A group of U.S. intelligence veterans is calling on President Obama to
expedite the FBI review of former Secretary of State Clinton’s alleged email
security violations so the public can assess this issue in a timely fashion.
MEMORANDUM FOR: The President
FROM: Veteran Intelligence Professionals for
SUBJECT: Those “Damn Emails” – “Really a Concern”
Last Wednesday Robert Gates, CIA Director under President Bush-41 and
Defense Secretary under President Bush-43, publicly commented that Secretary Hillary
Clinton’s “whole email thing … is really a concern in terms of her judgment,”
adding, “I don’t know what originally prompted her to think that was a good
What originally prompted her does not matter. As your Secretary of State
and your subordinate, she willfully violated laws designed to protect
classified information from unauthorized disclosure. It may be somewhat
difficult for those not as immersed in national security matters as we have
been to appreciate the seriousness of the offense, including the harm done in
compromising some of the most sensitive U.S. programs and activities. This
is why we write.
Pundits and others are playing down the harm. A charitable
interpretation is that they have no way to gauge what it means to expose so
much to so many. We do know, and our overriding concern is to protect the
national security of our country from further harm. It would be a huge help
toward this end, if you would order Attorney General Loretta Lynch to instruct
the FBI to stop slow-walking the email investigation and release its findings
If you choose, instead, to give precedence to politics over national
security, the American people will be deprived of timely appreciation of the
gravity of the harm done; national security officials who do follow the rules
will be scandalized; FBI investigators will conclude that that their job is
more political than professional; and the noxious impression will grow that
powerful people cannot be held accountable when they break the law. Worse: if
the results of the FBI investigation remain under lock and key, dangerous
pressures are likely to be exerted on the most senior U.S. officials by those
who have the key – as we explain below.
* * *
We the undersigned Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS)
have spent 400 years working with classified information – up to and including
TOP SECRET, Codeword, and Special Access Programs (SAP). Given that experience,
we believe that much of the commentary on the former Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton email controversy has been misplaced, focusing on extraneous issues
having little or nothing to do with the overriding imperative to protect
As intelligence, military, and foreign service professionals, we are
highly aware not only of that compelling need, but also of the accompanying
necessity to hold accountable those whose actions compromise – whether for
reasons of convenience or espionage – sensitive operations, programs and
persons. In addition, we know that successful mutual cooperation with foreign
intelligence services depends largely on what they see as our ability to keep
Last August, Secretary Clinton handed over her private email server to
the FBI, five months after she acknowledged she had used it for work-related
emails as Secretary of State. She admitted to having deleted about 31,000
emails she described as personal. Media reports last fall, however, indicated
that the FBI was able to recover the personal emails, and was reviewing them,
as well as the 30,000 others she had described as work-related.
In January, the Department of State announced that, of the 30,000
work-related emails, at least 1,340 contained classified material. The
Department retroactively classified 22 of those TOP SECRET and prevented their
release. Among the 22 were some that, according to media reports, included
information on highly sensitive Special Access Programs (SAP).
The White House has said it will do nothing to impede the FBI
investigation and possible filing of charges against Clinton, if the facts
should warrant that kind of action. Inasmuch as the outcome of the
investigation is bound to have major political consequences, such White House
assurances stretch credulity.
By all indications, the FBI is slow-walking the investigation and
mainstream media are soft-pedaling the issue. As things now stand, most
Americans remain unaware of the import of this industrial-scale compromise of
very sensitive national security information in Secretary Clinton’s emails.
Our concern mounted in January when the Inspector General of the
intelligence community wrote to the chairs of the congressional intelligence
committees that he had received from one of the intelligence agencies two
“sworn declarations” asserting that Secretary Clinton’s emails contained not
only CONFIDENTIAL and SECRET information, but also information at the TOP
In 2009, you signed an Executive Order regarding SAP (Special Access
Programs), so we assume you were briefed on their extremely high sensitivity
and the consequent need to sharply limit the number of people allowed to be
“read-in” on them. The mishandling of SAP information can neutralize
intelligence programs costing billions of dollars, wreck liaison relationships
assiduously cultivated for decades, and get a lot of people killed.
‘It Wasn’t That Bad’
All those directly or peripherally involved in the investigation of the Clinton
email issue know
very well that it could have a direct impact on who is likely to become the
next President of the United States, and they will be making decisions with
that reality in mind. They know that it is with you that “the buck stops,” and
they are sensitive to signs of your preferences. Those were not difficult to
discern in your commencement address at Howard University on May 7, in which
you strongly advocated the same basic policy approaches as those espoused by
one Democratic presidential candidate – Hillary Clinton.
Your White House has also made excuses for deliberate security
violations by Secretary Clinton that would have gotten senior officials like us
fired and probably indicted. We look with suspicion at what we see as
contrasting and totally inappropriate attempts by the administration and media
to play down the importance of Secretary Clinton’s deliberate disregard of basic
security instructions and procedures.
It appears that the option chosen by the White House is using the
declared need for “thoroughness” to soft-pedal and delay completion of the
investigation for several more months, while the corporate media sleeps on.
Four months have already gone by since the smoking-gun-type revelations in the
intelligence community Inspector General’s letter to Congress, and it has been
well over a year since Secretary Clinton first acknowledged using an insecure
email server for official business.
Another claim emanating from your White House is that Clinton was
careless in managing her emails and has admitted as much, but that she has not
damaged American national security. She has called it a “mistake,” but security
officials of the National Security Agency explicitly forewarned her against
violating basic laws and regulations designed to prevent the compromise of
NSA, FBI Have Enough Evidence
Surely, enough time has passed, and enough material has been reviewed,
to permit a preliminary damage assessment. The NSA has the necessary
information and should, by now, have shared that information with the FBI.
Secretary Clinton’s server in her house in Chappaqua, New York, was not a
secured device. Her email address incorporated her initials, “hdr” (apparently
for her maiden name, Hillary Diane Rodham). It also included the “clinton”
server identity, so it was easy for a hacker to spot.
Anyone with the proper equipment, knowledge and motivation might have
been able to obtain access. That is what hackers are able to do, with
considerable success, against government servers that are far better protected
than the private email server located in her New York State home.
In fact, there have been reports that Secretary Clinton’s emails were,
indeed, hacked successfully by foreigners. The Romanian hacker who goes by the
name Guccifer claimed earlier this month that he had repeatedly hacked her
email server. He described the server as “like an open orchid on the Internet” and
that “it was easy … easy for me, for everybody.” Guccifer has been extradited
from Romania and is now in jail in Alexandria, Virginia, where the FBI is said
to be questioning him on the emails. There have also been credible claims that
Russian intelligence and other foreign services were able to hack the
FBI Director James Comey
Another argument being surfaced, in a transparent attempt to defend
Secretary Clinton, has to do with intent. It is said that she did not intend to
have classified information on her computer in New York and had no intention of
handling secret material in a way that would be accessible to foreign
intelligence or others lacking the proper security clearances and the
But while intent might be relevant in terms of punishment, it does not
change the fact that as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, then
Senator Clinton had clearances for classified information for years before
becoming Secretary of State. She knew the rules and yet as Secretary she
handled classified information carelessly after a deliberate decision to
circumvent normal procedures for its safeguarding, thus making it vulnerable to
foreign intelligence, as well as to criminal hackers.
Anyone who has ever handled classified material knows that there are a
number of things that you do not do. You do not take it home with you, you do
not copy it and share it with anyone who does not have a clearance and a
need-to-know, you do not strip off the classification marks and treat it as
unclassified, and you do not transfer it to another email account that is not
protected by a government server.
If you have a secured government computer operating off of a secure
server that means that what is on the computer stays on the computer. This is
not a matter of debate or subject to interpretation. It is how one safeguards
classified information, even if one believes that the material should not be
classified, which is another argument that has been made in Clinton’s defense.
Whether or not the classification is unnecessary is not your decision to make.
Apart from the guidelines for proper handling of classified information,
outlined in Executive Order 13526 and 18 U.S.C Sec. 793(f) of
the federal code, there is some evidence of a cover-up regarding what was
compromised. This itself would be a violation of the 2009 Federal Records Act
and the Freedom of Information Act.
Numerous messages both in New York and in Washington have reportedly
been erased or simply cannot be found. In addition, the law cited above
explicitly makes it a felony to cut and paste classified information removing
its classification designation. Retaining such information on a private email
system is also a felony. In one of Secretary Clinton’s emails, she instructed
her staff simply to remove a classification and send the information to her on
So the question is not whether Secretary Clinton broke the law. She did.
If the laws are to be equally applied, she should face the same kind of
consequences as others who have been found, often on the basis of much less
convincing evidence, guilty of similar behavior.
Some More Equal Than Others
Secretary Clinton’ case invites comparison with what happened to former
CIA case officer Jeffrey Sterling, now serving a three-and-a-half-year prison
term for allegedly leaking information to New York Times journalist
James Risen. Sterling first came to the media’s attention when in 2003 he blew
the whistle on a botched CIA operation called Operation Merlin, telling the
Senate Intelligence Committee staff that the operation had ended up revealing
nuclear secrets to Iran. When in 2006 James Risen published
a book that discussed,inter alia, this amateurish cowboy
operation, the Department of Justice focused on Sterling as the suspected
Former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling.
In court, the federal prosecutors relied almost entirely on
Risen’s phone and email logs, which reportedly demonstrated that the two men
had been in contact up until 2005. But the prosecutors did not provide the
content of those communications even though the FBI was listening in on some of
them. Risen has claimed that he had multiple sources on Operation
Merlin, and Sterling has always denied being involved.
Jeffrey Sterling was not permitted to testify in the trial on his own
behalf because he would have had to discuss Operation Merlin, which was and is
still classified. He could not mention any details about it even if they were
already publicly known through the Risen book. No evidence was ever produced in
court demonstrating that any classified information ever passed between the two
men, but Sterling, an African American, was nevertheless convicted by an
all-white jury in Virginia based on “suspicion” and the presumption that “it
had to be him.”
The contrast between the copious evidence – some of it self-admitted –
of Secretary Clinton’s demonstrable infractions, on the one hand, and the very
sketchy, circumstantial evidence used to convict and imprison Jeffrey Sterling,
on the other, lend weight to the suspicion that there is one law for the rich
and powerful in the United States and another for the rest of us.
Failing to take steps against a politically powerful presidential
candidate and letting her off unscathed for crimes of her own making, while an
institutionally unprotected Jeffrey Sterling sits in prison would be a travesty
of justice not dissimilar to the gentle wrist-slap given Gen. David Petraeus
for giving his mistress extremely sensitive information and then lying to the
FBI about it.
Gen. David Petraeus in a photo with his
biographer/mistress Paula Broadwell. (U.S. government photo)
Your order to then-Attorney General Eric Holder to let Gen. David
Petraeus off easy created a noxious – and demoralizing – precedent in the
national security community indicating that, whatever the pains taken at lower
levels to prevent compromise of duly classified information, top officials are
almost never held accountable for disregarding well-established rules. These
are some of the reasons we are so concerned that this is precisely the
direction in which you seem to be leaning on the Clinton email issue.
In our view, the sole legitimate reason for disclosing classified
information springs from the only “oath” we all took – “to support and defend
the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and
domestic.” When, for example, Edward Snowden saw the U.S. government grossly
violating our Fourth Amendment right to be “secure” against warrantless
“searches and seizures,” he gave more weight to that oath (ethicists call it a
supervening value) than to the promise he had made not to disclose information
that could harm U.S. national security.
Possibly Still Worse Ahead
You might give some thought, Mr. President, to a potentially messy side
of this. What is already known about NSA’s collect-it-all electronic practices
over the past several years strongly suggests that NSA, and perhaps the FBI,
already know chapter and verse. It is virtually certain they know what was in
Secretary Clinton’s emails – including the ones she thought she had deleted. It
is likely that they have also been able to determine which foreign intelligence
agencies and other hackers were able to access the emails.
Former National Security Agency contractor
Edward Snowden. (Photo credit: The Guardian)
One ignores this at one’s peril. Secretary Clinton’s security violations
can have impact not only on whether she becomes your successor, but also on
whether she would, in that case, be beholden to those who know what lies hidden
from the rest of us – perhaps even from you.
Intelligence professionals (in contrast to the occasional political
functionary) take the compromise of classified information with utmost
seriousness. More important: this is for us a quintessentially nonpartisan
issue. It has to do, first and foremost, with the national security of the
We are all too familiar with what harm can come from blithe disregard of
basic procedures designed to protect sensitive intelligence and other national
security information. Yes, the lamentable unevenness in how such infractions
are handled is also an important issue – but that is not our main focus in the
The Truth Will Out
Not all workers at the NSA or the FBI are likely to keep their heads in
the sand, as they watch very senior officials and politicians with their own
agendas disregard laws to safeguard the nation’s security. We know what it is
like to do the difficult, disciplined work of protecting information from being
compromised by strictly abiding by what often seem to be cumbersome rules and
regulations. We’ve been there; done that.
If you encourage the Department of Justice and the FBI to continue
slow-walking the investigation, there is a good chance the truth will come out
anyway. As you are aware, the Justice Department, the FBI, and NSA have all
yielded recent patriots who, in such circumstances, decided that whistleblowing
– rather than silence – was the only way to honor the oath we all swore – to
support and defend the Constitution.
To sum up our concern regarding how all this plays out, if you order the
Justice Department and FBI to pursue the investigation with “all deliberate
speed,” so to speak, and Secretary Clinton becomes president, the juicy email
secrets in the hidden hands of the NSA and FBI are likely to give those already
powerful institutions a capacity for blackmail that would make J. Edgar
Hoover’s mouth water. In addition, information hacked by foreign intelligence
services or Guccifer-like hackers can also provide useful grist for leverage or
Taking Care the Laws Are Faithfully Executed
We strongly urge you to order Attorney General Loretta Lynch to instruct
FBI Director James Comey to wind up a preliminary investigation and tell the
country now what they have learned. By now they – and U.S.
intelligence agencies – have had enough time to do an early assessment of what
classified data, programs and people have been compromised. Realistically
speaking, a lengthier, comprehensive post-mortem-type evaluation – however
interesting it might be, might never see the light of day under a new
We believe the American people are entitled to prompt and full
disclosure, and respectfully suggest that you ensure that enforcement of laws
protecting our national security does not play stepchild to political
considerations on this key issue.
On April 10, you assured Chris Wallace, “I guarantee that there is no
political influence in any investigation conducted by the Justice Department,
or the FBI – not just in this [Clinton email] case, but in any case. Full stop.
We urge you to abide by that promise, and let the chips fall where they
may. Full stop. Period.
For the Steering Group, Veteran Intelligence
Professionals for Sanity (VIPS)
William Binney, Technical Director, NSA; co-founder, SIGINT Automation
Research Center (ret.)
Thomas Drake, Senior Executive, NSA (former)
Philip Giraldi, CIA, Operations Officer (ret.)
Sen. Mike Gravel, D, Alaska; earlier, Army Intelligence
Matthew Hoh, former Capt., USMC, Iraq & Foreign Service Officer,
Afghanistan (associate VIPS)
Larry C. Johnson, CIA & State Department (ret.)
Michael S. Kearns, Captain, USAF Intelligence Agency (ret.), ex-Master
John Kiriakou, Former CIA Counterterrorism Officer
Ray McGovern, former US Army infantry/intelligence officer & CIA
Elizabeth Murray, Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Middle East,
Todd Pierce, MAJ, US Army Judge Advocate (ret.)
Scott Ritter, former MAJ, USMC, former UN Weapon Inspector, Iraq
Diane Roark, DOE, DOD, NSC, & professional staff, House Intelligence
Robert David Steele, former CIA Operations Officer
Peter Van Buren, U.S. Department of State, Foreign Service Officer
(ret.) (associate VIPS)
Wiebe, former Senior Analyst, SIGINT Automation Research Center, NSA, (ret.)
Ann Wright, U.S. Army Reserve Colonel (ret) and former U.S. Diplomat