Hillary's e-Mails: An Intelligence Perspective

The Barack Obama / Hillary Clinton years have indisputably been the worst for the American Intelligence community at least since the Office of Strategic Services was created in 1942 – the 2010 WikiLeaks release of thousands of State Department communications; Edward Snowden’s 2013 exposure of the gruesome details of NSA surveillance programs; the decision (apparently made by President Obama) to not come to the aid of CIA agents and the ambassador in Benghazi; the administration’s Guantanamo-driven policy of killing jihadi leaders rather than capturing them for interrogation.  Whether a future president is trying to discern the status of Iran’s nuclear program, the implications of Chinese expansion in the South China Sea, Russia’s deployments across their western periphery, or the strengths and vulnerabilities of ISIS, the capability to rely on solid information has been diminished.

While there are political and legal implications of Secretary of State Clinton’s decision to use a vulnerable personal e-mail system to hide her communications from governmental and public inquiry, her behavior compromised both our leverage in ongoing international negotiations and, once more, the viability of intelligence gathering capabilities.

First, particularly in light of the flurry of recent hacking incidents affecting the Office of Personnel Management, the Pentagon’s Joint Staff e-mail system, and the IRS data base, it is inconceivable that the Clinton system would not have been found and targeted. And what might have been of interest to the Russians and Chinese between 2009 and 2013? Perhaps discussions with Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland about missile defense systems? Perhaps potential reactions to Russian intervention in the Ukraine?  Perhaps our reaction to Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria? Perhaps the erosion of support for sanctions against Iran? Perhaps discussions with Japan about China’s expanding military capabilities?  Hillary made much of her “reset button” in the Russian relationship; a good poker player would have understood that the opponent was looking into our hand.

But what of the damage to the intelligence system itself? There are several dimensions:

– The intelligence community inspector general found that two of the forty e-mails which he reviewed contained Top Secret / Special Compartmentalized Information, using the designations for communications intelligence, satellite photography, and “no foreign dissemination”.  Beyond having the necessary security clearances, there are strict rules about “need to know”, further dissemination, and copying of the material which would be well known to any government employee with access. We do not want adversaries to know the capabilities and nuances of these collection sytems.

– Less technical is the need to protect human sources, particularly when the information points back to a limited number of potential originators. Think Russian general staff plans for deployment in the Ukraine, or a dissident scientist’s perspective on the status of Iran’s nuclear program. In the real world the recruitment of informants in sensitive places is difficult, and the life expectancy of compromised spies is short. Lower level analysts do not want to know this information lest they inadvertently expose it. Strategy discussions at the Secretary of State level would have access to all that is available.

– Intelligence deals primarily with capabilities; diplomacy also deals with intentions which are subject to conjecture and opinion. Inherent to the State Department role is the sharing of conjecture and opinion with representatives of allied government – frequently with the understanding that the information and the source will not be passed on beyond a limited group. Like in the fifth grade, an inability to keep a secret excludes one from the information loop.

This controversy about Hillary Clinton’s e-mail will not go away. In fact, if there is ever a debate between a Republican candidate and Secretary Clinton, the question will no longer be “what did you accomplish”? It will be “what did you give away, and why?”


This week we have two short interviews with Carly Fiorina – with Chris Mathews and Katie Kouric – for anyone looking for a Republican who can make mince-meat out of an antagonistic media.


www.RightinSanFrancisco.com – 9/4/15

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