How secret is it? (18)

In his most recent column on the saga of Hillary Clinton’s unsecured, private email server for the conduct of her official business as Secretary of State, John Schindler elucidates the Herridge/Browne FOX News report that I highlighted in part 16 of this series. Schindler’s New York Observer column is “Hillary has an NSA problem.” It seems to me to make an important contribution to our understanding of the mind-blogging derelictions committed by Mrs. Clinton.

The Herridge/Browne report summarized Clinton’s devotion to her BlackBerry as could be seen from documents produced by the Department of State to Judicial Watch. Schindler creates a narrative account of the story implicit in the FOX News report:

The documents, though redacted, detail a bureaucratic showdown between Ms. Clinton and NSA at the outset of her tenure at Foggy Bottom. The new secretary of state, who had gotten “hooked” on her Blackberry during her failed 2008 presidential bid, according to a top State Department security official, wanted to use that Blackberry anywhere she went.

That, however, was impossible, since Secretary Clinton’s main office space at Foggy Bottom was actually a Secure Compartment Information Facility, called a SCIF (pronounced “skiff”) by insiders. A SCIF is required for handling any Top Secret-plus information. In most Washington, D.C., offices with a SCIF, which has to be certified as fully secure from human or technical penetration, that’s where you check Top-Secret email, read intelligence reports and conduct classified meetings that must be held inside such protected spaces.

But personal electronic devices—your cellphone, your Blackberry—can never be brought into a SCIF. They represent a serious technical threat that is actually employed by many intelligence agencies worldwide. Though few Americans realize it, taking remote control over a handheld device, then using it to record conversations, is surprisingly easy for any competent spy service. Your smartphone is a sophisticated surveillance device—on you, the user—that also happens to provide phone service and Internet access.

As a result, your phone and your Blackberry always need to be locked up before you enter any SCIF. Taking such items into one represents a serious security violation. And Ms. Clinton and her staff really hated that. Not even one month into the new administration in early 2009, Ms. Clinton and her inner circle were chafing under these rules. They were accustomed to having their personal Blackberrys with them at all times, checking and sending emails nonstop, and that was simply impossible in a SCIF like their new office.

What happened next? Schindler explains:

This resulted in a February 2009 request by Secretary Clinton to the NSA, whose Information Assurance Directorate (IAD for short: see here for an explanation of Agency organization) secures the sensitive communications of many U.S. government entities, from Top-Secret computer networks, to White House communications, to the classified codes that control our nuclear weapons.

The contents of Sid Blumenthal’s June 8, 2011, email to Hillary Clinton—to her personal, unclassified account—were based on highly sensitive NSA information.

IAD had recently created a special, custom-made secure Blackberry for Barack Obama, another technology addict. Now Ms. Clinton wanted one for herself. However, making the new president’s personal Blackberry had been a time-consuming and expensive exercise. The NSA was not inclined to provide Secretary Clinton with one of her own simply for her convenience: there had to be clearly demonstrated need.

And that seemed dubious to IAD since there was no problem with Ms. Clinton checking her personal email inside her office SCIF. Hers, like most, had open (i.e. unclassified) computer terminals connected to the Internet, and the secretary of state could log into her own email anytime she wanted to right from her desk.

But she did not want to. Ms. Clinton only checked her personal email on her Blackberry: she did not want to sit down at a computer terminal. As a result, the NSA informed Secretary Clinton in early 2009 that they could not help her. When Team Clinton kept pressing the point, “We were politely told to shut up and color” by IAD, explained the state security official.

In the second half of his column, Schindler takes up the top secret intelligence emailed to Mrs. Clinton by Sidney Blumenthal. This a scandal several times over. Here is Schindler’s conclusion:

There are many questions here about what Hillary Clinton and her staff at Foggy Bottom were up to, including Sidney Blumenthal, an integral member of the Clinton organization, despite his lack of any government position. How Mr. Blumenthal got hold of this Top Secret-plus reporting is only the first question. Why he chose to email it to Ms. Clinton in open channels is another question. So is: How did nobody on Secretary Clinton’s staff notice that this highly detailed reporting looked exactly like SIGINT from the NSA? Last, why did the State Department see fit to release this email, unredacted, to the public?

These are the questions being asked by officials at the NSA and the FBI right now. All of them merit serious examination. Their answers may determine the political fate of Hillary Clinton—and who gets elected our next president in November.

It’s an optimistic conclusion to an extremely troubling column. Read it all here.