Media Parrot Faulty Wash. Post Headline To Scandalize Retroactive Classification Of Clinton Emails

Morning shows seized on a faulty Washington Post headline to allege that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton inappropriately wrote and sent classified emails during her time as secretary of state, whitewashing the fact that her emails were only retroactively marked  “classified” and the opinion of experts that the existence of potentially classified information is not inherently obvious.

Wash. Post Corrects Inaccurate Headline Claiming Clinton “Wrote Classified Emails” And Sent Them Over Private Server

The Washington Post Had To Fix Headline To Accurately Explain Clinton's Emails Were Only “Deemed Classified” After She Left Office. On September 1, The Washington Post published a story that correctly stated that “government officials deemed the e-mails classified after Clinton left office” but was misleadingly headlined, “Clinton wrote classified e-mails sent using private server.” The Post later updated the headline to accurately reflect that Clinton's emails were not classified when she sent them. The new headline read: “Clinton, using private server, wrote and sent e-mails now deemed classified”:

While she was secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote and sent at least six e-mails using her private server that contained what government officials now say is classified information, according to thousands of e-mails released by the State Department.

Although government officials deemed the e-mails classified after Clinton left office, they could complicate her efforts to move beyond the political fallout from the controversy. [The Washington Post, 9/1/15] [, accessed 9/2/15]

Morning Shows Run With Wash. Post's Original Faulty Framing To Claim Clinton Wrote And Sent Classified Emails

Morning Joe Hosts: "Wash. Post Reports This Morning That Hillary Clinton Wrote And Sent At Least Six Emails That Contained Classified Information." On the September 2 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe, co-host Joe Scarborough cited the Washington Post report to claim that Hillary Clinton's statement that she did not send classified material is “ridiculous”:

MIKA BRZEZINSKI The Washington Post reports this morning that Hillary Clinton wrote and sent at least six emails that contained classified information while using her private server. The revelations found in Monday's release suggest that Clinton's role in distributing sensitive material went beyond receiving notes written by others on the email system kept in her home. Government officials deemed the information confidential after she left office but her personally writing the messages contradicts what she claimed in March when the private server was first revealed.

[CLIP OF HILLARY CLINTON]: I did not email any classified material to anyone on my email. There is no classified material. So, I certainly well aware of the classification requirements and did not send classified material.

JOE SCARBOROUGH: I mean, that's just ridiculous. First of all, I'm glad she said at the time, Jim, that she was aware of classified requirements because this BS about 'oh it was not marked,' that's no standard whatsoever. [MSNBC, Morning Joe, 9/2/15]

Fox & Friends: Hillary Clinton “Sent Confidential Intelligence To Somebody On The Other End.” On the September 2 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends, host Brian Kilmeade declared that Clinton “sent confidential intelligence” over email, insinuating that she did so knowing it was classified:

BRIAN KILMEADE: Bad news for Hillary Clinton. And that March meeting when she [said], 'by the way, this email thing, I never took any confidential information. I never sent any.' That's all blown up. It turns out they found at least six separate times in which she sent confidential intelligence to somebody on the other end. And when you say, 'well, it wasn't labeled,' you are writing it. You are the one that has to label it. It is born confidential.

ELISABETH HASSELBECK: You're absolutely right. [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 9/2/15]

But Clinton's Emails Were Not Marked Classified At The Time They Were Sent...

Clinton's Emails “Weren't Classified At The Time” They Were Sent. As CNN explained, 125 of Clinton's emails have been “retroactively classified before they were released” to the public, but “weren't classified at the time” they were sent:

The newest trove of more than 7,000 of Hillary Clinton's emails were released Monday night by the State Department, showcasing more of the mundane political notes and scheduling requests that have made up earlier releases.

That's despite 125 of those emails -- which weren't classified at the time -- being retroactively classified before they were released. All or portions of some unclassified emails are redacted, too. [CNN, 8/31/15]

... And Information One Agency Deems “Sensitive” Might Not Be To Another

Brookings: Critics Assume That Sensitivity Of Classified Information Is Obvious. The Brookings Institute's Richard Lempert explained in an August 13 blog post that, despite critics' assertions that Clinton “should have at least been aware of [the] sensitive nature” contained in emails that have now been labeled “classified,” that view “assumes that the sensitivity of classified information is obvious”:

Critics may argue that whether or not Clinton knew that information in her emails was classified, she should at least have been aware of its sensitive nature and avoided referencing it in messages sent through her server. But this criticism assumes that the sensitivity of classified information is obvious. Often, however, information is classified not because of what it alone reveals, but because of what it might reveal when put together with other evidence. Indeed, compilations of information may be classified even if no information in the compilation is itself classified. And tendencies toward overclassification, or delays in declassification, may mean that some truly innocuous information is labeled Secret. Moreover, since the information at issue was classified by agencies other than State, Clinton may well have been unaware of related information that would have made the sensitivity of what she disclosed obvious. [Brookings Blog, 8/13/15]

Questions About Retroactive Classification Would Have Arisen Regardless Of Clinton's Server Or Email Use

Vox: Whether Or Not Emails Should Have Been Marked Classified Is Part Of “Bureaucratic Turf War.” Vox pointed out how the interagency disagreement over whether the emails were appropriately categorized “is a bureaucratic fight about how the State Department has handled the emails, not about Hillary Clinton” (emphasis added):

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). [Vox, 7/28/15]

Brookings: Even CIA And NSA Admit That “Classified Information They Found Was Not Marked To Indicate That Secrecy Was Required.” Brookings' Lempert further explained that security professionals “have a reputation for erring in the direction of overclassification,” and thus information “may be classified when its revelation would pose no serious security threat.” This is true despite the fact that “in transmitting their concerns to the Justice Department, the CIA and NSA Inspectors General noted that the classified information they found was not marked to indicate that secrecy was required”:

Assuming that CIA and NSA classified information can be found in messages on Clinton's server, and there is no reason to doubt this, two further points must be considered before deciding that any breach was knowing or potentially serious. First, security professionals have a reputation for erring in the direction of overclassification. Not only may information be classified when its revelation would pose no serious security threat, but there have allegedly been instances where agencies classified information for impermissible reasons such as to cover up crimes or avoid embarrassing the agency.


Even if classified information is in messages Clinton sent rather than confined to what she received, there is no good reason to question the honesty (as opposed to the accuracy) of Clinton's claim that she never conveyed classified information in messages sent through her personal server.


Questions of honesty would arise only if Clinton acquired the information from marked documents or in settings where she was alerted to the classified nature of what she was learning. But in transmitting their concerns to the Justice Department, the CIA and NSA Inspectors General noted that the classified information they found was not marked to indicate that secrecy was required.


Understanding how the government's security system works, provides further reason to see the House Benghazi Committee's desire to secure Clinton's private server as a smoke screen for a politically-motivated hatchet job. Clinton's private server e-mails are unlikely to shed any new light on what happened in Benghazi, or on her activities while the struggle was ongoing and in its immediate aftermath. Pertinent messages by or to Clinton and her staff that were marked Secret or Top Secret and are likely the most informative would have been sent through secure government channels, and confidential post-mortem analyses will be still classified. These may be provided to the Committee by the government if the law requires it, but there is no reason to expect to find them stored on Clinton's private e-mail server. What would have been found there before Clinton destroyed her personal e-mails are likely messages revealing little or nothing about what happened in Benghazi but perhaps revealing Clinton's circle of close confidents, or comments and disclosures that might be politically embarrassing and harmful to Clinton's presidential ambitions. If contemporary politics were such that the House Committee could be trusted to reveal nothing on Clinton's server except Benghazi-related messages, its demand to access the server before messages were destroyed would have deserved respectful consideration. But if we lived in that political world, investigations into Benghazi would have long since ceased, or if they were somehow still ongoing, the Committee would have had no interest in searching the totality of Clinton's personal communications.

Destroying her personal emails does not, however, protect Clinton from the political consequences of mixing government and personal email on a personal server. Just as her supporters are likely to accept her claim that she only destroyed personal messages, and to be convinced that the Benghazi Committee could not have been trusted to keep personal information confidential, her opponents are unlikely to believe that only personal messages were destroyed. Rather, they will see in their claimed destruction a subterfuge designed to cover up the deletion of messages showing malfeasance in Clinton's handling of Benghazi or other damning revelations about her performance while Secretary of State. The next Presidential election may be determined by whichever side is best able to persuade the broader American public that its convictions are right. The issue of Clinton's honesty should not, however, be confused by the presence of classified information in some of the messages that Clinton gave the government. Based on what we have learned so far, it appears that Clinton's error in asserting that there was no classified information on her server was quite likely an honest mistake. If it is not, Clinton would have been just as much at fault had she used an unsecured State Department server rather than her own. [Brookings Blog, 8/13/15]