the commission of a crime with which you have been charged, you are guilty of obstruction of justice. So not only is it illegal to have forbidden data on your computer, it’s illegal to erase that data if you do have it.
        .
        It’s not just a brave new world, bloopie; it’s a brave new world gone down the rabbit-hole. As much as I detest Bush & Cheney, we were better off under them.

        • Avattoir says:

          Actually, if that’s your defense, it doesn’t even need to be believed to result in acquittal; all that’s necessary is for the jury to have some degree of doubt based on (or for appeal purposes merely potentially based on) reason.

          “Denis”, you really need to find a different, quite a bit dumber blog to try to pull this sort of thing off. It doesn’t work here simply because folks here actually know how to read, employ logic and reason, and know too much about history and propaganda. For example, are you even aware that emptywheel’s grad studies degree relates quite closely to the sort of crap you’re pushing here? Apparently not.

          • Denis says:

            Avattoir, thank you for taking the time to submit such an articulate, ad hominem assessment of me. And thank you for your friendly advice that I take my law license and PhD in neurosciences and go find a crowd “quite a bit dumber” than you. Unfortunately, that would be impossible for obvious reasons.
            .
            I’ll hang around the ole’ echo chamber and offer some critical, skeptical commentary, where appropriate. You won’t appreciate that, which is fine; just go ahead and whine and show us how classy you are.
            .
            I admire EW’s intellect as much as her energy, but that doesn’t mean I agree with her conclusions or tactics. She does more “I told you so’s” in a week than most of us do in a lifetime, which indicates . . . well, how much she tells us. We get along fine. She calls me “bub,” bub.

    • emptywheel says:

      Nice try, bub. Aside from the numerous criticism I make of Hillary, you’re ignoring that the FBI has said the same thing as DiFi.

  3. orionATL says:

    you don’t know what the hell you’re blathering on about.

    but we know which of the hillary-hating groups you come from: “Is this a gender thing or a liberal thing?” says denis the rightwing dope.

  4. wallace says:

    quote”Dianne Feinstein clarified the point yesterday: the issue is that Hillary received emails that had information claimed to be classified, not that she sent them.”unquote

    So says the queen of obfuscation and doublespeak. The fact is..it doesn’t MATTER. And who should know? The State Department employee Clinton had raked over the State Department prosecution coals for exposing the absurdity known as the Iraq war by virtue of his book.. We Meant Well…

    PETER VAN BUREN..that’s who.
    http://wemeantwell.com/blog/

    quote”Which brings me to the last point you seem to be glossing over to stay good with the girls: The fact that the Em’s were not marked Top Secret doesn’t mean they weren’t top secret.”unquote

    Again, it doesn’t MATTER whether the EM’s were classified or not…
    quote:”What matters in the world of secrets is the information itself, which may or may not be marked “classified.” Employees at the highest levels of access are expected to apply the highest levels of judgment, based on the standards in Executive Order 13526. The government’s basic nondisclosure agreement makes clear the rule is “marked or unmarked classified information.”unquote

    http://wemeantwell.com/blog/2015/08/11/understanding-why-the-clinton-email-matters/

    Are we clear now?
    As for the CIA’s claim that the Drone program is sekrit…

    BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!

    Maybe in Cippolini’s parallel universe where the 5 laws of stupidity reign.. but back here in ours, the only people on the entire planet who don’t know about them are Federal judges.

    Sekrit. Hahahahahahahaha..hohohohohohohohoho..hahahaha…hahaha..haha..

    I’ll file that under Great Moments in Ludicrous

  5. wallace says:

    Btw, according to Peter, every single State Department “employee” has to go through MANDATORY training every year on communications handling. I’ve got $5 that says Clinton called in sick.. every year..

    quote”Some may say even if Clinton committed security violations, there is no evidence the material got into the wrong hands – no blood, no foul. Legally that is irrelevant. Failing to safeguard information is the issue. It is not necessary to prove the information reached an adversary, or that an adversary did anything harmful with the information for a crime to have occurred. See the cases of Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Jeff Sterling, Thomas Drake, John Kiriakou or even David Petraeus. The standard is “failure to protect” by itself.

    None of these laws, rules, regulations or standards fall under the rubric of obscure legalities; they are drilled into persons holding a security clearance via formal training (mandatory yearly for State Department employees), and are common knowledge for the men and women who handle America’s most sensitive information. For those who use government computer systems, electronic tools enforce compliance and security personnel are quick to zero in on violations.”unquote

    Let’s see Clinton squirm outta that one…

    • orionATL says:

      would it make any difference to your argument if the documents you are incensed about either were not classified or were not marked classified at the time they ended up in the secretary of state’s email ?

  6. Citizen92 says:

    Hi Marcy. Great post.

    I’m dismayed about the private servee for many of the same reasons I was dismayed about the GWB43.com private server that was the defacto White House internet infrastructure dueing Bush II.

    http://m.dailykos.com/story/2007/03/24/315606/-Karl-Rove-and-GWB43-com-Huge-National-Security-Threat

    In some ways, Bush II is still worse since the RNC absconded with ALL of the White House records and was never forces to give them back. And you had all the senior WH people on that system – as opposed to just H and aides on the Chappaqua webserver. And it was the White House (arguably more strategically important than State).

    Still, you would have thought that someone would have learned some lessons.

    • emptywheel says:

      Not to mention OVP’s emails disappeared for days they were communicating with people about how to respond to the investigation into the Plame leak. Different set of emails, but far more damning.

  7. tryggth says:

    A bit in the weeds, but…
    How does the drone aspect square with the Daily Beasts reporting of a TK classification marker?

    • orionATL says:

      this is that daily beast article you (and ew of course) refer to:
      .
      http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/08/12/the-spy-satellite-secrets-in-hillary-s-emails.html
      .
      reading that article, i think the key point is that any effort to lasso clinton and brand her with irresponsibility (which is the whole purpose of this witchhunt – to discredit her sec of state tenure. this is swiftboat ii ) is a house of cards. one assumption resting on a second assumption which rests on a third asdumption resting on a fourth assumption.

      the political questions that need to be answered first are who demanded the “intelligence” community inspector general initiate this review and who has supported it ?

      the larger question at issue may well be: will the u.s. government intelligence community be allowed to threaten, and thus control, potential presidential contenders ?

    • emptywheel says:

      It may be a discussion of the conclusion about outcome of a strike, obtained via sat images, but also accessible from local reporting.

  8. orionATL says:

    in the best of all possible worlds for any party not supporting clinton, any problematic emails in the secretary’s email cache would include something related to benghazi. perfect storm !

    as for the key question of why this sudden attention by an intelligence ig inspector to a presidential candidate, it is possible the inspector general (is there really only one ig for the entire perpetually misbehaving intelligence community?) is just operating as he should in the course of his work.

    it is also possible that this ig review was encouraged by individuals intending to help clinton, but if so – with friends like these … even a vague and unfair implication of wrongdoing will later serve any swiftboating purpose of focusing discredit on clinton’s most important leadership experience.

    and it is possible this ig review was encouraged by revenge seeking within the national security bureaucracy or by republican political opponents in congress.

    to date how much damage has been done? some live ammunition has been provided for next year. we’ll see in some months if and how its used.

  9. orionATL says:

    “my law license and PhD in neurosciences”

    ho ho ha ha ha ho. sure, sure.

    what a lying son-of-a-bitch you are denis, you ignorant right wing troll.

    nobody with that education writes like you write, dope.

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