[Photo: National Security Agency, Ft. Meade, MD via Wikimedia]

Reality Winner: The Cost of Mounting a Defense Arguing the Government Overclassifies

In this Democracy Now appearance, Reality Winner’s mom, Billie Winner-Davis, suggested that, whereas her case had originally been due to go to trial next month, it now looks like it will stretch into 2019.

We do not have a trial date at this point. The trial was originally scheduled for October, and then it was pushed to March. But as of right now, we do not have a new trial date. So we don’t know when she will be—face the jury. What I’m being told is that it will be late 2018, if not early February 2019.

Earlier this week the two sides submitted a proposed schedule that shows even that may be optimistic. Because Winner’s defense wants to use classified information to argue the document she is accused of releasing is not national defense information, it has to go through the onerous Classified Information Procedures Act process (see this for a description of the CIPA process) to get that information approved for use in a trial. If I’m doing the math correctly, most optimistically the proposed schedule looks like this:

  • March 30, 2018: Defense submits all proposed subpoenas
  • April 30: Deadline for discovery, including remainder of government’s CIPA Section 4
  • June 14: Government’s Rule 16 expert disclosures
  • July 14: Defendant’s Rule 16 expert disclosures, if they already have clearance (former ISOO head, Bill Leonard, who is already serving as expert witness already has clearance)
  • July 29: Defendant’s amended CIPA 5 notice
  • August 13: Government’s supplemental Rule 16 expert disclosures due, government’s objections to adequacy of defendant’s CIPA 5 notice
  • September 10: Government’ CIPA 6(a) motion
  • October 1: Defendant’s response to government’s CIPA 6(a) motion
  • October 15: Government’s reply to CIPA 6(a) motion
  • October 21: CIPA hearing (this is where the two sides argue about what classified information the defense needs to make her case)

At this point, there would either be 42 days to argue about CIPA 6(c) motion (where the government proposes unclassified substitutes). If that happens, it will be 90 days until trial, meaning it would start March 1. If it doesn’t, then the trial would skip that 42 day process and presumably drop into very early 2019).

  • Early January 2019 or March 1: Trial start

Again, this is a joint proposal, meaning the defense is on board with the long delay. Either they think they can win a graymail attempt (meaning the judge agrees they should get the classified information but the government refuses to provide adequate substitutes and so is forced to dismiss the case) or they believe they can make a case (with the help of Leonard) on the NDI claims generally. They may also anticipate that other events — the Mueller investigation, the congressional investigations into the Russian hack, state investigations, or more journalism — may make it clear how absurd it is to try Winner for information that has become publicly available as we have a public discussion about what the Russians did in 2016.

But if not, because (unlike most other people save Hal Martin recently charged under the Espionage Act) she will have been in jail for 19 months assuming an early January 2019 trial, or 21 months assuming a March 2019 trial. Winner is charged with one count of willful retention and dissemination of National Defense Information.

By comparison, Jeffrey Sterling, who was found guilty on nine counts, including five unauthorized disclosure counts, was sentenced to 42 months (the government had been asking for nine years, but Leonie Brinkema seemed to have reservations about the evidence behind a number of the guilty verdicts, and the sentencing came in the wake of the David Petraeus sweetheart two years of probation plea deal). Admittedly, the government piled on the charges in that case, whereas here they charged as one count things they might have charged as several (by charging both the leaks to The Intercept and WaPo, for example, or by charging her for not telling the full truth to the FBI). Nevertheless, Sterling was accused of exposing a critically sensitive program and an intelligence asset, whereas Winner is charged with leaking one document in an environment where very similar information is being leaked or released by multiple government sources.

Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, who pled guilty to one count of disseminating NDI pertaining to CIA resources in North Korea, was sentenced to 13 months.

This is the no-win situation Winner is in, trying to challenge her conviction after having been denied bail. Because of the way we deal with classified information, she’ll have served a likely full sentence by the time she gets to trial.

It still may be worth it. After all, if she wins at trial, she’ll avoid a record as a felon.

But the larger battle seems to be one about the ridiculousness of our classification system. As Leonard said (see PDF 99-100) in his declaration to explain why he was providing his services pro bono in this case, he believes the kind of overclassification of information that may be at issue here amounts to degrading the entire classification system.

My motivation for becoming involved in this case. was my concern for the integrity of the classification system. I strongly believe that classification is a critical national security tool and that the responsibilities of cleared individuals to properly protect classified information are profound. At the same time, government agencies have equally profound responsibilities and in this regard, I have long witnessed the over•classification of rnfonnation within the Executive Branch due to the failure of agencies to fulfill these responsibilities. In this way, the actions of agencies can actually undermine the integrity of the classification system in that to be effective, it must be used with precision. As Justice Potter Stewart said in the Pentagon Papers case, “when everything is classified, then nothing is classified … ”


My involvement in [two prior prosecutions, that of Steven Rosen and Thomas Drake] confirmed for me the importance~ especially in criminal prosecutions, of not allowing representatives of the Executive Branch to simply assert that certain information is classified or closely held or potentially damaging if disclosed.

That is, Winner might prove a point: that this kind of information should be more accessible to the public.

But along the way she will have paid a very costly price.

Update, March 15: After two hearings, Magistrate Brian Epps cut two months off this schedule, setting Winner’s trial date for October 15. That will mean she will have been in jail over 16 months by the time of her trial.

Why I Left The Intercept: The Surveillance Story They Let Go Untold for 15 Months

The Intercept has a long, must-read story from James Risen about the government’s targeting of him for his reporting on the war on terror. It’s self-serving in many ways — there are parts of his telling of the Wen Ho Lee, the Valerie Plame, and the Jeffrey Sterling stories he leaves out, which I may return to. But it provides a critical narrative of DOJ’s pursuit of him. He describes how DOJ tracked even his financial transactions with his kids (which I wrote about here).

The government eventually disclosed that they had not subpoenaed my phone records, but had subpoenaed the records of people with whom I was in contact. The government obtained my credit reports, along with my credit card and bank records, and hotel and flight records from my travel. They also monitored my financial transactions with my children, including cash I wired to one of my sons while he was studying in Europe.

He also reveals that DOJ sent him a letter suggesting he might be a subject of the investigation into Stellar Wind.

But in August 2007, I found out that the government hadn’t forgotten about me. Penny called to tell me that a FedEx envelope had arrived from the Justice Department. It was a letter saying the DOJ was conducting a criminal investigation into “the unauthorized disclosure of classified information” in “State of War.” The letter was apparently sent to satisfy the requirements of the Justice Department’s internal guidelines that lay out how prosecutors should proceed before issuing subpoenas to journalists to testify in criminal cases.


When my lawyers called the Justice Department about the letter I had received, prosecutors refused to assure them that I was not a “subject” of their investigation. That was bad news. If I were considered a “subject,” rather than simply a witness, it meant the government hadn’t ruled out prosecuting me for publishing classified information or other alleged offenses.

But a key part of the story lays out the NYT’s refusals to report Risen’s Merlin story and its reluctance — until Risen threatened to scoop him with his book — to publish the Stellar Wind one.

Glenn Greenwald is rightly touting the piece, suggesting that the NYT was corrupt for acceding to the government’s wishes to hold the Stellar Wind story. But in doing so he suggests The Intercept would never do the same.

That’s not correct.

One of two reasons I left The Intercept is because John Cook did not want to publish a story I had written — it was drafted in the content management system — about how the government uses Section 702 to track cyberattacks. Given that The Intercept thinks such stories are newsworthy, I’m breaking my silence now to explain why I left The Intercept.

I was recruited to work with First Look before it was publicly announced. The initial discussions pertained to a full time job, with a generous salary. But along the way — after Glenn and Jeremy Scahill had already gotten a number of other people hired and as Pierre Omidyar started hearing from friends that the effort was out of control — the outlet decided that they were going to go in a different direction. They’d have journalists — Glenn and Jeremy counted as that. And they’d have bloggers, who would get paid less.

At that point, the discussion of hiring me turned into a discussion of a temporary part time hire. I should have balked at that point. What distinguishes my reporting from other journalists — that I’m document rather than source-focused (though by no means exclusively), to say nothing of the fact that I was the only journalist who had read both the released Snowden documents and the official government releases — should have been an asset to The Intercept. But I wanted to work on the Snowden documents, and so I agreed to those terms.

There were a lot of other reasons why, at that chaotic time, working at The Intercept was a pain in the ass. But nevertheless I set out to write stories I knew the Snowden documents would support. The most important one, I believed, was to document how the government was using upstream Section 702 for cybersecurity — something it had admitted in its very first releases, but something that it tried to hide as time went on. With Ryan Gallagher’s help, I soon had the proof of that.

The initial hook I wanted to use for the story was how, in testimony to PCLOB, government officials misleadingly suggested it only used upstream to collect on things like email addresses.

Bob Litt:

We then target selectors such as telephone numbers or email addresses that will produce foreign intelligence falling within the scope of the certifications.


It is targeted collection based on selectors such as telephone numbers or email addresses where there’s reason to believe that the selector is relevant to a foreign intelligence purpose.


It is also however selector-based, i.e. based on particular phone numbers or emails, things like phone numbers or emails.

Raj De:

Selectors are things like phone numbers and email addresses.


A term like selector is just an operational term to refer to something like an email or phone number, directive being the legal process by which that’s effectuated, and tasking being the sort of internal government term for how you start the collection on a particular selector.


So all collection under 702 is based on specific selectors, things like phone numbers or email addresses.

Brad Wiegmann:

A selector would typically be an email account or a phone number that you are targeting.


So that’s when we say selector it’s really an arcane term that people wouldn’t understand, but it’s really phone numbers, email addresses, things like that.


So putting those cases aside, in cases where we just kind of get it wrong, we think the email account or the phone is located overseas but it turns out that that’s wrong, or it turns out that we think it’s a non-U.S. person but it is a  U.S. person, we do review every single one to see if that’s the case.

That PCLOB’s witnesses so carefully obscured the fact that 702 is used to collect cybersecurity and other IP-based or other code collection is important for several reasons. First, because collection on a chat room or an encryption key, rather than an email thread, has very different First Amendment implications than collecting on the email of a target. But particularly within the cybersecurity function, identifying foreignness is going to be far more difficult to do because cyberattacks virtually by definition obscure their location, and you risk collecting on victims (whether they are hijacked websites or emails, or actual theft victims) as well as the perpetrator.

Moreover, the distinction was particularly critical because most of the privacy community did not know — many still don’t — how NSA interpreted the word “facility,” and therefore was missing this entire privacy-impacting aspect of the program (though Jameel Jaffer did raise the collection on IP addresses in the hearing).

I had, before writing up the piece, done the same kind of iterative work (one, two, three) I always do; the last of these would have been a worthy story for The Intercept, and did get covered elsewhere. That meant I had put in close to 25 hours working on the hearing before I did other work tied to the story at The Intercept.

I wrote up the story and started talking to John Cook, who had only recently been brought in, about publishing it. He told me that the use of 702 with cyber sounded like a good application (it is!), so why would we want to expose it. I laid out why it would be questionably legal under the 2011 John Bates opinion, but in any case would have very different privacy implications than the terrorism function that the government liked to harp on.

In the end, Cook softened his stance against spiking the story. He told me to keep reporting on it. But in the same conversation, I told him I was no longer willing to work in a part time capacity for the outlet, because it meant The Intercept benefitted from the iterative work that was as much a part of my method as meetings with sources that reveal no big scoop. I told him I was no longer willing to work for The Intercept for free.

Cook’s response to that was to exclude me from the first meeting at which all Intercept reporters would be meeting. The two things together — the refusal to pay me for work and expertise that would be critical to Intercept stories, as well as the reluctance to report what was an important surveillance story, not to mention Cook’s apparent opinion I was not a worthy journalist — are why I left.

And so, in addition to losing the person who could report on both the substance and the policy of the spying that was so central to the Snowden archives, the story didn’t get told until 15 months later, by two journalists with whom I had previously discussed 702’s cybersecurity function specifically with regards to the Snowden archive. In the interim period, the government got approval for the Tor exception (which I remain the only reporter to have covered), an application that might have been scrutinized more closely had the privacy community been discussing the privacy implications of collecting location-obscured data in the interim.

As recently as November, The Intercept asked me questions about how 702 is actually implemented because I am, after all, the expert.

So by all means, read The Intercept’s story about how the NYT refused to report on certain stories. But know that The Intercept has not always been above such things itself. In 2014 it was reluctant to publish a story the NYT thought was newsworthy by the time they got around to publishing it 15 months later.

10 Years of emptywheel: Key Non-Surveillance Posts 2013-2015

Happy Birthday to me! To us! To the emptywheel community!

On December 3, 2007, emptywheel first posted as a distinct website. That makes us, me, we, ten today.

To celebrate, over the next few days, the emptywheel team will be sharing some of our favorite work from the last decade. I’ll be doing 4 posts featuring some of my most important or — in my opinion — resilient non-surveillance posts, plus a separate post bringing together some of my most important surveillance work. I think everyone else is teeing up their favorites, too.

Putting together these posts has been a remarkable experience to see where we’ve been and the breadth of what we’ve covered, on top of mainstays like surveillance. I’m really proud of the work I’ve done, and proud of the community we’ve maintained over the years.

For years, we’ve done this content ad free, relying on donations and me doing freelance work for others to fund the stuff you read here. I would make far more if I worked for some free-standing outlet, but I wouldn’t be able to do the weedy, iterative work that I do here, which would amount to not being able to do my best work.

If you’ve found this work valuable — if you’d like to ensure it remains available for the next ten years — please consider supporting the site.


What a Targeted Killing in the US Would Look Like

Amid now-abandoned discussions about using the FISA court to review targeted killing, I pointed out that a targeted killing in the US would look just like the October 28, 2009 killing of Imam Luqman Abdullah.

Article II or AUMF? “A High Level Official” (AKA John Brennan) Says CIA Can Murder You

When the second memo (as opposed to the first 7-page version) used to authorize the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, it became clear that OLC never really decided whether the killing was done under Article II or the AUMF. That’s important because if it’s the latter, it suggests the President can order anyone killed.

John Brennan Sworn in as CIA Director Using Constitution Lacking Bill of Rights

I know in the Trump era we’re supposed to forget that John Brennan sponsored a whole lot of drone killing and surveillance. But I spent a good deal of the Obama Administration pointing that out. Including by pointing out that the Constitution he swore to protect and defend didn’t have the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth amendment in it.


The Day After Government Catalogs Data NSA Collected on Tsarnaevs, DOJ Refuses to Give Dzhokhar Notice

I actually think it’s unreasonable to expect the government’s dragnets to prevent all attacks. But over and over (including with 9/11), NSA gets a pass when we do reviews of why an attack was missed. This post lays out how that happened in the Boston Marathon case. A follow-up continued that analysis.

A Guide to John Rizzo’s Lies, For Lazy Journalists

Former CIA General Counsel John Rizzo lies, a lot. But that doesn’t seem to lead journalists to treat his claims skeptically, nor did it prevent them from taking his memoir as a statement of fact. In this post I summarized all the lies he told in the first 10 pages of it.

Obama to Release OLC Memo after Only 24 Congressional Requests from 31 Members of Congress

Over the year and a half when one after another member of Congress asked for the OLC memos that authorized the drone execution of Anwar al-Awlaki, I tracked all those requests. This was the last post, summarizing all of them.

The West’s Ideological Vacuum

With the rise of Trump and the success of Russia intervening in US and European politics, I’ve been talking about how the failures of US neoliberal ideology created a vacuum to allow those things to happen. But I’ve been talking about the failures of our ideology for longer than that, here in a post on ISIS.

KSM Had the CIA Believing in Black Muslim Convert Jihadist Arsonists in Montana for 3 Months

There weren’t a huge number of huge surprises in the SSCI Torture Report for me (indeed, its scope left out some details about the involvement of the White House I had previously covered). But it did include a lot of details that really illustrate the stupidity of the torture program. None was more pathetic than the revelation that KSM had the CIA convinced that he was recruiting black Muslim converts to use arson in Montana.


The Jeffrey Sterling Trial: Merlin Meets Curveball

A big part of the Jeffrey Sterling trial was CIA theater, with far more rigorous protection for 10 year old sources and methods than given to 4 year old Presidential Daily Briefs in the Scooter Libby trial. Both sides seemed aware that the theater was part of an attempt, in part, to help the CIA gets its reputation back after the Iraq War debacle. Except that the actual evidence presented at trial showed CIA was up to the same old tricks. That didn’t help Sterling at all. But neither did it help CIA as much as government prosecutors claimed.

The Real Story Behind 2014 Indictment of Chinese Hackers: Ben Rhodes Moves the IP Theft Goal Posts

I’ve written a lot about the first indictment of nation-state hackers — People’s Liberation Army hackers who compromised some mostly Pittsburgh located entities, including the US Steel Workers. Contrary to virtually all the reporting on the indictment, the indictment pertained to things we nation-state hack for too: predominantly, spying on negotiations. The sole exception involves the theft of some nuclear technology from Westinghouse that might have otherwise been dealt to China as part of a technology transfer arrangement.

Obama’s Terrorism Cancer Speech, Carter’s Malaise Speech

In response to a horrible Obama speech capitulating to Republican demands he treat the San Bernardino attack specially, as Islamic terrorism, I compared the speech to Jimmy Carter’s malaise speech. Along the way, I noted that Carter signed the finding to train the mujahadeen at almost the exactly moment he gave the malaise speech. The trajectory of America has never been the same since.

Other Key Posts Threads

10 Years of emptywheel: Key Non-Surveillance Posts 2008-2010

10 Years of emptywheel: Key Non-Surveillance Posts 2011-2012

The Mark Zaid Materials from the Jeffrey Sterling Trial

Because he just formed a new whistleblower group with John Napier Tye, there as been renewed interest in allegations an FBI Agent made during the Jeffrey Sterling case about attorney Mark Zaid. But there was actually a second detail regarding Zaid released just after the trial that has not been publicly reported: Zaid was interviewed by the FBI, twice, and was even interviewed before Sterling himself was.

I asked Zaid whether he was obligated to do the FBI interviews on Twitter but got no response. I think it’s possible FBI asked to interview him as much because the Senate Intelligence Committee was refusing to cooperate in the investigation as anything else; at the time, FBI considered SSCI staffer Bill Duhnke a more likely suspect than Sterling (and it’s not clear they ever ruled him out).

Let me be clear: I’m posting these materials to make the full context of them accessible. Zaid has not explained these, but he has promised repeatedly there is an explanation for them. As noted, there may be a perfectly logical explanation that has as much to do with Senate privileges as it does with attorney-client.

In any case, these materials are just what was directly related to the criminal case. The criminal investigation actually interacted with events in Sterling’s EEO lawsuit — which is what Zaid was primarily representing Sterling on in 2003 — in even more interesting ways I may return to.

Special Agent Ashley Hunt’s accusations

The following accusation came in prosecutor Eric Olshan’s redirect of Ashley Hunt, the FBI witness in the trial, after Sterling’s lawyers had demonstrated that the investigation was narrowly focused on Sterling without questioning some of the other possible witnesses in the case.

Q. When you initiated the investigation, I believe you testified it was in April of 2003?

A. That’s correct.

Q. At the time when you initiated your investigation concerning unauthorized disclosure of classified information to James Risen, did you learn any information regarding Mark Zaid and Mr. Krieger that, that directed your investigation?

A. I did.

MR. MAC MAHON: Your Honor, objection. That door was not opened as to Mr. Sterling’s prior lawyers.

MR. OLSHAN: Your Honor, this is about why —

THE COURT: Again, the scope of the investigation, what was done and not done, was clearly part of the cross. I’m going to allow it, excuse me, on redirect; and if there needs to be recross on that, you’ll be allowed to. Go ahead.

MR. MAC MAHON: Thank you, Your Honor.

BY MR. OLSHAN: Q. What did you learn at the outset of your investigation about information from Mr. Krieger and Zaid that helped you direct your investigation and focus it?

A. When I opened my investigation on April 8, 2003, my investigation was based on a report I received from the CIA dated April 7, 2003. In that report, the CIA provided information about the fact —

MR. MAC MAHON: Your Honor, that’s hearsay.


MR. OLSHAN: Your Honor, this is not for the truth. It’s why she took the actions.

THE COURT: It explains why she is acting, takes the investigative tacks that she does, so I’m going to overrule the objection. It’s not hearsay.

BY MR. OLSHAN: Q. You may continue, Special Agent Hunt.

A. The CIA advised that on February 24, 2003, it was contacted by Mark Zaid and Roy Krieger. They told the CIA on February 24 that a client of theirs had contacted them on February 21, 2003, and that that client, that unnamed client at the time voiced his concerns about an operation that was nuclear in nature, and he threatened to go to the media.

Q. Did you later learn who that client was from Mr. Zaid and Mr. Krieger in the course of your investigation?

A. I did.

Q. Did those facts help you focus the direction of your investigation?

A. They did.

Q. And who did you learn was the client of Mr. Krieger and Mr. Zaid?

A. Jeffrey Sterling.

On recross, Sterling lawyer Edward McMahon worked to undercut the revelation by having Hunt describe how, when she wrote up a memo on the case on April 12, 2003, she believed it unlikely he was the leaker.

Q. Okay. And you had written about Mr. Sterling in 2003, hadn’t you, the same time you’re telling in answer to Mr. Olshan’s questions that you were hearing some hearsay about Mr. Sterling’s lawyers?

A. I’m sorry, what’s the question?

Q. You said you had heard some hearsay that Mr. Sterling’s lawyers were talking about him at the CIA, correct?

A. What I said is that his attorneys went to the CIA on February 24. At that time, they did not name Jeffrey Sterling.

Q. All right. But on April 12 of 2003, you wrote a memo about Mr. Sterling, and you said that it was unlikely that it was Mr. Sterling who was the leak, correct?

A. If I wrote that at that time, then that was based on the information I had at that time.

Q. Right. You said that it’s unlikely that someone who has already attempted to settle an EEO lawsuit for a few hundred thousand dollars would choose to attack and enrage the organization from which he seeks but has not yet received a settlement. That’s your writing, isn’t it?

A. I don’t know. You haven’t shown me the document.

Q. And you also in the same document dismiss your concerns about Mr. Zaid and Krieger, correct? You don’t remember that?

A. I don’t know. It was 12 years ago.

Q. And in the last 12 years, you still haven’t come up with any proof that Mr. Sterling ever talked to Mr. Risen about Classified Program No. 1 or Merlin, right?

A. Correct.

Thus far, the timeline looks like this:

February 21: Alleged contact between Sterling and Zaid (not stated whether this is phone call or email, which would show up in call records available with a relevance standard)

February 24: Alleged call from Zaid and his partner warning that one of their clients would leak

April 7: CIA referral includes their claim about Zaid call

April 8: Hunt opens investigation

April 12: Hunt writes memo dismissing likelihood that Sterling is leaker

The FBI Interview Dates

Now consider the dates of the 2003 FBI 302s included in these two CIPA letters (the names with the first initial last name are CIA witnesses; it’s unclear whether that’s true of the entirely redacted names).

April 12: Redacted name

April 12: Robert J. E

April 12: Bob S

April 13: Redacted name

April 13: Redacted name

April 14: Bill H (almost certainly Bill Harlow, CIA’s then spox)

April 18: Mark Zaid (three page 302)

April 28: Bill H (again, almost certain Harlow)

May 7: Redacted name

May 9: Redacted name

June 19: Sterling

June 26: Bob S (Sterling’s supervisor)

July 18: Redacted name

July 21: Thomas H

August 1: David C

August 13: Redacted name

August 14: Diane F

That is, the memo where Hunt said she didn’t think Sterling was the leaker was written either before she had done any interviews, or after she had done just the first CIA ones (including with Sterling’s boss, who definitely blamed Sterling). The first round of interviews appear to be primarily or all CIA witnesses.

And the next interview — at least among those that Sterling’s defense thought they might use at trial — was Zaid. Zaid’s interview, in fact, was months before Sterling’s. The second letter shows a second Zaid interview on September 2, 2010.

To emphasize: Sterling’s lawyers requested these FBI interviews be available for trial, not the prosecution. It’s unclear whether they did that because the interviews would have helped them, or because (as was the case with virtually all the other witnesses) they thought they might need to draw on those interviews for cross-examination.

But unless there’s some wildly egregious error in these files, Mark Zaid did two interviews with the FBI before he — obligated by subpoena, he said repeatedly — testified before the grand jury on September 22, 2010.

Former Senators Sessions and Coats Likely Just Set Off a Conflict with Congress

I’ll have more to say about Jeff Sessions’ new witch hunt on leaks later. But for now I want to look at what former Assistant Director Ron Hosko had to say to Daily Beast.

Ron Hosko, former deputy director of the FBI, said these changes could result in prosecution of members of Congress and Hill staffers. In the past, he said the FBI identified members of Congress who leaked classified information, who the Justice Department then declined to prosecute. Agents were often frustrated by this, Hosko added. Given the attorney general’s announcement, he said, members of Congress and Hill staffers may be more likely to face prosecution.

As I was listening to the press presentation (I won’t call it a conference because Sessions and Coats ran away without answering questions), I couldn’t help but thinking what a shitshow these two former Senators were likely setting off.

That’s because the universe of potential leakers is fraught for DOJ especially.

There are the various White House leakers (not including the President, who will escape notice even though he is one of the most prolific and dangerous leakers). Prosecuting them will be difficult politically in this contentious Administration.

There are the IC leakers. While some will likely be charged, a good many will be — like David Petraeus — too dangerous to aggressively prosecute, because they know where the truly interesting secrets are.

Most of all, though, there are the current and former members of Congress and their staffers, who have clearly been a central source of leaks embarrassing the White House.

Hosko is right that FBI has bumped up against limits in prosecuting Congress before. In the Jeffrey Sterling case, for example, SSCI staff director Bill Duhnke was FBI’s first and primary suspect (and a far more likely source for James Risen’s 2003 story than Sterling, not least because the final form of that story included a seeming reference to Iraq that Sterling wouldn’t have known). But SSCI refused to cooperate with the FBI investigation for years, and Duhnke reportedly never did. Duhnke remains in the Senate, working as the Rules Staff Director.

There’s nothing the Sessions hearing today included that would change the circumstances of Congress’ non-participation in the prosecution of Duhnke going forward (except perhaps the threat to jail journalists, but that’s still not likely to be enough to get past Congressional Speech and Debate privilege.

Moreover, if the FBI pushes too hard, Congress will just legislate itself — and reporters — protections (as Congress has been threatening to do for some time).

Given the Fourth Circuit precedents tied to the Sterling case, I think it will be easier for FBI to go after low level IC staffers. But I’m fairly confident if it gets close to Congress there will be a significant backlash that will make former Senators Sessions and Coats regret they didn’t account for their former colleagues’ equities before rolling out a witch hunt.

In Opinion Mostly Rejecting Jeffrey Sterling Appeal, Fourth Circuit Criminalizes Unclassified Tips

The Fourth Circuit just codified the principle that you can go to prison for four minutes and 11 seconds of phone calls during which you tell a reporter to go find out classified details you know about.

They just released an opinion mostly upholding Jeffrey Sterling’s conviction. The majority, penned by Albert Diaz, overturned one conviction based on whether Sterling handed a letter (about which the court seems to have misunderstood the evidence) to James Risen in Virginia, but that didn’t result in any reduction in sentence. The court not only upheld all other convictions, but did so in ways that will be really horrible for any clearance holders charged with leaks in the Fourth Circuit (the jurisdiction of which covers all the major government spy agencies).

Four minutes and 11 seconds of metadata

First, there’s the matter of whether there was evidence to support the three charges related to the first story James Risen attempted to write on Merlin in 2003. The opinion claims Sterling and Risen had “numerous” phone calls in advance of Risen going to the CIA with his story.

The government presented evidence of numerous phone calls in February and March 2003, between Sterling’s home in Virginia and Risen’s home in Maryland. These phone calls occurred right before Risen notified the CIA that he had learned about the program from confidential sources and was planning to write an article about its classified operations. Furthermore, all of these calls were made nearly a year after Risen wrote an article about Sterling’s discrimination lawsuit.

Here’s what those “numerous” calls look like:

Altogether, the government presented evidence that Sterling and Risen spoke for four minutes and 11 seconds in advance of the first story. Sterling also sent an unclassified email referring to a CNN story on Iran’s nukes.

Significantly, the court doesn’t even hold that Sterling may have transmitted classified information in those calls. It holds that he may have “encouraged” and “caused” Risen to publish the information.

That circumstantial evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the government, could have led a rational jury to infer that Sterling discussed some classified information with Risen during these calls—the longest of which was 91 seconds—or encouraged Risen to publish the information. Thus, a jury could find that, more likely than not, Sterling helped “cause” dissemination of the information to the public through phone communications from his home in the Eastern District of Virginia, making venue proper for Counts I, II, and IX.

This establishes a standard criminalizing something that happens all the time in DC — where sources point reporters to something that’s classified without providing any classified information, leading the reporter to go find the classified information from other sources.

Importantly (and not mentioned in the Fourth Circuit opinion), the FBI’s initial suspect in this case was then-SSCI staffer Bill Duhnke. SSCI refused to cooperate with the FBI in the early stages of the investigation and may never have done so with respect to Duhnke. Nothing in the public record ever ruled out that he was Risen’s source for this early story.

The Court erroneously claims that Sterling had “the letter” printed in Risen’s book

The court makes two troubling steps in upholding Sterling’s conviction for illegally retaining classified information, which it upholds this way.

As to this offense, the Russian scientist testified that he gave Sterling a copy of the program letter in 2000. Sterling lost access to classified materials after he was fired in early 2002 (when he was working and living in Virginia), and Risen first notified authorities that he had seen the letter in April 2003. Finally, the government introduced evidence that in 2006, Sterling had stored other classified documents in his Missouri home, after he moved in mid-2003. On this evidence, a jury could therefore reasonably infer that after Sterling left the CIA in 2002, he unlawfully retained the program letter in his home—which was then in the Eastern District of Virginia.

In the language rejecting the conviction that Sterling transmitted the actual letter to Risen in Virginia, the court claimed that both sides agree that Sterling actually had the letter.

Because both sides agree that Sterling provided Risen with a paper copy of the letter, evidence of phone and email communications alone cannot support proper venue for Count V.

The claim that the defense agreed that Sterling even had the hard copy of the letter, much less handed it to Risen, is utterly inconsistent with this statement later in the opinion.

Sterling argued throughout the trial that he never retained or transmitted classified material.

Perhaps the court meant to say that “Sterling would have had to hand Risen a paper copy”?

Moreover, unless I’m missing something, not only does the defense not agree that Sterling handed over the letter, but it doesn’t even agree that Sterling ever had or saw the letter in the form handed to Risen. Indeed, the defense repeatedly got the government to admit they never found a copy of the actual letter that appeared in Risen’s book (though the record is inconsistent about whether that letter that got handed to the Iranians actually matched what appeared in Risen’s book).

That’s important — as I lay out in depth in this post — because Sterling was not involved in some key meetings leading up to the time Merlin went to Vienna. Given that he wasn’t involved in some of the meetings, it’s quite possible Sterling never saw the letter as it appeared in Risen’s book. I’d even say it’s likely, because Sterling’s habit was to include a verbatim transcript of letters Merlin was writing in his reporting, whereas Bob S, who handled the meetings Sterling didn’t attend, did not do so.

CIA has effectively — and not very credibly — claimed they didn’t have a copy of the letter as it appeared in Risen’s book, and in later years of the investigation Merlin started claiming he destroyed all evidence of it. Which would seem to undermine the claim that either side agreed Sterling handed over the actual letter to Risen.

I’m not sure how, based on that record, the Fourth Circuit can claim that Sterling ever had the letter in question.

Going to prison for keeping a procedure on how to dial a rotary phone

Then there’s what the court does to get to the claim that “in 2006, Sterling had stored other classified documents in his Missouri home, after he moved in mid-2003.”

The defense objected to the introduction of these documents, which included a performance review from the time Sterling was a trainee and instructions on how to dial into Langley from a rotary phone, specifically because of the way in which the documents were presented to the jury. The documents were handed out in red classified folders in unredacted form with great fanfare, whereas all other (far more classified) documents had been redacted and simply handed over to the jury in evidence binders.

Here’s how I described the theater surrounding these documents at the time.

A court officer handed out a packet of these same documents with bright red SECRET markings on the front to each juror (the government had tried to include such a warning on the binders of other exhibits, but the defense pointed out that nothing in them was actually classified at all). Judge Leonie Brinkema, apparently responding to the confused look on jurors’ faces, explained these were still-classified documents intended for their eyes only. “You’ll get the context,” Judge Brinkema added. “The content is not really anything you have to worry about.” The government then explained these documents were seized from Jeffrey Sterling’s house in Missouri in 2006. Then the court officer collected the documents back up again, having introduced the jurors to the exclusive world of CIA’s secrets for just a few moments.

On cross, however, the defense explained a bit about what these documents were. Edward MacMahon made it clear the date on the documents was February 1987 — a point which Lutz apparently missed. MacMahon then revealed that the documents explained how to use rotary phones when a CIA officer is out of the office. I believe the prosecution objected — so jurors can’t use MacMahon’s description in their consideration of how badly these documents implicate Sterling — but perhaps the improper description will help cue the jurors’ own understanding about what the documents they had glimpsed were really about, making it clear to them they’re being asked to convict a man because he possessed documents about using a rotary phone that the CIA retroactively decided were SECRET.

The court doesn’t deal with the silent witness aspect of this presentation at all. On the contrary, the court makes no mention of it when it dismisses the possibility this was inflammatory.

All probative evidence may be prejudicial to the defendant in some way, but we have found Rule 404(b) evidence to be unfairly prejudicial when it inflames the jury or encourages them to draw an inference against the defendant, based solely on a judgment about the defendant’s criminal character or wicked disposition. McBride, 676 F.3d at 399; Hernandez, 975 F.2d at 1041.

Here, evidence showing that Sterling had improperly retained four classified documents in the past encouraged the proper evidentiary inference that any subsequent retention of classified documents was, if proven, intentional.

The court’s treatment of these documents (and its silence on their actual content or the theater surrounding the introduction of them) is all the more troubling given that the court claimed the “prior bad acts” implicated by Sterling’s retention of these documents “were exactly the same as the act Sterling was charged with under Count III.”

Although the Rule 404(b) evidence was fairly old in this case, it did bear sufficient similarity in terms of pattern of conduct to justify its admission. An FBI search of Sterling’s Missouri home in 2006 uncovered four classified documents, which Sterling had improperly kept. And Sterling’s improper retention of these documents occurred during the same timeframe as his improper retention of files concerning the Program. Furthermore, the prior bad acts were exactly the same as the act Sterling was charged with under Count III.

Sure, in a legal sense, retaining classified information is retaining classified information. That’s how the Fourth Circuit gets to its “exactly the same” claim.

But retaining 20 year old HR documents — including a performance review — you obtained as a trainee just getting used to classification rules is not the same as retaining documents from covert operations. It’s not. And the claim it is is all the more outrageous given that Sterling wasn’t permitted to talk about how the witnesses against him had also retained classified information, and probably information that was far more classified than rotary phone dialing instructions.

Effectively, along with criminalizing sharing unclassified tips, the Fourth Circuit has also just criminalized mistakenly retaining HR documents in your basement, something that a large proportion of clearance holders have probably done over the course of their career.

Obstruction before the fact

Finally, here’s the court found that Sterling’s obstruction conviction was proper even though the government presented no proof whether he had deleted the unclassified email mentioning Iran’s nuclear program before or after receiving a subpoena for classified materials.

Sterling notes that this specific email “was not among the categories of documents requested by the grand jury’s [June 2006] subpoena.” Appellant’s Br. at 44. He argues, therefore, that even if he did delete the email, he could not have done so with the intent to impair the grand jury investigation. But while the email may not have been explicitly included in the subpoena’s categories, in that it did not directly share information about the classified program, it did reference Iran’s nuclear development efforts. Furthermore, the email and its brief comments suggest that Risen and Sterling had previously discussed Iran’s nuclear program.

We have said that to be culpable of obstructing justice, the actual documents destroyed “do not have to be under subpoena.” United States v. Gravely, 840 F.2d 1156, 1160 (4th Cir. 1988) (analyzing a conviction for obstruction of justice under 18 U.S.C. § 1503). Instead, “it is sufficient if the defendant is aware that the grand jury will likely seek the documents in its investigation.” Id. A rational jury could infer, based on the evidence at trial, that Sterling deleted the email between April and July 2006 in order to conceal it from a grand jury investigation. We therefore reject Sterling’s challenge to this conviction.

This language is just — what is the technical term? — weird.

First of all, the court never explains how Sterling would know there was a grand jury before receiving a subpoena from it, which is pretty important given that Sterling had known there was an investigation for three years, but hadn’t deleted that email before then.

Moreover, even as it deems it rational to believe that Sterling deleted the email thinking the grand jury will “likely seek the documents,” the court ignores that the grand jury actually never did seek such an email. So Sterling, with no formal notice of a grand jury introduced in the trial, not only deleted the unclassified email knowing there would be one, but happened to delete an email that the grand jury, in fact, would never go onto ask for?

Somehow, too, unless I missed it the court neglected to deal with venue on this claim. They just … ignored that part of Sterling’s appeal.

The Fourth Circuit just made it illegal to share unclassified information

So between the finding that Sterling criminally “encouraged” the transmission of classified information in four minutes and 11 seconds of phone calls of unknown content, and the finding that Sterling obstructed justice before knowing there was a grand jury by deleting information that unknown grand jury ultimately never asked for, the Fourth Circuit has just criminalized sharing unclassified information.

Does Jim Comey Think Thomas Drake Exhibited Disloyalty to the United States?

As you’ve no doubt heard, earlier today Jim Comey had a press conference where he said Hillary and her aides were “extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information” but went on to say no reasonable prosecutor would prosecute any of them for storing over 100 emails with classified information on a server in Hillary’s basement. Comey actually claimed to have reviewed “investigations into mishandling or removal of classified information” and found no “case that would support bringing criminal charges on these facts.”

Our investigation looked at whether there is evidence classified information was improperly stored or transmitted on that personal system, in violation of a federal statute making it a felony to mishandle classified information either intentionally or in a grossly negligent way, or a second statute making it a misdemeanor to knowingly remove classified information from appropriate systems or storage facilities.


Although there is evidence of potential violations of the statutes regarding the handling of classified information, our judgment is that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case. Prosecutors necessarily weigh a number of factors before bringing charges. There are obvious considerations, like the strength of the evidence, especially regarding intent. Responsible decisions also consider the context of a person’s actions, and how similar situations have been handled in the past.

In looking back at our investigations into mishandling or removal of classified information, we cannot find a case that would support bringing criminal charges on these facts. All the cases prosecuted involved some combination of: clearly intentional and willful mishandling of classified information; or vast quantities of materials exposed in such a way as to support an inference of intentional misconduct; or indications of disloyalty to the United States; or efforts to obstruct justice. We do not see those things here.

To be clear, this is not to suggest that in similar circumstances, a person who engaged in this activity would face no consequences. To the contrary, those individuals are often subject to security or administrative sanctions. But that is not what we are deciding now.

Before we get into his argument, consider a more basic point: It is not Jim Comey’s job to make prosecutorial decisions. Someone else — whichever US Attorney oversaw the prosecutors on this case, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, or Loretta Lynch — makes that decision. By overstepping the proper role of the FBI here, Comey surely gave Lynch cover — now she can back his decision without looking like Bill Clinton convinced her to do so on the tarmac. But he has no business making this decision, and even less business making it public in the way he did (the latter of which points former DOJ public affairs director Matthew Miller was bitching about).

But let’s look at his judgment.

Given that Jeffrey Sterling has been in prison for a year based off a slew of metadata (albeit showing only 4:11 seconds of conversation between James Risen and Sterling) and three, thirty year old documents, classified Secret, describing how to dial a phone, documents which were presented to prove Sterling had the “intent” to retain a document FBI never showed him retaining, I’m particularly interested in Comey’s judgment that no reasonable prosecutor would bring charges based on the facts found against Hillary. Similarly, given the history of the Thomas Drake prosecution, in which he was charged with Espionage because he kept a bunch of documents on NSA’s fraud, at the direction of the Inspector General, which the FBI found in his basement.

I can only imagine Comey came to his improper public prosecutorial opinion via one of two mental tricks. Either he — again, not the prosecutor — decided the only crime at issue was mishandling classified information (elsewhere in his statement he describes having no evidence that thousands of work emails were withheld from DOJ with ill intent, which dismisses another possible crime), and from there he decided either that it’d be a lot harder to prosecute Hillary Clinton (or David Petraeus) than it would be someone DOJ spent years maligning like Sterling or Drake. Or maybe he decided that there are no indications that Hillary is disloyal to the US.

Understand, though: with Sterling and Drake, DOJ decided they were disloyal to the US, and then used their alleged mishandling of classified information as proof that they were disloyal to the US (Drake ultimately plead to Exceeding Authorized Use of a Computer).

Ultimately, it involves arbitrary decisions about who is disloyal to the US, and from that a determination that the crime of mishandling classified information occurred.

For what its worth, I think most of these cases should involve losing security clearances rather than criminal prosecution (though Petraeus also lied to FBI). But we know, even there, the system is totally arbitrary; DOJ has already refused to answer whether any of Hillary’s aides will be disciplined for their careless handling of classified information and Petraeus never did lose his clearance. Nor did the multiple witnesses who testified against Sterling who themselves mishandled classified information lose their security clearance.

Which is another way of saying our classification system is largely a way to arbitrarily label people you dislike disloyal.

The Leak Hypocrisy of the Hillary Shadow Cabinet

In what has become a serial event, the State Department and Intelligence Community people handling Jason Leopold’s FOIA of Hillary Clinton emails have declared yet more emails to be Top Secret.

The furor over Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email account grew more serious for the Democratic presidential front-runner Friday as the State Department designated 22 of the messages from her account “top secret.”

It was the first time State has formally deemed any of Clinton’s emails classified at that level, reserved for information that can cause “exceptionally grave” damage to national security if disclosed.

State did not provide details on the subject of the messages, which represent seven email chains and a total of 37 pages. However, State spokesman John Kirby said they are part of a set the intelligence community inspector general told Congress contained information classified for discussing “Special Access Programs.”

Now, as I have said before, one thing that is going on here is that CIA is acting just like CIA always does when it declares publicly known things, including torture and drones, to be highly secret. It appears likely that these Top Secret emails are yet another set of emails about the worst kept secret in the history of covert programs, CIA’s drone killing in Pakistan. And so I am sympathetic, in principle, to Hillary’s campaign claims that this is much ado about nothing.

But they might do well to find some other spokesperson to claim that this is just overclassification run amok.

“This is overclassification run amok. We adamantly oppose the complete blocking of the release of these emails,” campaign spokesman Brian Fallon said on Twitter. Appearing on MSNBC after the news broke, Fallon vowed to fight the decision.

“You have the intelligence community, including an Intelligence Community Inspector General, as well as the inspector general at the State Department, that have been insisting on certain ways of deciding what is classified and what’s not,” he said. “We know that there has been disagreement on these points, and it has spilled out into public view at various points over the last several months. It now appears that some of the loudest voices in this interagency review that had some of the strongest straightjacket-type opinions on what should count as classified, have prevailed. That’s unfortunate. We strongly disagree with the finding that has been reached today, and we are going to be contesting it and seeking to have these emails released.”

Alternately Hillary can declare that if she is elected, she’ll pardon both Jeffrey Sterling and Chelsea Manning.

Sterling’s prosecution for, in part, having 3 documents about dialing a rotary phone in his home that were retroactively classified Secret, happened while Brian Fallon presided over DOJ’s Office of Public Affairs; Fallon sat by as James Risen got questioned about his refusal to testify. Sterling’s retention of documents that weren’t marked Secret is surely the same kind of “overclassification run amok,” and by the same agency at fault here, that Fallon is now complaining about. So shouldn’t Fallon and Clinton be discussing a pardon for Sterling?

Then there’s Manning. As Glenn Greenwald noted, in that case Clinton had a different attitude about the sensitivity of documents classified Secret or less.

Manning was convicted and sentenced to 35 years in prison. At the time, the only thing Hillary Clinton had to say about that was to issue a sermon about how classified information “deserves to be protected and we will continue to take necessary steps to do so” because it “affect[s] the security of individuals and relationships.”

So if the nation’s secrets aren’t really as secret as DOJ and State and DOD have claimed, shouldn’t these two, along with people like Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, be pardoned?

Amid Fallon and Clinton’s prior support for this level of classification, there’s something else odd about the response to this scandal (which I have said is largely misplaced from the stupid decision to run her own server to the issue of classified information).

First, the response from many supporters — and it’s a point I’ve made too — is that this doesn’t reflect on Hillary because she mostly just received these emails, she didn’t send them. That’s true. And it largely limits any legal liability Hillary herself would have.

But this particular response comes against the backdrop of Hillary attacking Bernie for not giving a foreign policy speech before Iowa (a critique I’m somewhat sympathetic with, although debates have been focused on it), and against this approving story in the Neocon press on Hillary forming a shadow cabinet.

Team Hillary is in the process of setting up formal advisory teams and working groups divided into regional and thematic subjects, similar to the structure of the National Security Council, several participants in the project told me. Unlike in 2008, when Clinton and Barack Obama competed for advisers, this time around all the Democratic foreign-policy types are flocking to her team because Clinton is the only game in town.

The groups report up to the campaign’s senior foreign policy adviser, Jake Sullivan, who was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff and director of policy planning when she was secretary of state.

As it notes, this shadow cabinet reports to Jake Sullivan. Sullivan is, according to one report, the staffer who sent the most emails that have since been declared classified.

Nearly a third of the classified messages released so far from former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s emails came from one man: Jake Sullivan, who served as her deputy chief of staff in the department, and is now the top foreign policy adviser to her presidential campaign.

If Hillary’s supporters argue that she can’t be held responsible because she didn’t send these, does that mean they would hold Sullivan, Hillary’s presumptive National Security Advisor, responsible instead?

Then there’s this detail about outside advisors to this shadow cabinet: it includes Leon Panetta, who not only leaked highly classified information in his memoir, but also would have been busted for exposing the Navy SEALs who offed Osama bin Laden if the game weren’t so rigged to excuse senior leakers.

In addition to the working groups, Sullivan relies on a somewhat separate group of senior former officials who have more frequent interaction with the campaign leadership and Clinton herself. Many of these advisers aren’t publicly affiliated with the campaign because they have leadership roles with organizations that have not endorsed any candidate for president.

But sources close to the campaign told me that Clinton, Sullivan and campaign chairman John Podesta are in regular contact with former National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Is the effort to keep the identities of the men who killed OBL secret also, “overclassification run amok”? Or does Panetta’s role in Hillary’s foreign policy team suggest her crowd really is that hypocritical about who can leak classified information?

I’d really love it if Hillary came out strongly against the paranoid secrecy that stifles our foreign policy (and just yesterday led to Ashkan Soltani losing a position as a technical advisor for the White House, presumably because of his role in reporting the Snowden documents).

But thus far that’s not what she’s doing: her campaign is making a limited critique of this paranoid secrecy, only applicable when it impacts those close to her.

Government Still Hasn’t Cleared One of Jeffrey Sterling’s Appellate Lawyers

Update, 12/13: Sterling’s team was finally cleared in the days leading up to the December status report deadline. But because of other scheduling issues and the difficulties of working with classified information, his team will not be able to submit their initial brief until February 12, 2016, a year after he was convicted. 

Former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling appealed his conviction for purportedly leaking information on Project Merlin to James Risen on May 26, before he even reported to prison on June 16. Throughout the summer, the appeal crept along, as most appeals do, in this case, held up in the wait for transcripts from the trial. But in August, it ground to a halt.

Just days after the Fourth Circuit ordered Sterling’s lawyers to submit their first brief on September 28, they revealed that they still hadn’t been cleared to review the Classified Information Protection Act hearings that will apparently be central to his appeal (the delay was caused, in part, by the problems in the electronic filing system revealed by the OPM hack). By October 1, William Trunk had been informed he was eligible for clearance, but needed to undergo indoctrination. That didn’t happen until November 2, the day his lawyers were due to submit a second status report on the status of their clearance. And Lawrence Robbins, Sterling’s other appellate attorney, still hadn’t heard anything about his clearance by that day.

I get that this process sometimes takes a long time. But Sterling has already served almost 5 months of his 42 month sentence, and the government ultimately controls this clearance process.

I’ve heard indications that the government has similarly stalled or limited clearances of already-cleared lawyers in Gitmo cases, so it is not unreasonable to ask whether the delay is an intentional stall.

In Political Press, Hillary Clinton Gets Subjected to the Thomas Drake and Jeffrey Sterling Standard

clintonpodium_600_1[First posted at]

The political press is abuzz with news that the State Department (State IG) and Intelligence Community Inspectors General (ICIG) have asked the Department of Justice to review whether the Department’s handling of the personal email from Hillary Clinton was proper. The story was first reported in sensational fashion by the New York Times, revised somewhat overnight, and then reported in more measured form — making it clear that Clinton herself is not being investigated — by the Associated Press this morning.

The report has put the practice of retroactive classification of information — of the type that convicted Jeffrey Sterling and DOJ tried to use to convict Thomas Drake — at the forefront of presidential politics.

The referral to DOJ arises out of State IG’s review of the use of private emails and the response to Freedom of Information Act requests for Clinton’s email. After consulting with the ICIG, State IG reported that a number of the emails reviewed so far, including one released to the public, included classified information. The ICIG criticized State for using retired foreign service officers with extensive FOIA experience to review Clinton’s email before release, rather than conducting an interagency process (though according to a response from Patrick Kennedy, the CIA and ODNI had already approved the arrangement).

The referral pertains to State’s actions, not Clinton’s. “[T]he referral doesn’t suggest wrongdoing by Clinton herself,” AP noted. None of the emails in question were marked as classified when she sent them and one of them — pertaining to the FBI’s investigation of the Benghazi attack — was not classified at time she received it. Nevertheless, this news has led to a flurry of stories implicating Clinton in a potential DOJ investigation.

Clinton supporters are dismissing this as election year frenzy. The former DOJ Director of Public Affairs, Matt Miller, even tweeted, “If you examined the entire email [account] of any senior official, someone in [government] would later argue something was classified. Absurd standard.”

But Clinton is not the first this has happened to. After all, DOJ attempted to use five retroactively classified documents to convict Thomas Drake on Espionage charges; once DOJ had to admit that fact, their case against Drake fell apart.

And the only hard evidence DOJ presented that Jeffrey Sterling had improperly handled classified information were documents seized from his home that had nothing to do with the nuclear program he was accused of leaking. When the government introduced three of those documents under a silent witness rule limiting what Sterling’s lawyers could ask about them, CIA’s top classification official admitted they had not been classified as secret at first.

“When originally classified were these documents properly classified as secret,” the prosecution asked of the three documents.

“They weren’t,” [CIA Chief of Litigation Support Martha] Lutz responded.

“But they are now properly classified secret?”

“Yes,” Lutz answered.

The defense team made statements revealing that these documents offered instructions on how to dial rotary phones to call into CIA headquarters, hardly a cutting edge secret. Nevertheless, those documents were a key piece of evidence used to send Sterling to prison for 42 months.

Clinton deserves a good deal of criticism for using personal email that has made it more difficult to access via FOIAs. But retroactively classified information should no more be used to prosecute her — in reality or in the press — than Drake and Sterling.

When asked about the double standard via email, Drake did not join the frenzy. Rather, he described “having really bad flashbacks” given the calls to criminally investigate the former Secretary of State because release of the emails put “unauthorized classified information … in adversaries’ hands.”

Perhaps there’s room for agreement here. Via email, Miller noted, “the entire classification system is a mess: overly complex, riddled with ambiguity, and used at times for inappropriate reasons. And because of that you get perverse outcomes.”

Secretary Clinton surely should have made her emails more secure and accessible, via the formal FOIA process, by using official email. But that doesn’t mean retroactively classified information should be used against her anymore than it should be used against Drake and Sterling.