National Security

Why The Clinton Server Matters

By Brandon Blackburn:

The following is not a political endorsement for any one candidate, but rather an explanation as to why Secretary Hillary Clinton’s emails and use of a private server warrant consideration to voters this election season. For some voters it may be the paramount factor in their decision making, for others a minor thought.  Regardless, as you weigh the pros and cons of each candidate, out of respect for the men and women who entrust their lives with our government leaders it is worth being educated on the matter.

My analysis herein is based on my experience as a CIA officer, which early on included a brief rotation in the office responsible for security and investigating vulnerabilities to sensitive information. Furthermore, as is the case for all of my coworkers, my duties necessitated the handling and exposure to some of the most sensitive information the government cultivates. As a result, every officer with this access is required to attend official briefings on the process and adhere to, in writing, a binding legal agreement that swears an oath to abide by the laws established to protect this information. And in doing so, protect the lives of one another and our sources and allies.

The consternation exhibited by many Americans, to include those who have served in our intelligence and military communities, is rooted in the interest of ensuring these laws and protections are preserved and upheld. It is the belief that public servants entrusted with this responsibility are bonded by their respect for the process, and the penalties of violating such process, regardless of rank or position.

Based on the aforementioned signed agreement, the indication is that at a minimum there would be some penalty for anyone who mishandles and improperly exposes classified information, likely at least loss of security clearance and probably an inability to ever retain again. This would be regardless of intent and tied to negligence. Intent therefore can up the ante. This is not conjecture mind you. In recent months there have been examples of the law pursuing action against individuals who exposed information outside of the secure methods in place. This includes a marine being discharged after sending a classified detail via his private email to warn his counterparts of an impending attack against them.

The next commonly held argument by many who discount this as not a significant issue is that the information was not classified at the time of transmission. The justification here is that there was no marking on the emails in question at the time they were sent. Therefore, the information was not classified. The flaw in this argument is exposed with a simple explanation. It is the information that determines classification, not the application of a marking.  This is why throughout the government there are several firewalls to ensure protection, to include the server being used.  That is, sensitive information is only to be exchanged via government secured server as the backstop against failure to mark and a range of other contingencies.  A longstanding struggle from those tasked with implementing and enforcing information security is the marking of electronic communications by the workforce. It’s not uncommon in the daily course and pace of business to fail to mark every single email exchanged.  Just think about the number of emails or texts you send out daily.

This is to say that the argument it wasn’t classified at the time because it wasn’t marked has no merit. The information is what determines that, not the presence of a marking. By this logic, would one therefore justify taking a new product out of a store that hasn’t been marked with a price tag yet?  After all, it must be free since it hadn’t yet been tagged.

As for the marking that has been a point of contention, the now notorious “C”. This is part of yet another firewall that indicates to what level specific parts of a paragraph or document are classified.  It is one of many denotations that are explained in the ubiquitous security briefings for those granted security clearance. The signatory of the non-disclosure agreement at the end of these briefings is conveying an understanding of the process and information briefed and an oath to abide by it. Doing so otherwise would only mean one of two things. Either the party never received the briefing but was able to sign the agreement anyway, or signed without the full understanding of what was briefed.

Finally, regardless of the principle in question this issue matters mostly to those on the front lines who work in the shadows and rely on the laws in place for protection so that they may do their jobs. In cases where information seeps through the firewalls, whether through malicious intent or gross negligence, we can never fully know to what extent people’s lives and missions may be jeopardized. All it takes to finish a puzzle is one piece. And our intelligence officers are tasked with putting together puzzles day in and day out, as are our adversaries who wish us harm.

So when evaluating the candidates and the issues, this might not be your single smoking gun, but it should also not be discounted as meaningless. We all owe it to those in harm’s way to ensure it never is.

Brandon Blackburn is an OpsLens Contributor and former CIA Counterterrorism Officer with a journalism degree from the University of Missouri and an MBA with a concentration in International Business. During his time with the CIA, Brandon served multiple tours in the Middle East, to include Iraq and Jordan, and in Afghanistan. Brandon consults with businesses and media on national security related issues with his consulting firm B4B Enterprises.  He can be followed on Twitter @Bran_Blackburn.

Related OpsLens Content: 

Democrats and the Department of Justice Continue to Defend Hillary Clinton’s Careless Handling of Classified Information

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