One of the most serious potential breaches of national security identified so far by the intelligence community inside Hillary Rodham Clinton’s private emails involves the relaying of classified information concerning the movement of North Korean nuclear assets, which was obtained from spy satellites.
Multiple intelligence sources who spoke to The Washington Times, solely on the condition of anonymity, said concerns about the movement of the North Korean information through Mrs. Clinton’s unsecured server are twofold.
First, spy satellite information is frequently classified at the top-secret level and handled within a special compartment called Talent-Keyhole. This means it is one of the most sensitive forms of intelligence gathered by the U.S.
Second, the North Koreans have assembled a massive cyberhacking army under an elite military spy program known as Bureau 121, which is increasingly aggressive in targeting systems for hacking, especially vulnerable private systems. The North Koreans, for instance, have been blamed by the U.S. for the hack of Sony movie studios.
Allowing sensitive U.S. intelligence about North Korea to seep into a more insecure private email server has upset the intelligence community because it threatens to expose its methods and assets for gathering intelligence on the secretive communist nation.
“While everyone talks about the U.S. being aware of the high threat of hacking and foreign spying, there was a certain nonchalance at Mrs. Clinton’s State Department in protecting sensitive data that alarms the intel community,” one source familiar with the email review told The Times. “We’re supposed to be making it harder, not easier, for our enemies to intercept us.”
State Department spokesman Mark C. Toner told The Times on Tuesday evening he couldn’t discuss the email because of ongoing probes by the FBI and the inspector general community. “There are reviews and investigations under way on these matters generally so it would not be appropriate to comment at this time,” he said.
The email in question was initially flagged by the inspector general of the intelligence community in July as potentially containing information derived from highly classified satellite and mapping system of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. That email was later confirmed to contain classified information by Freedom of Information Act officials within the intelligence community.
The revelation, still under review by the FBI and intelligence analysts, has created the most heartburn to date about a lax email system inside the State Department that allowed official business and – in at least 188 emails reviewed so far – classified secrets to flow to Mrs. Clinton via an unsecured private email server hosted at her home in Chappaqua, New York.
The email does not appear to have been copied directly from the classified email system and crossed what is known as the “air gap” to nonclassified computers, the sources said.
Rather, the intelligence community believes a State Department employee received the information through classified channels and then summarized it when that employee got to a nonclassified State Department computer. The email chain went through Mrs. Clinton’s most senior aides and eventually to Mrs. Clinton’s personal email, the sources said.
The compromised information did not include maps or images, but rather information that could have been derived only from spy satellite intelligence.
It was not marked as classified, but whoever viewed the original source reports would have readily seen the markings and it should have been recognized clearly by a trained employee who received the information subsequently as sensitive, nonpublic information. Intelligence community professionals are trained to carry forward these markings and, if needed, request that the information be sanitized before being transmitted via non-secure means.
The discovery could affect the FBI investigation of Mrs. Clinton’s email, putting the originator of the email chain into legal jeopardy and allowing agents to pressure the employee to cooperate as they try to determine how classified information flowed so freely into Mrs. Clinton’s account and what senior officials knew about the lax system that allowed such transmissions.
As the investigation has advanced, the intelligence community has debunked many of Mrs. Clinton’s and the State Department’s original claims about the private email system.
For instance, the department initially claimed that it had no idea Mrs. Clinton was conducting government business on an insecure private email account.
But the intelligence community uncovered evidence early on that her private email account was used to coordinate sensitive overseas calls through the department’s operations center, which arranges communication on weekends and after hours on weekdays.
The coordination of secure communications on an insecure break with protocol would give foreign intelligence agencies an opportunity to learn about a call early, then target and intercept the call, U.S. officials told The Times.
The concern is in full display in emails that Mrs. Clinton originated and that the department has already released under the Freedom of Information Act.
“As soon as I’m off call now. Tell ops to set it up now,” Mrs. Clinton wrote from her personal email account on Oct. 3, 2009, to top State Department aide Huma Abedin on Oct. 3, 2009, seeking the department’s operations center to set up a high-level Saturday morning call with two assistant secretaries of state and a foreign ambassador.
The email thread even indicated where Mrs. Clinton wanted to receive the call, at her home, giving a potential intercept target.
Similarly, the very next day, Mrs. Clinton and Ms. Abedin coordinated another call over insecure email with her ambassador to Afghanistan, former Army Gen. Karl Eikenberry. The two clearly understood the potential sensitive nature of the Sunday morning call even as they discussed its coordination on an unprotected email system.
“OK. Does Eikenberry need to be secure?” Mrs. Clinton asked, referring to the need for a secure phone line to receive the call. State officials said Mrs. Clinton had a secure phone line installed at her home to facilitate such calls, which is common for Cabinet-level officials.
Mr. Toner, the State Department spokesman, told the daily press briefing on Tuesday he did not know who approved Mrs. Clinton having a private email server to conduct official business but that it was obvious from the emails now released that many people knew inside State, including some in high places.
“People understood that she had a private server,” he told reporters. “…You’ve seen from the emails. You have an understanding of people who were communicating with her, at what level they were communicating at.”
Tony Blair knew about Hillary Clinton’s private e-mail account before the American people did – and his off-the-grid e-mail exchanges with Clinton are another sledgehammer to the already crumbling edifice of excuses offered in defense of her homebrew server.
Among the thousands of Clinton e-mails released by the State Department last night were direct exchanges with foreign dignitaries such as former prime minister (and then special envoy for the Middle East Quartet) Blair and internal exchanges between State Department officials about those conversations. The conversations cover a wide range of world hot spots, including the Middle East, Afghanistan and Iran, Sudan, and Haiti. Many of them – nearly 200 in total to date – have now been classified by the State Department as “foreign government information” and redacted or withheld from release. The very nature of the communications in those e-mails established that they contained classified information from their inception. Mrs. Clinton’s defense that she did not know of the existence of such information on her server at the time is laughable.
In September 2010, Barack Obama undertook an ambitious effort to settle the ancient dispute between Israel and the Palestinian people. Direct talks took place in Washington, D.C., in early September, and follow-up discussions were planned for later in the month. But talks broke down when a moratorium on West Bank settlement construction expired and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to tie renewal of the moratorium to Palestinian recognition of Israel.
With some urgency, Hillary Clinton asked Tony Blair to cancel a speech scheduled in Aspen, Colo., to “go to Israel as part of our full court press on keeping the Middle East negotiations going.” Blair obliged, and Clinton e-mailed the organizers of the Aspen conference to explain the cancelation. She then e-mailed Blair that his schedule was now clear: “Tony – Message Delivered… I’m copying Jake Sullivan because I’ve asked him to arrange a call w you once you land so you can be fully briefed before seeing BN [Netanyahu]. We are on a fast moving train changing every hour but determined to reach our destination.”
Later that day, Blair responded: “Hi Hillary. Just spent 3 hours with BB [Netanyahu]. Ready to speak when convenient but should do it on a secure line.” There is no indication whether that secure conversation took place, but the message certainly indicates that Blair at least understood the sensitivity of the subject matter.
Blair e-mailed Clinton again the next day, copying Sullivan, Clinton’s aide, apparently on a private e-mail account of his own. The entirety of that e-mail has been redacted from public disclosure as part of the FOIA release. Why? Because it has now been acknowledged as classified information and formally marked “Confidential” by State Department reviewers. The markings that accompany the redactions (which took place just this week as part of the release) explain that the redacted portion is classified under parts 1.4(B) and 1.4(D) of President Obama’s Executive Order 13526. Thus, it falls within the categories of information classified as “foreign government information” – 1.4(B) – and information relating to “foreign relations or foreign activities of the United States, including confidential sources” – 1.4(D).
Those markings are relevant because they blow up the Clinton campaign’s insistence that Mrs. Clinton and her colleagues did not know that the information at issue was classified at the time. Clinton is, of course, correct that the e-mails were not formally marked classified at the time they were exchanged, but that is only the result of a failure by Mrs. Clinton and her staff to mark them and handle them through the proper channels used for such foreign communications. The information contained in the e-mails was plainly classified at the time they were sent and received – by order of the president.
Executive Order 13526, issued by President Obama at the beginning of his term, addresses the classification and handling of national-security information. It provides that “foreign government information” – which includes “information provided to the United States Government by a foreign government or governments, an international organization of governments, or any element thereof, with the expectation that the information, the source of the information, or both, are to be held in confidence” – must be treated as classified. The president made a determination in the Executive Order that disclosure of these confidential foreign communications “is presumed to cause damage to the national security.”
Since a reasonable expectation of harm to the national security is the threshold for whether to classify information, the president’s determination necessarily establishes the classification of any foreign communications provided to the U.S. with the expectation of confidence. The Executive Order leaves no doubt on this point, when it directs that an agency “shall safeguard foreign government information under standards that provide a degree of protection at least equivalent to that required by the government or international organization of governments that furnished the information.”
The State Department now acknowledges that the Blair communications – just like scores of other Clinton e-mails involving sensitive diplomatic communications in Africa, Afghanistan, and elsewhere – are classified “Confidential” as foreign-government communications. Their determination simply confirms that the information was classified all along and that Clinton and her inner circle should have treated the e-mails containing it with the care required by our national-security laws and regulations. Instead, they were regularly passed between insecure private e-mail addresses, handed off wholesale to the private Internet company that maintained her server, and shared with who knows how many lawyers and staff as part of her own private review process.
Putting aside the legal technicalities, Clinton’s plea of ignorance defies common sense. The very nature of our diplomatic relations requires that we closely guard information learned from foreign dignitaries. And the State Department’s secure e-mail system contains reams of such classified communications. We protect that information in order to protect our international relationships and sources. The secretary of state regularly deals in those communications, as evidenced by the growing number of e-mails now classified. Yet here we see the sitting secretary of state communicating with a foreign envoy about sensitive diplomatic communications regarding the world’s most nettlesome national-security issues. She did so on the least secure platform imaginable – a private server concealed from government oversight – and took no steps to limit the information’s subsequent distribution. Faced with such irrefutable proof of her own recklessness, the former secretary of state now claims ignorance. Her plea rings hollow.