The media's frantic coverage of the ongoing controversy surrounding Hillary Clinton's secretary of state emails -- and whether some of them contained classified information -- regularly presents the allegations as being precise and unambiguous.
But are they?
The latest media uproar swirls around the fact that the inspectors general for the 17 spy agencies, which make up what's known as the U.S. Intelligence Community, disclosed that some emails which had been routed through a private server Clinton used during her tenure as secretary of state contained classified information, “including two emails whose content is now deemed to be 'Top Secret,'” according to McClatchy.
A key fact, via the Associated Press, is that, “Clinton didn't transmit the sensitive information herself, they said, and nothing in the emails she received makes direct reference to communications intercepts, confidential intelligence methods or any other form of sensitive sourcing.”
To date, the straightforward media narrative goes like this: Because officials within the intelligence community have determined that Clinton received emails that contained classified information, that means Clinton was at fault and an investigation is underway to determine how she could have been so reckless and wrong. (The New York Times badly muddied the waters on the email story when it erroneously reported intelligence officials requested a criminal investigation into Clinton's handling of her emails. They did no such thing.)
But the story isn't that simple because the process of classifying information can be subjective and one not everyone inside the government agrees with. The process is especially open to second-guessing when it's being done after the fact; when intelligence community officials are looking back in time and deciding emails that Clinton received should have been marked classified even though they were not at the time.
“Classification decisions are matters of judgment, not calculation,” Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists told Politico. “It is entirely possible for two senior officials to disagree about the need for classifying a particular item of information.” In comments to The Hill he added, “There is so much classified information being generated and circulated, there are so many people with the authority to classify, inevitably there is friction and confusion in the system.”
Matt Miller, former Department of Justice Director of Public Affairs, went further, recently insisting, “the entire classification system is a mess: overly complex, riddled with ambiguity, and used at times for inappropriate reasons. And because of that you get perverse outcomes.”
Here's an example of why classifications can lead to debate. The Associated Press reported that one of the emails now identified as classified by the inspectors general centered on a U.S. drone operation [emphasis added]:
The drone exchange, the officials said, begins with a copy of a news article about the CIA drone program that targets terrorists in Pakistan and elsewhere. While that program is technically top secret, it is well-known and often reported on. Former CIA director Leon Panetta and Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, have openly discussed it.
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, the officials said.
But as the AP itself added, “Several people, however, described this claim as tenuous.”
The fact is there's a cultural divide between State and the intelligence agencies. As The Hill explained, “intelligence agencies tend to lean toward classification more than an agency like State would, several former employees on both sides agreed.” The result? Clinton has “found herself caught in a murky dispute between State Department and intelligence officials over whether emails on her server were classified,” reported McClatchy.
Added Jonathan Allen at Vox during the fiasco over the NY Times' botched “criminal” email story, “Ultimately -- at least for now -- this is a bureaucratic fight about how the State Department has handled the emails, not about Hillary Clinton.”
That turf battle helps explain the current standoff. “John Kirby, a spokesman for the State Department, said it remained unclear 'whether, in fact, this material is actually classified,'” NBC News reported. And this from Politico: “State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Friday his agency remained unconvinced that any of Clinton's emails should have been considered classified when they were sent. 'To our knowledge, none of them needed to be classified at the time,' Toner told reporters at a daily briefing.”
Last week Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who serves as Vice Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, insisted it has yet to be determined “whether information in those emails should have been classified in the first place.”
And note this fact: Senior State Department official Patrick Kennedy revealed that one of the emails the inspectors general deemed to be classified related to the Department of Defense, “but the Pentagon decided not to pursue it,” according to Politico, suggesting perhaps that Defense officials did not share the assessment from the inspector general review.
So who's right? “Both sides can be correct,” The Hill reported. “Not only is each side entitled to different standards of classification, but information can become classified almost retroactively, as situations and guidelines change over the years.”
But that's certainly not how much of the frantic Clinton campaign coverage portrays the story.
Much of the press, and especially the political press, continues to misstate the story, emphasizing how it's all about how Clinton handled her emails on a private server while secretary of state. But much of the recent scandal-mongering actually revolves around the process by which Clinton's years-old emails are being released to the public. “It is about current bureaucratic processes, probably the biggest snooze-fest in all of journalism,” wrote Kurt Eichenwald at Newsweek during the Times mess last month.
Some background, via Vox [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.
As the New York Times' John Harwood noted on Twitter -- and he's been among the few journalists to do so -- the issue of whether classified info was in Clinton's emails “has nothing whatsoever” to do with Clinton's use of a private email server:
OVERLOOKED: both R & D Hill staff say legal issue re: classified info in HRC emails has NOTHING WHATSOEVER to do w/use of private server 1/2
-- John Harwood (@JohnJHarwood) August 15, 2015
had HRC used non-classified http://t.co/QOREwvsvyT account & gotten those emails, same legal issue of info “spillage.” It's not uncommon 2/2
-- John Harwood (@JohnJHarwood) August 15, 2015
Keep in mind that if former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who used private emails exclusively during his term, had turned over any of his emails to the State Department, they also would have been subject to a classification review. But unlike Clinton, Powell kept no records of his secretary of state emails and handed over none to the State Department.
The Beltway press seems adamant about simplifying the Clinton email story; about flattening it out so the ambiguities are ironed away. In truth, uncertainties about classifications remain at the heart of the email review controversy.