Obama: The Word 'Classified' Means Whatever We Need It To Mean

from the defining-'classified'-like-a-group-of-blind-men-describing-an-elephant dept

How do we know whether information is classified? Well, because the government tells us it is. But what does that mean? It turns out it means whatever the government wants it to mean, subject to time, place, personnel involved, etc.

Classified material handed over to movie producers by Leon Panetta? Probably not a big deal. Classified material handed over to journalists by whistleblowers? That’s a prosecutin’.

No one explains this slippery approach to classification better than President Obama, who was gamely trying to answer questions about an ongoing investigation (Hillary Clinton and her famous emails) during an interview with Fox News.

“There’s classified, and then there’s classified,” the president said.

That clears everything up. Clinton sent, received and stored classified info on a private email server. This cannot be disputed. But some classified info is more equal than others. It all depends on who has it and how the current administration feels about that person.

It’s also about how the current administration feels about whistleblowers. It doesn’t like them. So, Clinton playing fast and loose with classified info is subject to an entirely different standard than the large number of whistleblowers the Obama administration has prosecuted over the years.

Obama, again, digs deep into his feels to provide a technical explanation of this dichotomy.

President Obama said in an interview broadcast on Sunday that while Hillary Clinton had been careless in managing her emails as secretary of state, she would never intentionally do anything to endanger the country.

I believe this is true. Hillary Clinton does love this country — or at least the part of its she’s intimately familiar with: the highly-insulated Beltway interior. She certainly would never do anything intentionally to harm her position of power or her chances of a November promotion. We can tell how much she wants to keep the country safe by how much effort she’s put into keeping her communications out of the hands of the public. This is the Administration Way. There’s nothing more dangerous to the US government than transparency and accountability. Clinton knows this. Obama definitely knows this.

The problem is, as Trevor Timm points out, violating the Espionage Act doesn’t require an intent to harm. Handling classified material carelessly can open one up to charges… provided you’re not part of the government’s inner circle.

Obama’s interview also explained why government agencies redact or withhold information already in the public domain. It all traces back to “classified” being an almost-entirely subjective term when deployed by the government.

“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.”

Classification: all things to all people, as long as it allows officials and agencies to control narratives and disrupt public accountability. No matter what the FBI concludes from its investigation into Hillary Clinton, Obama has already granted her a pardon.

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Comments on “Obama: The Word 'Classified' Means Whatever We Need It To Mean”

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61 Comments
That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Well there's your problem...

First of all they told the truth, and second they didn’t have the right connections to shield them from the consequences of their actions(more the latter than the former really).

They should have worked their way up the ranks to, oh I dunno, general or something first, then they could have printed the whole site off and mailed it to every member of their family without personal repercussions.

That One Guy (profile) says:

"No really, trust us, /this/ classified information is harmless, /that/ classified information is a huge threat to the country..."

Using the classification system basically to hide things from the public makes it just a little difficult to get worked up when you get a whistleblower leaking classified information and the government is screaming it’s head off about how making Classified Information! public like that is going to cause the end of civilization as we know it.

When the government just brushes aside one leak of classified information, while going completely nuts over another, the idea that ‘classified’ means ‘dangerous’ in any way other than ‘this could be dangerous to my career if it got out, better classify it’ is a little hard to buy, and it becomes clear that classification has more to do with CYoA than actual danger in general.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: "No really, trust us, /this/ classified information is harmless, /that/ classified information is a huge threat to the country..."

“how making Classified Information! public like that is going to cause the end of civilization as we know it.”

To be fair, the Snowden leak kind of did end “civilization as we know it”. Conspiracy theorists formerly known as tinfoil hat wearing crazy people are now seen as normal people with valid arguments.

TheResidentSkeptic says:

Is there a bottom to this pit?

So what’s a “Technicality” ? Somewhere between get out of jail free and hang ’em high?

Love all these phrases from the past few administrations ranging from the “outing a CIA agent” – wasn’t that “technically” treason?

To our recent “Least Untruthful Answer”?? Didn’t that used to be called a Lie?

Seems to boil down to the very simple – “Make us look good, we don’t care what you did” to “Make us look bad – it doesn’t matter what you did, max prosecution required.”

Wish we had the “Vote of No Confidence” like other countries… now *that* is a vote that would see a MAJOR turnout of voters…

Ninja (profile) says:

from the defining-‘classified’-like-a-group-of-blind-men-describing-an-elephant dept

Are those blind men from the Democrats? If so I’d guess their description of an elephant would resemble Trump. Which, in retrospect, is a delicate description of how he has conducted his campaign.

Pardon me if I mixed the animals (were republicans elephants, donkeys, platypuses?).

Deoxy says:

Re: Re: Re: I've heard this before

Considering that every intelligence agency on the planet claimed that Iraq had WMD, and that we’ve disposed of a significant number of actual WMDs since we took the place over (look for cases where we disposed of “blister agents”, for the easiest ones to find), and that the testimony of Joseph Wilson before congress was that indeed Iraq had sought to buy uranium from Niger (even though to the press he said the President was lying about that), I would really appreciate that particular ridiculous lie (that Bush lied about WMDs in Iraq) be put to bed. It’s among the most ridiculous in my lifetime, which is really quite saying something.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 I've heard this before

“Considering that every intelligence agency on the planet claimed that Iraq had WMD”

This is highly misleading. The US claimed that Iraq had WMD, and most everyone else pretty much just took that as proof and parroted the line. An awful lot of them even expressed doubts, but thought that maybe the US knew something they didn’t.

But outside of governments (who had a bit of a conflict of interest on the matter), pretty much nobody thought it was actually true. Ans especially not the agencies who were in the best position to know.

One Tom too Many (profile) says:

Re: I've heard this before

I just made a slide for this. Having worked with classified I can’t stand when someone’s arbitrariness is applied to classified information. How is Clinton (Mrs) different than any other whistleblower. Political cover is a mofo indeed! Oh yeah AC, thanks for the humor! Hope you enjoy the tweet!
https://twitter.com/loydte3/status/719679984303022080

Anonymous Coward says:

“President Obama said in an interview broadcast on Sunday that while Hillary Clinton had been careless in managing her emails as secretary of state, she would never intentionally do anything to endanger the country.”

Actually, Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning haven’t done anything to endanger the country.

In fact, they have exposed the people who endanger their country, and particularly, the values of the free country it should be.

IMO, if there are people who truly love their country and the people living in it, are these two. Or at least, they deserve the benefit of the doubt more than Mrs. Clinton.

Gene Cavanaugh (profile) says:

Clinton's emails"

I am enormously disappointed with Techdirt, who I previously held out as a golden standard in reporting.

Being a lawyer, and a lover of our Constitution, we have only to look at the ex post facto provisions of that Constitution to see that sending and receiving AFTER classified emails is NOT a criminal matter!

I agree about whistleblowers, who are wrongfully pursued by the “wannabe” dictators in the Obama administration, but please – stop quoting Rupert Murdoch in his “hate Hillary” campaign – if Hillary can be shown to have sent/received classified documents AFTER they were classified, we have a whole new discussion (which doesn’t exist at this time).

Deoxy says:

Re: Clinton's emails"

Go look up “born classified”. Her position means that many of the communications she is involved in are INHERENTLY classified from the moment they are created, even as part of their creation. Holding her position and having her email kept in an unsecure way GUARANTEES that there were things that she knew were inherently classified kept in an unsecure location.

Not to mention that her staff (and/or herself) chose which of her emails to turn over to the government after the fact, which is a huge violation of several laws (and, unless all the staff members involved were cleared for knowledge of the stuff in question, more direct violations of the law).

And, just for bonus points, emails all have dates on them, and classification documents are dated as well, so we already know that she sent stuff was already classified when she sent it.

You can stop with the pretensions now. Either you were mistaken and can be outraged with the rest of the honest people, or you were just a dishonest partisan hack to begin with. Considering that everything I just told was public domain, widely disseminated, and easily available…

submandave says:

Re: Clinton's emails"

IANAL, but I have held TS/SCI clearance and know about proper handling of national security information.
1. Removing classification markings off a document does not declassify it. Some of these “unmarked” emails and verbatim cut-and-paste of classified information passed over proper secure networks.
2. There are some categories of information that one assumes is classified, for example anything related to intelligence collection, methods and/or sources, foreign government information, policy development, etc. It was her job to recognize sensitive national security information (not just recognize a marking) and handle the information with proper care and security.
3. Anyone knowing or suspecting classified information to be transmitted outside approved channels is required to report it for investigation. Despite hundreds of people knowing the shenanigans going on here, NO ONE said anything, and that is the reason State has been dragging its heels, because it’s not just HRC with culpability here.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Clinton's emails"

I can’t believe anyone who says they had a clearance and makes these assumptions.

When dealing with classified information one does NOT assume anything!

There is a document called a PCG or Program Classification Guide. This guide provides guidance on classifications, markings, protection, etc. This document is also normally classified for obvious reasons.

There is also a good reason why many people do not know of this document because very few people or organizations generate classified information. Those that do generate this material are VERY WELL aware of the classifications guidelines.

John (profile) says:

Re: Clinton's emails"

As a lawyer, if you really are one, you should know better. The classification system is there to help manage sensitive material. It explicitly provides that material can be sensitive without being so marked, and that careless handling of such is a crime.

Way back when I was dealing with classified material, two of the most important secrets I learned came from oral discussions. I never saw a classification marking on those discussions, because they weren’t written down and were not briefed as classified. But, these were important secrets, and I would certainly, and properly been prosecuted (or courts martialled in one case) had I told them to an enemy, or wrote them down and left them lying around.

Monday (profile) says:

It was never "Obama's Dichotomy"

“There’s classified, and then there’s classified,”

I understand the difference. It is as if someone were to ask you for twenty bucks for lunch. til Friday because they forgot their wallet or clutch. You’re significant other might know you’ve fifty thousands saved in the bank, but the one asking doesn’t need to know that. You’ve got a few bucks and can wait til Friday to get it back…
If a member of my family were to ask me for a small loan – say a few grand, I might be inclined to help them, but they’re not getting the privileged info my wife or husband has about my balance.

I said to my friend in 1989 that, “… information will become the most sought after commodity in the world.” It is.

Information has different values attached to it. It is as simple as that. Visiting Wikileaks and getting the door prize is a little extreme; maybe it was the children doing a paper, but there is a tangible difference between Classified and CLASSIFIED.

It is understandably simple. Am I defending President Obama? I don’t need to. He is just another meme in a continual line of memes. A citizen really needs to spend a week at an Ayahuasca retreat to get past all this shite… just saying.

submandave says:

Evil or Stupid?

1. I guess “top-secret top-secret” is kind of like “rape rape?” Ask Whoopie, she knows all about it.
2. “President Obama said … while Hillary Clinton had been careless in managing her emails as secretary of state, she would never intentionally do anything to endanger the country.” – So she’s not malicious, just incompetent? That totally makes me comfortable with her being President.

Buck (profile) says:

The employees of Platte River Networks in Denver, Colorado had complete and unrestricted access to every email on the server. They made backups. They copied the emails onto a thumb drive and gave it to her lawyer.

Those employees WERE NOT authorized to see any of those classified emails. That Lawyer was not authorized by the government to handle classified emails.

Denying that there were emails on the server that contained classified information is a losing game. You can argue that there were no “markings” but that does not mean the informations was not classified.

If she had used a government server, then all of the people who managed that server would have been authorised to do so.

She gave access to the employees of Platte River Networks in Denver, Colorado. They had access to classified data.

Anonymous Coward says:

“There’s classified, and then there’s classified”

This is nothing new at all, “classified” and “top secret” have always been used in discretionary fashion. You know the whole “power corrupts and absolute power…”.
“Classified” can literally encompass the whole range from military grade (“CIA’s has a new freeze ray”) to BS grade (“CIA’s boss’s is out having an affair”).

Anonymous Coward says:

submandave is essentially right, and Obama made a total mess of explaining what is actually a simple point.
Information sensitivity exists whether the information is formally classified or not. Indeed, one of the purposes of classifications to ensure that the information itself gets the right degree of protection. But talking about “classified” information doesn’t really help – as with everything there are degrees, and most governments have three or four levels of classification of documents, together with various access controls at the higher levels. I think Obama was trying to argue that the material in Clinton’s emails was mundane, and attracted one of the lower levels of classification, so the offense was not that serious. It doesn’t mean that no offense was committed, just that the information was not (he’s saying) on the same level with nuclear war plans, for example.

Gene Cavanaugh (profile) says:

Don’t see it that way (though I admit, that was my knee-jerk reaction). As explained elsewhere, there is State classification, where classification depends on State relations, and security classification, affecting our safety. Hillary, as Secretary of State, had the authority (as did the President) to classify/declassify State matters as they saw fit.
Otherwise for security matters. So, Classification means whatever we intend it to mean.
VERY logical to me.

If you are saying this shows the evil of “W” and Cheney, there you get my complete agreement. Those people ignored what classification meant, and messed with documents that had nothing to do with the State, and involved our safety!

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