Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign Wednesday accused the intelligence community’s top oversight official of conspiring with Republicans in the Senate to leak sensitive information about her personal e-mail server. That's a risky move, considering that it has produced no hard evidence of a conspiracy and the accused parties are denying it.
The public dispute between the former Secretary of State and the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community reached new heights following Tuesday’s report by Fox News on a letter sent by inspector general I. Charles McCullough to Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker. In the letter, McCullough stated that he had received sworn declarations from two separate intelligence agencies that cover “several dozen e- mails” on Clinton's private server. These e-mails were determined by these agencies to contain information that should have been treated as secret, top secret, and “SAP,” an abbreviation that refers to “special access programs,” which are among the most sensitive in the government.
Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon told me in an interview Wednesday that the campaign believes that McCullough and the Republican senators worked behind the scenes to orchestrate a series of events that would lead to the disclosure of those declarations.
“It is suspect from the beginning that the intelligence community inspector general is continuing to reveal materials and surface allegations while the Justice Department review is going on,” Fallon said. “It’s completely fair to suspect that the intelligence community inspector general is not operating in good faith.” He provided no hard evidence to support these assumptions, however.
Now that the FBI is investigating the handling of information found on Clinton’s server, Fallon said, the intelligence community inspector general should stay out of it and let the Justice Department do its work. But McCullough's letter shows he intends to keep trying to influence the outcome.
According to the Clinton campaign, the inspector general and the Republican senators have separate agendas in wanting to influence the public debate over whether or not Clinton’s e-mail server contained highly classified information. The Republicans simply want to hurt Clinton’s political aspirations, Fallon said. But the inspector general’s move, Fallon said, is part of a campaign to influence a bureaucratic battle between the intelligence community and the State Department.
The State Department and intelligence agencies disagreed last August over whether two e-mails found on Clinton’s server should have been treated as “top secret.” The State Department said the information that the e-mails contained was not classified when the messages were sent, but the intelligence agencies said the information was always classified and should have been treated as such. The State Department asked James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, to adjudicate that dispute.
In November, a Politico report stated that intelligence officials reviewing those two e-mails were leaning toward the State Department’s opinion. Following that report, Burr and Corker wrote to McCullough to ask for an update and McCullough responded. Fallon alleges that the timing of the letters is evidence enough of a conspiracy to leak the information.
“It looks like Clapper’s office will undercut McCullough,” Fallon said. “McCullough is trying to litigate this with Clapper and have his own view of these two e-mails upheld.”
Burr told me in a short interview Wednesday that his committee was just following up with the intelligence community inspector general about his progress in getting information from the intelligence agencies. He denied leaking McCullough’s letter or working with McCullough behind the scenes in any way.
“I can tell you there’s no conspiracy or collusion between Bob Corker and I and the inspector general,” Burr said. “The Clinton campaign would be wrong.”
Deb Chapman, spokesperson for the intelligence community inspector general’s office, declined to comment on the Clinton campaign’s allegations, but said that McCullough stands by the information contained in his letter to Burr and Corker, a copy of which Fox News obtained.
“Catherine Herridge’s article was spot on,” she said, referring to Fox New’s intelligence correspondent. “It’s all accurate.”
For a major political candidate and former cabinet official to publicly accuse an inspector general of the intelligence community of intentional leaking and collusion with their political opponents is remarkable, if not unprecedented. McCullough, an attorney and former FBI agent, was unanimously confirmed for his position in 2011 and received praise from senators on both sides of the aisle.
“No one should make such an accusation without evidence,” Steven Aftergood, who directs the project on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, told me. “If there is evidence of collusion or partisanship, it should be presented. If there is no such evidence, the accusation should not be made.”
Whether or not the information in the e-mails is really top secret is unknowable because the e-mails are not public, Aftergood said. Several reports Wednesday quoted anonymous officials saying the information in question was not particularly sensitive because it referred to public news reports about the U.S. drone program. That program is highly classified but often discussed in the press.
“CIA considers everything about the targeted killing program to be highly classified covert action,” Aftergood said. “But the State Department can consider information in the press to be unclassified.”
Even passing on news clippings about a classified program can be considered mishandling of classified information, but it’s a case by case evaluation and the lines are murky, said Aftergood. Usually, deference is given to the agency that originated the information, in this case the CIA and another as yet unnamed agency.
For Fallon and the Clinton team, their inability to publicly discuss the content of the e-mails is key to their grievance: How can Clinton defend herself from leaks without talking about what was on her server? The intelligence community inspector general’s office has a corresponding problem: It can’t fend off Clinton’s accusations of partisanship and collusion because it is enjoined from commenting on political matters.
Clinton's calculation seems clear: By framing the controversy over the private e-mail server as a good-faith dispute between two government bureaucracies, she can divert attention from her own culpability in placing so much sensitive information in her own house. But that strategy depends on the State Department standing by her.
That may be changing, at least in public. Whereas in August, department officials said they were confident their own review of the e-mails revealed no information marked classified at the time it was sent, their public line is now less definitive.
“Our FOIA review process is still ongoing. Once that process is complete, if it is determined that information should be classified as Top Secret we will do so,” State Department spokesman John Kirby told me in a statement.
Intelligence officials, even inspectors general, are not immune from politics, both internal and partisan. But Clinton’s team simply cannot prove that McCullough is leaking against them. Her campaign can only muddy the waters and delay until the FBI finishes its work. If the Clinton campaign decides then to go after the FBI, it will be picking a fight with an even more formidable opponent.
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