Politics & Policy

Hillary Clinton and the Pain of Being a Peon

Then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton in January 2010. (Mark Wilson/Getty)

Yesterday my colleague Charlie Cooke ably outlined the ways in which Hillary Clinton’s power insulates her from accountability in a scandal that would have long-since brought mere mortals to their professional knees. Because she’s powerful, the Department of Justice is reluctant to “to pull the trigger on a prosecution” that could be deemed political. She thus enjoys a privilege not afforded to the average peon.

We see Clinton’s life of privilege, but what’s life like for the peon, for a person who isn’t the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination and arguably the most powerful woman in politics? How are peons taught to handle classified information? What happens to peons when they don’t safeguard the nation’s secrets?

I should know, because I’ve been one of those peons, living under the classification regime. I’ve sat through training session after training session on the extreme care that must be taken with classified information, and I’ve helped conduct investigations of people who fail to properly handle such information. To protect our nation’s secrets and to safeguard the lives of service-members, allies, and intelligence assets, peons are forced to live a life very different from Clinton. Peons make binding promises, peons take precautions, and peons face punishment.

First, from the moment a peon has access to classified information, he must sign a Standard Form 312 — a Classified Information Nondisclosure Agreement — a form that comprehensively outlines the peon’s obligations regarding classified information (“marked or unmarked”) and references and reinforces legal obligations of nondisclosure, including these key provisions:

I hereby agree that I will never divulge classified information to anyone unless: (a) I have officially verified that the recipient has been properly authorized by the United States Government to receive it; or (b) I have been given prior written notice of authorization from the United States Government Department or Agency (hereinafter Department or Agency) responsible for the classification of information or last granting me a security clearance that such disclosure is permitted.


I agree that I shall return all classified materials which have, or may come into my possession or for which I am responsible because of such access: (a) upon demand by an authorized representative of the United States Government; (b) upon the conclusion of my employment or other relationship with the Department or Agency that last granted me a security clearance or that provided me access to classified information; or (c) upon the conclusion of my employment or other relationship that requires access to classified information. If I do not return such materials upon request, I understand that this may be a violation of sections 793 and/or 1924, title 18, United States Code, a United States criminal law.

We already know the State Department has “no record” of Clinton signing Optional Form 109, a standard “separation form” where departing employees certify that they’ve handed over all “classified or administratively controlled” materials. But did she sign Form 312? If so, why was she permitted to conduct her business in a manner substantially different from the peons under her authority?

The Clintons’ brand of dynastic politics, enabled by the Democratic party’s establishment, confers all the benefits of aristocracy without imposing any of the burdens.

Peons do more than make promises, of course. We take precautions as well. It would take more space than I have to describe all the ways soldiers and civilians protect classified information — separate computers, separate communication devices of all types, entirely separate information systems that literally cannot link up across different classification systems.

There are even separate rooms: When I was in Iraq, there were entire physical spaces set aside by classification system. If a person with a secret clearance entered a top-secret room, there was a problem. If a person with a secret clearance handled a top-secret folder or thumb drive, there was a problem. And we knew that secrecy wasn’t determined merely by the markings on a document or the color of a computer but rather by the nature and type of information received. In other words, peons are actually responsible for judgment calls.

#related#And when peons fail to uphold their responsibilities, they face punishment, unlike Hillary Clinton. Had any single person in Iraq been caught with classified information on a civilian system — and virtually every person brought with them a personal computer for entertainment and communicating with loved ones back home — punishment would have been severe and nearly immediate. I’ve investigated officers for simply leaving a thumb drive on a table. Clinton apparently gave a thumb drive containing classified information to her lawyer. And the information we carried in Iraq, while it was important, rarely (if ever) reached the importance of the information Clinton viewed and shared on a daily basis. Failing to keep our chief diplomatic officer’s information safe — in a time of war, no less — wouldn’t just embarrass a 24-year-old sergeant with his first security clearance, it would end his career.

But that’s for the peons. The powerful — even those who claim to be deeply concerned with “equality” — live by different rules. The Clintons’ brand of dynastic politics, enabled by the Democratic party’s establishment, confers all the benefits of aristocracy without imposing any of the burdens. They don’t hold themselves to a higher standard. Instead, they work mightily to lower the bar. She is royalty, but she is not nobility.

— David French is an attorney, a staff writer at National Review, and a veteran of the Iraq War.


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