Image from the May, 1979 issue of The Progressive.
The Republican also-rans agree: Hillary Clinton—unlike, say, Donald Trump—is manifestly unfit to be President of the United States because her use of a private email server when she was Secretary of State badly damaged national security and put lives at risk.
“Hillary Clinton’s decision to set up a home-cooked email system . . . left sensitive and classified national security information vulnerable to theft and exploitation by America’s enemies,” declared Florida U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, a failed GOP contender for the job Clinton now seeks, in the aftermath of an FBI probe. “Her actions were grossly negligent, damaged national security, and put lives at risk.”
Scott Walker agrees. The Wisconsin governor, who also sought the Republican nomination, harshly dismisses comparisons between Clinton’s actions and his staff’s use of a private email server when he was Milwaukee County executive. That server was employed to hide evidence of illegal campaigning for political parties and campaigns on state time, offenses for which two of his aides were convicted of crimes. Walker insists:
“My email was about political things. It had nothing to do with national security,” “There were no agents whose lives were put at risk by anything that I or anybody else has done and I didn't put the national security of this country at risk.”
Did Clinton’s lapses really put lives and national security at risk?
The vexing thing about secret communications is that it is difficult to know what they contain—not that this stops politicians from making sweeping pronouncements.
FBI Director James Comey, in announcing that no criminal charges would be pursued against Clinton, said she and her aides “were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.”
But what does this mean? Did these emails discuss covert operations? Did they reveal the identities of undercover agents?
In fact, The New York Times reported, some of Clinton’s emails fall into a category of records known as “born classified”—that is, they were automatically deemed classified because of how they were obtained or generated.
The designation traces to the 1946 Atomic Energy Act, which established that all information regarding the development of nuclear weapons was automatically classified. The law has since been expanded to include other issues.
It was the Atomic Energy Act, amended in 1954, that was invoked by the federal government in 1979 to block The Progressive magazine from publishing an article that revealed information about building a hydrogen bomb.
For six months and nineteen days, The Progressive, then, as now, a tiny political magazine based in Madison, Wisconsin, found itself up against the full might and authority of the U.S. government. Federal authorities enjoined it from “publishing or otherwise communicating, transmitting or disclosing” the restricted information in an article written by freelancer Howard Morland, who, using only publicly available information, uncovered a key concept of H-bomb design.
The magazine fought back, arguing that the true purpose of nuclear secrecy was not to protect actual state secrets—at that time, five nations had independently figured out how to build hydrogen bombs—but to stifle public awareness and discussion of America’s nuclear program.
Erwin Knoll, the magazine’s editor, took an especially dim view of the notion that, were it not for seditious breaches, other nations would have no idea how to replicate the United States’ achievement in building hydrogen bombs. The claim that nuclear proliferation hinged on access to some sort of secret, Knoll believed, was responsible for nearly all of the political repression—spy scares, communist witch hunts, loyalty purges—that had confounded progressive change in America.
In the end, the government abandoned its effort to suppress the article’s publication, after details of the “born secret” information garnered by Morland leaked into the public domain through other sources. The article was published in October 1979. The highly classified information turned out to be no big deal.
What does that mean for Clinton’s email saga? Simply that the designation of something as “very sensitive, highly classified” does not necessarily mean it compromised national security or put lives at risk.
According to the Times, the designation “born classified” may pertain as much to the source of the information as to the content. The article by Max Fisher gives an example: “[I]f Mrs. Clinton took notes on comments that a foreign ambassador made to her in confidence, then this information would probably be ‘born classified’ because of how it was gathered.”
Comey disclosed that 110 emails in fifty-two reviewed email chains obtained from Clinton contained classified information at the time they were sent. This included eight chains with data considered “Top Secret,” thirty that were “secret,” and eight “confidential.” An additional 2,000 emails were “up-classified” to the classification “confidential” after they were sent.
“Only a very small number of the emails containing classified information bore markings indicating the presence of classified information,” Comey said. “But even if information is not marked ‘classified’ in an e-mail, participants who know or should know that the subject matter is classified are still obligated to protect it.”
Comey’s statement contradicts Clinton’s prior assurances that, at the time she sent or received them, none of the emails were classified or marked as such. Comey also disclosed that “several thousand” work-related emails were not among the 30,000 that Clinton provided, again contrary to her public statements.
So Clinton was apparently untruthful, which is certain to have lasting political repercussions—even as she gears up for an electoral battle against Donald Trump, hardly a paragon of veracity. But all we really know about the content of the emails is that it was at some point deemed secret or confidential.
In fact, overclassification of government records occurs all the time. Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C., has criticized Clinton for her use of a private email server while also noting that much of what is considered secret should not be.
“I’ve seen a couple-million pages of documents that were classified when the government put them on paper or computer screens,” Blanton wrote in a column on Clinton’s emails for The Washington Post last year. “I can say from experience that few deserved such consideration.”
“There are real secrets," Blanton continued. This is where I diverge from the Julian Assanges and the Chelsea Mannings of the world. I don’t want the designs of binary chemical warheads getting out, nor the identities of any brave Iranian or Chinese voices who talk to our embassies or CIA stations. The bottom lines of our diplomats in negotiations, I think we should keep to ourselves until such time as the deals are done." He added:
“But the real secrets make up only a fraction of the classified universe, and no secret deserves immortality. In fact, essential to the whole idea of democratic government is that secret deals with dictators will come out eventually, not least to deter the worst deals from being made.”
In other words, when it comes to claims of “very sensitive, highly classified information,” it’s wise to maintain some measure of skepticism.
Bill Lueders is associate editor of The Progressive.