I’ve been doing my best to explain the complex intelligence realities behind Hillary Clinton’s on-going #EmailGate scandal for months now, and we’re still far from the end of this messy saga.
Hillary’s take on what happened with her State Department “unclassified” email and her “private” server has see-sawed with the customary Clintonian lawyerly evasions, untruths, and now something approaching half-truths.
First it was: everything done was legal and acceptable.
Then came: mistakes were perhaps made, but not by me, and I’m not apologizing.
Followed by: the inevitable Clintonian sorry-not-sorry.
Now, having seen her polls dropping in rock-like fashion, we’re at: I’m kinda sorry but still nothing I emailed was “marked” classified.
The last is a particularly dishonest evasion, given that the Intelligence Community has twice determined that in fact TOPSECRET//SCI information was included in Hillary’s “private” email on at least two occasions. Given that’s from a sample of just forty emails, out of the 30,000 she has handed over to investigators (to say nothing of the 30,000 more that Hillary deleted), the mind boggles at how many actually classified (if unmarked) emails Hillary and her Foggy Bottom staff put on her personal server. As I’ve recently explained, this is a complex counterintelligence investigation that will last for months yet.
The core of this debate is what makes information classified in the U.S. Government. Much of what’s marked — and it’s always marked — classified relates to policy matters and is customarily classified at the CONFIDENTIAL or SECRET level. The vast majority of the information identified as actually classified in Hillary’s “unclassified” emails is in this group, with most being CONFIDENTIAL, the lowest level of classification.
Critics of secrecy (including some Hillary defenders) love to point out that the U.S. Government, the Pentagon especially, habitually overclassifies things. While this is a hoary Beltway cliché it contains more than a grain of truth, and anybody who’s spent time in our secret government and is honest will admit to having seen things that were marked classified, usually at low levels, that really didn’t need to be. Some of this is mere bureaucratic habit while some can be placed at the doorstep of those three most important letters in Washington, DC; C-Y-A.
That said, what Hillary and her staff seem to have compromised was mainly what the State Department terms Foreign Government Information and, when it involves high-level diplomatic conversations — say, discussions between a Secretary of State and a foreign counterpart — that sort of FGI is always considered classified at Foggy Bottom. Secrecy lies at the heart of international diplomacy and always has, and if Hillary planned to change that she really needed to inform the countless allies and friends abroad who confided in her with the expectation that their conversation would remain out of view of the public and foreign intelligence agencies — and not on Hillary’s unencrypted private email and server.
The most serious allegations facing Team Clinton, however, focus on the compromised intelligence. Exposing TOPSECRET information is a much more serious matter, legally and practically, than compromising less classified things. If, as now appears certain, Hillary and/or her staff placed such highly sensitive information, reported to deal with North Korean WMDs, in private unclassified email, that is something the FBI will be unable to ignore.
How the Intelligence Community classifies its information is opaque to outsiders yet needs clarification as such knotty issues occupy an important part of the #EmailGate story. I’ve previously elaborated in detail how intelligence analysis from multiple classified sources winds up on the desks of senior policymakers inside the Beltway, creating a complex picture.
How that information gets classified in the first place needs explanation. Most, though by no means all, of the Intelligence Community’s output consists of information that’s been purloined one way or the other. As I like to explain to outsiders, the business of any spy agency is learning things that they are not supposed to know. Which is really a nice way of saying the core work of every intelligence service is breaking the laws of foreign countries.
How classified any information is derives from a process termed intelligence sources and methods. This is so critical that it’s called “the heart of all intelligence operations” in Washington, DC. All this really means is that how intelligence has been obtained determines its classification level, not the information itself.
Since our Intelligence Community is a seventeen-agency behemoth with a lot of people churning out a lot of information — remember, they’re not stovepipes, they’re “cylinders of excellence” — sometimes the same information gets reported through different channels at very different levels of classification. This provides an ideal example of showing how sources and methods actually work.
Let’s say that Zendia’s top general officer, Abu Jackson, is deathly ill and may not have long to live. High-ranking people in Washington, DC, care about this because General Jackson is considered a friend of the United States and he has been cooperative regarding hush-hush joint counterterrorism operations in his country.
If his illness is revealed in local press, that will likely be picked up by our Embassy there and probably also by the CIA’s Open Source Center, which translates foreign media. Since this is open press, it’s considered UNCLASSIFIED (though the Embassy may put a Sensitive But Unclassified — SBU, or what the Pentagon calls For Official Use Only or FOUO — stamp on it as a formality). Of course, Zendian press is sensationalist and it’s good not to put much credence in such reports without independent corroboration.
However, if our defense attaché hears whispers that General Jackson is seriously ill through his or her channels, which really amounts to hall gossip inside the Zendian Ministry of Defense, that will be reported by the Defense Intelligence Agency at the CONFIDENTIAL level, SECRET at most.
Meanwhile, if a Central Intelligence Agency case officer learns from a cultivated and validated human source about General Jackson’s illness and possible impending death, that report will flow through Langley with a SECRET//NOFORN stamp on it (unless the Zendian asset is unusually well placed, in which case a TOPSECRET//NOFORN marking and even special compartments could apply).
Let’s say, that same day, the National Security Agency intercepts a phone call between a top Zendian officer, a senior staffer to General Jackson, who tells a counterpart in Dirtbagistan, on what both believe to be a secure line, that his boss is dying of cancer and has three or four months to live. That will be reported by NSA at the TOPSECRET//SCI level since it relies on that Agency’s ability to decipher encrypted Dirtbagistani defense communications, and it will be given a high level of credibility by U.S. decision-makers since it’s “horse’s mouth” testimony.
The salient point is that the essential information — that General Jackson is a seriously unwell man — is identical. How this information was obtained by our intelligence services, the relevant sources and methods, alone determine classification levels.
The fact of General Jackson’s grave illness came from several different sources:
— Foreign press reporting, termed Open Source Intelligence or OSINT;
— Low-level Human Intelligence or HUMINT from DIA;
— High-level HUMINT from CIA;
— High-grade Signals Intelligence or SIGINT from NSA.
This complexity also goes some way to explaining why the Intelligence Community is prone to overclassifying things, for instance labeling press reports that appear in U.S. Government correspondence — as has happened with #EmailGate — as classified. This sounds crazy to outsiders but is commonplace since these are comments by senior officials who are reading classified intelligence in addition to press accounts (insiders term these “reflections”).
The next time a member of the media or a Hillary advocate, few of whom possess any real understanding of intelligence matters, presents these issues brought forth by #EmailGate as simple or straightforward — or, alternately, so complicated that no mere mortal could be expected to understand classification — remember that in fact they are complex yet comprehensible. As I have explained here.