Secretaries of state have had private contacts since the job was created, so it’s a mistake to get too indignant about Hillary Clinton’s e-mail exchanges about Libya with her longtime friend Sidney Blumenthal. Still, these messages offer some useful insights about the court politics of Washington and the way policymaking can be overwhelmed by trivia and personal puffery.
Try reading these messages not as a catalogue of scandal (which doesn’t appear to be there) but as fragments of an epistolary novel of Imperial Washington, written in the modern genre of e-mail. There’s a faint echo of Anthony Trollope in the revelations of petty plots, coy flattery and bids for influence. The fact that Libya, the nominal subject of most of the messages, is going down the drain is almost an afterthought.
The central characters in this palace intrigue are Clinton and Blumenthal, her Svengali-like confidant since the 1990s who is referred to in these documents as “HRC friend,” “HRC Contact” and “Friend of S [for Secretary].” He had been shut out of a State Department job by the White House in 2009 but continued his friendship with Clinton and saw her occasionally. “Post-election, we’d like to have you over for dinner. Bill can come, too . . . ,” reads one message.
Blumenthal didn’t offer policy prescriptions so much as a running chronicle of the political machinations in Libya and the deteriorating security situation there. This gossip is dressed up with attributions to “an extremely sensitive source,” “a particularly sensitive source ” and the like.
Blumenthal’s missives on Libya appear to be mostly repackaged information from a former CIA officer named Tyler Drumheller , who is now part of Alphom Group, one of the many consulting firms in Washington that employ former spooks to harvest their old contacts for salable information. A principal of Alphom told me that Blumenthal had approached Drumheller and said his friend Clinton was “looking for information” about Libya.
That prompts the first observation about these e-mails: There is something heady about proximity to power. You can almost hear Blumenthal and the others confiding: “I was just talking to the secretary and she said. . . .”
The suggestion of high-level connections is conveyed by the e-mail moniker Blumenthal used: “sbwhoeop.” The “sb” part is obvious, but non-Washingtonians may not realize that “who” and “eop” are included in official e-mail addresses for White House staffers in the Executive Office of the President.
A top adviser to another former Obama administration Cabinet secretary said his boss received many similar transmissions from old friends — mostly harmless, a few real nuisances, a few gems of real information. Cabinet secretaries arrive with “a lifetime of well-wishers and hangers-on,” this former official notes. The old friends dispense advice, unbidden; staffers check out the tips and usually toss them in the trash.
Michael Morell, a former deputy director of the CIA and author of “The Great War of Our Time,” says that Blumenthal’s missives never came to the attention of senior agency personnel and never got into the paper flow of the National Security Council. That’s good, given that it was the CIA’s job to report on Libya, for real.
But the Blumenthal papers were taken seriously at State. Clinton sent them on to her overworked aide, Jake Sullivan, with such notations as “Useful insight, pls circulate,” or “very interesting,” or, in one instance, “We should get this around asap.”
Sullivan duly read the missives. What’s mildly troubling is that in several instances he asked senior State Department officers to respond, at a time when they were super-busy with real events in Libya.
But helping and flattering the secretary were part of the job. When she gave a speech or an interview, aides chimed in with compliments such as “pitch-perfect,” or “powerful presence,” or “wonderful.” Praise came even from a top aide to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who wrote of a “wonderful, strong and moving statement” on Benghazi in an e-mail with the subject line of: “Wow.”
These memos recall other dubious back channels involving oil-rich Middle East nations. Libya snared President Jimmy Carter’s brother, Billy, as an emissary in the late-1970s. The Iran-contra scandal began in 1985 with an Iranian information peddler named Manucher Ghorbanifar, whom the CIA dubbed a “fabricator” but the White House embraced, anyway.
The danger of Washington’s courtier ethos is that it can lead to bad policy, or no policy. You can’t escape the feeling that Clinton and her aides were passing around Blumenthal’s e-mails when they should have been framing a better plan to deal with Libya’s disintegration.
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