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The Real Email Scandal: Clunky Federal IT Systems

September 8, 2016
by Glen Martin

The public, the press and many politicians (at least on the right) can’t stop fulminating over Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal email server to conduct government business when she was Secretary of State. Little attention has been paid, however, to the IT systems that are supposed to guide, support and monitor functionaries with security clearances. And there remains a fair amount of confusion over just what constitutes “classified” in a document or communication; the parameters seem highly flexible, further muddying any effort to accurately evaluate the true extent of Clinton’s misdeeds—or whether any misdeeds actually occurred.

Cal associate professor of history Daniel Sargent, for one, says the brouhaha over Hillary’s email contretemps is much ado about not much.

“I’m partisan—I support Clinton over Trump—but I certainly think a mountain has been made out of this particular molehill,” Sargent says.

First, says Sargent, the communications networks employed by the federal government are flawed. It’s not that they’re particularly porous and open to attack. Indeed, says Sargent, “Given the prominence of the U.S. government for cyber-attack, they’re fairly secure. Not perfect, but pretty good. I’d say they compare favorably with Silicon Valley firms, which as we all know, have been hacked with some regularity, resulting in a lot of data releases.”

The problem is that federal systems are—well, kind of lame. And fussy. And cumbersome. And anything but user-friendly.

“Just as an example, you can’t use Microsoft Office on federal government systems because of anti-trust issues,” says Sargent. “Everyone else is on Microsoft Office, but if you’re working for the State Department you have to make do with alternative software that’s frankly second-rate.”

For that matter, users have virtually no say in how the federal systems they work on are configured. From a policy standpoint, that makes sense. In practice, mishaps inevitably occur. The government has taken some pains to ameliorate the difficulty, says Sargent. On most secure work stations, he says, there is a switch on the monitors that allow users to go from secure to personal email systems with a mere flick of the finger. In other words, if you’re a security analyst working at State, you can send an email to a colleague about satellite images confirming North Korean troops massing on the DMZ, flick the switch, and then transmit a hilarious missive to your old frat bro about how hammered you got last Friday on Jell-o shots.

“I read the FBI reports on her email issues, and I found them largely excul­pa­tory. For her, con­ven­ience was the over­riding imper­a­tive. She depends on com­puters, but she’s not savvy about them.”

Still, if you’re at the top of the foreign-policy food chain, the secure communications systems available to you are, at best, unwieldy.

“Clinton deserves some empathy here,” says Sargent. “Consider how you relate to your computer systems. You likely chose your own computer, you’ve configured it yourself, you’ve established your own default settings, you’ve connected it to your portable devices precisely as you want.”

Not only was Clinton not allowed to do that, says Sargent. She is—let’s face it—of a certain age. As a Boomer, she’s not as comfortable with information technology as a Gen Xer or Millennial. Not only did she not have the option of setting up her own systems; she had to rely on other people to do it for her.

“That’s typical for professionals of her generation,” Sargent says. “I read the FBI reports on her email issues, and I found them largely exculpatory. For her, convenience was the overriding imperative. She depends on computers, but she’s not savvy about them. She is far more dependent on IT support than is likely the case for younger people.”

But why did Clinton even use a private server? Given her position, isn’t total reliance on secure systems pro forma? Not necessarily, says Sargent.

“In any administration, there is an innate tension between the White House and the State Department,” says Sargent. “During the Nixon administration, for example, Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger actively worked to exclude the State Department, the CIA, and the Department of Defense from foreign policy decisions. By that standard, the relationship between State and Obama has been fairly harmonious. Still, any communication sent on a secure system would be accessible to the White House. And it’s inconceivable that Clinton—that any Secretary of State—would want that, particularly if they have political aspirations of their own. Consider: When Clinton joined Obama’s administration, it was highly possible she would’ve run against him in 2012 if he had proven unpopular. Obviously, she needed alternative systems for certain communications.”

Which gets back to the whole “classified” matter. Private communications are one thing, but classified issues are another, and the fact that Clinton discussed sensitive material on a private server seems sloppy, if not overtly criminal, right?. That’s not so clear either. According to Sargent, government staffers are encouraged to classify material that may be anything but secret.

Out of the simple instinct for self-preser­va­tion, people can end up more worried about cover­ing their tracks than doing their jobs.

“There is little cost to classifying a document, but failure to classify one that could contain sensitive material is considered a serious problem,” Sargent says. “Say you’re a senior staffer producing a memo. Even if it’s based on public information, your particular analysis could be construed by someone at some point in time as potentially sensitive. So you’re going to just put a classified stamp on it. You’re incentivized toward caution.”

That has led to a plethora of classified documents on government hard drives over the years, many of which are as “secret” as the comic pages used to line your parakeet’s cage. In fact, “classified” can mean anything from merely “sensitive” (like most of Secretary Clinton’s emails) through “confidential” (the “handful” in dispute) up to documents that should never see the light of day (Nixon’s missing 18 minutes of tape).The Obama administration has gone to some effort to rectify the situation, says Sargent, by issuing an executive order requiring the National Security Agency to specify why documents requested for release should remain classified.

“Before, it was incumbent on the person requesting a document to explain why it should be released,” says Sargent. “Now it’s incumbent on the NSA to explain why it should not be released. The presumption has gone from ‘do not release’ to ‘release.’”

Ultimately, many if not most of the documents associated with the Clinton emails are likely to prove lower-case rather than upper-case “classified”—at most.

Further, while greater transparency in government affairs is laudable, intense public oversight can often hamper the effective drafting and implementation of policy, observes Chris Hoofnagle, the faculty director of Berkeley’s Center for Law and Technology. Out of the simple instinct for self-preservation, people can end up more worried about covering their tracks than doing their jobs.

“Washington, D.C., is the land where people carry two phones,” states Hoofnagle. “Officials in both Democratic and Republican administrations use personal email to do business because of the impossibility of getting work done under the spotlight of the Freedom of Information Act. So one fresh way of looking at this issue is to situate yourself in the context where you have to make difficult decisions, yet at any moment hostile third parties can request copies of your correspondence while wearing the garb of accountable, open government. In effect, FOIA requests are free to file and pursue, so anyone can target an official and make [his or her] life more difficult.”

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