Hillary and the Attack of the IT-Men

Now, I know it’s the fashion to blog about Donald Trump these days, but I figure some more attention ought to be paid to the perceived Democratic frontrunner. Her current situation is, after all, much more relevant for the rest of us.

Yes, that’s right, more relevant. Mrs. Clinton isn’t exactly what you’d call a “unique” figure in contemporary politics. Mr. Trump is a millionaire businessman turned celebrity reality star conducting a serious political campaign; the closest I can think of is Rob Ford (who doesn’t qualify on “celebrity reality star” before getting elected mayor) or Jesse Ventura (who didn’t exactly qualify on “serious campaign”). Mrs. Clinton, on the other hand, was a senior public service administrator when she was SecState, a political appointee, and there are lots of those around Washington.

What’s more, the peculiar circumstances of this particular scandal are such that anyone who’s ever worked on any government computer network can understand how the mess started.

For those of you who’ve never had an account with a government network, when you get assigned a government account, you also get a briefing before you’re allowed to use it. Most of it covers what you can and can’t use that account for, some of which is common sense (you shouldn’t be looking at porn sites while at work anyway, unless you’re in the business), and some of it can get pretty esoteric (why certain graphics on certain pages aren’t going to work). The briefings will be longer and more detailed if you’re required to work with classified documents, which means that when you sign the paper at the end of it, it’s assumed that you’ll remember everything that was said.

Mrs. Clinton seems to have treated those briefings the same way that most of us treat those agreements we get whenever we update Windows or iOS or an important application: we “sign” it so that we get the application to work, without necessarily actually reading it. This goes a great deal towards explaining one of her 2011 e-mails:

UNCLASSIFIED U.S. Department of State Case No. F-2014-20439 Doc No. C05787519 Date: 01/07/2016
H <XXXXX@clintonemail.com>
Sent: Friday, June 17, 2011 8:21 AM
To: ‘sullivanjj@state.gov’
If they can’t, turn into nonpaper w no identifying heading and send nonsecure.


(Incidentally, if you want to find the original, you can do so in the U.S. State Department’s virtual reading room. Just input “sullivan,” “nonpaper” and “nonsecure” and it’ll be the first document that pops up. Oh, and I wouldn’t bother trying that e-mail address; I xed out the exact mailbox, and anyway presumably Mrs. Clinton’s changed it by now.)

Now, granted, most people, while seeing that exchange, will assume that Mrs. Clinton ordered her staffer to send classified information over a non-classified fax line. But not so fast:

So I think this is another instance where what is common practice, namely, look, I need information, I had some points I had to make and I was waiting for a secure fax that could give me the whole picture, but often times there’s a lot of information that isn’t at all classified so whatever information can be appropriately transmitted unclassified often was – that’s true for every agency in the government and anyone who does business with the government.


Yes, that’s certainly true: a lot of classified documents do contain information that’s not classified, or in the public domain. Which is why Mrs. Clinton’s spokesperson called this particular revelation “overclassification run amok.”

Just one problem with this line of defence: Neither Mrs. Clinton nor her campaign staff get to declare what parts of a document are classified or should be declassified.

Declassifying information in a document is the job of, ultimately, whichever author or agency created the document in question. Part of the State Department scramble right now is over whether the information discussed can be declassified; if the answer is yes, then it will be, if only to save trouble all around in the long term.

But are we to believe that Mrs. Clinton is the only public official around whose practice of classified document discipline is so lax to be verging on the criminal? I would say, almost certainly not; you’ll remember that Maxime Bernier had to resign from a cabinet position due to a lapse of physical security. Security lapses likes these are always going to happen, so long as there are politicians around who don’t take IT security seriously, which means they’re going to happen long after Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump and Mr. Bernier are gone from the scene.

About phantomobserver

I'm a professional librarian currently working in Ottawa, Ontario.
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1 Response to Hillary and the Attack of the IT-Men

  1. It seems irrelevant whether other politicians make similar mistakes with classified material. Mrs. Clinton willfully imported classified information over an air gap onto a private, insecure system.

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