Clinton Emails Reveal Confusion, Frustration Over Term Classified

Hillary Clinton

Image courtesy of Hillary Clinton for President

Clinton Emails Reveal Confusion, Frustration
Over Term "Classified"
| published September 1, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

It’s no secret that some of the biggest lobbying firms and marketing agencies in and around Washington pay big bucks to hire former members of the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate to be on their staff. In fact, some political analysts—and most watchdog groups—already make the case that many elected officials basically plan their “retirement” in such a way as to make the best use of the former status as a member of Congress in the always-expanding and powerful world of lobbying.

A lobbying firm with at least one former member of Congress—preferably two or three—can open doors, ensure that phone calls get returned, and virtually guarantee that emails and letters will be answered.

Hillary Clinton’s much analyzed State Department email account illuminates this typical Washington pattern very clearly, and shows the inner workings of that revolving door at its best and worst.

In a recently released batch of emails provided to the press by the State Department, then-Secretary of State Clinton sometimes received correspondence from former members of Congress on behalf of their clients. In one email, former U.S. Representative Dick Gephardt (D-MO) writes to top Clinton aide Cheryl Mills, requesting a special meeting between Clinton and Umit Boyner, then the president of a major business association representing the nation of Turkey. Boyner attended a big conference hosted by the Brookings Institute in early summer 2010, then met with Phillip Gordon, a State Department official heading Eurasian Affairs at the time.

Later, Boyner met with Clinton. The emails show that it was Gephardt’s leverage that opened that door and secured that coveted audience. The email exchanges show that Gephardt was deferential and flexible, offering to facilitate the meeting at any time, and in any location—including in Washington, in Turkey, or in some third location. Other State Department officials joined the thread of conversation, encouraging the meeting, and soon it was signed off on by Clinton and scheduled.

Though certainly not illegal or even unethical (though that last point is certainly debatable), the email exchange and the subsequent meetings between Clinton, Gephardt, and several top State Department officials show how such high-powered leverage works in a town dominated by lobbying firms and marketing agencies, many of whom represent foreign countries, foreign governments, and international business groups. The emails show how Gephardt was able to tip the scales in favor of a meeting between the top U.S. diplomat and the head of a business association in a country on the hinge between Europe and the Middle East.

The State Department released some 7, 120 pages of emails this week, at least 150 of which were censored or redacted—presumably because of the classified or sensitive information contained in the correspondence. Many of the 7,120 emails contain completely routine office and bureaucratic chatter—meetings, schedules, timetables, deadlines, requests for information about certain countries or regions, questions about who to contact in foreign countries for data, queries about points of contact for specific issues or concerns in foreign cities.  Some emails are downright mundane: lunch plans, vacations, who is out sick, and who is returning to work.

Many of Clinton’s emails show the typical Washington preoccupation with media and news reporting. Thousands of emails contain copies of news articles or blog discussions, and many of these are in the form of links to news services and websites. Some of the emails show that State Department officials were reacting to news from around the world, while others demonstrate internal reactions to American news reports and editorials about foreign policy. Some analysts suggest that the majority of the emails which include news articles are typical of the process of file-building—what used to be the more common practice of clipping articles and placing the clippings in folders.  According to reporters who have reviewed some of the newly-released emails, few of this type of routine business includes anything remotely "classified."

But the newest batch of emails also includes numerous examples of frustration and confusion over the guidelines and constraints posed by using emails to transmit sensitive and classified information. Clinton and her staffers sometimes tiptoe around specifics, using the convenience of email while making vague references such as “the country we discussed” or “the capital city per our Monday discussion” as a way to maintain security protocol.  Several State Department officials express anger at journalists for reporting on some topics or for only thinly disguising sources. One example came in 2010 when the contents of cables between Karl Eikenberry (ambassador to Afghanistan) and State Department officials were leaked to the New York Times by way of emails. Mills sent heated emails regarding the leaks, and reminded those involved that the action was “a breach of the law.”

But Clinton and many of her closest aides were often frustrated by what they considered an overly-strict interpretation of “classified” or “sensitive” in the context of emails. Several email exchanges reflect internal testiness or friction between those who sought to restrain some information for its sensitivity and those who wanted to encourage open discussion. Several email exchanges about peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors are flagged for security reasons even though the contents are obviously a matter of public and official record.  And, as is the case in any large organization in which email recipients’ names often “auto-populate” in the “To” line or in the “Cc” lines, some emails were sent erroneously to the wrong people, or were bunched-in with others for whom the subject may or may not be of relevance.  In a few cases the recipients were reporters, though so far no red flags have been raised about classified or sensitive information being sent accidentally to a journalist.

The most recent batch of emails also highlight some of the logistical hurdles and technical problems affecting the State Department as a direct result of Clinton using a private email account, rather than an official account within State. Correspondence shows that some employees missed emails from Clinton’s private account, while others express frustration that their emails never reached Clinton. Clinton aide Huma Abedin notes this in several emails, including one in which she acknowledges the problem as “clearly a State vs. outside email issue.”

Clinton’s Presidential campaign has been forced on numerous occasions this year to respond to pressure from reporters to explain Clinton’s use of a privately-crafted email account during her tenure as Secretary of State. Clinton also used a server built specifically for her home in Chappaqua, New York. At issue has been whether Clinton complied with Federal guidelines and rules which require that government officials conduct all official correspondence in keeping with the Federal Records Act. The FBI became involved in the fracas when there were concerns that Clinton’s private server may not have been as secure as previously thought, and that the server and her email account could have been the victims of outside cyber-attack or prying eyes.

Republicans in Congress want access to some emails as part of an ongoing investigation into the events which led up to the terror attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.

In late spring, a Federal judge ordered the State Department to speed up the process of vetting and screening Clinton’s emails for public release after several Freedom-of-Information Act lawsuits reached the courts. Clinton acknowledges that she deleted roughly 30,000 emails from the privately-crafted account because the emails were of a personal nature. Another 30,000 or more were deemed work-related.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Server May Yield More Problems for Clinton; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; August 19, 2015.

Denver IT Firm Regrets Clinton Contract; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; August 20, 2015.