FBI Director James B. Comey made headlines earlier today when he announced that his agency would not recommend charges against Hillary Clinton for her handling of classified information as secretary of state. The director stated that his investigation “did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information,” a standard he considers necessary for criminal charges to be brought. However, he added, “there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.”
Mr. Comey noted seven email chains that were classified at the top secret, special access program level at the time they were sent and received, and stated that Secretary Clinton both sent and received emails about these matters. He was highly critical: “There is evidence to support a conclusion that any reasonable person in Secretary Clinton’s position, or in the position of those with whom she was corresponding about those matters, should have known than an unclassified system was no place for that conversation.”
Response to his announcement was swift.
The Clinton campaign stated, “As the Secretary has long said, it was a mistake to use her personal email and she would not do it again. We are glad that this matter is now resolved.”
However, Ari Fleischer, former press secretary for George W. Bush, tweeted: “If Hillary were still Sec State, Pres O would have to fire her. But instead, he travels with her and seeks to promote her. Disgusting.”
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan responded that the decision not to recommend charges “defies explanation” and warned that it will “set a terrible precedent.” He added: “The findings of this investigation also make clear that Secretary Clinton misled the American people when she was confronted with her criminal actions.”
A short chronology of the controversy
The House Select Committee on Benghazi requested communications sent between Mrs. Clinton and other officials regarding the September 2012 attack in Libya. As State Department lawyers gathered materials, they discovered that Mrs. Clinton had used a personal, nongovernmental address for her email. She also routed messages through a server kept in her Chappaqua, New York home.
Mrs. Clinton eventually agreed to turn over 55,000 pages of email from her time as secretary of state, but withheld and deleted roughly half the total number of messages, stating that they concerned personal issues. The CIA, State Department, and other agencies eventually reviewed the emails she submitted.
At first she argued that she did not need to apologize for keeping a private server in her home. However, in the face of mounting criticism, she now frequently apologizes, admitting that the server had been a mistake.
Last week, Bill Clinton met with Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch while both were at the Phoenix airport. After widespread criticism, the attorney general announced that she would accept the recommendations of the FBI director regarding the email controversy. “I certainly wouldn’t do it again,” she said of the meeting.
Last Saturday morning, the FBI interviewed Mrs. Clinton for three and a half hours at its Washington headquarters. Today, the FBI released its report to the Justice Department.
Mrs. Clinton has defended her actions on three levels. First, she has steadfastly claimed that she did not send or receive any information marked classified at the time it was sent.
Mr. Comey’s statement would appear to support her assertion: “Only a very small number of the e-mails containing classified information bore markings indicating the presence of classified information.” However, he noted: “Even if information is not marked ‘classified’ in an e-mail, participants who know or should know the subject matter is classified are still obligated to protect it.”
He further stated that the FBI’s investigation “found information that was properly classified as secret by the US intelligence community at the time it was discussed on email. . . . None of these emails should have been on any kind of unclassified system.”
The investigation discovered 110 emails that were part of fifty-two different chains that “have been determined to contain classified information at the time they were sent or received.” Eight of these chains contained information that was Top Secret at the time it was sent. Three emails deleted by Mrs. Clinton as private were also found to have been classified at the time they were sent or received. In addition, about two dozen emails have not been released, even with redactions, because they included material classified at the highest levels.
Second, Mrs. Clinton claims that her use of personal email was in compliance with federal laws and State Department regulations.
The State Department’s inspector general audited her email practices and delivered findings to Congress last May. The report said there was “no evidence” she requested or received approval for the server, despite having “an obligation to discuss using her personal email account to conduct official business.” It added that such a request would have been denied if it had been made.
Third, Mrs. Clinton states that former secretaries of state also maintained personal email accounts.
The State Department’s inspector general report examined all five secretaries of state during the digital age. It found that email was rarely employed under Madeleine Albright and that she never used it. Condoleezza Rice did not use either personal or department email accounts for State Department business. Current Secretary John Kerry uses an agency account for State Department business and infrequently uses personal email when someone contacts him on that account.
Colin Powell did use a personal email account as Secretary of State. Unlike Mrs. Clinton, however, he did not use a private server to host these emails, all of which were unclassified. He did not retain or copy them, believing they could be found by searching the accounts of the State Department staffers who received them (an approach that was sharply criticized in the inspector general report).
The inspector general’s report was particularly critical of Mrs. Clinton and her use of private email. It stated that her email use violated department policies put in place to ensure compliance with the Federal Records Act. And it noted that she was made aware of a “dramatic increase” in cyber attacks at State during her tenure.
Three practical questions
Three issues arise from this controversy. First, has America’s security been affected?
To this date, there has been no indication that sensitive information was compromised by Mrs. Clinton’s use of a private server. As Mr. Comey stated, “We did not find direct evidence that Secretary Clinton’s personal e-mail domain, in its various configurations since 2009, was successfully hacked.” However, he added that “given the nature of the system and of the actors involved, we assess that we would be unlikely to see such direct evidence.”
He did note that hostile actors gained access to the private commercial email accounts of people with whom she was in regular contact from her personal account. She also used her personal email extensively while outside the US “in the territory of sophisticated adversaries.” He concluded, “It is possible that hostile actors gained access to Secretary Clinton’s personal e-mail account.”
Second, was the FBI’s investigation influenced by outside factors?
As Mr. Comey stated today, “Thousands of hours of effort” were required to investigate this matter. He was adamant: “What I can assure the American people is that this investigation was done competently, honestly, and independently. No outside influence of any kind was brought to bear. . . . Only facts matter, and the FBI found them here in an entirely apolitical and professional way.”
Third, how will the controversy affect the election?
Mrs. Clinton’s supporters will see the FBI’s decision as vindication of her claim that she broke no laws and did not harm our national security. Her detractors will see the same report as evidence that she misused email and then acted deceptively in responding to criticism. In other words, those who believe her will continue to trust her integrity; those who do not trust her will continue to doubt her character.
Conclusion: how should Christians address this issue?
First, we should be informed about this controversy, since it will likely dominate cultural conversation over coming days and into the election. The biblical prophets consistently engaged the issues of their time. Jesus spoke repeatedly to the challenges of his day, as did Paul.
Second, we should seek and speak only the truth. Hosea condemned the “lying” of his culture (Hosea 4:2). Scripture warns that “lying lips are an abomination to the LORD” (Proverbs 12:22). We should insist on the truth from both sides of this controversy. Just as some will claim that Democrats are covering up wrong acts, others will claim that Republicans are manipulating the debate for political ends. Christians should speak only the truth, whatever its political consequences. We should be respectful (Titus 3:2), considerate (1 Timothy 2:2), and gracious (1 Peter 3:15) while “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).
Third, we should live as transparently as possible. Paul’s maxim is essential for us all: “Having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor” (Ephesians 4:25). When we make mistakes, we should admit them immediately and seek reconciliation and redemption (Matthew 18:15).
George Macdonald observed, “To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved.” Let us earn that compliment in all we do today, to the glory of God.