The Curious Difference Between Classified and Classified, According to President Obama

President Obama rightly raised a few eyebrows recently when he chose to weigh in on the Hillary Clinton email situation. In an apparent effort to downplay the episode, Obama said, “There’s classified and then there’s classified.” Obama then went on to explain the important difference:

There’s stuff that is really top-secret Top Secret, and there’s stuff that is being presented to the president or the secretary of state that you might not want on the transom, or going out over the wire, but is basically stuff that you could get in open-source.

Undoubtedly, he is correct about this. The US Government classifies all kinds of harmless and/or publicly known information. The US Government also has a history of prosecuting people when they mishandle classified information, mundane or otherwise, even when there’s no evidence of harm or intent to distribute the information. Obviously, neither of these is a good thing. The US shouldn’t classify items that are in the public record or holiday email greetings, or any number of other minor things. And if one of those things accidentally gets carried off-base by a government employee, they shouldn’t have their career or life ruined over it. Surely, these are things we can all agree on.

But we should also agree that they’re irrelevant to the question at hand.

What Obama is effectively doing here is providing Hillary Clinton with political cover. Instead of making it a question of whether she violated the law and should be held accountable, he’s framing it as an incredibly tedious episode of bureaucratic bickering on classification. “Well, you see ‘top-secret’ is for… while ‘confidential’ is just for things like”–please, please make it stop. The goal seems to be to make the issue so fantastically boring that everyone just gives up so they don’t have to waste five more minutes trying to understand the cluster that is government classification. And frankly, it’s probably going to be a pretty effective strategy.

We must fight the urge to tune it out, however, because this story actually does matter. Not because her server was clearly vulnerable and now the fiendish Chinese (or is it the Russians this week?) have access to America’s most important secrets. On the contrary, judging from some of the foreign policy decisions Hillary championed while in office, it seems clear that she did not have access to uniquely valuable or even reliable information.* That’s not why it’s an issue.

Rather, it matters because it’s another public test for the rule of law in the US–whether there’s one set of laws that applies to the unconnected, and another set of rules that applies to the powerful. We’ve failed this test in the last few rounds, and President Obama’s latest remarks are an unfortunate sign that this trend is likely to continue.

For more on this story and the implied double standard here, check out Trevor Timm’s analysis at the Columbia Journalism Review:

Obama admits that “Top Secret” is not always so secret

*For what it’s worth, we should note that the Hillary Clinton email cache included, thus far, at least 22 emails that were deemed so secret that they had to be withheld from the general public. It may be the case that those have been erroneously classified as the Clinton campaign contends. But given that the overwhelming majority of her emails have been released, it seems plausible to assume there is something different about them. I’m sure they still wouldn’t destroy America if they got out, but they do offer more support to the idea that Hillary broke the rules in a non-negligible way.

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