Imagine your political party has won the recent presidential election, and the man elected to be president has pegged you to be Secretary of State. What an honor. Secretary of State is one of the most important and prestigious positions in the federal government; it is one of the most critical positions in the government, dealing with sensitive international matters, such as agreements and disputes, the communications associated with which often carry security classifications, such as “classified,” “secret,” or “top secret.”
There are processes and systems in place to facilitate your communications, both classified and unclassified, between and among individuals and departments within the government, and with officials of other governments, official systems and processes that track these official communications as a matter of efficiency, accountability, national security and historical record.
With this in mind, and after going through the FBI’s briefing on the official communications protocol, and swearing under oath that you have been briefed and understand the process and protocol and why it exists, you then decide that rather than utilize the official secured government communications system you have been briefed on, as your predecessors did, you will use your own private email server to handle official government business as well as your own personal email communications.
Question: What would be the reason for making the unusual and unprecedented decision to conduct official communications on a private system instead of on the official and secured government system, a system to which only you have access, and that denies the government the ability to have complete access to your official communications?
Eventually, this decision enters the public sphere and is predictably met with many questions, and very effectively fertilizes the environment for suspicion of your motives. Political opponents will be emboldened, and you are the one who has emboldened them, and questions will arise about both your judgment and the possibility of illegal activity.
This is the sticky wicket that Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State from January 21, 2009 to February 1, 2013, and now candidate for the Democrat nomination for President of the United States, created for herself with this curious decision as she assumed the position of Secretary of State.
Mrs. Clinton’s political opponents — the “vast right-wing conspiracy” — have indeed noticed this irregularity, and finally the mainstream media is also taking notice.
NBC News commentator Andrea Mitchell — no right-wing conspirator she — shared comments from intelligence officials who have told her that, “nobody can give an explanation for why a cabinet secretary would have a private email system other than to thwart inquiries, FOIAs [Freedom of Information Act inquiries],” which she mentioned recently on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program.
Andrea Mitchell is not the only one interested in the question raised by those intelligence officials. And the new questions raised by those other interested parties go beyond mere curiosity about why a cabinet secretary would have taken this unusual step. The more serious issue is whether or not classified information passed through Mrs. Clinton’s private email system, a clear violation of federal law.
Mark Levin, former chief of staff for Attorney General Edwin Meese in President Ronald Reagan’s administration, also an attorney, author and talk show host, sees breaches of the federal Penal Code, specifically Section 793 of the Penal Code, Subsection (f).
“My point is,” Mr. Levin said, “when you set up an unsecured server in your barn adjacent to your home in Chappaqua, New York, you have intentionally — forget about negligence — you have intentionally bypassed the security process for that server.”
If a private system was her chosen method for email communication, both personal and governmental, even if she avoided sending emails containing classified information, how could she prevent classified information from being sent to her on her private system? In short: How could Mrs. Clinton not have had classified information on her private server?
Some offer the defense of intent, suggesting that it matters if she did not intend to allow classified information to be lost, stolen, abstracted or destroyed. But Mr. Levin says, “No it doesn’t, not with respect to this, Subsection (f).”
Former federal judge and Attorney General Michael Mukasey comments: “Once you assume a public office, your communications about anything having to do with your job are not your personal business or property. They are the public’s business and the public’s property, and are to be treated as no different from communications of like sensitivity.”
And this from McClatchy DC last Wednesday: “The inspectors general for the U.S. Intelligence Community and the State Department have disclosed over the last week that at least five emails, routed through a private server that Clinton used throughout her tenure as secretary of state, contained classified information, including two emails whose content is now deemed to be ‘Top Secret.’”
Even if somehow Mrs. Clinton escapes being charged with crimes in this incident, her behavior — from the idea of having her own private email server in the first place, to the elaborate cleansing process she utilized to clear all data from the email server, and the release of the email communications that she alone determined was relevant — raises important questions about her lack of judgment and what her motivation was.
James Shott is a columnist for the Bluefield Daily Telegraph, and publishes his columns on several Websites, including his own, Observations.