Let's be charitable and say both presidential candidates were less-than-impressive during last night's Commander-in-Chief forum, which was broadcast by NBC and hosted by the Today's show's Matt Laurer. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump appeared separately, fielding questions about national security and foreign policy from Mr. Laurer and an audience comprised of military retirees and veterans.
There had to be moments when those in the audience--and at home--were asking themselves: is this the best we can do? (Or) is there another option? Sadly, the answer to that one appears to be "no." Anyone thinking of voting for Libertarian Gary Johnson might want to reconsider after his disastrous answer on the Syrian civil war during an interview on MSNBC this morning. It will be Hillary versus Trump for the big prize in November; the Queen of Lies versus the King of Exaggeration. Your choice between a candidate who promises more of the same, failed policies of the last eight years, or a national security novice who needs desperately to get up to speed on a host of critical issues.
Mrs. Clinton appeared first on the forum and right out of the gate, Laurer began pressing her on the e-mail issue. Her body language and tone suggested Clinton was angry at Mr. Laurer for mentioning the scandal. But she tried to muddle through, repeating the tired excuse that none of the classified messages sent or received on her "home brew" server had security "headers" at the top of the page, or paragraph markings identifying the highest classification of material.
What a crock. While some systems automatically generate a header and declassification instructions for e-mails or reports produced at the classified level, most of the markings are created by the originator. It's their responsibility to determine the overall classification level of the document and its various sections and mark it appropriately. Additionally, U.S. government security regulations make it very clear: individuals with access to classified should recognize and protect that information--even in the absence of security markings--and immediately report any violations to the appropriate authorities. By that standard, Hillary and her staff failed miserably, and contrary to James Comey's "assessment," they clearly broke the law.
But there was also a new revelation from Mrs. Clinton last night. In her response to a question from Jon Lester, a retired Naval Flight Officer, the former Secretary of State claimed that she also used secure systems to discuss classified material:
I communicated about classified material on a wholly separate system. I
took it very seriously. When I traveled, I went into one of those little
tents that I’m sure you’ve seen around the world because we didn’t want
there to be any potential for someone to have embedded a camera to try
to see whatever it is that I was seeing that was designated, marked, and
headed as classified.
Lieutenant Lester wasn't allowed a follow-up and Mr. Laurer didn't seem interested in pursuing the matter, but the answer was an eye-opener for anyone who's ever held a TS/SCI clearance. Mrs. Clinton's referral to a "wholly separate system" was an apparent reference to the classified intranets used by DoD, the intelligence community and the State Department to share extremely sensitive material. The systems have been renamed in recent years, but they are widely known by their original designations, SIPRNET, which handles information up to and including the SECRET level, and JWICS, for material up to and including TOP SECRET/SCI level.
Clinton's answer suggests she was viewing material or one or both networks. Her access to SIPRNET and JWICS also suggests she had accounts on both systems, which is standard practice for anyone with that level of clearance and the need-to-know. And did we mention that access to those systems also comes with an e-mail account?
Mrs. Clinton's admission invites an entirely new line of relevant questions which (to our knowledge) have not been discussed, either in Congressional testimony, or the FBI's "review" of her e-mail practices. Here are just a few of the queries that demand immediate answers:
(1) When she went into one of those "little tents" (apparent reference to a temporary Sensitive Compartmentalized Intelligence Facility, or SCIF), did the Secretary of State access SIPRNET, JWICS, or both?
(2) During those "communication" sessions, was she logged onto the network using her own account, or someone else's? And if the account(s) belong to others, who were those individuals?
(3) Did Mrs. Clinton have her own SIPRNET and JWICS accounts, as anyone with her position should? Did she have e-mail accounts on those networks?
(4) If she was accessing SIPRNET and JWICS for classified matters, why did she find it necessary to set up her own, unsecure network, and use that system to transmit extremely sensitive material, up to the TOP SECRET/SI-GAMMA level? (The answer to that one is painfully clear)
(5) Did any of Clinton's inner circle utilize SIPRNET, JWICS and e-mail accounts on those networks. If so, what material did they review and how does that compare to what appeared on the unsecure system? (The classified material on the Clinton network was obviously lifted from SIPRNET and JWICS, but the question of how it migrated (file transfer, paraphrasing) has never been explained.
(6) How did Clinton factotum Sidney Blumenthal--out of government service for more than a decade--gain access to TS/SCI information, which he relayed to Mrs. Clinton in his intelligence "assessment" of the situation in Libya. As John Schindler has noted in the New York Observer, Blumental's information is almost a verbatim copy of National Security Agency (NSA) assessment on the same matter. Blumenthal's memo, sent to Clinton on her unsecure system, even duplicated the unique reporting format used by NSA. As far as we know, Mr. Blumenthal is not under investigation for any security violations, and strangely enough, the FBI notes on the Clinton e-mail probe never mention the GAMMA material that found its way onto that infamous bathroom server. Note: the official FBI probe found only one government e-mail account associated with Hillary Clinton, which was operated "on her behalf" and used to send routine, unclassified administrative messages to the State Department staff.
While there's a steady drip of new information about e-mail gate almost every day, Mrs Clinton may not have to answer many questions about it. Amazingly, the subject never came up during a hastily-scheduled presser this morning, just before Hillary flew to a campaign stop. Congress is still looking at the matter, though it's doubtful anything will happen before the election, and FBI leadership considers the matter closed. So, Clinton will try to keep avoiding the issue, right up until--and after--November 8th.
As for Mr. Trump, last night was not his finest hour, underscoring the need for him to dig deeper (and solicit more advice) on issues relating to national security. Defeating 16 opponents in the primary is quite a political feat, but it doesn't mean you're immediately qualified to be commander-in-chief. We agree that judgment is an important quality for a a president, but without experience--or the willingness to surround yourself with advisers with the right expertise--presidents can make critical mistakes. Mr. Trump also needs to re-think his mutual admiration society with Vladimir Putin; just hours before the forum, a Russian SU-27 fighter came dangerously close to a Navy P-8 patrol aircraft over the Black Sea. Trading compliments will only encourage Russia's aggressive posturing against the west.
Currently, Trump enjoys a solid lead among military personnel and veterans; most figure he can't be worse than the last eight years, while others reject Clinton for her criminal behavior. As they contemplate a Flight 93 election, read this recent piece by someone who truly understands today's global environment and the hard choices that must be made by the next commander-in-chief. Mattis 2016. What might have been.