A Person Subject to Government Secrecy Rules Complains About Hillary Clinton's Approach to Them

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Reps. Trey Gowdy and Elijah Cummings of the Benghazi investigative committee, after Clinton’s 11-hour appearance before them last fall. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

My view on the Hillary Clinton email “scandal,” as expressed over the months and also yesterday, is that this is another Whitewater. By which I mean: that the political and press hubbub, led in each case on the press’s side by the New York Times, bears very little relationship to the asserted underlying offense, and that after a while it’s hard for anyone to explain what the original sin / crime / violation was in the first place.

The Whitewater investigation machine eventually led, through a series of Rube Goldberg / Jorge Luis Borges-style weirdnesses, to the impeachment of Bill Clinton, even though the final case for removing him from office had exactly nothing to do with the original Whitewater complaint. Thus it stands as an example of how scandals can take on a zombie existence of their own, and of the damage they can do. The Hillary Clinton email “scandal” has seemed another such case to me, as Trey Gowdy’s committee unintentionally demonstrated with its 11-hour attempted takedown of Clinton last year.


I point all this out as set-up to an “on the other hand” note from a reader who through the Obama era has had several roles in the U.S. defense establishment. I know more details but am not giving them, for reasons that will become clear. To the best of my knowledge, this person is not a reflexive or partisan critic of Democrats or the Clintons.

I say that Hillary Clinton has found the right answer to further email questions: Oh, just stop the B.S. This reader explains why he disagrees.

You write that Clinton has hit on a good answer on classified emails, and I think journalists, including you, are totally failing to hold her accountable here.

Now, the way the Clinton campaign has explained what’s going on—nobody’s sure—sounds like, look, a lot of secret programs like drone strikes in Pakistan have become front page news in the Times and Post but are still in theory classified, which is really stupid, and that’s the stuff she was forwarding around. Let’s assume that’s basically what's going on.

(Although, side note, at one point the feds were saying that the part of the email issue was about “special access programs,” which confuses me because those can, in theory, be not at all “classified” in the traditional intel sense, but it’s dangerous stuff to disclose, so its under a so-called “alternative” classification system: If people are saying that stuff wasn’t marked “classified,” it is just weasel-speak. It never is. But let’s assume that’s not what’s going on.)

In this case, my heart is pretty much 100 percent with Clinton. There is a ridiculous amount of overclassification going on, and it is beyond stupid that Snowden (say) can disclose something that every slack-jawed yokel can read about on the front pages of major American newspapers and it’s still somehow regarded as technically a government secret.

But. Here’s the thing: if you work around this stuff or anywhere in the national security community—and this was absolutely true while Clinton was still SecState—you got a bunch of warnings NOT to go looking at this stuff and that it is prosecutable if you do. I gotta say, that actually does scare the crap out of me.

You click the wrong link, on a government computer system, and you’re accessing data you’re not supposed to be accessing in a way that can, in theory, get you jailed.  And this administration—yes with Clinton as part of it—has quite notoriously been incredibly heavy-handed about this stuff, with at least one decent guy with a career dedicated to national service forced out of professional life for crap reasons related to overclassification. Things like polygraphs—which are nutty—have been stepped up and people who have done this their whole lives are getting forced out.

Because of that, there’s a lot of caution: I am deeply grateful that, say, the Lawfare site of Ben Wittes and Jack Goldsmith is really careful about putting this information up and warns federal employees when not to click on something (and am annoyed The Atlantic is not similarly protective of its readers). I am genuinely, honestly scared of how easily my life can get ruined here.

So if Clinton wants to say, look, stuff in a newspaper article isn’t classified info and nobody should care, well, that’s just common sense.  Except that she stood on the other side of that issue.  Colin Powell and Condi Rice’s admin wasn’t warning us not to read the papers, so their stuff is irrelevant. It was her State Department that was complicit in pushing these rules.

If she wants to say, this is all a BS charge, but she doesn’t want to bring the rest of the federal service into the tent with her—if these are just more special rules for the Clintons—then that’s BS. When she tells us what she did wasn’t wrong, she damn well better say, explicitly, that it’s not wrong no matter who does it and the Obama administration is wrong, wrong, wrong to claim otherwise.

If on the other hand Clinton doesn’t want to clarify that it’s not right for me or my colleagues to be in legal jeopardy—that my family doesn't have to be afraid—for doing this stuff, then you guys are gravely wrong not to be calling for her to be indicted. Thus far I haven't heard her make that call, and I’m listening.

Offered for the record.