The US Justice Department has granted Bryan Pagliano legal immunity in exchange for his testimony regarding his role as the $5000 computer services technician who set up Hillary Clinton’s private server and e-mail system in 2009. Hillary Clinton transmitted and stored messages with classified information from the State Department (messages classified as “secret” and “top secret”) using this private network, which was entirely outside of government supervision: not within a “classified system.” The FBI has been conducting a criminal investigation into the loss by deletion of 31,830 messages from this surreptitious “unclassified” computer network.
The point of a classified system is to maintain complete control over all the information that moves through it or is stored on the system. Every copy of every document and message must be accounted for from its birth, through its distribution and storage, and finally its destruction. Destruction procedures are quite rigorous, sometime including destroying the physical media the electronic data was stored on. The electronic equipment for a classified (US government) computer system is designed, modified and configured to ensure protection from electronic eavesdropping (“spying,” “tapping”), and such work is done by computer technicians who are vetted into the classified system (have security clearances).
Hillary Clinton’s private computer network was entirely outside this classification regime — just like the computer systems most of us are using right now — which was completely illegal in Hillary Clinton’s case because she used it to transmit classified information: she “leaked classified,” she created multiple “breaches of security.” She broke the rules.
Now, the reality of human nature is that mistakes will be made. Workers in classified environments occasionally leak classified: misplacing, misdirecting and improperly deleting classified information. The penalties for such security infractions vary through many degrees of severity, from a gentle verbal reprimand to criminal prosecution, depending on the nature of the breach and the number of offenses the individual is responsible for. I worked in a classified environment for 29 years and had one or two slips of my own. What security officials ask themselves about any security incident is: how much danger of exposure was there (both “to the enemy” and also to the public)?, was the incident a result of sloppiness and laxity by the individual?, or was this a case of gross negligence requiring revocation of a security clearance?, or was this an intentional violation of the rules and the law?
If it was an intentional violation, was the motivation one of personal convenience (classified rigmarole can be tedious to comply with), or was there an actual intent to profit from the violation (sell secrets to make money) or “do harm” to the US government (spy)? An intentional violation invites criminal prosecution, and the nature of the suspected motivation for such a violation determines the severity of the charges.
In the case of Hillary Clinton’s private computer system there was clearly wrongdoing, but was it criminal wrongdoing? Was it all due to a desire for convenience born out of a sense of entitlement, and carried on with ignorance of the rules, negligence in procedure and sloppiness in execution? Or, was it an intentional scheme to bypass government regulations to facilitate personal ambitions without regard for the security of top-secret government data?
Bryan Pagliano had pleaded the Fifth Amendment during the investigations prior to gaining immunity (which was announced on 2 March). Now that Bryan Pagliano can unburden himself to the FBI without personal jeopardy, the onus of this security incident can be shifted from him (really an incidental “little guy” in this drama, whom I am sure is innocent of any criminal intent) to where it really belongs.
In the United States we live in a class-based society (poverty is a crime) and a white supremacy culture. Yes, there are millions of Americans who live and work to eliminate these blights, and they are what is best about America, but we are not there yet. If you want to see how class and “white privilege” work in the classified arena, compare the cases of three gross security violations: Hillary Clinton in 2009, John Deutch in 1997, and Wen Ho Lee in 1999.
John Deutch was a physical chemist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who became an official of the US Energy Department during the Carter Administration, and was appointed to head the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during Bill Clinton’s first term as president. Wikipedia summarizes Deutch’s CIA career as follows:
“Deutch fell out of favor with the Clinton administration because of public testimony he gave to Congress on Iraq. Specifically Deutch testified that Saddam Hussein was stronger than he was four years ago and the CIA might never be able to remedy the issue. Clinton dismissed Deutch after he had won re-election. Deutch left the CIA on December 15, 1996 and soon after it was revealed that several of his laptop computers contained “classified” materials [which had been relabeled] as “unclassified.” In January 1997, the CIA began a formal security investigation of the matter. Senior management at CIA declined to fully pursue the security breach. Over two years after his departure, the matter was referred to the Department of Justice, where Attorney General Janet Reno declined prosecution. She did, however, recommend an investigation to determine whether Deutch should retain his security clearance. President Clinton pardoned Deutch on his last day in office. Deutch had agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor for mishandling government secrets, but President Clinton pardoned him before the Justice Department could file the case against him.”
My knowledge of the classified regime was gained during my 29 years working, mostly on nuclear weapons tests, at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. During my career in this work, I had numerous occasions to visit the other lab engaged in the design of America’s nuclear weapons, the Los Alamos National Laboratory. In 1999 there was a serious security incident there with the computational physicist Wen Ho Lee. I became very active in the public campaign for the defense of Wen Ho Lee, and carried a petition to this effect, addressed to Attorney General Janet Reno, into the Livermore Lab cafeteria every day for months, causing scores of assholes to pucker in fear every day.
Wikipedia summarizes the US government investigation of Wen Ho Lee, which occurred during the second term of Bill Clinton’s presidency, this way:
“Lee was publicly named by United States Department of Energy officials, including Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson, as a suspect in the theft of classified nuclear-related documents from Los Alamos. Richardson was criticized by the Senate for his handling of the espionage inquiry by not testifying in front of Congress sooner. Richardson justified his response by saying that he was waiting to uncover more information before speaking to Congress [a Republican dominated Congress].
“On December 10, 1999, Lee was arrested, indicted on 59 counts, and jailed in solitary confinement without bail for 278 days until September 13, 2000, when he accepted a plea bargain from the federal government. Lee was released on time served after the government’s case against him could not be proven. He was ultimately charged with only one count of mishandling sensitive documents that did not require pre-trial solitary confinement, while the other 58 counts were dropped.
“President Bill Clinton issued a public apology to Lee over his treatment by the federal government during the investigation. Lee filed a lawsuit to gain the names of public officials who had leaked his name to journalists before charges had been filed against him. It raised issues similar to those in the Valerie Plame affair, of whether journalists should have to reveal their anonymous sources [more security breaches, by Republicans in these cases] in a court of law. Lee’s lawsuit was settled by the federal government in 2006 just before the Supreme Court was set to decide whether to hear the case. The federal judge who heard the case during an earlier appeal said that “top decision makers in the executive branch” “have embarrassed our entire nation and each of us who is a citizen.””
Wen Ho Lee was used as a pawn by the hostile Republican-dominated congress to tar the Clinton Administration with allowing “Chinese spies” to steal precious American secrets about nuclear weapons design. Wen Ho Lee was being punished by the Clinton Administration with a harsh solitary confinement to cover its own ass from the McCarthy-type slime flung at it by the Republicans.
The actual security infraction committed by Wen Ho Lee was to save computer files of his work, on the mathematical physics of the hydrodynamics (fluid flow) of imploding spherical masses, on an unclassified computer system and on unclassified data discs in his possession. These computer files represented abstract problems (data plus algorithms) for the testing of the computer programs — on a classified computer system — that were used to calculate the hydrodynamics of actual nuclear weapons in the design stage. Lee’s infraction was in moving data (abstract practice problems) from a classified computer system to an unclassified computer system, this is explicitly against the rules. The data Lee moved was itself intrinsically unclassified physics and material science data, and algorithms for solving the differential equations of hydrodynamics; Lee’s data transfers did not include actual nuclear weapons designs.
Why did Wen Ho Lee do it? After the collapse of the USSR (in 1991) and the end of full-scale nuclear testing by the US (in 1992), there was a budget squeeze on the US nuclear weapons labs, a effort to shed personnel, and much job insecurity. People like Wen Ho Lee (and me!) were pretty much useless for work out in the public and commercial worlds because of the very specialized nature of the work we had burrowed ourselves into well past our youth. What kind of portfolio or résumé could such people present to outsider employers? All my best work is blown up, vaporized, melted, radioactive and buried under hundreds of meters of Nevada desert. Any reports about the performance of my experiments are all deeply classified and I have nothing to show. It is clear to me that Wen Ho Lee hoped he could use examples of his work as a computational mathematical physicist to flesh out a portfolio demonstrating his abilities to prospective employers should Los Alamos lay him off.
What set me off on this article was the disparity in the treatment (so far, in the case of Hillary) of these three intentional security violators. They each moved information from a classified computer system to an unclassified private one for personal convenience. Wen Ho Lee’s data was not intrinsically classified though it was moved from a classified system. Hillary Clinton’s data and John Deutch’s data were very highly classified. None of the illegal transfers made by these three seems to have spilled sensitive and “dangerous” data out into the wider world. It is a safe bet that Hillary Clinton is more likely to get the John Deutch treatment (or better) than the Wen Ho Lee treatment, both of which occurred under Bill Clinton’s supervision.
To me, the most offensive part of Hillary Clinton’s security infraction is that is springs from what is clearly an overweening sense of entitlement. I don’t get sanctimonious about “protecting classified” as many of Hillary’s detractors huff and puff over. Sometimes a gross violation of the security rules is a good thing, recall Anthony Russo, Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.
While I certainly made every effort to follow the rules during my work life, and urge any workers presently in the classified arena to do likewise, it is nevertheless true that at certain pivotal moments of our national story certain individuals can find themselves uniquely placed to make a profound contribution to the public good by violating the rules for classified data, if they are willing to suffer the consequences. Such “whistleblowers” combine a highly principled motivation with an accurate historical consciousness: patriotism in the best sense of the word. Personal convenience in the service of ambition is not a highly principled motivation, nor a contribution to the public good.
Regardless of the bureaucratic inanities that can burden classified data systems, Hillary Clinton’s security infraction is simply a betrayal, a violation of trust. Whether this is a big deal or insignificant for you is entirely a matter of how highly you value personal character: trust.