It’s the news story that simply has no end. We’ve been assaulted by the Hillary Clinton email “scandal” all election season, but we have shockingly little understanding of what actually happened. Go from one source to the next, and you’ll hear various explanations on what really went down:
She was openly and brazenly sharing vital U.S. secrets over regular-Joe email, secrets that hackers wanted to get their hands on. And maybe did.
She was deleting thousands of emails to avoid being caught doing something.
She was secretly hosting a server so that the public couldn’t pry into her affairs.
She was exerting megalomaniacal control over all her communications in an attempt to protect her fragile public image.
We have so many opinions about the Clinton email controversy, yet few of us, if really questioned about it, could adequately explain what the fuss is truly about. It doesn’t help that Clinton, herself, has been irritatingly evasive about the ordeal, letting anyone and everyone fill in the blanks for the public. And boy have they.
The Clinton email issue is a perfect confluence of inertia, bureaucracy and the limits of technology in government.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Americans hate Clinton’s email problem. In a recent poll about which issues voters disliked the most about the two remaining candidates, a whopping 80 percent of respondents said they were bothered by the email scandal, and of that 80 percent, 58 percent were really bothered by it. Conclusion? It’s a big problem for Clinton, and every time it comes up in the news cycle, it drags down her polls—enough that it could very well be threatening what should’ve been a slam-dunk win over Donald Trump.
Okay, so what really happened?
The Clinton email issue is a perfect confluence of inertia, bureaucracy and the limits of technology in government. It was a bad solution to an even worse problem. How do you marry convenience, speed, secrecy, and accountability into one streamlined government communications package?
Let’s start from the beginning.
Where did Hillary Clinton’s email server come from?
Like most things bad in Hillary Clinton’s life, the email problem can be traced back to her husband, former President Bill Clinton.
Post-presidency, Bill Clinton had an email server set up in their Chappaqua, New York, home to handle the communication needs of their foundations and other post-White House affairs. They felt that it was more reliable if they controlled their own server (which few would argue was a bad idea). An aide to President Clinton, Justin Cooper, set up the first email server on an old Apple computer in their basement, and away this whole thing went.
Hillary Clinton, still senator and running for president, was generally doing her email on a Blackberry with an address she got from AT&T. If you think this is silly, remember that people like Colin Powell were emailing on AOL accounts—but more on that later.
Recently sworn in as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton decided to move from her AT&T account to the family server, which honestly, makes a lot of sense. If you had access to email that worked on whatever device you wanted to check it on, had near-perfect uptime, was siloed, and had a support you knew personally (and could contact at any time), wouldn’t you consider using your own server too? When Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State, the server was in the process of being updated by Bryan Pagliano, who was recommended by Huma Abedin (Clinton’s longtime aide which many consider her closest). Within a few months (from January, to March 2009), Clinton and her staff were migrated to this server (clintonemail.com), doing work for the state department.
So all of the government’s most private secrets were being funneled through a private server in Chappaqua? Lock her up!
In a word, no.
While some classified information passed through Clinton’s servers, email isn’t generally the place where state secrets and strategies are talked about. For that, Clinton used secure methods like SCIFs, couriers, and other approved forms of transmission. And while classified messages did go through her private server, the hard truth is that the vast majority of them were classified after the fact.
Classification is a strange beast in the government, and the rules aren’t exactly clear-cut. Classification, for the most part, is governed by a small set of guidelines, with human judgment being the most important criteria (if you want to really know more about the subject, check out this and this guide from the government itself—and be sure to enjoy the Microsoft Office clipart). The reasoning for classification doesn’t always have to be a great one—simply wanting to have something classified will generally do. In an age where terrorism and national security are such critical issues, you can imagine that more information than necessary might be considered sensitive, which has actually led to a major problem in over-classification.
Does this forgive Clinton for having any classified data on her server? No. But she also wasn’t actively trying to use her email for that purpose, and she followed proper state guidelines with information she knew was sensitive.
So level with me. How many classified emails went through this server?
2,093? Holy shit.
Hold on, that’s 2,093 out of 62,320.
Still a lot.
Yes, but out of that 2,093, only 110 were classified at the time. 0.17 percent, or just under two-tenths of a percent.
Still kinda bad that it was on a private server.
Yeah, pretty much, but look at it this way. Even if she used a state account, that percentage would be identical, and state accounts are not immune to security breaches. While hosting it on her own server wasn’t the smartest move by Clinton, you can hardly call it malice. It makes James Comey’s conclusion, which was that “no reasonable prosecutor” would bring a case against Clinton, seem perfectly sound. There’s really nothing there.
Yeah, but some classified information being shared is disastrous, right?
Maybe, but Clinton wasn’t even close to being alone. The Washington Post reported in 2015 that one in three government employees were using personal email addresses to conduct business. This quote from the article (emphasis mine) really illustrates where the security/convenience issue breaks down:
The record keeping rules are unfortunately not known by everyone at an agency,” he said. And the flexibility of telework makes it easier for employees to skip the step of signing into a government account remotely if using, say, Gmail is simpler.
The sad truth is that security isn’t a sure thing in government communication, and that it generally lags heavily behind the public sector. We like to think that digital correspondence in the government is happening over some bank vault-like super networks, but many times it’s just an iPhone and a Hotmail account.
So why on earth did she do this?
Clinton’s email server, running from Chappaqua, was tasked to handle the tens of thousands of her work-related emails, as well as all of Clinton’s personal correspondence. If you’re thinking it was a mistake to combine the two, you’re totally right. Citing her busy life and convenience, Clinton wanted everything to be consolidated into one easy to access address, preferably from the device of her choice (Clinton didn’t like to use computers, and leaned on Blackberrys or the occasional iPad). The state offered a mobile device, but it couldn’t have her personal email, so that was that. So for four years, Hillary Clinton did her work-related state business on her private server, with no one really caring.
Why didn’t they care, you ask? The constant term thrown around is that Clinton was running a secret email server, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Hillary Clinton’s email address was visible to anyone who received a message from her—or anyone on her staff. The idea that this was some clandestine move by Clinton to maintain secrecy is nonsense. It was merely ignored, or at worst, tolerated. “email@example.com” was the address from which every email was sent, with no attempt ever made to obscure this.
Only Hillary Clinton really knows the exact reason she kept using her own server, but looking at the evidence, here are the likely two reasons she did it.
She was already using private email before she was Secretary of State, and never thought about stopping. It was easy, available, and functioned as expected on all the devices she wanted to use it on. It was also hers. Hillary Clinton operates in the Clinton bubble, and it likely didn’t occur to her that having a private email server was anything out of the ordinary—if she even bothered to stop and think about it in the first place. When you’ve been in the public sector as long as the Clintons have, I’d imagine the lines between government and personal become blurred. To Hillary Clinton, she is the government, and this is perhaps the number one reason why the email server raised no flags in her eyes.
But even more than that, Hillary Clinton isn’t a technophile. She viewed her set-up as a means to an end. Was it working? Great. Did she care how it worked? No. It’s likely as simple as that.
2. Efficiency and speed
The dirty secret in government? Their email isn’t always reliable, and as we learned from above, one in three employees will conduct at least some business from their own accounts. While it’s for sure different that Clinton had her own set-up, is it truly any worse? There’s been a concerted effort to paint her private server as something more nefarious than using Yahoo, but is it really? Both are mistakes, and frankly, classified information appearing on either is a disaster waiting to happen.
But yet government employees are constantly doing this, with no end in sight. People want to use their own devices. People want something they’re familiar with. People want something that works anywhere and everywhere. The fact that people use their own solutions means the government isn’t providing an adequate version of their own.
The changing nature of email and digital communication
While we could sit here and blame government IT all day for these failings, it’s shortsighted and doesn’t really cover the main issue surrounding Clinton’s email controversy. The truth is, for better or worse (and I’d wager to say better) email has gone from being a digital approximation of real, official mail to a rapid form of messaging between private parties. It’s become a way for people to deliberate in a closed setting (aside from possible hacking, of course), with formality taking a backseat.
So what’s the problem with that? Well, our record-keeping rules don’t reflect this shift. We still force government employees to print and save all emails as if every message was a tablet handed down from Mount Sinai. It an open secret in the fourth estate that when you solicit comments from a government source, more often than not you’re going to get it over the phone. Why? So they can circumvent the important, but overly onerous rules of the Freedom of Information Act. Sometimes what you need to say is off the cuff and unofficial, or even more so, not-quite fully-formed for public consumption. There’s a fine line between accountability and having the freedom to throw ideas around, and we just don’t have a great solution yet.
So was Clinton using private email to avoid public accountability?
Very likely, no, but unfortunately for Hillary Clinton, this is another murky area in the controversy.
Clinton was under the impression that as long as she was emailing people with “.gov” addresses for official business, record keeping would take care of itself. Obviously this doesn’t quite hold water, since emails solely written between clintonemail.com addresses wouldn’t fall under that umbrella, and therefore wouldn’t be automatically captured.
However, after her term did end, Clinton and her team did make a substantial effort to get her messages into the public record. The State Department, noticing gaps in their files, actually sent official letters to former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Hillary Clinton, asking for additional records. In response, Clinton and her team released 55,000 pages of emails that were related to her time at State. After separating her personal from her work emails, and complying with FOIA, the team asked what she wanted to do with the personal ones. Not surprisingly, she said she didn’t need them anymore, and they were deleted.
She was deleting emails! What was she hiding?
As we talked about earlier, Clinton—as well as most of the technologically up-to-date world—has a different relationship with email than we did in the past. She probably genuinely thought that old, personal emails were like obsolete conversations, and not worth archiving. I mean, how do you personally handle your emails? I generally read something, respond, and get rid of it unless it contains something I might need later. That means I’ve likely deleted thousands of emails in my lifetime, and I don’t think anyone would consider me deceptive for tossing an old newsletter.
Now I understand we’re veering into false equivalency by comparing my inbox full of cat GIFs with the server of the highest ranking member of the State Department, but communication is communication. In 2016 we expect things to happen immediately, and in the fast-paced world of diplomacy, where life-and-death decisions need to be made in an instant, we’re left with a massive divide between doing urgent business, and doing that business with perfect safety and transparency. Clinton’s email server is the product of this gap, and instead of asking ourselves what led to her foolishly skirting protocol, we waste time with far-fetched, politically motivated conspiracies.
So what could Hillary Clinton say to help squash this email problem?
It for sure doesn’t help that Hillary Clinton seems almost congenitally unable to explain this controversy away. It’s well-documented that she loves her privacy, but avoiding the issue has nearly wrecked her political ambitions.
What could she say to make Americans understand? It took me nearly 2,000 words to explain the situation, so clearly this isn’t soundbite material. But here’s what she might be able to get across:
“I used an email server that my husband started to manage his organization. It was very reliable, and I liked that it worked on my favorite phone.”
“I sort of just forgot that we were using it because it worked so well, and it was easier than what the government offered. We tried to make sure that no classified information ever passed through the server, but we messed up badly. We shouldn’t be forgiven for that lapse.”
“I should’ve worked better with the State Department to find a better solution. I let my desire for convenience override my judgment.”
“As president, I want to revamp our technology so that we can have more secure government communication that’s fast, as easy to use as Gmail, and can readily be added to the public record when necessary.”
“I’m really sorry, and I deserve every bit of the flack I’ve gotten for this.”
So basically, admit, admit, admit, commit to a better solution that makes Americans more secure, and fall on your sword. Why Clinton hasn’t done this herself is almost too strange to believe.
What do you really think about the whole thing?
I think Hillary Clinton has operated in the upper-stratosphere of public life for so long, that I generally feel like she doesn’t quite understand the optics of everything she does. She’s obviously a very smart woman, but the cocoon of government and power seems to have skewed her perspective on what the public does and doesn’t deserve to know. I’m pretty convinced, viewing the evidence, that Hillary Clinton believes she’s in the right with her email server, that it helped her do her job well, and that it kept America safe. What irks the public is that we know that she knows that we know that Clinton doesn’t actually care that she used a private server, and the only thing she laments is that it blew up in her face. You can almost hear her eyes slam to the back of her skull when she rolls them at an email question. She knew better, and wishes we could see that, too.
This controversy has been so damaging because it amplifies everything we already don’t like about the Clintons. In the 30-plus years that Bill and Hillary have been in the public eye, we’ve bristled at the way transparency always seems to be an inconvenience to them. They constantly want to work for the public, yet lose their shit when that same public wants accountability. We’re well beyond “right-wing conspiracy theory” now. The Republicans are successful at branding Hillary Clinton as an insider because, quite frankly, her approach with the public has been to effectively shut them out. Sometimes you have a reputation because you’ve earned it.
So how did I come across this information?
I’ll bet you’re wondering how I was able to compile so much information on the Clinton email controversy. Easy. It all came from the FBI themselves. The report is available for anyone to read at any time, and it clearly lays out the investigation that went down, as well as why they came to their conclusions.
Clinton’s emails are the result of a lot of things, but criminality isn’t one of them. The government needs a serious revamping of their communications systems, their transparency, and a clearer grasp of just what workers in 2016 are expecting—and needing—from the tools that help them do such important state business.
Let’s be frank, here. America is the number one military superpower in the world. Our national security relies on finding a solution to this critical communications need. That the acting Secretary of State relied on a private server to do her job–and do it better—should be scaring the hell out of all of us. But instead of looking at—and fixing—this monumental problem, we’re spending our time trying discredit a woman, who despite what you think about her personally, has actually been an effective and diligent public servant.
The Clinton email controversy isn’t about Hillary Clinton. It’s not about classified information. It’s about how we, as Americans, adapt to the changing world. As the pressures of globalism escalate, there’s no better time—and no better person than Clinton herself—to mount this charge. She needs to do something about our communications problem, and we need to hold her to it.
This story originally appeared on Medium.