Accuracy in Media

The Blaze picks up a story flagged by Joe Scarborough, who expressed astonishment on Morning Joe on Tuesday at an e-mail exchange in which then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton appeared to berate one of her top aides, Jacob Sullivan, for his reluctance to send Clinton classified information by e-mail.

The subject line of the February 10, 2010, e-mail exchange is “Insulza.” The exchange is about a speech, apparently by a foreign official. Perhaps the subject line refers to José Miguel Insulza, a Chilean politician who has been secretary general of the Organization of American States since 2005. In any event, the U.S. government’s internal reporting on the speech has clearly been classified (not surprising in light of what Shannen Coffin and yours truly explained earlier: foreign government information is presumptively classified). This is clearly very irritating to Secretary Clinton, who is anxious to read the speech.

In the first e-mail, Clinton curtly instructs Sullivan, “It’s a public statement. Just email it.”

Minutes later, Sullivan responds, “Trust me, I share your exasperation. But until ops converts it to the unclassified email system, there is no physical way for me to email it. I can’t even access it.”

Several things are worth pointing out about this exchange. First, of course, is the cavalier attitude Clinton exhibits regarding classified information. The classification rules in government can be very frustrating, and too much information is restricted. But this is because, from a national-security standpoint, it is better to classify something that is of dubious importance (especially because, as I explained earlier, it is crucial to demonstrate to foreign governments that we can keep secrets if we want them to tell us secrets) than to risk the disclosure of information that can put Americans at risk if it falls into the wrong hands. The important point here is that it is usually the unseasoned subordinate officials who are anxious to bend the rules when they seem unduly burdensome. It is the adult supervisor who must then uphold the rules for the greater good. In this case, though, it is Sullivan, the subordinate, who must (gently) remind Clinton, the rash boss, that classified information must be handled appropriately.

The second point is that this concretely demonstrates something I’ve been hammering since Mrs. Clinton’s March press conference: the difference between classified documents and classified information. In the government, classified documents are kept in a separate, hyper-protected system. It is thus extremely difficult (impossible for most users) to access them from a non-classified e-mail system and then to transmit them over that non-classified system. Most people do not know this.

This is why it was a red herring for Clinton to stress back in March that she had never kept “classified documents” on her private e-mail system. As I countered at the time, “In general, Mrs. Clinton would not have been able to access classified documents even from a ‘.gov’ account, much less from her private account – she’d need to use the classified system.” The issue is not classified documents; it is whether Clinton sent, received, and stored the classified information that was in the documents (or was orally explained in classified briefings). The above exchange demonstrates what I have been talking about: Sullivan tells Clinton that, at that moment, he is unable to send her the classified information she is demanding because he cannot even physically access the document that contains it – i.e., the document is available only in the government’s classified system which, at that moment, he is unable to get into (because, I would guess, he is not physically near it).

#share#The third point involves the executive order that Shannen and I discussed in our posts Tuesday. As we’ve pointed out, Obama’s order makes foreign-government information automatically classified. But now I want to highlight another section of the order. Section 1.1(c) states:

Classified information shall not be declassified automatically as a result of any unauthorized disclosure of identical or similar information.

This situation comes up frequently: Some information that the government has classified is nevertheless publicly reported in the press – perhaps due to a leak, or even just good news coverage. Every government official with a security clearance knows, however, that just because classified information has been disclosed without official authorization from the U.S. government, it does not lose its classified status within the U.S. government. Government officials are still required to treat it as classified, and supervisory government officials (such as Secretary Clinton) are expected to enforce that rule.

Here, by contrast, Clinton is urging that the classified-information rule be broken: She is taking the position that because the information she wants Sullivan to send is already a “public statement,” he should ignore its classified status – ignore Obama’s executive order – and simply send it to her.

That is a violation of Obama’s classified-information protocols – in particular, a protocol that has been in place since long before Obama was president. The violation tells us a great deal – or, I should say, a great deal more – about how seriously the former secretary of state took her obligation to enforce classified-information rules in her department.

A version of this piece previously appeared on National Review Online.

Guest columns do not necessarily reflect the views of Accuracy in Media or its staff.




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