As flaps go, the one about Hillary Clinton’s classified emails is one for the history books. It might even be pivotal in the general election. But how many people actually understand the nature of the problem? Not many, I submit.
It is widely-reported that Hillary is the subject of an FBI investigation into the matter, but it is important to understand that the word “subject” is a legal term of art. If she were suspected of intentional malfeasance, the word “target” would be used. The investigation’s purpose is to find systemic problems, not nail a criminal. It is notable, in fact, that as Secretary of State, she herself had the authority to both classify material and declassify it. That’s how absurd this is. Nevertheless, the damage was done when she, like numerous other government heads before her, made the now-admittedly poor decision to put work-related material on her own server.
In understanding classified material it is important to consider who is allowed to classify and under what criteria. The answer is shocking. Every agency makes up its own rules and it’s subjective. All this smoke hides the nature of a monumental national problem, the bloated and out-of-control national classification system itself. Virtually everybody in government is aware of it, numerous studies have been done on it, and there’s no sign it is ever going to be fixed. The stuff on that server now considered classified was categorized as such after the fact. Who decides such things? They are nameless bureaucrats and they are unaccountable for their opinions. There is no penalty for over-classification and every incentive to do so.
One of the early jobs I was given as a junior naval officer on a submarine was “Communications officer.” This was a long time ago, around 1962, and even then the security system was farcial. The intelligence system sent our ship classified material by the case-load every month, more than any one person had time to digest and much of it unrelated to our mission, or even to the Navy. We were getting Army and Air Force stuff even. Clearly, the various agencies wanted to bolster their client lists by shotgunning the distribution. Every month or two I would have get a witness officer to go with me and pack 10 or 20 pounds of the stuff off to a special burn facility. Every piece had to be documented as to its destruction.
Later on, it only got worse. It was not unusual, when I was on a research and development staff, to learn of instances of senior officers’ safes holding reams of classified material being inadvertently left unlocked overnight. No action was ever taken on these to my knowledge. The stuff was everywhere and most of it was dull and dated.
Now I’m not saying that classification isn’t needed. It is, if you are talking about the identity of spies and informants or plans for weapons. But classification of the highest kind didn’t prevent the USSR and China from stealing our atomic secrets, nor a lot of other stuff as well. A classification system is like a chain that’s only as strong as its weakest link, and it is usually so clumsy that the information is dated. We used to joke that if you wanted the latest on military technology, the New York Times was your best source.
The practice of over-classification is ubiquitous and is regularly used for political purposes and to frustrate official oversight and public insight. Even entire agencies have been able to remain secret for years from public scrutiny and budget review this way – example, the National Reconnaissance Office (spy satellites). Did you know that some stuff can’t be declassified for 75 years?
The system cries out for reform. Barack Obama has tried, but with little effect. At least one excellent paper has been done on the matter by the ACLU. It details not only how bad it is but how much worse it has gotten since 9/11. It is a system that feeds on itself and it is the antithesis of a free and open society.
Hillary’s classification flap is pure demagoguery. The only good that might come out of it is some kind of reform to the system. But I’m not holding my breath. I wonder how large a hard drive ships now need to hold all the crap from the current 17 intelligence agencies? But there is one advance – people can now pretend to read it all with the click of a mouse, I presume.