How EmailGate Weakened America’s National Security

It’s safe to say that Moscow, Beijing and Tehran know a lot more about Hillary Clinton than the American public does

Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton departs after walking in the Memorial Day parade May 30, 2016 in Chappaqua, New York.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. (Photo: Eric Thayer/Getty Images)

Last week’s devastating report by the State Department Inspector General has made it plain to all who wish to see that Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, violated numerous regulations pertaining to federal records and cybersecurity, then lied effusively about it to the public.

That State IG assessment has left Clinton’s defenders without much of a leg to stand on if they want an honest, fact-based defense of her actions in EmailGate. Therefore, Team Clinton has resorted to their customary deceptions and dissimulations, buttressed by legalisms designed to obscure truths rather than reveal them.

Here we have Lanny Davis, a top Clinton consigliere for more than two decades, explaining how Hillary is innocent of any wrongdoing, citing five allegedly “indisputable” facts. Then follows the customary litany, cited by her defenders whenever EmailGate comes up. This was legal. Besides, everybody does it. Plus nothing was “labeled” classified at the time it appeared in Ms. Clinton’s private email. To those acquainted with Clintonspeak, the only thing missing is a discussion of the meaning of “is.”

Mr. Davis’ most interesting claim is his assertion that “there is no evidence that Clinton’s private server was ever successfully hacked… all the dire and dark warnings from partisan Republicans about the secretary of state risking the nation’s security by using a private server are, in fact, all speculation—based on no facts whatsoever.”

This is deception of a special kind. In the first place, why has the Romanian hacker Guccifer pleaded guilty to hacking into Hillary’s server if he did not, in fact, do so? Moreover, the FBI has been in possession of said server for months, and they have uncovered several successful hacking efforts into it when it resided in an upstairs bathroom of the Clinton residence in Chappaqua, New York.

“We know it was hacked numerous times, it’s that simple,” explained a senior U.S. counterintelligence official who is privy some of the FBI’s findings. “If I were Vladimir Putin I’d fire the head of the SVR [Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service] if he didn’t get a good look at Hillary’s emails when they were sitting in plain sight online,” he added with a laugh.

Here, Mr. Davis is hiding behind the fact that the FBI has not yet released the findings of its investigation into EmailGate to the public. Until they do, there is indeed “no evidence” of  foreign intelligence services accessing Ms. Clinton’s emails—since the FBI considers that evidence classified until it is deemed fit to be publicly released. This is how the classification rules that Hillary and her staff so assiduously ignored actually work.

In their customary fashion, Team Clinton is pushing back with a touch of cheek. Ms. Clinton now plans a serious effort to sell herself as the better national security candidate than Donald Trump, based on her tenure of secretary of state. While there is no denying Mr. Trump is a national security neophyte who seems unacquainted with some of the basic lingo of that field, he is not under FBI investigation for espionage and political corruption.

Such existential cluelessness has to make anyone who understands how the world really works wonder about Ms. Clinton’s fitness to be commander-in-chief.

Republicans are beginning to push back too now. Over the weekend, Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin made statements on EmailGate that some considered shocking. “What isn’t being discussed is how reckless and dangerous her private email server was,” he said, adding, “You have to assume that our enemies and adversaries had access to every email that went over her private server.” Sen. Johnson then asked what that might mean: “Did it affect their actions as it related to for example Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Crimea or Eastern Ukraine? What about the negotiations with Iran? What about Assad?”

Although some Democrats acted aghast at these comments, Sen. Johnson was merely asking what anybody acquainted with 21st century espionage would automatically ask about EmailGate. Moreover, as chairman of the Senate’s homeland security committee, the Wisconsin Republican regularly receives classified briefings from our Intelligence Community, so he knows what spies worldwide are looking for in the secret struggle between spy agencies that is seldom witnessed by the public.

Moreover, the notion that Clinton’s emails are in the hands of many foreign intelligence services is anything but controversial among those in the know about spying. I’ve made this case for a year and more, even penning a parody account of what the Kremlin must know from Hillary’s emails. John Kerry, Ms. Clinton’s successor at Foggy Bottom, stated that it’s “very likely” foreign spy agencies—especially Russia’s and China’s—are reading his unclassified state.gov emails (the kind Ms. Clinton refused to use, opting instead for her homebrew server which was wholly unencrypted for a time).

Robert Gates, President Obama’s first secretary of defense, stated “the odds are pretty high” that Clinton’s emails are in the hands of the Russians, Chinese and Iranians. Since Gates—before taking over the Pentagon—served as a career CIA officer and then director, his opinion carries weight. To say nothing of the fact that neither John Kerry nor Gates is exactly a member of the “Vast Right Wing Conspiracy,” which the Clintons see lurking behind every tree inside the Beltway.

The reality is that the secretary of state is always among the top four American officials whose communications are targeted by literally dozens of spy services worldwide, along with the secretary of defense and the director of national intelligence. Only the president’s phone calls and emails are accorded higher priority by our adversaries in the SpyWar. Anything sent unencrypted (or even lightly encrypted) is automatically assumed to have been intercepted, with good cause.

The reason for this is simple. If you can read the secretary of state’s emails, you will get an excellent look at the topmost inner workings of our government. You will witness how America’s foreign policy sausage gets made. Even if the secretary of state is discreet, restricting classified and sensitive communications to proper channels which are much more secure—as Clinton’s predecessors did but she did not—any foreign spy agency that accesses them will know a fair amount about how the secretary of state feels and thinks about a wide range of important topics.

If you’re Clinton, and you conduct a great deal of business via your private email, you’re showing foreign spies virtually everything about you that’s worth knowing. From her emails, intelligence agencies—including some that are anything but friendly to us—would be well acquainted with her talking points before important meetings with foreign diplomats, her thoughts about coming trade deals, plus her take on a myriad of crises worldwide.

Not to mention that if Clinton was doing anything shady—for instance, illegal activities such as pay-for-play schemes while she was at Foggy Bottom—our enemies know all about that. It’s safe to say that Moscow, Beijing and Tehran know a lot more about Hillary Clinton than the American public does. Needless to add, any illegalities would render Ms. Clinton subject to potential blackmail—an alarming prospect for someone standing a good shot at being our next commander-in-chief.

I know how this secret world works because I spent nearly a decade with the National Security Agency, including serving as technical director of NSA’s largest operational division, and I got a good look at how our adversaries spy on America’s top officials. Additionally, I was involved in spying on Ms. Clinton’s foreign counterparts.

Listening in to the communications of any foreign minister, particularly from a country that’s not friendly to the United States, constitutes an intelligence goldmine. It’s always a good day at NSA when the agency is able to supply our top decision-makers with the talking points of meetings with less-than-friendly foreign ministers—before those meetings take place. Any country’s top diplomat is privy to an enormous amount of his or her country’s secrets and if you’re listening in, you know them.

You know all about their private life too. The foreign minister of one frenemy country regularly shut the office door when he took an especially important phone call, so even his trusted top staffers couldn’t listen in—not realizing that the NSA was. Another foreign minister continued to conduct business on his mobile phone during visits with his Girl Tuesday (who was really more his Girl Tuesday and Thursday). His cinq à sept sessions included calls crammed with intelligence information of high value, albeit punctuated with heavy breathing and breaks for “other activities.”

Perhaps the most shocking thing about EmailGate is that Ms. Clinton, as secretary of state, was privy to exactly such NSA reports, which are plainly derived from the interception of communications of other countries’ foreign ministers, yet she seems to have given no thought to the possibility that foreign spies were listening in on her. Even when her partner-in-crime Sid Blumenthal emailed her purloined, incredibly highly classified NSA reports that featured near-verbatim conversations from foreign leaders, Hillary showed no signs that this could be happening to her too.

Such existential cluelessness has to make anyone who understands how the world really works wonder about Ms. Clinton’s fitness to be commander-in-chief. It also raises awkward questions about the often dismal foreign policy record of the Obama administration. Topping that depressing list would be this White House’s failure to react to Vladimir Putin’s seizure of Crimea and subsequent invasion of Ukraine, its ongoing paralysis regarding Syria’s genocidal fratricide, plus its getting taken to the cleaners by Iran in its vaunted nuclear deal.

To be fair to President Obama, we should consider that maybe he’s not the foreign policy novice-turned-incompetent he seems to be. Perhaps he keeps fumbling on the global stage, playing good hands poorly time and again, because our adversaries have the jump on him. After all, negotiations and crises seldom go well when the other side knows what we’re going to do before we do it.

History records numerous examples of poor communications security by diplomats leading to awful outcomes. One of the best known cases is that of Arthur Zimmermann, Germany’s foreign minister, who at the beginning of 1917 sent a secret cable to his ambassador in Mexico City, ordering him to parley with the Mexicans. Specifically, he wanted to offer Mexico the recovery of its “lost provinces”—Americans call these Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California—in exchange for the Mexicans declaring war on the United States. Inconveniently for Mr. Zimmermann, British intelligence intercepted his missive, realizing it had a bombshell on its hands. Using clever subterfuge, British spies shared Zimmermann’s decrypted telegram with President Woodrow Wilson. Outraged, after years of dragging his feet to London’s dismay, President Wilson brought America into the First World War on the side of the ailing Allies, thereby deciding the fate of that enormous conflict.

We can hope Hillary Clinton’s well-planned carelessness with her email never caused anything as momentous as Arthur Zimmermann’s folly, but it’s too soon to know. It will be years, probably decades, until a full picture of EmailGate’s security implications emerges. In the meantime, Clinton’s needs to be asked forthrightly about what she did, and why—and what that says about her fitness to move into the White House again in January.

John Schindler is a security expert and former National Security Agency analyst and counterintelligence officer. A specialist in espionage and terrorism, he’s also been a Navy officer and a War College professor. He’s published four books and is on Twitter at @20committee.

How EmailGate Weakened America’s National Security