Obama’s ‘classified’ comments strike nerve

Obama’s ‘classified’ comments strike nerve
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President Obama’s latest defense of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClinton takes swipe at 'false equivalency' in media coverage of 2016 election Former presidents, first ladies come together to honor Barbara Bush Romney: Parts of Comey book read 'too much like a novel’ MORE has struck a nerve with both the GOP and government leakers such as Edward Snowden.

The president’s comments — “there’s classified and then there’s classified” — suggested some classified information is more sensitive than other classified information, uniting in scorn critics across the political spectrum.

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To advocates for government transparency, the remarks stunk of duplicity by suggesting that federal classification rules are arbitrary and don't apply to the Democratic presidential front-runner.

“If only I had known,” tweeted Snowden, the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor who fled the country in 2013 before leaking reams of classified documents about global surveillance. Snowden is now facing multiple federal charges for his leaks. 

“For a lower rank-and-file person, that’s not a defense you can ever use,” said Bradley Moss, a lawyer who handles matters related to classified information.

Conservatives saw new reasons to worry that the administration cannot be trusted to adequately investigate Clinton's exclusive use of a private email server as secretary of State.

Obama “concede[d]” that Clinton “mishandles classified information” and then “twist[ed] to defend her,” blared the Republican National Committee.

“It leaves you with a sense that he is reaching his thumb toward the scale,” said Ron Hosko, a former high-ranking FBI official. “I think it is, as I said, unnecessary and, from an investigators’ point of view, not at all beneficial.”

White House spokesman Josh Earnest was forced to defend the remark, which he said was a sign of the “disputes in the national security bureaucracy” about how to treat classified information that has been widely discussed in the media.

Obama made the comments in an interview with “Fox News Sunday” in response to a question about Clinton’s “homebrew” setup. 

“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,” Obama said.

The government does have different levels for the sensitivity of classified material, ranging from “confidential” to “top-secret.” But criminal charges for mishandling classified information are largely blind to the distinction.

Obama has often prided himself on leading “the most transparent administration in history,” and in fact the number of new classified documents has declined under his watch.

Yet at the same time, the Obama administration has been pilloried for its poor responsiveness under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), with requests that can take years to fulfill and record levels of agencies withholding documents. Additionally, more leakers have faced charges under the 1917 Espionage Act under this president than all others combined.

Trying to split hairs with Clinton’s setup, his critics say, is hypocritical. 

“I can’t make an excuse for someone mishandling a confidential document by saying, ‘Oh it was just confidential,’” said Moss, referring the lowest level of classification. “I’ll get laughed out of the room by security.”

The White House said on Monday that Obama has never asked for or received a classified briefing about the federal investigations concerning Clinton’s machine. 

“His knowledge of the case is based on public reporting,” Earnest told reporters.

But if Obama had not been kept abreast of the investigation related to Clinton’s machine, then critics were left wondering why he would seek to characterize the contents of the roughly 2,000 emails now considered classified.

“How does he know?” said Hosko.

“For the president to weigh in on what might be the facts or might be wildly erroneous, I think it does little to help preserve the view of the integrity of the investigation and that it isn’t being politicized,” he added. “His comments certainly influence people.”

According to the State Department, none of the material on Clinton's machine was marked as classified at the time it was sent. 

Obama’s distinction about what should and should not be classified will serve as little solace to journalists filing FOIA requests or people charged with mishandling sensitive documents. But they will surely be cited in legal briefings nonetheless, potentially undermining the government’s moral high ground.

Just last Friday, the Navy reportedly brought charges against Lt. Cmdr Edward Lin for handing classified information over to other countries, including potentially China and Taiwan.  

“Now does this guy get to pick and choose what’s classified and what’s not classified?” said Morgan Wright, a cybersecurity consultant who has worked with the U.S. government.

“Can you imagine now the legal arguments that people are going to create because of this?”

If nothing else, Obama opened his administration up for jokes at his own expense.

“Anyone have the number for the Attorney General?” Snowden tweeted on Sunday.

“Asking for a friend.”