What’s Classified, Doc? (The Clinton Emails and the FBI)

So I have a very specific question about the “classified emails”, and it seems not to be answered by “Statement by FBI Director James B. Comey on the Investigation of Secretary Hillary Clinton’s Use of a Personal E-Mail System .” A few quotes:

From the group of 30,000 e-mails returned to the State Department, 110 e-mails in 52 e-mail chains have been determined by the owning agency to contain classified information at the time they were sent or received. Eight of those chains contained information that was Top Secret at the time they were sent; 36 chains contained Secret information at the time; and eight contained Confidential information, which is the lowest level of classification. Separate from those, about 2,000 additional e-mails were “up-classified” to make them Confidential; the information in those had not been classified at the time the e-mails were sent.


For example, seven e-mail chains concern matters that were classified at the Top Secret/Special Access Program level when they were sent and received. These chains involved Secretary Clinton both sending e-mails about those matters and receiving e-mails from others about the same matters. There is evidence to support a conclusion that any reasonable person in Secretary Clinton’s position, or in the position of those government employees with whom she was corresponding about these matters, should have known that an unclassified system was no place for that conversation.


Separately, it is important to say something about the marking of classified information. Only a very small number of the e-mails containing classified information bore markings indicating the presence of classified information. But even if information is not marked “classified” in an e-mail, participants who know or should know that the subject matter is classified are still obligated to protect it.

I will state that there is information which is both classified and available to the public. For example, the Snowden documents are still classified, and I have friends with clearances who need to leave conversations when they come up. They are, simultaneously, publicly available. There is a legalistic position that such information is only classified. Such rejection of reality is uninteresting to me.

I can read Comey’s statements two ways. One is that Clinton was discussing Snowden documents, which she likely needed to do as Secretary of State. The other is that she was discussing information which was not both public and classified. My assessment of her behavior is dependent on knowing this.

Are facts available to distinguish between these cases?

2 thoughts on “What’s Classified, Doc? (The Clinton Emails and the FBI)

  1. Available to the public? Not likely. Sometimes information is collected from the public domain, put into context, and classified simply because that fact that a government agency is tracking a news story is considered sensitive. The government won’t even acknowledge when a breach may have caused damage, as in the Valerie Plame “outing.” Given the politically motivated nature of the Clinton investigation, I suspect that we’ll get conflicting stories from all kinds of non-official sources, but as always, “Those who are talking don’t know and those who know aren’t talking.”

    • Thanks Dave!

      I think you’re making my case here. If the data is classified because the government thinks that its tracking is sensitive, and the secretary of state needs to discuss the case, then that’s different than the data being only secret.

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