Small World: Laws, rules and Hillary


Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

The debate would appear to be ended. The highly respected director of the FBI, James Comey, has said Mrs. Clinton and her team were “extremely careless” in using a private e-mail server for official business. His judgment is that no crime was committed and there should therefore be no indictment. End of story. End of Republican hopes that she might be disqualified for the presidency.

Not, perhaps, so fast. A little background might be in order. I think back to my Foreign Service friend Ben, a hard working, totally loyal, promising officer who held an important job in one of our Middle East embassies. Working late and required to go out in the evening, he left some classified documents on his desk — not secured in a safe as they should have been. A Marine guard, making his nightly rounds, discovered the lapse and wrote him up. Ben was rebuked, his record sullied. After that incident, the best job he could get was in the office of the State Department Historian.

There are other more celebrated security violations: Distinguished General Petraeus lost out as CIA chief when it was discovered he had shared secret papers with his lover. Had to make do with a job on Wall Street — which has plenty of secrets but none classified. Then, there was the former senior staffer in the White House, who tried to clean up his record by taking some classified documents out of the Archives hidden in his socks. A hefty fine was his punishment.

It’s clear from the record that the government can be quite stern when it comes to protecting documents labeled “Confidential,” “Top Secret,” or other stamps too sensitive to mention. Tens of thousands of documents and electronic signals, maybe more, are christened with a classification each day. If a bit of information is deemed important for security reasons, it may be classified by a qualified officer (not a rare breed). If that official wants to avoid the hassle, he can simply leave the stamp off the paper. That is apparently what happened with some of the otherwise sensitive e-mails sent to Hillary. She says she didn’t see a stamp; she was therefore innocent of a security violation.

Leave that bit of trickery aside. Why did she want a private server anyway? Well, that would give her full control over any files that enemies may want to pry open under the Freedom of Information Act. There can be no embarrassing files if the delete button has been pushed. Ordinary State Department officers don’t have that authority. A secret file is a secret file for eternity — unless it is declassified by a special board or a senior official wants to write memoirs and include a few juicy secrets.

One final observation before getting to my main point: Far, far too much information is classified by government agencies. It is unnecessary and it is expensive to tend to. A lot of junk gets mixed in with genuine secrets, weakening the fabric of protection that is needed.

Where I fault Hillary is for putting herself above the rules established for protecting secrets. Security professionals — people who know the dangers and the measures needed to defend against them — devised the structure. Everyone involved with classified material is instructed on the rules — if not themselves personally, then a responsible assistant.

No one, of whatever rank or station, can simply abrogate those rules for personal or other reasons. To do so is to be guided by an arrogance that ill becomes one seeking higher office – whether appointed or elected.

Maybe, my Democrat friends might argue, a mistake was made and will not be repeated. We all know there is a spectrum of mistakes: Mistakes that are products of inattention or “carelessness.” Mistakes that are not inadvertent, but made trying to slip by or short cut. And there are “mistakes” made because the person responsible is governed by a different regimen, believing that he/she knows better and is superior to the established rules.

There is no excuse if overriding rules is simply for the personal benefit of a person with the power to make change.

But, wait. There’s the cover-up of incomplete truths. Cover-up — always worse that the original sin in a political scandal.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer. 

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