To paraphrase what I said on this week’s The Editors podcast, Tulsi Gabbard’s defamation lawsuit against Hillary Clinton is not likely to succeed, and is likely to be widely perceived as a publicity stunt and/or effort to remind Democratic primary voters that she’s still running for president. But there’s a catch.
For whose who missed the original Clinton quote in October:
“I’m not making any predictions, but I think they’ve got their eye on somebody who’s currently in the Democratic primary and they’re grooming her to be the third-party candidate,” Clinton said in an interview for Plouffe’s Campaign HQ podcast. “She’s the favorite of the Russians. They have a bunch of sites and bots and other ways of supporting her so far and that’s assuming Jill Stein will give it up because she’s also a Russian asset.”
Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill confirmed that the former secretary of state was referring to Gabbard when she was describing a Democratic candidate preferred by Russia.
But . . . there’s one argument that I first saw from Jon Lustig that makes this claim of defamation maybe a little more compelling than usual. The damage to Gabbard’s reputation is minimal if any old person claims, “the Russians are grooming Tulsi Gabbard.” Even before demanding evidence, anyone could fairly ask how that person could possibly know something like that.
But Hillary Clinton isn’t just anybody. She was Secretary of State for four years, had the highest security clearance, and had access to all kinds of extremely secret classified information. (And if the 2016 cycle taught us anything, it’s that Clinton is always careful with classified information!) When Hillary Clinton accuses someone of being a Russian agent, it comes with the implication that this isn’t run-of-the-mill fuming or paranoia but a suspicion or accusation based upon something Clinton saw or learned from the U.S. intelligence community.
Many wise voices have taught us “with great power, comes great responsibility.” If you get the power that comes with access to all the U.S. government’s deepest secrets, you have a responsibility to not run around willy-nilly, accusing people of being foreign agents.
You could probably make the same argument about former CIA directors who accuse others of treason. Because of the nature of classified information and the potential risk to sources and methods, there are times that American policymakers have to say to the public, “trust us.” Off-the-cuff accusations of serious crimes without supporting evidence are bad from anyone, but an off-the-cuff accusation of serious crimes, without supporting evidence, from someone with access to secret materials is even worse. Didn’t we have this whole discussion after the era of McCarthyism?