It’s been a little over a year since Bernie Sanders assured America that the public was “sick of hearing” about Hillary Clinton’s “damn e-mails,” and to put it mildly, the claim has not aged well. Even before Friday’s announcement that the FBI had uncovered an additional cache of e-mails from Clinton’s personal assistant Huma Abedin—and the inevitable media feeding frenzy that followed—Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server during her tenure as Secretary of State had remained a central campaign issue. If anything, the controversy had metastasized: The FBI’s investigation into Clinton’s server, culminating in a recommendation that no criminal charges be brought, was received by many as evidence of a corrupt cover-up even more disturbing the underlying offense, a clear-cut case of a Beltway elite getting a pass for conduct that would have seen a normal schlub clapped in irons. It’s this, probably more than any other alleged misdeeds, that has made “lock her up!” a popular refrain at Donald Trump’s rowdy rallies.
As a frequent critic of the FBI’s routine demands for broadened surveillance powers, it’s heartening to see people recognizing that the Bureau is not somehow immune to improper political influence. Moreover, given the Obama DOJ’s unprecedented use of the Espionage Act to prosecute whistleblowers (rather than spies)—his administration has pursued more cases under that law than all his predecessors’ combined—it’s hard not to feel a twinge of schadenfreude when the public concludes that Clinton’s “extreme carelessness” with classified information (as FBI director James Comey characterized it) must surely be criminal too. But in large part because I’m uneasy about normalizing this aggressive approach to the Espionage Act, I think it’s necessary to explain why this widespread perception is wrong, and Comey’s conclusion that “no reasonable prosecutor” would have pursued charges against Clinton on the available facts was pretty clearly right. While it’s impossible to know what other damaging revelations the newly discovered tranche of e-mails may contain, it seems unlikely they will materially alter that basic legal conclusion.
One thing to get out of the way up front: None of what follows is ultimately a defense of Clinton. Beyond the poor judgement implied by her sloppy approach to classified information, the effect (and probable intent) of Clinton’s use of a private server was to hamper government transparency by giving her improper de facto control over correspondence that should be subject to Freedom of Information Act requests—which is to my mind perhaps the most troubling aspect of her conduct. (Much as this former reporter might wish otherwise, circumventing FOIA is not a criminal offense.) This post is narrowly concerned with whether she ought to have been prosecuted under the Espionage Act, specifically 18 USC §793(f). which reads:
(f) Whoever, being entrusted with or having lawful possession or control of any document, writing, code book, signal book, sketch, photograph, photographic negative, blueprint, plan, map, model, instrument, appliance, note, or information, relating to the national defense, (1) through gross negligence permits the same to be removed from its proper place of custody or delivered to anyone in violation of his trust, or to be lost, stolen, abstracted, or destroyed, or (2) having knowledge that the same has been illegally removed from its proper place of custody or delivered to anyone in violation of its trust, or lost, or stolen, abstracted, or destroyed, and fails to make prompt report of such loss, theft, abstraction, or destruction to his superior officer—Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both.
I’m focusing on this clause because it’s the one the FBI itself seems to have considered the only plausible basis for bringing charges. There are other statutes that apply to mishandling of classified information by military personnel or other Defense Department employees, which obviously wouldn’t apply to Clinton. And there are other clauses of the Espionage Act that criminalize “willfully” providing classified information to uncleared persons, or obtaining the same “with intent or reason to believe that the information is to be used to the injury of the United States.” Nobody has seriously suggested that Clinton was deliberately trying to make classified information available to the adversaries of the United States. But what about 793(f), which requires not “willfulness” but only “gross negligence”?
There are three main obstacles to prosecution under that clause in this case: One factual, one statutory, and one constitutional. I’ll take them in turn.
The factual problem becomes clear when you ask what specific actions a prosecutor would charge—actions that could be laid at Clinton’s feet, as opposed to those of her staff. Setting up a private e-mail server, or using it to carry on professional correspondence? That surely wouldn’t fly: Having a private e-mail account doesn’t in itself constitute “mishandling” of classified information, and plenty of officials with high security clearances have done and continue to do the same. That it was Clinton’s own server, as opposed to a Gmail account, makes no difference. Indeed, while it’s certainly relevant to one’s judgment of whether Clinton was seeking to keep her e-mails beyond the reach of FOIA requests, the private server is largely a red herring when it comes to the charge of mishandling classified information. What’s of potential legal relevance is that the server was not an appropriate “place of custody” for whatever classified material ended up there: A personal server is, in that respect, no different from a commercial e-mail account or even an official but unclassified State.gov account. Moreover, being in receipt of classified information on an insecure channel would not, in itself, satisfy the elements of an offense under the statute: A classified document sent to Clinton’s account might constitute a violation by the sender, but it would by definition have to be “removed” and “delivered” by the sender—not the recipient. So the factual obstacle here is that, once we recognize that “setting up a server” is a red herring, it’s not at all clear whether the FBI found instances of Clinton, as opposed to her staff, removing or “permitting the removal” of documents stored in classified systems. (The second prong might conceivably apply if it was sufficiently clear to Clinton that classified material had been illegally removed, though we’d then be left wondering what “superior officer” the Secretary of State is obligated to notify. The president?)
The reference above to the removal of documents is deliberate, and that brings us to the statutory obstacle to prosecution. While several sections of the Espionage Act that apply a “willfulness” standard cover any inappropriate communication of classified information, §793(f) really appears to be about the exfiltration of files or documents, not the mere discussion of classified matters. As Prof. Steve Vladeck, an expert on the Espionage Act, has observed, discussing classified subjects on an insecure channel might be grounds for a reprimand or revocation of clearance, but it has not traditionally been viewed as a criminal offense—and the language and structure of the statute, as well as the history of prosecution, bear out that interpretation.
Start with the language: Discussing classified facts known to you is not, on any ordinary use of English, an instance of “removing” information from a “place of custody,” except perhaps on the strained reading that makes the cleared individual’s brain such a “place.” For confirmation, we can look to differences in the language found in other parts of the statute, as under traditional rules of legal interpretation, differences in otherwise parallel phrases should be construed as corresponding to a difference in legal effect. Whereas §793(f) applies to a person “being entrusted with or having lawful possession or control of” classified documents, it omits the language “access to” found in §793(e). Similarly, §783(f) covers allowing the materials to be “removed… delivered… lost, stolen, abstracted, or destroyed” but not “communicated” as in (e). The reading that most naturally makes sense of those differences is that (f) is about permitting the wholesale abstraction of files & documents, not merely communicating information someone may have gleaned from having access to them (or from access to classified briefings).
Structural considerations support the same conclusion. Consider: If §793(f) covers the same conduct as the rest of the statute, with the same penalties, with the only difference being the standard of “gross negligence” as opposed to “willfullness,” the structure of the whole becomes rather puzzling. Why have a separate clause to prohibit the same conduct under two standards, rather than having a unified prohibition on doing the same thing either “negligently” or “willfully”? Why, for that matter, would it make sense to penalize communication of classified information to uncleared individuals only with a strong intent requirement if communication of the same information even to cleared persons on an insecure channel would be subject to exactly the same penalties under a lower standard of negligence? Such a reading makes the statute into a patchwork quilt riddled with redundancies rather than a coherent whole.
Finally, the history of prosecutions under the law tends to support this understanding. Again, if discussing classified matters with other cleared persons on an insecure channel—as opposed to “removing” and transmitting classified documents—were understood to be a federal crime, you’d expect it wouldn’t be hard to find instances of that crime being prosecuted. But in fact, there don’t seem to be any such cases. As Ben Wittes, a former national security reporter turned think tank scholar, wrote this summer:
People simply don’t get indicted for accidental, non-malicious mishandling of classified material. I have followed leak cases for a very long time, both at the Washington Post and since starting Lawfare. I have never seen a criminal matter proceed without even an allegation of something more than mere mishandling of senstive information. Hillary Clinton is not above the law, but to indict her on these facts, she’d have to be significantly below the law.
A common refrain in discussions of the Clinton case has been that “anyone else” would have been charged in similar circumstances. Yet if you look closely at the supposedly parallel cases where lower-ranking individuals have been prosecuted for mishandling, you find that invariably the circumstances aren’t similar. You’ll find prosecutions involving classified material knowingly and intentionally provided to uncleared persons (as in the case of Gen. David Petraeus), or where large quantities of documents were literally removed from secure facilities, but I haven’t turned up any cases where conversations about classified subjects on an insecure line have been treated as a criminal matter. In a country where literally millions of individuals hold top secret clearances, we may safely assume this is not because such indiscretions never occur, but because they had not been understood to be criminal acts, and were dealt with as matters of administrative discipline.
There are, it’s worth noting, a small number of e-mail threads in which a small portion of an actual classified document does appear to have been sent to Clinton’s private account. These were apparently marked (C) for confidential, though Clinton told the FBI that, at least in the context of an e-mail (as opposed to a classified document with appropriate headers), she did not recognize that marking as a classification marking. Many have found that claim dubious, but if she testified in court that she either failed to notice it or interpreted it as a section marker (as in, text copied from a document in which it had been preceded by paragraphs A and B), I’m not sure how one would prove otherwise beyond reasonable doubt. At best, then, one would be left with a potential, albeit unprecedented, case against the staffer rather than Clinton.
At last we come to the constitutional barriers to prosecution. As Comey made clear in his testimony to Congress, while the statutory standard in §793(f) is “gross negligence,” the Justice Department has historically been reluctant to prosecute—indictments under §793(f) are vanishingly rare—without something at least approaching evidence of intent. One reason for that may be that the Supreme Court’s opinion in Gorin v. United States (1941), which suggests that the Espionage Act’s intent requirements are an important feature that save it from unconstitutional vagueness. Due process requires that the law give citizens clear notice of what conduct is criminally prohibited, and in a country that (in large part for First Amendment reasons) has never had a British-style Official Secrets Act, there would be real reason to fear it would be too easy to unwittingly commit a crime absent relatively strict intent requirements. After all, classified information is routinely (and lawfully) printed on the front pages of newspapers—it would be perverse if forwarding a New York Times article were an indictable offense—and the sheer volume of classified material means it’s often difficult for officials to keep track of whether a particular fact is classified at a given time. Add in the historical paucity of prosecutions for mere insecure discussion of classified facts and it’s easy to imagine Clinton’s attorneys successfully sinking any case with a due process argument.
At this point you may be asking the same question a conservative friend posed to me when I sketched this argument: If it’s so clear that Comey was correct, wouldn’t he and the Clinton campaign have been shouting all this from the rooftops? That did give me some pause, but there are reasons each might have incentives to be circumspect. If, as Vladeck argues in the piece linked above, the Espionage Act simply doesn’t cover a whole category of “mishandling” classified information, intelligence officials like Comey, who expect cleared persons to take their obligations seriously, might not want to advertise the fact too loudly—and may want to leave their options open for the sake of future prosecutions or threatened prosecutions. The Clinton campaign, on the other hand, probably understands that a lawyerly argument to the effect that her conduct was not technically illegal doesn’t sell terribly well on the campaign trail. Whatever the technicalities, this whole affair reflects terribly on her judgement, and they’ve likely concluded there’s no advantage to giving the issue any additional exposure, even if it’s to mount a defense. The old campaign adage “if you’re explaining, you’re losing” applies in spades here.
So do the additional e-mails recovered from Huma Abedin’s laptop change any of this? It’s certainly possible to imagine scenarios in which it might: If those e-mails contained clear evidence of intent to obstruct, or unambiguous instructions from Clinton that classified documents should be sent to her personal account. But then, one could as easily speculate about finding a confession to Vince Foster’s murder. If, instead, the e-mails include more of the same sort of correspondence the FBI has already reviewed—even if it includes more threads in which classified topics were discussed—all of the above analysis would apply.
To sum up, there’s little question that, as Clinton herself now acknowledges, the use of a private e-mail server to conduct official correspondence was a serious lapse in judgement. Individual voters can determine for themselves whether they find it disqualifying in a commander in chief. But we don’t need to resort to theorizing about political chicanery to explain why she wasn’t prosecuted for it: The simple answer is that—fortunately for all politicians—not every act of stupidity is a federal crime.