‘Secrecy” sounds so sinister. And when we’re talking about government, that is as it should be. In a self-governing society, transparency is our default setting. Secrecy is the government’s way of concealing corruption, incompetence, and profligacy. There must be a presumption against it.
A presumption, however, is not a prohibition. Presumptions are rebutted by necessity. Speaking about the necessity of good intelligence to military operations and homeland defense, General George Washington observed that “upon secrecy, success depends in most enterprises . . . and for want of it, they are generally defeated.” The necessity of secrecy and the catastrophe that can follow when secrecy is breached — these are core concerns of national security.
We could go on at length about Clinton’s arrogance in setting up a homebrew communications network, an outrageous violation of the transparency standards that were her responsibility as secretary of state to enforce. It was a familiar exercise in Clintonian self-dealing: Anticipating running for president in 2016, she realized she was enmeshed in the Clinton Foundation’s global scheme to sell influence for money, so she devised a way to avoid a paper trail. Accountability, after all, is for peons: The yoke of recordkeeping requirements, Freedom of Information Act productions, congressional inquiries, and the government’s disclosure duties in judicial proceedings was not for her Highness. Instead, it would be: No Records, No Problems — a convenient arrangement for a lifetime “public servant” of no discernible accomplishment whom disaster has a habit of stalking. The homebrew server was for Hillary’s State Department what an on-site dry cleaner might have been for Bill’s White House.
In The Snowden Operation: Inside the West’s Greatest Intelligence Disaster, Edward Lucas, a longtime Economist senior editor and student of intelligence operations, explains in vivid detail how “the mere whiff of a breach acts like nerve poison on intelligence agencies.”
Take just a single document that contains a defense secret, or conveys the method or source by which secrets are acquired. If the agency discovers the document has been lost, or comes to “believe an unauthorised person has had access to it, assumptions must be of worst-case scenarios.” What could a hostile government or terror network do with that information? Will they kill an intelligence agent who has been outed? What about operatives the agent has been running — who must then be pulled out to avoid arrest, or worse? Even if our spies are safe, their operation must be considered blown, along with arrangements on which the operation relied — cooperating businesses, bank accounts, safe houses, drop boxes, etc.
Then there is the matter of when the compromise occurred. Can we be sure of the time? Remember: It is worst-case analysis. If the agency can’t be sure, it must assume the earliest point. Does that mean the agency has been victimized by counterintelligence? Did the hostile government or terror network feed the agency misleading information and then monitor the results? Is the precious intelligence the agency thought it was collecting actually corrupted? Have security policies based on the intelligence actually endangered us? Have they been expensive wastes of money and effort?
As Lucas notes, “The answers to these questions may be ‘no.’ But an experienced team of counter-intelligence officers must ask them, find the answers, check and double-check. The taint of even a minor breach must be analysed, contained, and cleaned.”
As Lucas elaborates,
Multiple breaches increase the problem exponentially. Each bit of compromised information must be assessed not only on its own, but in relation to every other piece of data. As the numbers mount, the math becomes formidable. Four bits of information have 24 possible combinations. Seven have 5,040. Ten have more than three million.
In Hillary Clinton’s case, more than 1,600 e-mails containing classified information have been discovered. You do the breach math . . . because I can’t count that high.
And we’re not done, not even close. The State Department continues to slow-walk production of Clinton e-mails despite court orders for more rapid disclosure. Only some of the delay owes to the functioning of Clinton’s former department as an arm of her current campaign. The rest is attributable to the staggering breadth of classified information — some of it, the most tightly guarded national secrets — strewn through Clinton’s e-mails. Not just her e-mails but e-mail “trains,” communications involving several exchanges and multiple participants — as to which it will be difficult, if not impossible, to calculate how often and how widely recipients forwarded the information.
Virtually nothing Clinton has said about her non-secure e-mail system since its public revelation has been true.
Moreover, we’re still talking only about the 30,000 or so e-mails, constituting 55,000 pages, that Mrs. Clinton deigned to surrender to the State Department nearly two years after she resigned. There are another 30,000 “personal” e-mails she attempted to destroy. Has the FBI been able to recover them so the intelligence community has some hope of assessing the damage? Virtually nothing Clinton has said about her non-secure e-mail system since its public revelation has been true. In assessing the potential peril that breaches pose for its agents and operations, could our intelligence agencies possibly accept at face value Clinton’s claim that these 30,000 e-mails — correspondence of one of the busiest, highest-ranking officers of the United States government — involved yoga routines and Chelsea’s bridesmaids’ dresses?
Probably about as much as the FBI can trust that they had nothing to do with the intersection of State Department business and Clinton Foundation donors.In light of the herculean efforts made by China, Russia, and other cyber-aggressors to hack into the government’s hyper-secure server systems with occasional success, it is inconceivable that they refrained from hacking into Clinton’s non-secure system with a high degree of success. Robert Gates, the former CIA director and secretary of defense, has conceded as much.
Of course, intelligence-community officials cannot afford to guess or hope. Their national-security duties require them to assume Hillary Clinton’s incalculable recklessness has corrupted our intelligence base and endangered our agents.
That makes her a better fit for the big house than the White House.
— Andrew C. McCarthy is as senior policy fellow at the National Review Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.