Headache for Hillary as classified emails draw FBI probe

US Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton © Brian Snyder
Revelations that Hillary Clinton handled classified data in private emails are giving her a bigger headache than having to work a fax machine. While her campaign denies wrongdoing, Clinton is sliding in the polls as the FBI searches her servers for secrets.

Intelligence Community Inspector General Charles McCullough III told Congress on Wednesday that at least five emails from Clinton’s private server contained classified information. The messages, dating from 2006 and 2008, contained signal intercepts and surveillance photos from Keyhole satellites operated by the CIA and the Pentagon.

In a written message to lawmakers, McCullough said that two of the messages contained information classified TOP SECRET/SI/TK/NOFORN – meaning “Top Secret, Signal Intelligence, Talent Keyhole, No Foreigners.” The first designation alone means that the unauthorized release of the information “could cause exceptionally grave damage to national security or foreign relations,” according to the Department of Defense.

Since Clinton’s server did not encrypt emails, critics have also raised concerns over the possibility that hackers may have obtained classified information from her correspondence. The Clinton campaign maintains there had been no breaches in security.

The abrupt decision by Clinton to turn the servers over to the FBI, after months of resisting such a disclosure, has left many party strategists perplexed.

“I'm not sure they completely understand the credibility they are losing, by the second,” a Democratic strategist who wished to remain anonymous told The Hill on Thursday. “At some point this goes from being something you can rationalize away to something that becomes political cancer. And we are getting pretty close to the cancer stage, because this is starting to get ridiculous.”

Another Democrat, likewise preferring anonymity, said the situation was a “classic example of the cover-up being 10 times worse than the so-called crime,” adding that the Clintons’ culture of secrecy has produced a situation “where she did something that wasn't necessary and looks nefarious.”

Party strategists are getting the jitters as new polls coming out of New Hampshire and other early primary states suggest Clinton would lose not just to her primary rival for the party nomination, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, but also to some Republican contenders. Her favorability and trustworthiness ratings continue to be low.

A poll by Monmouth University, released before the server handover, showed that 52 percent of respondents thought the emails should be “subject to a criminal investigation for the potential release of classified material.”

The Clinton campaign tried to counter the criticism over correspondence practices with a lengthy rebuttal issued on Wednesday.

“No information in Clinton's emails was marked classified at the time she sent or received them,” wrote Clinton’s communications director Jennifer Palmieri. In an email to supporters, Palmieri framed the investigation as “a partisan witch-hunt designed to do political damage to Hillary in the run-up to the election,” costing the taxpayers almost $6 million so far.

Clinton’s own words condemned her behavior, according to Glenn Greenwald, the journalist responsible for publishing Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA. The Obama administration has prosecuted more people for mishandling classified information under the Espionage Act of 1917 than all the previous administrations combined, Greenwald said, and Clinton has been a vocal defender of that policy.

He cited Clinton's comments from 2011, at the start of the court-martial for PFC Manning, a whistleblower who gave classified documentation to WikiLeaks.

“I think that in an age where so much information is flying through cyberspace, we all have to be aware of the fact that some information which is sensitive, which does affect the security of individuals and relationships, deserves to be protected and we will continue to take necessary steps to do so,” Clinton had said.

Emails made public so far reveal Clinton’s propensity for printing messages, struggles with operating the fax machine, trouble referencing common memes and phrases, and a reliance on aide Huma Abedin and family friend Sidney Blumenthal. Though she would pay Blumenthal through the Clinton Foundation, Hillary herself commented that one of his briefings “strains credulity,” while another aide called it a “thin conspiracy theory.”

In December 2009, Clinton asked her aides for a copy of the book 'Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better,' by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe. Among other things, the book includes advice on what to keep out of emails in order to avoid trouble with the law.