The latest controversy over Hillary Clinton’s emails – the allegation that classified information was improperly transmitted on her private email server – is, or should be, a non-scandal.
Clinton has only herself to blame for the email mess. She should have behaved like other government officials and used an official account, however cumbersome multiple devices might have been.
If she insisted on using a private server, she should have been careful that information was properly designated for archiving at the time – not long after the fact.
When she finally turned over thousands of emails to the State Department, she should not have deleted thousands more from the server – a move guaranteed to fan conspiracy theories.
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When the matter became public, she should have tried to quell the firestorm by turning over the server. She should have stopped insisting, as she did on CNN earlier this month, that she was not only blameless but praiseworthy.
“I went above and beyond what anybody could have expected in making sure that if the State Department didn’t capture something, I made a real effort to get it to them,” Clinton said. A real effort – two years after leaving office.
Nonetheless, the classification kerfuffle is a non-scandal blown out of proportion by sloppy reporting, official miscommunication and partisan positioning.
First, the original version of The New York Times story – swiftly revised – falsely suggested that Clinton herself was the subject of a criminal probe.
Then, the Justice Department added to the confusion by confirming a “criminal” referral – only to reverse itself and withdraw that bombshell adjective.
Not that any of this stopped Clinton’s Republican critics and competitors from capitalizing on the reports. “The fact is that what she has done is criminal,” blared Donald Trump. “I don’t see how she can run.”
Here’s the situation. The intelligence community’s inspector general reviewed a small subset of Clinton emails and found that four out of 40 contained classified information. The State Department says it has examined more than 2,000 emails and found none with information that was classified at the time, although some material was classified retroactively.
In any event, there is no evidence that Clinton herself had, or should have had, any inkling about the classification.
“We note that none of the emails we reviewed had classification or dissemination markings, but some ... should have been handled as classified,” the intelligence inspector general, I. Charles McCullough III, wrote to Congress last week.
McCullough’s letter reveals that he referred the matter to, among other agencies, the FBI. This is a routine matter when classified material has been mishandled – not a sign that anything nefarious has transpired.
Moreover, if the Clinton emails did contain classified material, this would be a problem no matter whether she used a government account or a private email. Both are hackable. The rules require classified material to be dealt with in classified facilities or on adequately secured devices and networks.
Not that any of this matters. The classified-information-put-at-risk narrative is too delicious for Republicans to resist, and it keeps the story alive. This is a political problem for Clinton, but it isn’t a legal one.
By way of comparison, take a look at the plea deal reached by Gen. David Petraeus for mishandling classified information.
The former CIA director acknowledged that he gave biographer/mistress Paula Broadwell personal notebooks containing highly classified information, then stored them in an unlocked drawer at his home, even as he assured security officials that he had no classified material in his possession.
That was criminal conduct. Clinton’s isn’t. Not even close.
Ruth Marcus is a columnist for The Washington Post.