The Corner

Politics & Policy

Hillary’s E-mails: How Big a National-Security Disaster?

Has Hillary Clinton been lying about her e-mail system and did she violate the laws against mishandling classified material? Coverage of Clinton’s e-mail scandal has been focused on those questions, but shouldn’t we be paying more attention to the nature and scale of the damage to American national security caused by Hillary’s carelessness with classified information? We’re not focused on the details of the security damage because it’s difficult to know whether and to what extent Hillary’s communications were intercepted, and more difficult still to make public whatever our intelligence agencies may have figured out on that score.

But maybe we already know enough to conclude that Hillary’s e-mail scandal constitutes one of the most serious American national security disasters on record. The Daily Beast has a story out speculating that the e-mail scandal may soon spread to the White House. Interesting as that question is, this passage seems more significant:

“There’s a widely held belief among American counterspies that foreign intelligence agencies had to be reading the e-mails on Hillary’s private server, particularly since it was wholly unencrypted for months….senior counterintelligence officials are assuming the worst about what the Russians and Chinese know.”

So America’s intelligence agencies are assuming that every communication of America’s Secretary of State for months or more was read by our adversaries. Isn’t that likely to amount to one of the worst intelligence breaches in American history? And here’s the kicker. Even if we got lucky and the Russians and Chinese didn’t actually intercept some or all of Hillary’s e-mails, our intelligence agencies now have to behave as if they did.

Doesn’t that mean that we are now making massive changes to the sources and methods of our intelligence? Are we now withdrawing valuable agents? Are we trying to replace methods that cannot be easily replicated? Are we now forced to rebuild a good deal of our intelligence capabilities from the ground up? Are we not suffering tremendous intelligence damage right now, regardless of what foreign intelligence services did or did not manage to snatch from Hillary’s server—simply because we are forced to assume that they got it all?

I’m sure that analysts with more knowledge of our intelligence systems could explain better than I the damage that would flow from simply being forced to assume that nearly all of the Secretary of State’s communications had been compromised. No doubt even explaining that could do additional damage.

At any rate, the mere fact that our intelligence services are now assuming maximum damage and acting accordingly may ultimately be one of the most important and least fully appreciated aspects of this story.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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