A nonpartisan guide to national security and foreign policy issues in the presidential election (part II)

Is Clinton an emailing criminal? Is Trump a Russian agent? Will we be less safe during the next administration?

SOURCEThe Center for Public Integrity
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

This article was co-published with Salon.com.

According to Donald Trump and his supporters, Hillary Clinton is a seminal figure in Washington’s corrupt establishment — an establishment that weakened our military and turned America into a patsy of friends and foes alike, unwilling to stand up to the likes of Saudi Arabia, Mexico, China, and Japan, whether the issue is immigration, trade or national security. She’s a prisoner of monied interests, not just Wall Street powerbrokers, but also cringe-worthy foreign donors like Qatar, which gave cash to the Clinton Foundation. And she’s been so careless handling national secrets that she could have — and should have — been jailed for ignoring the State Department’s own secrecy rules and defying congressional demands for her emails. Her campaign slogan might as well be, I’m going to look after my friends and not tell you anything.

According to Hillary Clinton and her backers, Donald Trump is a pal and admirer of Russian president Vladimir Putin, and therefore cannot be trusted even with U.S. intelligence secrets, much less the presidency. Trump is so thin-skinned and impetuous that he could drop nuclear bombs in response to criticism,  so insulting to nearly everyone that the country would become dangerously isolated during his presidency, unable to address challenges like ISIS that demand a multi-lateral response. To make matters worse, Trump’s incendiary rhetoric about Muslims is actually a potent jihadist recruiting tool. And the GOP nominee is so unconcerned about the welfare of others that he wouldn’t blink at severing defense ties with allies who don’t send us a lot more cash. That might, in turn, provoke those allies to create or expand their own arsenals of nuclear arms – but that’s okay with him. His campaign slogan might as well be, let global chaos reign.

These are some of the tamer claims being made during this year’s contentious race for the White House. And while national security issues might not be at the top of voters’ agendas a week from now  the debates over America’s proper prole in the world have touched on broader questions about the candidates’ character, integrity, and temperament.

And so the Center has prepared a voter-friendly guide to what the contenders really stand for on defense and foreign policy and how they will likely act if they wind up as the occupant of the Oval Office.

Yesterday, we looked at Donald Trump. Today, we look at Hillary Clinton.

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 measurable 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.

Doesn’t this indicate a startlingly casual approach to an important matter? And what about everybody else? How could she have communicated with others in the administration without them knowing about the irregular pathway those emails took?

The FBI probe makes clear that other top officials in the Obama administration — including the president himself, his national security adviser, and former CENTCOM commander and CIA chief David Petraeus — were aware that Clinton regularly used a personal email address (Petraeus sent roughly a thousand emails to it). But they have said they didn’t know she used a personal server.

Clinton has said the server was installed purely as a matter of convenience – that she wanted to keep using one smartphone for both personal and official business, without making her exchanges with friends and family “accessible to the State Department.” But wasn’t her real motive simply to put her emails outside of the reach of Freedom of Information Act laws that apply to such records?

Clinton denies this, and says it was her impression that the emails would be captured anyway on the accounts of her aides. FBI director Comey said his agency “did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information” or that emails were deleted in a deliberate attempt to conceal them.

The FBI’s report noted, however, that Colin Powell — who was Secretary of State from 2001 to 2005 — warned her in a January 2009 email that if her emails were treated as public records, they would become subject to disclosure, and also that Powell told her he got around this by “not using systems that captured the data.” The FBI also noted that when Clinton’s personal Blackberry malfunctioned in 2011 and an aide requested a State Department-issued phone to use on an urgent basis, two senior officials emailed warnings to her assistants that if Clinton got such a phone, its contents would be subject to public disclosure. The FBI’s memo doesn’t state whether she saw these warnings, but she did not get such a phone. She told the FBI only that she wasn’t sure why.

So was sensitive information really stolen?

Only foreign spies appear to know if it fell into the wrong hands. The server in question experienced “brute force” login attempts by unauthorized users, but no evidence was found of a successful hack. The FBI said its probe was hampered by the fact that agents never obtained any of the 13 mobile devices Clinton used to transmit emails or two of the five iPads she used. The FBI also said hackers might not have left any observable traces.

This isn’t the only foreign policy-related controversy swirling around Clinton. What about Trump’s claim that her family-run charity, the Clinton Foundation, was a criminal enterprise that collected checks from businesses and countries that got State Department favors?

The  Clinton Foundation, founded by then-President Bill Clinton in 1997, has collected roughly $2 billion from donors, with a significant portion going to AIDs patients in the Third World, and to countries like Haiti hit by natural calamities. During the third debate, Hillary Clinton — who served on its board from 2013 to 2015 — said: “I’m thrilled to talk about the Clinton Foundation because it is a world-renowned charity and I’m so proud of the work that it does.”

In 2011, when the foundation’s operating expenses were around $20 million a year, however, two highly respected lawyers Chelsea Clinton hired to review the foundation’s operation concluded it had not been properly run. After conducting 38 interviews of foundation officials, including former President Clinton, co-founder Douglas Band, and foundation adviser John Podesta, they sent Podesta a highly critical, 22-page report warning that the foundation had poor internal controls and weak management. It specifically called for new measures to “manage conflicts of interest,” which it said the staff had no idea how to flag and clear up. Some donors, it said, “may have an expectation of quid pro quo benefits in return for gifts.”

The foundation’s board, they complained, was comprised solely of “insiders,” rather than independent directors; it lacked “members with strong financial know-how.” Board meetings were rarely held; the minutes were not signed but were instead “cloned” from one year to another; and its members did not set “measurable goals and objectives.” Without citing specific names, it said some of the foundation’s officers were drawing private salaries and keeping gifts, making employees confused and disgruntled. “Interviewees reported their belief that certain employees abuse expense privileges” by charging the foundation for personal expenses, such as spousal travel.

Okay, but this suggests mismanagement rather than criminal activity.

Numerous publications have reported that the FBI has looked at the foundation’s activities, but so far, the agency has come up dry. The Charity Navigator, a watchdog group, had the foundation on its watch list until last December, but in September it awarded the group four stars, it’s top rating, after gaining access to more of its financial data.

So that means everything was just fine there?

The Clintons have been criticized for not erecting higher walls between their charitable fundraising, personal enrichment, and policy work. One of Clinton’s chief aides at the State Department, Huma Abedin, was simultaneously on the foundation’s payroll for several years. A foundation official repeatedly asked Clinton’s top aides to arrange meetings between major donors and top State Department officials. Although the foundation promised it would not accept new foreign donations during Clinton’s State Department tenure, it collected an odd new donation from Algeria — a country seeking better treatment in Washington — that was earmarked for Haiti.

Neither former President Clinton nor his daughter drew a salary from the foundation. But many foundation donors also lobbied the State Department and paid the Clintons fees for giving speeches (several of Bill Clinton’s came from Russian companies). The former president also used the foundation to orchestrate his globetrotting, often on private jets supplied by its corporate donors. Band, a co-founder and officer of the charity, said in a 2011 internal memo — shortly before his departure — that he had helped raise funds for the former president’s 65th birthday party (a three-day Hollywood-centered extravaganza), for his recovery from heart surgery and “many other arrangements of this kind.”

Band, who described himself as the “primary contact and point of management for President Clinton’s activities” related to the foundation as well as his speechmaking and “family/personal needs,” also said that private clients of a firm he operated while also serving at the foundation had “generated over $3 million in paid speeches for President Clinton.” One donor – Coca Cola – had agreed to support political candidates that Clinton favored, and another big donor – Laureate International Universities – gave Clinton $3.5 million a year for his advice and assistance, Band boasted. “We have also solicited and obtained, as appropriate, in-kind services for the President and his family – for personal travel, hospitality, vacation and the like.”

On the other hand, no one has presented evidence that a donation directly provoked a policy change at the State Department during Clinton’s tenure there.

This sounds like what Trump has been accused of doing– using a charity to enhance his personal life and fortune. After all, he spent funds from his foundation on a portrait of himself and on repairs to a fountain in front of one of his hotels.  So are there any differences between these candidates?

Yes. It’s obvious, from reading the private remarks Hillary Clinton made to foundation donors and others after leaving the State Department, that she has a deep reservoir of knowledge about global issues. While speaking to Goldman Sachs and other bankers, she articulately describes the challenges America faces in the Middle East and sometimes caustically assesses the roles played by others, such as Saudi Arabia. It’s ironic, of course, that these remarks reached the public only because of a computer hack of the email account of Podesta, her campaign director.

Trump has repeatedly said while he has less experience than Clinton, his instincts and business experience will bring him more success in foreign policy and national security matters. Clinton says accurately that, unlike Trump, “I have some experience with the tough calls and the hard work of statecraft.” Whether or not you admire her achievements or her way of conducting and managing her work, it is indisputable that she would not be starting fresh in dealing with the most urgent global problems.

* The Clinton speeches, Foundation documents and emails quoted in this article were released by Wikileaks after being stolen from the email accounts of John Podesta and other top Clinton aides. Wikileaks has not said how it obtained them, but U.S. intelligence officials say that the Russian government was behind the hacking. Clinton’s campaign has declined to authenticate the material, but also has not disputed it.


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Smith worked for 25 years in a series of key reporting and editorial roles at The Washington Post, including national investigative editor, national security correspondent, national investigative correspondent, and a foreign staff bureau chief based in Rome. In 2006, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting, along with two colleagues at the Post, for articles on House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Smith was also a finalist with other Post reporters for the Pulitzer Prize in international reporting in 1999 (from Kosovo), and a finalist with others for the Pulitzer Prize in national reporting in 2005 (about Abu Ghraib and military prisoner abuse). In his first ten years at the Post, Smith wrote about defense, intelligence and foreign policy matters, including policymaking at the State Department, Pentagon, and White House. He also focused on conflict and terrorism in the Middle East; politics and military affairs in Asia; and arms proliferation. Prior to that, he was a senior writer for the News and Comment section of Science Magazine where he won a National Magazine Award in 1986 for writing about arms control.