How The FBI Statement On Clinton Emails Was “Totally Overblown”

Slate’s Fred Kaplan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign policy columnist, reviewed the facts FBI Director James Comey revealed during his press conference in which he recommended no charges be brought regarding the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server and concluded that the media and Republicans dramatically over-hyped those findings.

Reporters and pundits have termed Comey’s July 5 statement “biting,” “scathing,” and “blistering,” claiming that he “contradicted many of Clinton’s past explanations” and that he “called [Clinton] out for having committed one of the most irresponsible moves in the modern history of the State Department.” Five different House Republican congressional committees are considering investigations into Comey’s investigation, and Speaker Paul Ryan has called on the director of national intelligence not to provide Clinton with classified briefings as the Democratic presidential nominee.

But after a review of Comey’s findings, Kaplan reports that Clinton’s actions did not “damage national security” and that, even if foreign intelligence services had access to her emails, “they would not have learned anything the slightest bit new or worthy of their efforts.” Kaplan's piece is titled, “The Hillary Clinton Email Scandal Was Totally Overblown.”

Kaplan breaks down the emails that Comey reported intelligence services said either contained classified intelligence at the time they were sent or received or were “up-classified” after the fact:

Examining the 30,000 emails that Clinton turned over, the FBI agents found 110—the back and forth of 52 email chains—that contained classified information. Of these, just eight had material that she should have known was “top secret”; 36 of them had “secret” information; and eight more had stuff that she should have known was “confidential.”

The agents also scrounged through the bits and pieces of 30,000 more emails that she didn’t turn over and found three—three!—that contained classified information: one secret and two confidential.

About those first 30,000 emails, the ones Clinton turned over, the FBI handed them out to auditors at other agencies that might have an interest in the matter, and after months of review they “up-classified” 2,000 emails to confidential. In other words, when Clinton wrote or received those 2,000 emails, she and her correspondents would have had no reason to suspect they were jotting down classified facts. But the reviewers have declared them classified retroactively. Your taxpayer dollars at work.

He then points out that based on his own experience and those of his sources, “the labels secret and confidential mean next to nothing”:

As anyone who’s ever had a security clearance will tell you, the labels secret and confidential mean next to nothing. When I worked on Capitol Hill in the late 1970s, the government gave me a secret clearance on my first day of work, pending the investigation into my worthiness to hold a top secret badge. As far as anyone knew, I might have been a Soviet spy, carting out confidential and secret documents every night and making copies for my handler. But they also knew the risk was low because there was nothing in those documents that the Soviets would have paid a dime for. The same is true of our various adversaries and stuff marked secret today.

Kaplan goes on to make a case for why even the “top secret information” contained in Clinton’s emails is not concerning -- they all concern either the CIA drone strikes, which are classified top secret even though they have been widely reported, or a conversation with the president of Malawi:

Top secret information is another matter, but the stuff that showed up in Clinton’s private email wasn’t so special. Seven of the eight email chains dealt with CIA drone strikes, which are classified top secret/special access program—unlike Defense Department drone strikes, which are unclassified. The difference is that CIA drones hit targets in countries, like Pakistan and Yemen, where we are not officially at war; they are part of covert operations. (Defense Department drone strikes are in places where we are officially at war.) But these operations are covert mainly to provide cover for the Pakistani and Yemeni governments, so they don’t have to admit they’re cooperating with America. Everyone in the world knows about these strikes; nongovernment organizations, such as New America, tabulate them; newspapers around the world—including the New York Times, where some of the same reporters are now writing so breathlessly about Clinton’s careless handling of classified information—cover these strikes routinely.

The other top secret email chain described a conversation with the president of Malawi. Conversations with foreign leaders are inherently classified.

In other words, even if Russian, Chinese, Iranian, or Syrian spies had hacked into Clinton’s email servers, and if they’d pored through 60,000 emails and come across these eight chains that held top secret material, they would not have learned anything the slightest bit new or worthy of their efforts. The FBI’s discoveries should be viewed in that context.

Kaplan concludes, “The Hillary email scandal has been brewing for a long time. Like the Benghazi scandal, this one has fizzled out, and one can imagine the frustration of reporters and politicians who had been savoring a climax that just didn’t come through.”

As Media Matters has noted, journalists seized on FBI Director James Comey’s July 5 statement that “a very small number of the emails containing classified information bore markings indicating the presence of classified information” to claim that Comey, in the words of The Washington Post,“directly contradicted Clinton’s claim that she did not send or receive materials ‘marked’ classified.” But yesterday, State Department Spokesman Kirby provided an explanation for the discrepancy, saying that the “markings were human error” and should not have been included in the documents, which were call sheets for Clinton.