Foreign policy during the Obama administration was mostly run from the White House, so it’s not easy to see Secretary of State Clinton’s fingerprints on much. Can you please remind us what she did for four years?
From 2009 to 2013, Clinton traveled the world as an unquestionably articulate and popular spokesperson for U.S. interests. With vigorous White House support, her appointees helped negotiate international backing for sanctions against Iran, which paved the way for the U.N.-backed nuclear deal. They also aggressively promoted the export of U.S. products, including American weapons. Clinton helped manage the U.S. diplomatic opening to Burma/Myanmar. And Clinton was among the senior officials who voted for a special forces’ raid that wound up killing Osama bin Laden (at a key meeting, she differed from then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Vice President Biden, and the director of the National Counterterrorism Center). But Foreign Affairs magazine also observed in a 2013 profile that “she left office without a signature doctrine, strategy, or diplomatic triumph,” unlike many others who held the State Department’s top job.
Her campaign has spent a lot of time attacking Trump. So it’s hard to figure out what she would actually do, as president.
The Democratic Party’s platform includes a handful of concrete, albeit unsurprising, foreign policy goals: defeating ISIS, abstaining from torture, maintaining a limited troop presence in Afghanistan and closing the military detention center in Guantanamo Bay. But many of its other foreign policy positions are more slogans than measureable goals: “We will seek a more agile and flexible force and rid the military of outdated Cold-War systems….We must end waste in the defense budget….We will work to reduce excessive spending on nuclear weapons-related programs….[We] must lead in forging a robust global solution to the climate crisis.”
Clinton has also called repeatedly for an “intelligence surge” against ISIS, without clarifying what that means or how it would differ from the Obama administration’s robust intelligence-gathering, which has led to targeted killings of some key ISIS leaders. In fact, her rhetoric has historically been so vague that some experts are confused about whether she would be more likely than Obama to send U.S. troops overseas. Micah Zenko at the Council on Foreign Relations says, for example, that “she has consistently endorsed starting new wars and expanding others,” citing her past support for the disastrous war in Iraq, the unavailing dispatch in 2009 of more U.S. troops to Afghanistan and the messy 2011 Western intervention in Libya. But Harvard professor Stephen Walt, a critic of these interventions, predicts that Clinton’s “activist tendencies” will be curtailed by her heavy interest in domestic programs and by a shortage of funds for overseas conflicts.
In her campaign, Clinton has called Putin a bully and promised to “confine, contain, deter Russian aggression.” Does this mean she’s going to push America into a conflict with him?
Her private comments about Putin are more measured and less blustery than these public statements. In a 2013 speech to New York investors that she declined to release to the public (excerpts were eventually obtained by hackers and given to Wikileaks*), Clinton called Putin an “engaging and… very interesting conversationalist.” She separately told Goldman Sachs that year that “obviously we would very much like to have a positive relationship with Russia and we would like to see Putin be less defensive toward a relationship with the United States.” Although Putin has “a redwood chip on his shoulder” about Mother Russia, “I always tried to figure out some way to connect with him.” she told a Chicago audience that year. While she has endorsed creating a no-fly zone in Syria to protect insurgents there – an idea that Moscow might try to block militarily – Clinton said in the third debate that she would try to win Russian and Syrian backing for it through negotiations.
Okay. But please address the issue on our minds right now: What is this dispute involving Secretary Clinton’s emails about? Trump says it shows she’s committed criminal acts and probably betrayed U.S. secrets. The FBI, after earlier declaring there was no evidence of criminal wrongdoing – just extreme carelessness on Clinton’s part – has suddenly started investigating the mess, again.
Clinton’s use of her own computer server (installed in the basement of her New York home) to send and receive emails while serving as Secretary was well known to close aides but kept hidden from the public until 26 months after her departure. Although it has clearly undermined her political standing, she resisted calling the decision a mistake, according to private emails among her aides in 2015 that were leaked in October.
Three controversies surround her decision:
1. Clinton was able to maintain personal control over a trove of records normally considered public property, despite regulations and federal laws that demand emails be officially maintained to preserve a historical record and ensure officeholders are held accountable.
In this case, Clinton purged 32,000 of her emails before turning another 30,000 over to the State Department, which sought them to comply with a congressional demand. She said the discarded ones contained personal information not pertinent to her work. Trump said at the third debate that the email destruction (in early March 2015) occurred after she got a congressional subpoena for them, amounting to a criminal act. But Clinton’s aides say they actually ordered the destruction three months earlier; the fact that it was actually carried out two weeks after the subpoena was issued was accidental, not deliberate, they said.
In any event, the vetting of the now-discarded emails was done by Clinton’s longtime loyalists and no independent reviewers saw them first. So the public has no way to know for sure if her actions were appropriate or not. Even law enforcement officials seem worried that they didn’t see everything relevant to their inquiry into what Clinton did — as evidenced by the FBI’s startling Oct. 28 announcement that it was still probing the matter.
2. The use of the private server may have made her communications less secure, and therefore compromised U.S. intelligence information, according to the FBI. After a lengthy probe, FBI director James Comey said “we assess it is possible that hostile actors gained access” to Clinton’s emails, which he said included seven email chains incorporating information that should have been classified Top Secret/Special Access, one of the highest levels.
3. Clinton has made statements about the emails and the server that turned out not to be true. She said, for example, that none included classified information, but intelligence officials — including former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell — said some contained information that should have been treated as highly classified.
They weren’t clearly marked as such in Clinton’s copies, and she has said she did not understand that paragraphs marked with a “C” were supposed to be considered “confidential.” But many intelligence professionals privately express skepticism about this claim, arguing that Clinton would have regularly seen classified documents that incorporated such “portion” markings. And some FBI and State Department officials bristled — and resisted — when a longtime Clinton loyalist at the State Department, Patrick Kennedy, attempted last year to persuade the FBI that some of the emails deemed “classified” in retrospect should not be marked that way.
This has been going on for a year. So why is all this suddenly in the news again?
The FBI stumbled across a trove of emails passed to or from Clinton while searching a computer in the possession of a top aide’s husband. After subpoenaing the documents, the bureau now plans to review them to see if they contain classified material or shed some other light on Clinton’s use of the server.
Is the criticism of Clinton fair? Did she know that mishandling her communications posed security risks?
Everyone at the State Department had reason to be vigilant about cybersecurity, given that the theft and leak of 250,000 of its diplomatic cables (by the U.S. defense intelligence analyst then known as Bradley Manning) occurred in 2010, a year after Clinton took office. Clinton notably said in an April 2014 speech at the University of Connecticut — a year after leaving office — that “at the State Department, we were attacked every hour, more than once an hour by incoming efforts to penetrate everything we had…When I would go to China, or I would go to Russia, we would leave all of our electronic equipment on the plane, with the batteries out, because this is a new frontier. And they’re trying to [go]…after the personal emails of people who worked in the State Department.”
But State’s own auditors said the issue did not get adequate attention under her watch: In late 2013, the inspector general warned that the department’s computer systems still had “control weaknesses” that could lead to security breaches. Comey said at one point that the FBI “developed evidence that the security culture of the State Department in general, and with respect to use of unclassified e-mail systems in particular, was generally lacking.”
Clinton has said she wasn’t told that routing her emails through a personal server was a problem, and that she didn’t see an all-hands-on-deck warning sent to all State Department officials — under her own name — in June 2011 that said, don’t use personal email accounts for official business because they’re not secure. She also said she initially didn’t know that she wasn’t supposed to bring her personal Blackberry — a potential listening device for foreign spies — into her office suite, where she regularly stored it in a desk drawer.