Top Secret political doubletalk
Vox has provided a nice simple primer on the latest email brouhaha. (In case you haven't heard, the state department has withheld the release of some of the emails that appeared on Clinton's server because they are designated Top Secret which is supposed to be the bombshell that will put her in jail. Or something.)
Why are these emails top secret, why is it a big deal, and why would Clinton, of all people, want them released?
It's impossible to know the answers to those questions with absolute certainty without seeing the emails. But the key dispute is over whether the classification shows that Clinton was emailing out highly sensitive secrets or if these were everyday emails that just got swept up in America's deeply broken classification system. There's some real reason to believe that the latter is at least possible. Here's what we know and how to parse this latest email controversy.
One really key issue here is when the emails were classified
This might seem unimportant. If it's top secret, then it must be really sensitive, right?
Not necessarily. A large proportion of documents that our government classifies are not actually that sensitive — more on that below. So the key thing now is to try to figure out: Were these emails classified because they contain highly sensitive information that Clinton never should have emailed in the first place, or because they were largely banal but got scooped up in America's often absurd classify-everything practices?
Obviously we can't know the answer to that for sure unless we read the emails. But one good way to make an informed guess is by asking whether the emails were classified at the moment they were sent or whether they were classified only later.
The reason this matters is that if they were immediately classified top secret, then that is a good sign that they contained information that is known as "born classified" — that it was information in itself obtained by classified channels or because it was generated internally by classified means. For example, if Clinton were emailing the secret US bombing plans for Libya, or sharing something that the French ambassador told her in confidence, that would be "born classified."
But if the information were classified only later, then that would indicate it was more banal, or that it was not classified for any reasons particular to the emails themselves. Again, see below on how a boring email could become marked as top secret.
According to a statement by the State Department, "These documents were not marked classified at the time they were sent."
In other words, they do not contain information that was "born classified," but rather fall into the vast gray area of things that do not seem obviously secret at the time but are later deemed that way — not always for good reason.
Read the whole thing. It's not long. It explains the broken and absurd classification system that the wingnuts are defending as if it came down from Mt Sinai. For instance:
As an example of how silly this can get, State Department employees are banned from reading WikiLeaks cables or articles that quote them, as the cables include classified information. So the people responsible for guiding American foreign policy are barred from reading foreign policy coverage that you and I may access freely. Virtually no one in the State Department likes this policy, by the way, but it is a product of the government's larger, and largely broken, system of assigning and dealing with classifications.
We don't know what these emails contain obviously. We do know that they were not classified when they appeared on her server. We also know they have been classified after the fact by the one of the intelligence agencies not the State Department. It's possible, of course, that they were secret lists of clandestine agents but let's just say it's doubtful. This is likely a result of intelligence community bureaucratic bungle, an ass-covering ploy or a purely political exercise. NObody really controls the intelligence community, they control us. With the leaks coming from that sector to the Republicans in congress I'd say it could be all three.
Anyway, from what I can gather Democrats and independents have finally figured out that the Republicans have been crying wolf with this stuff for decades so the only people who get excited about it anymore are the GOP and the media, the latter of which have been their usual irresponsible selves.