“Nuclear Bombshell”: Right-Wing Media Hype Old, Disputed Claim That Clinton's Emails Mentioned Classified Information

Politico And NBCNews.com Explain Emails Referenced “Innocuous” Accounts Of U.S. Drone Program “Not Obtained Through A Classified Product” - A Revelation From Last Summer

Right-wing media are hyping a letter from the intelligence community's inspector general claiming some of Hillary Clinton's emails from her time as secretary of state contained information classified above “top secret.” However, the development that Clinton's emails reportedly mention widely-known public information about the country's drone operation was already covered by the media in 2015.

Fox News.com Claims Letter Shows Clinton's Emails Had Information Above “Top Secret” Classification Status

FoxNews.com: Letter From Intelligence Community IG Shows Clinton's Emails Contained Information On Government's “Most Secretive And Highly Classified Programs.” A FoxNews.com report claimed a letter to Congress from the Intelligence Community (IC) Inspector General, Charles McCullough, stated Hillary Clinton's emails contained information on the government's “most secretive and highly classified programs,” including intelligence designated “special access programs” (SAP), a “level of classification beyond even 'top secret'”:

Hillary Clinton's emails on her unsecured, homebrew server contained intelligence from the U.S. government's most secretive and highly classified programs, according to an unclassified letter from a top inspector general to senior lawmakers.

Fox News exclusively obtained the unclassified letter, sent Jan. 14 from Intelligence Community Inspector General I. Charles McCullough III. It laid out the findings of a recent comprehensive review by intelligence agencies that identified “several dozen” additional classified emails -- including specific intelligence known as “special access programs” (SAP). 

That indicates a level of classification beyond even “top secret,” the label previously given to two emails found on her server, and brings even more scrutiny to the presidential candidate's handling of the government's closely held secrets. [FoxNews.com, 1/19/16]

But Politico And NBCNews.com Note Emails In Question May Relate To Widely-Known Public Information About U.S. Drone Program

Politico: Government Official Suggests “Some Or All” Of Clinton Emails Designated SAP Referenced Public Information About U.S. Drone Strikes. A government official told Politico “some or all of the emails deemed to implicate 'special access programs' related to U.S. drone strikes” and explained the information was "'not obtained through a classified product,'" although “the intelligence community considers information about classified operations to be classified even if it appears in news reports or is apparent to eyewitnesses on the ground”:

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said some or all of the emails deemed to implicate “special access programs” related to U.S. drone strikes. Those who sent the emails were not involved in directing or approving the strikes, but responded to the fallout from them, the official said.

The information in the emails “was not obtained through a classified product, but is considered 'per se' classified” because it pertains to drones, the official added. The U.S. treats drone operations conducted by the CIA as classified, even though in a 2012 internet chat Presidential Barack Obama acknowledged U.S.-directed drone strikes in Pakistan.

The source noted that the intelligence community considers information about classified operations to be classified even if it appears in news reports or is apparent to eyewitnesses on the ground. For example, U.S. officials with security clearances have been warned not to access classified information leaked to WikiLeaks and published in the New York Times.

“Even though things are in the public domain, they still retain their classification level,” the official said. “The ICIG maintains its position that it's still 'codeword' classified.” [Politico1/19/16]

NBCNews.com: Senior U.S. Officials Say Clinton Emails Discussed One Of “The Worst Kept Secrets In Washington.” According to NBCNews.com, senior government officials confirmed that the classified information in the Clinton emails included discussions about the well-known CIA drone strike program, “among the worst kept secrets in Washington” since at least 2009. Not only did the officials characterize the email discussions as “innocuous,” NBCNews.com pointed out “various public web sites continue to keep track of each CIA drone strike”:

The classified material included in the latest batch of Hillary Clinton emails flagged by an internal watchdog involved discussions of CIA drone strikes, which are among the worst kept secrets in Washington, senior U.S. officials briefed on the matter tell NBC News.

The officials say the emails included relatively “innocuous” conversations by State Department officials about the CIA drone program, which technically is considered a “Special Access Program” because officials are briefed on it only if they have a “need to know.”

As a legal matter, the U.S. government does not acknowledge that the CIA kills militants with drones. The fact that the CIA conducts drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, however, has long been known. Senior officials, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein and former CIA Director Leon Panetta, have publicly discussed CIA drones.

In 2009, Feinstein disclosed during a public hearing that the U.S. was flying Predator drones out of a base in Pakistan. Also that year, Panetta called drone strikes in Pakistan “the only game in town in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the al Qaeda leadership.” Various public web sites continue to keep track of each CIA drone strike.

At issue are a new batch of emails from Clinton's home server that have been flagged as containing classified information in a sworn statement to the inspector general of the intelligence community. The sworn statement came from the CIA, two U.S. officials tell NBC News. [NBCNews.com, 1/20/16]

It Was Already Reported That Public Information Regarding The U.S. Drone Program Was In Clinton's Emails

Associated Press Sources: Emails Don't Include Any “Form Of Sensitive Sourcing.” The Associated Press reported in August 2015 that other emails the intelligence community inspector general claimed were “top secret” included discussion of a newspaper article about U.S. drone strikes. Some government officials, the AP said, “believed the designations were a stretch -- a knee-jerk move in a bureaucracy rife with over-classification,” and that the State Department “stressed that it wasn't clear if the material at issue ought to be considered classified at all.” The AP also reported that their sources indicated that “nothing in the emails [Clinton] received makes clear reference to communications intercepts, confidential intelligence methods or any other form of sensitive sourcing”:

Neither of the two emails sent to Hillary Rodham Clinton now labeled by intelligence agencies as “top secret” contained information that would jump out to experts as particularly sensitive, according to several government officials.

One included a discussion of a U.S. drone strike, part of a covert program that is widely known and discussed. A second conversation could have improperly referred to highly classified material, but it also could have reflected information collected independently, U.S. officials who have reviewed the correspondence told The Associated Press.


The two emails got those markings after consultations with the CIA and other agencies where the material originated, officials said. Some officials said they believed the designations were a stretch -- a knee-jerk move in a bureaucracy rife with over-classification.

The officials who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity work in intelligence and other agencies. They wouldn't detail the contents of the emails because of ongoing questions about classification level. Clinton did not transmit the sensitive information herself, they said, and nothing in the emails she received makes clear reference to communications intercepts, confidential intelligence methods or any other form of sensitive sourcing.

The drone exchange, the officials said, begins with a copy of a news article that discusses the CIA drone program that targets terrorists in Pakistan and elsewhere. While a secret program, it is well-known and often reported on. The copy makes reference to classified information, and a Clinton adviser follows up by dancing around a top secret in a way that could possibly be inferred as confirmation, they said. Several officials, however, described this claim as tenuous. 

But a second email reviewed by Charles McCullough, the intelligence community inspector general, appears more suspect. Nothing in the message is “lifted” from classified documents, the officials said, though they differed on where the information in it was sourced. Some said it improperly points back to highly classified material, while others countered that it was a classic case of what the government calls “parallel reporting” - different people knowing the same thing through different means. [Associated Press, 8/14/15]

Top Democrat On The Senate Intelligence Committee: The Story Is “Nothing New.” As reported by CBSNews.com, Senator Dianne Feinstein, senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, dismissed the FoxNews.com report as “nothing new” and warned “the inspector general was being used for 'baldly partisan attacks'”:

[Clinton's] campaign press secretary, Brian Fallon, reiterated what Clinton has said for months: no classified information was sent or received through her private email server.

“This is the same interagency dispute that has been playing out for months, and it does not change the fact that these emails were not classified at the time they were sent or received,” he said. “It is alarming that the intelligence community [inspector general], working with Republicans in Congress, continues to selectively leak materials in order to resurface the same allegations and try to hurt Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. The Justice Department's inquiry should be allowed to proceed without any further interference.” 

The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, had a similar response, calling the story “nothing new.” 

“None of the emails that are alleged to contain classified information were written by Secretary Clinton. The question of whether she received emails with classified information has nothing to do with any action taken by Secretary Clinton,” she said. “Additionally, none of the emails that were sent to Secretary Clinton were marked as including classified information, a requirement when such information is transmitted.” 

Feinstein said the inspector general was being used for “baldly partisan attacks.” [CBSNews.com, 1/20/16]

The New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin: That An Email About A Newspaper Report On Drones Could Be Classified “Underlines The Absurdity Of The Current System.” Last summer The New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin wrote, “It's not only the public who cannot know the extent or content of government secrecy. Realistically, government officials can't know either--and this is Hillary Clinton's problem.” Toobin added that “the absurdity of the current system” was “underline[d]” by the fact that a discussion about a newspaper article on the publicly acknowledged drone program is the basis for retroactive classification of one of Clinton's emails:

It's not only the public who cannot know the extent or content of government secrecy. Realistically, government officials can't know either--and this is Hillary Clinton's problem. In investigating only a small portion of her e-mails, government investigators have already flagged more than three hundred that are potentially classified. They will surely find more. As Moynihan noted, government bureaucracies have every incentive to over-classify. It's the risk-averse approach, and there's no penalty for erring on the side of caution. Besides, over-classification makes their work seem more important.

In one case, according to media reports, one of Clinton's potentially classified e-mail exchanges is nothing more than a discussion of a newspaper story about drones. That such a discussion could be classified underlines the absurdity of the current system. But that is the system that exists, and if and when the agencies determine that she sent or received classified information through her private server, Clinton will be accused of mishandling national-security secrets.


Still, the investigative wheels are now turning, and the process is out of Clinton's control. In most political controversies about documents, the best response for a politician is simply to disclose them in order to diffuse the issue. But that option is not available to Clinton. The relevant agencies are now reviewing the documents in order to determine whether they contain classified information; if they find that to be the case (and they will), Clinton will not have the right to make those documents public; the public will never know whether she was discussing newspaper stories or the identity of covert assets. With many agencies reviewing thousands of documents, this process is guaranteed to take months rather than weeks. Thus, the process--and the attention to the issue--will drag on. [New Yorker8/18/15, via Media Matters]

Right-Wing Media Breathlessly Hype FoxNews.com Report As “Bombshell Revelations”

Fox's Guy Benson: Report Is A “Nuclear Bombshell” That Shows Clinton “Willfully And Recklessly Compromised” State Secrets. Fox News contributor and Townhall.com editor Guy Benson wrote that the report was “a nuclear bombshell” and that “high-level state secrets [were] being willfully and recklessly compromised by a powerful cabinet secretary in a hair-brained scheme to protect her political ambitions”:

If this early January development was a bombshell, today's revelation is a nuclear bombshell. Hillary Clinton's improper, unsecure email server appears to have endangered national security even more than previously thought -- and her excuses continue to melt away under intensifying scrutiny. Extremely serious findings from the intelligence community's Inspector General, reported exclusively by Fox News' Catherine Herridge.


Hillary's campaign unsuccessfully attempted to dispute the IG's previous determination that her woefully under-secure bootleg server contained intelligence deemed 'top secret;' this is even worse.  Her already-dubious and legally-irrelevant “marked classified” excuse suffers another crushing blow.


This isn't about breaking some arcane rules or fudging some statements to deflect a political headache.  This is about high-level state secrets being willfully and recklessly compromised by a powerful cabinet secretary in a hair-brained scheme to protect her political ambitions. [Townhall.com, 1/19/15]

Fox's Chuck Nash: Clinton's Emails Like A “Nuclear Weapon.” During the January 20 edition of Fox News' America's Newsroom, Fox News military analyst Chuck Nash said the Clinton emails in question are the equivalent to “a nuclear weapon” and are “the most dear, precious secrets that we hold as a nation”:

CHUCK NASH: [Y]ou have to look at what [Clinton] and her staff were doing. There are over 1,340 emails that now have been judged classified, some which as you point out, go all the way up to special access program level, which is the highest. To put it in context, of the 1,340 emails, some are confidential, which would be the equivalent of a bullet. Some are secret, which would be the equivalent of a hand grenade. And some are top secret, which would be like a bomb. SAP information is like a nuclear weapon. That is -- those are the most dear, precious secrets that we hold as a nation, and they're such limited access to them because the information is so valuable. [Fox News, America's Newsroom1/20/16]

Fox's Martha MacCallum Hypes “Bombshell Revelations” About Clinton Emails. During the January 20 edition of America's Newsroom, host Martha MacCallum, introducing a segment to discuss the new coverage of Clinton's emails, said there is “brand new fallout now over ... [b]ombshell revelations that emails from her time as secretary of state apparently had an even more highly-classified level than was previously thought.” [Fox News, America's Newsroom1/20/16]