September 1, 2015

Classified information on Hillary Clinton's private email server - how did it get there?

One of many press reports on the email issue

Although I tend to limit my analysis and commentary to Middle East issues, my expertise in the region was gained from almost three decades of service as an intelligence officer - as both a clandestine case officer and a signals intelligence officer - with the Defense Intelligence Agency, Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency, agencies probably better known by just the initials DIA, CIA and NSA.

All three intelligence agencies deal with the highest levels of classified information in the United States government. The proper handling and safeguarding of that information is taken extremely seriously in the intelligence community. Serious breaches of the federal laws and departmental/agency regulations are usually career-ending events.

I will not address the politics of the email controversy surrounding former Secretary of State and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. I will, however, address some facts about national security intelligence information and draw some conclusions about the presence of Top Secret/SCI information found in supposedly unclassified emails discovered on Mrs. Clinton's unsecured private email server.

SCI refers to Sensitive Compartmented Information and involves special handling requirements because of the sensitivity of the sources and methods used to acquire and produce the intelligence information bearing the SCI markings.

You will also see references to SI (Special Intelligence - a specific reference to information derived from signals intelligence, the exclusive purview of NSA) and "codeword" information in the emails - these are references to SCI. SCI can be at the Secret or Top Secret level - it can also be further restricted to limited distribution lists in the cases of extremely sensitive sources.

For example, if NSA was able to obtain information on Russian nuclear weapons capabilities and the intentions of the Russian leadership based on breaking an encrypted Russian military communications system, it would be very closely held - only a small group of senior military officers and national security decisionmakers would see that information.

If the fact that NSA had successfully penetrated these communications were to come to the attention of the Russians - or their allies - our capability to access that information would dry up immediately. This is the level of damage inflicted by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden - it will take many years and billions of dollars to recover from his treachery.

Because intelligence information is sensitive, the laws and regulations that govern how it is produced, marked, handled, transmitted, stored and ultimately used are very specific and not open to interpretation. Intelligence material is classified at its inception, at the very first stage of the acquisition of the raw intelligence information, and remains classified throughout its entire existence until it is destroyed or an authorized official declassifies it. Declassification authority rests with the agency or department that originated the information and determined the initial classification.

It is that last part that seems to be lost on people at the State Department. Even retired Admiral John Kirby (a fine officer by all accounts) seems to misunderstand the rules. Granted, for almost all of his Navy career, the admiral was a public affairs specialist and not involved in either operations or intelligence, but any senior officer in the armed forces should be aware of the basic rules of handling classified information.

Admiral Kirby's public pronouncements that Mrs. Clinton's emails contained information that was not classified when it was sent, but was classified later, defy not only common sense but the rules and regulations of both the Defense Department and the State Department. The admiral and I have a cordial relationship, but his position on this is untenable and bordering on the ludicrous.

Of course, the media doesn't quite get it either. I heard an anchor this morning describe the emails as "subsequently classified" - obviously she has accepted Admiral Kirby's fiction. It is ridiculous - the information was always classified; it was classified by the originator. What she should have said was that the emails contained classified information that had been improperly handled.

I think we can all stipulate certain facts, despite the State Department's claims to the contrary or their attempts to claim that information was not classified but now is (a virtual impossibility): it has been shown that Mrs. Clinton's emails or email server contained information deemed by the intelligence community - the agencies that originated the information - to be Top Secret/SCI. That information was classified when it was collected, analyzed, collated and disseminated - thus it was classified when it reached her private unsecured server.

Top Secret/SCI information is, and has been, restricted to either Defense Department, State Department or CIA communications channels authorized to handle such information. The firewalls between the intelligence community and unclassified networks are managed by NSA to guarantee that no classified information is introduced into unclassified and unsecured communications systems - Mrs. Clinton's private email server is a perfect example of a unsecured communications system. Having done this for a living, I can attest that it is virtually impossible to electronically move classified information to an unclassified network or server.

Yet classified information, including Top Secret/SCI information, was found in over 100 emails on Mrs. Clinton's private unclassified unsecured system. The question that immediately comes to mind is how is that possible? All classified information is prominently marked - on the document overall and on each paragraph separately. Although the exact paragraph markings differ by department/agency, each and every paragraph bears the classification of that specific portion of the information. It is the basic classification marking in all classified documents.

It fast becomes evident that the information resident on Mrs. Clinton's server and in some of her emails was transferred illegally and improperly from classified government servers across a firewall to that server. These are the emails that Mrs. Clinton initially claimed were unclassified, but has now altered that description to "not marked as classified." She is splitting hairs here.

Someone on the Secretary's staff - most of us believe it may have been either Huma Abidin or Jake Sullivan - took highly classified US intelligence information and wittingly ignored the classification markings and retyped or "cut and pasted" the intelligence information for relay to Secretary Clinton via the unsecured "" server.

Technically, Mrs. Clinton can claim - disingenuously - that she received no information marked classified. The information was of course highly classified but improperly stripped of its classification markings - a felony. Either Mrs. Clinton knew about it, condoned it or chose not to report it, or she did not realize that sensitive intelligence information from DIA, CIA and NSA was classified. If the former is the case, she might be complicit; if the latter is the case, she might be incompetent. I doubt that she is incompetent.

The bottom line is that classified information was found on her unsecured server. It was never unclassified and later classified - it doesn't work that way, regardless of how Mrs. Clinton or the State Department spokespersons try to spin it. Someone deliberately put sensitive national security information at risk for the sake of convenience. Everyone involved needs to be held accountable - perhaps the FBI will do just that.