President Obama this week redefined the definition of classified information in comments made Sunday in defending Hillary Clinton’s placement of secrets on a private email server while she was secretary of state.
Asked to square comments he made in October asserting Mrs. Clinton did not jeopardize national secrets with later disclosures that over 2,000 of the emails contained classified information, including data deemed “Top Secret,” the president said she did not “intentionally” put American security in jeopardy.
“And what I also know, because I handle a lot of classified information, is that there’s classified, and then there’s classified,” Mr. Obama told Fox News interviewer Chris Wallace. “There’s stuff that is really ‘Top Secret, Top Secret,’ and there’s stuff that is being presented to the president or the secretary of state that you might not want on the transom, or going out over the wire, but is basically stuff that you could get in open source.”
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That explanation, however, is contradicted by Executive Order 13526, signed by Mr. Obama himself in December 2009. The order includes three levels of security classification — Top Secret, Secret and Confidential — and defines each by the amount of “damage” caused by its unauthorized disclosure. The damage ranges from “exceptionally grave” to “serious” to unspecified “damage,” for Confidential information.
The order goes on to say that no information should be classified “unless its unauthorized disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause identifiable or describable damage to the national security” in eight categories. The categories include U.S. “foreign relations” activities, the most likely type of information compromised by Mrs. Clinton’s email server that was stored in the bathroom closet of a Denver IT company and employed unsecure Internet networks vulnerable to eavesdropping and foreign interception.
Mr. Obama said he continues to believe Mrs. Clinton’s email server did not jeopardize U.S. security, although he did not say why. He also insisted he is not interfering with the ongoing FBI probe into the email server.
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The Obama administration, for its part, has a poor record of protecting secrets and has been the victim of what some analysts say are among the most largest and most damaging leaks of classified information in the nation’s history.
First in 2010, the administration, in seeking greater intelligence sharing, suffered the leak of more than 750,000 classified documents to Wikileaks by Army Pvt. Bradley Manning that exposed recruited agents in Afghanistan and other sources.
That was followed in 2013 by the theft of over 1.7 million National Security Agency classified documents stolen by disgruntled insider and former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who charged falsely that the agency was engaged in a conspiracy to spy on Americans despite legal constraints and severe restrictions on all its domestic activities.
U.S. officials have said the Snowden leaks caused severe and persistent national security damage, including weakening efforts to track and counter Islamist terrorists.
Former U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Joseph diGenova said Mr. Obama’s remarks was a “bank-shot” effort to influence the FBI probe.
“But I think it was an unforced error of major proportions,” Mr. diGenova told Inside the Ring. “The Bureau doesn’t like being pushed. They will do whatever they have to.”
FBI Director James Comey has said there’s no timetable for the Clinton investigation, an indication he is pushing back against political pressure from critics who say the probe is taking too long.
“It all comes down to whether Comey will cave,” Mr. diGenova said.
As for Mrs. Clinton’s alleged carelessness in mishandling secrets, as the president asserted, “gross negligence in handling classified information is a crime,” he said. “The bottom line is that if this were any other federal employee, the case would be clear and brought — loss of clearances, loss of job, and jail.”
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