Emails Discussing Drone Strikes Were at the Heart of FBI Investigation

The Hillary Clinton email scandal is far more complicated than the media is letting on right now. It’s more complicated than simple carelessness and was a result of inadequate infosec at the State Dept. This investigation heavily focused on drone strike emails detailed by a Wall Street Journal article a few weeks back.

It’s clear that a significant number of the 110 emails in the 52 email chains were mostly about drone strikes in Pakistan. The drone program is a special access program and is top secret.

“In 2011, Pakistani officials began to push back in private against the drone program, raising questions for the U.S. over the extent to which the program still had their consent. U.S. diplomats warned the CIA and White House they risked losing access to Pakistan’s airspace unless more discretion was shown, said current and former officials. Within the administration, State Department and military officials argued that the CIA needed to be more “judicious” about when strikes were launched. They weren’t challenging the spy agency’s specific choice of targets, but mainly the timing of strikes.”

The State Dept was trying to give input into the CIA drone strike program because it was complicated day to day diplomacy with Pakistan. The CIA pushed back and there was a giant pissing match between the CIA and the State Dept. State Dept. officials in Pakistan were to be given notice of impending strikes and needed to either give or deny consent to the strike.

“Diplomats in Islamabad would communicate the decision to their superiors in Washington. A main purpose was to give then-Secretary of State Clinton and her top aides a chance to consider whether she wanted to weigh in with the CIA director about a planned strike.”

These strikes happened with only 30 minutes notice of an impending strike and had to communicate their consent and had no ability to access high side classified communications in that time frame. The diplomats thus communicated by sending cryptic emails to Washington that were then forwarded to Clinton. That is how the classified material ended up on the server.

“One such exchange came just before Christmas in 2011, when the U.S. ambassador sent a short, cryptic note to his boss indicating a drone strike was planned. That sparked a back-and-forth among Mrs. Clinton’s senior advisers over the next few days, in which it was clear they were having the discussions in part because people were away from their offices for the holiday and didn’t have access to a classified computer, officials said.” There was simply no way for them to conduct their jobs under the circumstances given that staff had no access to secure communications.”

The problem was never using or having the actual server, Comey said so himself. “The referral focused on whether classified information was transmitted on that personal system.” A lot of government officials have used private emails to conduct business. The problem was that these emails containing classified material were sent on unclassified communications systems. It would have been the same issue if these emails were on Clinton’s State.gov email address.

I believe Comey refused to offer a recommendation of indictment is because those emails were sent because there was no direct intent to violate the law, a crucial element for prosecution. This is why General Petreaus was prosecuted, he knowingly intended to leak classified info to his mistress. Most of the emails containing classified material were likely sent on improper channels because the appropriate channels were simply not available within an adequate time frame.

If Comey recommended indictment, future State Dept. officials would have the option of potentially being prosecuted for using unsecure systems or doing their jobs and providing diplomatic guidance to the approval of drone strikes. It basically makes it impossible for officials to do their job abroad without imperiling themselves to legal prosecution.

There is also precedent for what the State Dept. did given the circumstances.

“[G]overnment workers at several agencies, including the departments of Defense, Justice and State, have occasionally resorted to the low-side system to give each other notice about sensitive but fast-moving events, according to one law-enforcement official.”

This all ties back into the OIG report that alluded that State’s entire IT infrastructure was completely inadequate. This entire issue was about the failings of infosec at State Dept. Given the choice between communicating time sensitive top secret communications on low side systems or failing to do their job to give diplomatic guidance to the CIA, the State Dept chose to do the former.

Essentially, Clinton and her staff technically broke the rules. The reason for breaking the rules is entirely relevant. Clinton, her staff, and State Dept. officials violated classified material guidelines because there was no actual means of communicating in a time sensitive manner without doing so. If Comey chose to indict, it would set a horrible precedent that classification rules outweigh doing one’s job under the circumstances. Comey said it himself that there are no historical precedents and no one has ever been charged in a case similar to this. The fact that intelligence and other government officials regularly communicate on low-side systems for fast moving time sensitive situations played a role in the decision not to indict.

Clinton and her staff were put between a rock and a hard place. The serious failings of infosec and the limitations at the time create a serious impediment to being effective in diplomacy with Pakistan, a vital ally. Clinton cannot use this as a defense of her actions because even acknowledging the drone strike program would be illegal, despite common public knowledge of its existence. Her hands are essentially tied with regards to fully explaining her actions.