Benjamin Franklin once said that a “half truth is often a great lie.” It turns out that the same can be said about “technical” truths.
Franklin’s warning came to mind recently after Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post looked at the claim of Hillary Clinton on Twitter this week that “the fact is that I had zero emails that were classified.” The Post declared Clinton “technically correct” in the claim despite the fact that it was actually false. Indeed, the Post appears to recognize that fact at the very end of its analysis.
A “technical” truth is wonderfully Clintonesque – captured in Bill’s infamous defense during the Monica Lewinsky investigation that “it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” The email scandal now depends on what the meaning of “were” was.
Hillary Clinton is focusing on whether the emails were marked classified as opposed to whether they contained classified information. The tortured logic is transparently and knowingly misleading, but it has been pushed by various columnists and analysts.
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As I have stated previously, I do not believe that the email scandal warranted criminal charges and certainly did not justify the “lock her up” mantra used in the 2016 presidential campaign. However, Clinton is now rewriting history with the help of many in the media who simultaneously pushed this line that the email scandal was a type of conservative hoax. It was not.
While substantive in many respects, Kessler’s analysis largely follows the false framing of Hillary’s tweet: whether emails were actually marked classified. Even on that point, Hillary is technically incorrect. There were emails with “confidential” classifications. Admittedly, that is the lowest level of classification and there was a controversy on whether those markings should have been removed. Kessler spends considerable time chasing that rabbit down the hole in the Clinton tweet when there is a virtual chasm next to it. The focus of the tweet and the Post analysis was not the focus of the investigation.
Hillary elected to use an unsecured personal server despite the strong policy against such systems for the discussion of State Department business. The reason is obvious. The servers are more easily penetrated by foreign intelligence and, according to the FBI, “hostile actors gained access” to some of the information through the emails of Clinton’s associates and aides.
Emails are a particular concern for security experts because they rarely have classification markings. Officials engage in contemporary and rapid exchanges that can reveal classified information. People often try to “talk around” such classified facts, but they can easily compromise sensitive programs or information. That is precisely the reason why they are told to use only secured servers and government email systems.
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In Clinton emails, the inspector general noted this very same pattern where aides showed a “conscious effort to avoid sending classified information, by writing around the most sensitive material.” It did not work. A 2018 report of Department of Justice inspector general revealed that “81 email chains containing approximately 193 individual emails” were “classified from the CONFIDENTIAL to TOP SECRET levels at the time.”
There was never an allegation that Clinton or her aides intended to reveal classified information, but rather than they conveyed classified information while using the private server. As then FBI Director James Comey stated, they had “dozens of conversations on email about secret topics” and disregarded security protocols.
What the private server allowed was control by the Clintons. That control would later prove key when Clinton delayed full disclosure to federal officials and ultimately deleted thousands of emails.
While endlessly detailing the classification markings of three emails, Kessler does note that “sometimes classified information seeped into email exchanges.” That is the point. It is not the markings but the content of the emails that compromised national security information.
It is only at the very end that the Post again acknowledges this point in affirming a “technical” truth in favor of Clinton:
“Clinton, in her tweet, suggests none of her emails were marked classified. That’s technically correct. Whether those emails contained classified information was a major focus of the investigation, but a review of the recent investigations, including new information obtained by the Fact Checker, shows Clinton has good reason for making a distinction with Trump.”
Unpack this line. The column admits that it was not the markings but the content that was a “major focus of the investigation,” but then declared Clinton “technically correct.”
The use of a strawman argument is classic Clinton, but it looks silly when adopted by a serious journalist.
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Take the conclusion that this is different from the Trump allegation of holding classified information at Mar-a-Lago. Of course, it is different. While Trump insists that as a president he was allowed to remove the documents and that he declassified them, that claim remains unestablished. However, these were clearly marked classified documents, including some at extremely high levels of classification.
Yet, there is one aspect that is more analogous and entirely omitted from the Post analysis. The most likely charge against Trump is obstruction in failing to turn over the material after a formal subpoena. Again, while there are obvious differences, Clinton and her staff were also accused of withholding material and delaying such disclosures.
The State Department investigators worked furiously to determine the extent of any compromising of classified information in these emails by Clinton or her staff, including the possession of classified information on various laptops. Clinton and her staff did not fully cooperate with investigators in refusing to turn over her emails and other evidence. They delayed such efforts to estimate any national-security damage. Ultimately, the FBI cut deals with her aides to secure their cooperation. Later, additional classified material was found on the laptop of former Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., who was married to top Clinton aide Huma Abedin – 49,000 emails potentially relevant to the Clinton investigation.
Moreover, the thousands of emails cited by Hillary do not include thousands destroyed by her staff. In 2014, Clinton and her staff were aware that these emails were being sought by both congressional and federal investigators. However, they used BleachBit to wipe out thousands of emails and then told investigators that they made the unilateral decision that such emails were “personal.”
The Clintons have long thrived in the gray space between “technical” and actual truth. As an accommodating media debates what the meaning of “were” classified was in the email scandal, the real question is what the media has become when an alleged half truth is indistinguishable from a whole lie.
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