Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
Opinion writer

Does Hillary Clinton have a serious legal problem because she may have transmitted classified information on her private e-mail server? After talking with a half-dozen knowledgeable lawyers, I think this “scandal” is overstated. Using the server was a self-inflicted wound by Clinton, but it’s not something a prosecutor would take to court.

“It’s common” that people end up using unclassified systems to transmit classified information, said Jeffrey Smith, a former CIA general counsel who’s now a partner at Arnold & Porter, where he often represents defendants suspected of misusing classified information.

“There are always these back channels,” Smith explained. “It’s inevitable, because the classified systems are often cumbersome and lots of people have access to the classified e-mails or cables.” People who need quick guidance about a sensitive matter often pick up the phone or send a message on an open system. They shouldn’t, but they do.

“It’s common knowledge that the classified communications system is impossible and isn’t used,” said one former high-level Justice Department official. Several former prosecutors said flatly that such sloppy, unauthorized practices, although technically violations of law, wouldn’t normally lead to criminal cases.

Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server while she was secretary of state has been a nagging campaign issue for months. Critics have argued that the most serious problem is possible transmission of classified information through that server. Many of her former top aides have sought legal counsel. But experts in national-security law say there may be less here than it might appear.

First, experts say, there’s no legal difference whether Clinton and her aides passed sensitive information using her private server or the official “state.gov” account that many now argue should have been used. Neither system is authorized for transmitting classified information. Second, prosecution of such violations is extremely rare. Lax security procedures are taken seriously, but they’re generally seen as administrative matters.

Potential criminal violations arise when officials knowingly disseminate documents marked as classified to unauthorized officials or on unclassified systems, or otherwise misuse classified materials. That happened in two cases involving former CIA directors that are cited as parallels for the Clinton e-mail issue, but are quite different. John Deutch was pardoned in 2001 for using an unsecured CIA computer at his home to improperly access classified material; he reportedly had been prepared to plead guilty to a misdemeanor. David Petraeus pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in April for “knowingly” removing classified documents from authorized locations and retaining them at “unauthorized locations.” Neither case fits the fact pattern with the Clinton e-mails.

Clinton defended herself Aug. 18 with a carefully worded statement: “I did not send classified material, and I did not receive any material that was marked or designated classified.” Those may sound like weasel words, but they actually go to the heart of what might constitute a criminal case.

What happens in the real world of the State Department? Smith takes the hypothetical example of an assistant secretary who receives a classified cable from, say, Paris, about a meeting with the French foreign minister and wants quick guidance from the secretary. So he dashes off an e-mail — rather than sending a classified cable that would be seen by perhaps a dozen people.

“Technically, he has taken classified information and put it onto an unclassified system,” Smith said. “It’s the same as picking up a telephone and talking about it. It’s not right. But the challenge of getting the secretary’s attention — getting guidance when you need it — is an inevitable human, bureaucratic imperative. Is it a crime? Technically, perhaps yes. But it would never be prosecuted.”

Informal back channels existed long before e-mail. One former State Department official recalled the days when most embassies overseas had only a few phones authorized for secret communications. Rather than go to the executive office to make such a call, officers would use their regular phones, bypassing any truly sensitive details. “Did we cross red lines? No doubt. Did it put information at risk? Maybe. But, if you weren’t in Moscow or Beijing, you didn’t worry much,” this former official said.

Back channels are used because the official ones are so encrusted by classification and bureaucracy. State had the “Roger Channel,” named after former official Roger Hilsman, for sending secret messages directly to the secretary. The Joint Chiefs of Staff had a similar private channel. CIA station chiefs could send communications known as “Aardwolves” straight to the director.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton responded to reporters in Las Vegas on Tuesday over the controversy surrounding her personal e-mail server. Clinton reiterated that she did not send or receive any classified material from her personal account. (AP)

Are these channels misused sometimes? Most definitely. Is there a crime here? Almost certainly not.

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