Documents from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign show researchers justified leaks of top secret data on drone strikes and North Korea’s nuclear program found on her private email server by highlighting similar disclosures.
The detailed reports on the classified information found on Clinton’s private email system were produced by campaign researchers and sent to senior officials, including campaign chairman John Podesta, by opposition research director Tony Carrk on January 29.
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The documents were among thousands of hacked emails obtained from Podesta’s Gmail account and posted last week on Wikileaks. The U.S. intelligence community has accused Russia of orchestrating the hack in order to influence the U.S. presidential election.
The documents were part of what Carrk, the campaign’s research director, called "pushback on classification" after news reports days earlier had revealed that information classified above top secret was found on the unsecure private email server Clinton used while she was secretary of state from 2009 to 2013.
The campaign used six different lines of political counterattack in an attempt to exonerate Clinton of charges she had leaked highly classified information.
The methods ranged from asserting "congressional hypocrisy" on leaks of classified information to listing how other senior government officials discussed similar information about drone strikes and satellite secrets about North Korea’s nuclear program.
The research appears to have been compiled in response to a January 14 letter to Congress from I. Charles McCullough III, the inspector general for the nation’s intelligence agencies, who stated that some of the secrets found in Clinton’s emails were classified at the "Top Secret/SAP [special access program]" level. The classification marking SAP is reserved for the nation’s most closely guarded secrets.
The FBI launched its criminal investigation into the secrets found on Clinton’s email server on July 10, 2015 based on McCullough’s request, according to FBI documents made public on Monday.
"The FBI’s investigation focused on determining whether classified information was transmitted or stored on unclassified systems in violation of federal criminal statutes and whether classified information was compromised by unauthorized individuals, to include foreign governments or intelligence services, via cyber intrusion or other means," the FBI report states.
The report said seven email chains and 22 emails contained SAP secrets. These emails included discussions between Clinton and Jake Sullivan, at the time her deputy chief of staff for policy and currently a campaign policy adviser.
When questioned by the FBI, Sullivan told investigators that the SAP information was discussed due to "the operational tempo at the time." He also asserted that some of the secrets might have appeared in news reports.
Three other email chains contained sensitive compartmented information, or SCI, a classification of data more restricted than top secret.
Among those who trafficked in the classified information were Clinton aides Huma Abedin, Cheryl Mills, and Jake Sullivan, and five people not in the State Department, including Clinton associate Sidney Blumenthal.
FBI Director James Comey, in a controversial decision, announced July 5 that while Clinton and her aides were "extremely careless" in mishandling highly secret information, he did not recommend that the Justice Department prosecute her on charges of mishandling classified information.
The FBI had, however, found signs that "foreign hostile actors" had gained access to some of Clinton’s private emails after hacking an associate’s email account.
The hacked documents show a concerted effort by campaign staff to deflect criticism from Clinton.
One report, labeled "Drone Email," states that the emails under scrutiny by investigators "did not involve information obtained through a classified product but is classified because it pertains to drones." The report claims that the highly classified information on drones was contained in news articles discussed in the emails.
The report linked to a 2012 report in Politico that quoted President Obama in a Google Plus video chat acknowledging drone attacks on al Qaeda in Pakistan.
The report quoted published reports from "U.S. officials who have reviewed the correspondence" as identifying the classified information in the emails about drones as "discussion of a drone strike." The report stated that the discussion centered on "a covert program that is widely known as discussed."
A second email improperly referred to highly classified material that could have reflected information gathered independently of U.S. intelligence.
The report stated that the State Department had published several email chains "that appear to discuss CIA drone strikes in Pakistan," including an email to Clinton aides from CIA Chief of Staff Jeremy Bash referring to an Associated Press report on a dispute between the State Department and CIA about drone strikes in Pakistan as "a stinker."
Another campaign report stated that "leading Democrats and administration officials" have frequently mentioned U.S. drone strikes, including Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, CIA Director John Brennan, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Sen. Diane Feinstein (Calif.), Sen. Bill Nelson (Fla.), and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen. Republican senators and congressmen also were quoted as mentioning drone strikes.
A 16-page campaign report labeled "North Korea Email" attempted to refute a September 1, 2015 Washington Times report that stated the inspector general had identified a Clinton email that revealed the secret movement of North Korean nuclear assets derived from spy satellites.
The report said the information appeared to have been transmitted by a Clinton aide who summarized it from secret intelligence reports labeled "Talent Keyhole," the code name for intelligence derived from imagery satellites.
"The Washington Times is reporting that ‘multiple intelligence sources’ are happy to discuss allegedly ‘top secret’ information as long as they are provided anonymity to criticize Hillary Clinton," the report said, noting that the Associated Press and the New York Times had reported on similar secrets.
A 31-page campaign report labeled "Overclassification" stated that classified information found in the emails was the result of an "arbitrary and inconsistent" policy toward classified information.
"The federal government requires employees to treat drone program as highly classified despite wide public knowledge," the report states, adding that the classified information system is outdated and no longer works with modern diplomacy.
The report quotes McCullough, the intelligence community IG, as disputing claims of information overclassification but noted he had been criticized for saying so.
A separate report argued that Clinton was being unfairly criticized over the email server because of "bad retroactive classification," or information that was declared secret after it was sent in emails.
Another report criticized Sens. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) and Richard Shelby (R., Ala.) for "hypocrisy" on leaks of classified information.
Grassley was criticized by campaign researchers for pressuring the State Department to classify Clinton’s emails over concerns that they contained intelligence information.