Hillary, Classified Information, and Me

Hillary Clinton's "extremely careless … handling of very sensitive, highly classified information" as described by FBI director James Comey has caused me to reflect on my own past top secret security clearance.  I worked briefly for the State Department as a mere graduate student intern while at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, an experience that leaves me baffled by Clinton's behavior and her current exoneration.

My two internships with the State Department left no doubt in my mind about the importance of classified information security protocols.  Intern orientation at the State Department's Washington, D.C. Foggy Bottom headquarters during the summer of 1996 included a security officer's briefing.  He indicated with his slide of the former Soviet, now Russian, embassy festooned with antenna atop the Wisconsin Avenue heights overlooking the capital that this often hostile country's choice of diplomatic real estate was no accident.

This impression of advanced electronic ears listening for loose lips informed the telecommunications use of me and other State Department personnel.  Strange noises at the beginning of a Foreign Service Officer (FSO)'s call from home to me in the office raised suspicious chuckles from us both.  The FSO remarked that he heard this noise only when telephoning his workplace.

A later call to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia inquired about a minor edit in an outgoing cable requested by the CIA in order to shield intelligence sources.  I used an ordinary telephone to arrange a discussion of this cable with a CIA analyst using a secure telephone unit (STU) that served to protect telephone calls involving classified information.  With both the CIA analyst and me possessing a copy of the cable, he was able to indicate to me over the unsecured office telephone, with reference to phrase beginnings, the desired edits without discussing classified contents.

Security precautions continued to make their presence felt during my second winter 1996 internship in Vienna, Austria, at the American delegation to the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  I checked in at the delegation one evening after a train trip from the airport in Frankfurt, Germany, properly identifying myself to the delegation's Marine guard and meeting the one FSO left in the office after hours.  During my introductory discussions with her, I suggested making a phone call with my cellphone, prompting her to respond that the delegation prohibited such personal electronic devices on the premises.  

A delegation security officer later explained to this intrigued intern the possibility of an adversary tampering with such a device.  An inserted micro-battery could surreptitiously turn on the device's microphone for eavesdropping.  The officer complained that some State Department personnel persisted in bringing their cellphones onto official premises despite his repeated warning references to regulations.  

An individual's carelessness caused a certain amount of trepidation among delegation staff after a Marine guard security sweep (at least that it is what I recall) discovered a classified document left overnight outside its secure safe in an STU.  As some staff members speculated about their alibis and who was in the STU at the pertinent time, a delegation security officer investigating the matter called around to see who would "get the prize" of a recorded reprimand.  Later, to my horror, I discovered a copy of a classified (at the lowest classification level of merely "classified") cable in a stack of papers left in my desk overnight and promptly, quietly placed the cable in a secure location.

During one staff meeting, an FSO addressed the matter of a dumpster outside the delegation filled with destroyed computers from the delegation's recently retired inventory.  Like the rest of the State Department, the delegation was transitioning from unbelievably antiquated first-generation Wang computers to modern models capable of operating standard Microsoft word processing programs.  The FSO wondered if the retired computers could have made a donation to charity, but he learned that their hard drives irrevocably contained classified information capable of recovery.

State Department personnel impressed this layman with their conscientious care of classified information, but Comey's press briefing upon FBI investigation into Clinton's email imbroglio begged to differ.  The "security culture of the State Department in general, and with respect to use of unclassified e-mail systems in particular, was generally lacking in the kind of care for classified information found elsewhere in the government," he stated.  Yet she failed to follow and/or ignored even these standards in an astonishing contrast with my experience at the State Department.

Nonetheless, Clinton's lenient treatment "is not to suggest that in similar circumstances, a person who engaged in this activity would face no consequences," Comey caveated.  "To the contrary, those individuals are often subject to security or administrative sanctions," a statement recalling an unknown hapless individual in Vienna.  While some observers believe that Comey sought any excuse to avoid becoming the "fulcrum of history" by disqualifying a presidential candidate, his two-tiered application of justice remains inexplicable to me and many others.

I could not imagine emulating Clinton's "extreme careless" behavior (or, in more legally specific terms, "gross negligence") by, say, discussing confidential information openly over an unsecured telephone.  Unlike her, I am not "too big to jail" and therefore have not only principled, but also practical reasons for upholding sworn and signed oaths.

If Lady Justice is not blind to Clinton, I can only hope that something else prevents her from ever having a security clearance again, whether in the White House or anywhere else.

Hillary Clinton's "extremely careless … handling of very sensitive, highly classified information" as described by FBI director James Comey has caused me to reflect on my own past top secret security clearance.  I worked briefly for the State Department as a mere graduate student intern while at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, an experience that leaves me baffled by Clinton's behavior and her current exoneration.

My two internships with the State Department left no doubt in my mind about the importance of classified information security protocols.  Intern orientation at the State Department's Washington, D.C. Foggy Bottom headquarters during the summer of 1996 included a security officer's briefing.  He indicated with his slide of the former Soviet, now Russian, embassy festooned with antenna atop the Wisconsin Avenue heights overlooking the capital that this often hostile country's choice of diplomatic real estate was no accident.

This impression of advanced electronic ears listening for loose lips informed the telecommunications use of me and other State Department personnel.  Strange noises at the beginning of a Foreign Service Officer (FSO)'s call from home to me in the office raised suspicious chuckles from us both.  The FSO remarked that he heard this noise only when telephoning his workplace.

A later call to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia inquired about a minor edit in an outgoing cable requested by the CIA in order to shield intelligence sources.  I used an ordinary telephone to arrange a discussion of this cable with a CIA analyst using a secure telephone unit (STU) that served to protect telephone calls involving classified information.  With both the CIA analyst and me possessing a copy of the cable, he was able to indicate to me over the unsecured office telephone, with reference to phrase beginnings, the desired edits without discussing classified contents.

Security precautions continued to make their presence felt during my second winter 1996 internship in Vienna, Austria, at the American delegation to the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  I checked in at the delegation one evening after a train trip from the airport in Frankfurt, Germany, properly identifying myself to the delegation's Marine guard and meeting the one FSO left in the office after hours.  During my introductory discussions with her, I suggested making a phone call with my cellphone, prompting her to respond that the delegation prohibited such personal electronic devices on the premises.  

A delegation security officer later explained to this intrigued intern the possibility of an adversary tampering with such a device.  An inserted micro-battery could surreptitiously turn on the device's microphone for eavesdropping.  The officer complained that some State Department personnel persisted in bringing their cellphones onto official premises despite his repeated warning references to regulations.  

An individual's carelessness caused a certain amount of trepidation among delegation staff after a Marine guard security sweep (at least that it is what I recall) discovered a classified document left overnight outside its secure safe in an STU.  As some staff members speculated about their alibis and who was in the STU at the pertinent time, a delegation security officer investigating the matter called around to see who would "get the prize" of a recorded reprimand.  Later, to my horror, I discovered a copy of a classified (at the lowest classification level of merely "classified") cable in a stack of papers left in my desk overnight and promptly, quietly placed the cable in a secure location.

During one staff meeting, an FSO addressed the matter of a dumpster outside the delegation filled with destroyed computers from the delegation's recently retired inventory.  Like the rest of the State Department, the delegation was transitioning from unbelievably antiquated first-generation Wang computers to modern models capable of operating standard Microsoft word processing programs.  The FSO wondered if the retired computers could have made a donation to charity, but he learned that their hard drives irrevocably contained classified information capable of recovery.

State Department personnel impressed this layman with their conscientious care of classified information, but Comey's press briefing upon FBI investigation into Clinton's email imbroglio begged to differ.  The "security culture of the State Department in general, and with respect to use of unclassified e-mail systems in particular, was generally lacking in the kind of care for classified information found elsewhere in the government," he stated.  Yet she failed to follow and/or ignored even these standards in an astonishing contrast with my experience at the State Department.

Nonetheless, Clinton's lenient treatment "is not to suggest that in similar circumstances, a person who engaged in this activity would face no consequences," Comey caveated.  "To the contrary, those individuals are often subject to security or administrative sanctions," a statement recalling an unknown hapless individual in Vienna.  While some observers believe that Comey sought any excuse to avoid becoming the "fulcrum of history" by disqualifying a presidential candidate, his two-tiered application of justice remains inexplicable to me and many others.

I could not imagine emulating Clinton's "extreme careless" behavior (or, in more legally specific terms, "gross negligence") by, say, discussing confidential information openly over an unsecured telephone.  Unlike her, I am not "too big to jail" and therefore have not only principled, but also practical reasons for upholding sworn and signed oaths.

If Lady Justice is not blind to Clinton, I can only hope that something else prevents her from ever having a security clearance again, whether in the White House or anywhere else.