The latest controversy over Hillary Clinton’s e-mails — the allegation that classified information was improperly transmitted on her private e-mail server — is, or should be, a non-scandal.
Clinton has only herself to blame for a lot of the e-mail mess. She should have behaved like other government officials and used an official account, however cumbersome the multiple-device consequences might have been.
If she insisted on using a private server, she should have been exceedingly careful to make certain that information was properly designated for archiving at the time — not long after the fact.
When she finally turned over thousands of e-mails to the State Department, she should not have then taken the provocative step of deleting thousands more from the server, a move guaranteed to fan conspiracy theories not quiet them.
When the matter became public, she should have tried to quell the predictable firestorm by turning over the server. She should have stopped insisting, as she did on CNN this month, that she was not only blameless but praiseworthy.
“I went above and beyond what anybody could have expected in making sure that if the State Department didn’t capture something, I made a real effort to get it to them,” Clinton said. A real effort — two years after leaving office. Come on.
Nonetheless, the classification kerfuffle is a non-scandal blown out of proportion by a toxic combination of sloppy reporting, official miscommunication and partisan positioning.
First, the original version of the New York Times article — swiftly revised — falsely suggested that Clinton herself was the subject of a criminal probe.
Then, the Justice Department added to the confusion by confirming a “criminal” referral — only to reverse itself and withdraw that bombshell adjective.
Not that any of this stopped Clinton’s Republican critics and competitors for the presidency from capitalizing on the reports. “The fact is that what she has done is criminal,” blared Donald Trump. “I don’t see how she can run.”
Here’s the situation. The intelligence community’s inspector general reviewed a small subset of Clinton e-mails and found a significant portion — four out of 40 — that contained classified information, material that a spokeswoman said was classified at the time. The State Department says it has examined a larger number of e-mails — more than 2,000 — and found none with information that was classified at the time, although some material was classified retroactively.
In any event, there is no evidence that Clinton herself had, or should have had, any inkling about the classification.
“We note that none of the e-mails we reviewed had classification or dissemination markings, but some included [intelligence community]-derived classified information and should have been handled as classified, appropriately marked, and transmitted via a secure network,” the intelligence inspector general, I. Charles McCullough III, wrote to Congress last week.
McCullough’s letter reveals that he referred the matter to, among other agencies, the FBI. This is a routine matter when there is indication that classified material has been mishandled — not a sign that anything nefarious has transpired.
Moreover, if the Clinton e-mails did contain classified material, this would be a problem no matter whether she used a nonclassified government account or a private e-mail address. Both are, sadly, hackable. The rules require classified material — when the person knows or should know that it’s classified — to be dealt with in classified facilities, or on adequately secured devices and networks.
Not that any of this matters much. The classified-information-put-at-risk narrative is too delicious for Republicans to resist, and helps keep the e-mail story alive. This is a political problem for Clinton, but it isn’t, on the strength of the evidence so far, anywhere close to a legal one.
By way of comparison, take a look at the plea deal reached by Gen. David Petraeus for mishandling classified information. (Incidentally, he and Clinton share a lawyer, David Kendall.)
The former CIA director acknowledged that he gave biographer/mistress Paula Broadwell personal notebooks containing highly classified information including the identities of covert officers, intelligence capabilities and conversations with the president, then stored them in an unlocked desk drawer at his home, even as he assured security officials that he had no classified material in his possession.
That was criminal conduct. Clinton’s isn’t. Not even close.