Three Missteps To Avoid When Reporting On Clinton Email “Quid Pro Quo”

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and other Republicans are trying to use newly released FBI documents from the agency’s closed investigation into Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server as secretary of state to generate a scandal around a purported “quid pro quo” between the FBI and State Department, raising new issues for political journalists who have records of getting the facts wrong on email stories. In one such case, Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post’s The Fix politics blog made a series of missteps regarding who issued the proposed “quid pro quo,” whether it occurred, and the meaning of a classification marking.

Trump, Other Republicans Seek To Turn Alleged “Quid Pro Quo” Into Scandal

Documents From FBI Investigation Regarding Clinton Email Server Mention Possible  “Quid Pro Quo.” Documents from the FBI’s closed investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server released on October 17 show that two FBI officials mentioned “a potential quid pro quo arrangement” with Under Secretary of State Patrick Kennedy, in which “the FBI would declassify [an email] in exchange for expanded authority in Iraq.” From The Hill:

Documents released Monday morning revealed that two FBI officials told investigators Kennedy had pressured the agency to alter the “top secret” classification of an email regarding possible arrests in the Benghazi attacks because it “caused problems.”

Kennedy allegedly petitioned officials to declassify the document and place it under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) exemption that “would allow him to archive the document in the basement of [the Department of State] never to be seen again.”

According to the two unnamed officials, there was some discussion about a potential quid pro quo arrangement under which the FBI would declassify the document in exchange for expanded authority in Iraq.

The email, from Nov. 18, 2012, remains classified and has since been made public with redactions. [The Hill, 10/17/16]

Donald Trump: “Unbelieveable.” Trump wrote that the “quid pro quo” allegation was “unbelieveable” and an official Trump campaign account wrote, “CORRUPTION CONFIRMED: FBI confirms State Dept. offered 'quid pro quo' to cover up classified emails”:

GOP Committee Chairmen: State Department’s Patrick Kennedy Should Be Fired. House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) released a statement calling for Kennedy to be removed from his post pending an investigation, according to The Hill:

Two Republican House chairmen are calling on the Obama administration to fire a senior State Department official accused of engaging in a quid pro quo deal with the FBI regarding the classification of some of Hillary Clinton’s emails.

"Those who receive classified intelligence should not barter in it — that is reckless behavior with our nation's secrets. Someone who would try to get classification markings doctored should not continue serving in the State Department or retain access to classified information,” House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz(R-Utah) and Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said in a statement on Monday.

“Therefore, President Obama and Secretary [of State John] Kerry should immediately remove Under Secretary [Patrick Kennedy] pending a full investigation." [The Hill, 10/17/16]

Cillizza Accuses State Department Of Proposing A Quid Pro Quo; FBI Says Its Official Brought Up Issue And There Was No Quid Pro Quo

Wash. Post’s Cillizza: “Undersecretary Of State Patrick Kennedy Asked The FBI To Ease Up On Classification Decisions In Exchange For Allowing More FBI Agents In Countries Where They Were Not Permitted To Go.” While attempting to describe the allegation of a “quid pro quo” proposal between the FBI and the State Department over the retroactive classification of an email from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s server, The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza suggested that the idea was proposed by a State Department official:

For the past few months, Hillary Clinton's decision to exclusively use a private email server while at the State Department has receded as a campaign issue as Donald Trump's comments about women have come to dominate the daily chatter about the 2016 race.

On Monday, however, the various issues associated with Clinton's email setup came roaring back. According to emails released by the FBI, Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy asked the FBI to ease up on classification decisions in exchange for allowing more FBI agents in countries where they were not permitted to go. The words “quid pro quo” were used to describe the proposed exchange by the FBI official.


If a State Department official is offering a quid pro quo in this one exchange, can you imagine what they are doing off the books? [The Washington Post, 10/17/16]

FBI: FBI Official, Not State Department Official, Raised The Issue. The FBI released a statement explaining that “during the same conversation [about the classification of the email], the FBI official asked the State Department official if they would address a pending, unaddressed FBI request for space for additional FBI employees assigned abroad.” From

Both FBI and State on Monday denied any “quid pro quo.”

“The FBI determined that one such email was classified at the Secret level,” FBI said Monday in a statement. “A senior State Department official requested the FBI re-review that email to determine whether it was in fact classified or whether it might be protected from release under a different FOIA exemption. A now-retired FBI official, who was not part of the subsequent Clinton investigation, told the State Department official that they would look into the matter. Having been previously unsuccessful in attempts to speak with the senior State official, during the same conversation, the FBI official asked the State Department official if they would address a pending, unaddressed FBI request for space for additional FBI employees assigned abroad.” [, 10/17/16]

Cillizza Also Fails To Explain That No “Quid Pro Quo” Actually Occurred -- Articles By Other Outlets Included This Fact “No Increase In FBI Iraq Slots Resulted From This Conversation.” explained that the FBI ultimately declined to change the classification of the email:

The FBI maintained the email should remain classified.

State Department Deputy Spokesperson Mark Toner called allegations of a quid pro quo “inaccurate” and said Monday that Kennedy was trying to “understand” the FBI's decision to withhold the information.

“Classification is an art, not a science, and individuals with classification authority sometimes have different views,” Toner said. “There can be applicable FOIA exemptions that are based on both classified and unclassified rules. ... We have been committed to releasing as much information to the public as possible, and ensuring that documents are withheld due to classification only when necessary to prevent damage to national security -- as the Executive Order on classification calls for.”

No increase in FBI Iraq slots resulted from this conversation, Toner said. [, 10/17/16]

AP: “The FBI Ultimately Rejected The Idea.” From an October 17 Associated Press article:

The bureau records, citing an FBI official whose name was censored, said Undersecretary for Management Patrick F. Kennedy sought assistance in exchange for a “quid pro quo.” But the FBI's separate statement Monday said it was the now-retired FBI official who first asked Kennedy about deploying more agents overseas.

The FBI ultimately rejected the idea, which would have allowed the State Department to archive a message related to the 2012 attacks on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, in the basement of its Washington headquarters “never to be seen again,” according to the FBI files. [The Associated Press, 10/17/16]

Cillizza Criticizes Clinton’s Understanding Of  Classification System As He Botches It Himself

Cillizza Erroneously Says “C” Marking On Some Clinton Emails Stands For “Classified.” Cillizza wrote, “It's hard to square the idea of Kennedy offering a quid pro quo to the FBI regarding a classification decision and Clinton not even knowing that 'c' on documents stands for 'classified.' One suggests deep understanding of how the classification process works. The other, um, doesn't.” [The Washington Post, 10/17/16]

The “C” Marking Stands For “Confidential,” Which Is A Lower Level Of Classification. When Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump made the same mistake, an article at explained, “John Noonan, a national security adviser to Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney, observed that Trump had incorrectly ascribed ‘classified’ to the ‘C’ markings -- they actually denote a lower security status, ‘confidential.’” [, 9/6/16]

It Is Common For Agencies To Disagree About Retroactive Classification Decisions -- And It Is Old News That This Happened Over Clinton’s Emails

Vox: “The Fact That Agencies Are Fighting Over What State Should Release Is Prima Facie Evidence That The Question Of What Should Be Classified Doesn't Have A Cut-And-Dried Answer.” In a July 2015 article on sloppy reporting by The New York Times on Clinton’s emails, Vox’s Jonathan Allen explained that the “intelligence community tends to have a pretty broad definition of what should be withheld from the public,” leading to disputes about what should and shouldn’t be classified. Allen also pointed out that Kennedy played the lead role for State regarding the retroactive classification of emails from Clinton’s server:

In order to understand the nuances of the Times's story, you have to look at the bigger picture of the fight over Clinton's email within the government.

The State Department has been ordered by a federal judge to make public the 55,000 pages of emails Clinton turned over to the agency. So the State Department has Freedom of Information Act experts sifting through the documents to make sure that no information will be released that is either classified or sensitive (meaning not technically classified but also not covering material that the government doesn't want in the public domain).

This has caused a bureaucratic turf war between the department and the intelligence community, which believes at least one email that's already been released contains classified information and that hundreds of others in the full set may also have material that's not ready for public consumption. For a couple of months, the inspectors general of the State Department and the combined intelligence community agencies have been battling Patrick Kennedy, the lead State Department official, over who has access to the documents and the authority to release or withhold them.

Now, according to the Times and other publications, the IG team is asking the Justice Department to get involved in reviewing whether State has mishandled the emails. If Clinton was sending information that was, or should have been, classified — and knew that it was, or should have been, classified — that's a problem. But no one has accused her of that so far. Given the anodyne nature of what she sent in the emails we've already seen, it's entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that any sensitive information was sent to Clinton, not by her (though it's not clear whether forwarding such emails would constitute a legal issue for her).

The intelligence community tends to have a pretty broad definition of what should be withheld from the public, and the fact that agencies are fighting over what State should release is prima facie evidence that the question of what should be classified doesn't have a cut-and-dried answer.

Government officials who deal with top-secret information have three computer systems. One is like everyone else's, one is for a low level of classification, and one is for the highest level of classification. You can't send from a higher-level system to a lower-level system. In order to do that, you would have to personally write classified material into an email on a less-secure system. It's an imperfect safeguard, but a pretty good one. Clinton had aides at State who produced physical copies of classified documents for her, so there was no need for her to deal with such material over email. If she did, that's a sign of poor judgment on her part. But that's not what this particular issue is focused on.

Ultimately — at least for now — this is a bureaucratic fight about how the State Department has handled the emails, not about Hillary Clinton. It's part of the story, but doesn't, as the Times first wrote, get to the guts of the question of whether Clinton acted improperly. [Vox, 7/28/15]