by Matt Casper
In the light of a highly critical and distorted segment covering the release of the FBI's Hillary Clinton investigation notes on Sunday's Meet the Press, NBC News and Chuck Todd must answer questions about glaring inaccuracies and potential anti-Clinton bias in their coverage.
As the 2016 presidential election turns into its final two months, certain media narratives have been set. Those media narratives have the power and potential to have a substantial effect on the outcome of the election, yet little attention seems to be paid on whether or not those narratives stand up to real scrutiny.
On the side of Republican nominee Donald Trump, the narratives are many and often disparate; depending on the media source, he is either a charlatan and demagogue with no chance of winning or a fabulous builder and businessman whose constituency is waiting to sweep him to victory. When it comes to Democrat Hillary Clinton, the narrative is much more consistent. The media highlights her "trust deficit" with voters and views every action -- or lack thereof in the case of press conferences -- through a filter of this perpetual distrust. As noted by a handful in the media, this "trust issue" is something that the media has pinned on Hillary Clinton since before she even became First Lady, accepting the work of political propagandists as true unless expressly disproven. Just these past couple of weeks, we've seen sloppy or worse reporting and social media posts from the AP and even the venerable New York Times, a paper with whom both Clintons have had brushes in the past. Vox reporter Jonathan Allen identified what he termed as the media's Clinton rules, or a set of near-universal actions by media as it relates to the Clintons, and Hillary in particular. Among these is Clinton rule number 3, "The media assumes that Clinton is acting in bad faith until there's hard evidence otherwise."
In the case of Meet the Press, it appears that rule 3 has an addendum: "When no evidence of bad faith exists, facts will be distorted or fabricated in order to create such appearance." Todd presented MTP's "top takeaways" from the FBI report:
"Clinton claimed she did not understand basic classification procedures. She didn't recall any training on how to handle classified information. In fact, Clinton told the FBI that 'she could not recall or could not remember' key details more than three dozen times. She even told the FBI that she thought that the 'C' on an email referred to the order of paragraphs instead of 'the word confidential,' which is the lowest level of classification. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell advised Clinton, according to her, to be 'very careful' in how she used the private email. And the FBI notes show that a computer specialist whose name was redacted deleted an archive of Clinton emails just weeks after the existence of Clinton's private server became public in March of 2015. The FBI said it requested 13 mobile devices which potentially were used to send emails using Clinton's private email system. The Clintons' law firm could not produce any of them -- one staffer told investigators he destroyed two mobile devices by breaking them in half or hitting them with a hammer."
Distortion 1: "Clinton claimed she did not understand basic classification procedures."
This claim doesn't appear in the FBI documents. In neither the summary nor in the interview report does Clinton claim not to understand basic classification procedures. Unlike with other of its "top takeaways," NBC provides no source to this claim. The closest instance to a discussion of basic classification procedures occurs within the source material for two other claims that we will examine, but no evidence supports this conclusion. On page 20 of the report, Clinton is asked about her knowledge of how to handle TOP SECRET, SECRET, or CONFIDENTIAL classification levels, she responds in a manner suggesting that she treats all levels with the same manner of diligence, rather than the statement of ignorance NBC makes it out to be. The report words her response, "...Clinton responded that she did not pay attention to the 'level' of classification and took all information seriously." (Page 20 also contains the section on the "(C)" marking, which we will look at further below.) On page 26, she is asked whether she can give a specific example of how the classification of a document was determined, and while she had no specific example, she referenced the career professionals at the State Department whose job it was to oversee the existing process of classification. In fact, several times throughout the report, she exhibits a knowledge of what is and is not properly marked along with what information should or should not be classified. When presented with all of the emails that the FBI had found to be classified and on her server, she was able to go through why she believed the information was not classified and/or why the classification marking was inappropriate.
Distortion 2: "She didn't recall any training on how to handle classified information."
This distortion came with a slide graphic that said:
"COULD NOT RECALL ... ANY TRAINING OR GUIDANCE" ON HOW TO HANDLE CLASSIFIED INFORMATION. FBI Summary, p. 2
Helpfully, we can turn to page 2 of the summary to see what lives in that ellipsis and after the quotation marks.
CLINTON was aware she was an Original Classification Authority (OCA) at State. CLINTON could not recall how often she used this authority or any specific training or guidance provided by State.
(Her statement regarding relying on career professionals also appears here.) As it is plain to see from the text, the statement regarding training and guidance related not to how to handle classified information, but about Clinton's authority as Secretary of State to establish or override a classification decision and her use of that authority. There was a statement in the notes related to whether she received her clearance and briefings at State or in the Senate and whether there was also training on document preservation, but these appear prior to that quote and in a previous section, and are specific to whether such training occurred at State. The FBI offered no opinion on whether or when such training occurred.
Distortion 3: "In fact, Clinton told the FBI that 'she could not recall or could not remember' key details more than three dozen times."
You'll note that this sentence starts with "in fact," which makes it appear as if it's related to the previous sentence, building their "case" against Clinton's honesty and transparency. But in real fact, those "more than three dozen times" of Clinton being unable to recall what they called "key details" were largely made up of answers in the negative as to whether events or actions took place. Others were not recalling a specific day or instance while remembering the general point. Some of these include Clinton being unable to recall:
- if she received her highest security clearance while at State or if it followed her from the Senate.
- specific detail of when she signed an agreement
- a specific process related to drone strikes as opposed to the high value placed on concurrence
- how people who handled her IT went about destroying old equipment
- the number of times she was given a secure phone to use while overseas
- why State was unable to provide her with a secure phone
- receiving any emails she thought to be classified
- anyone raising concerns or objections to her use of private email (in fact, the report later says that no one did)
- anyone raising concerns regarding the sensitivity of the information she received on that email
- offering anyone other than Huma Abedin a private address after a certain date (because she didn't)
- logging into her address after a certain date (because she didn't)
- using a flip phone while at State (Mills and Abedin claim she didn't)
- using an iPad Mini while at State (because she didn't)
- receiving a message about reaching a storage limit (because she didn't)
- several instances of not remembering receiving a specific email
I could go through each one, but it should be apparent by now that the great claim by NBC is a distortion of what is found in the report. These are not, in large measure, key details, and something not happening isn't the same thing as forgetting or being dishonest about it. There is no real offer of contradictory evidence either in the summary or the full report.
It's also worth noting here that several of the email chains that have been raised as "classified from birth" that the FBI was looking into were related to the drone program -- the existence of which is still considered classified Top Secret or even SAP, a higher and more secretive level. Clinton has been taken to task by Todd and other media alike, with snide statements insinuating that she knows better than to make such a blatant mistake. If the FBI were being held to the same standard, they'd have committed the exact same violation by expressly mentioning the drone program and drone strikes in the un-redacted section of this report.
Distortion 4: "She even told the FBI that she thought that the 'C' on an email referred to the order of paragraphs instead of 'the word confidential,' which is the lowest level of classification."
Again, note the "even" in the accusation. I'm not an expert on the process of classification, but as The Daily Banter's Tommy Christopher pointed out in July, the emails in question were not properly marked and were also not properly classified, and the reasonable conclusion of someone who is an expert in classification is that those "(C)" markings were not related to classification.
REP. MATT CARTWRIGHT: So if Secretary Clinton really were an expert at what's classified and not classified and were following the manual, the absence of a header would tell her immediately that those three documents were not classified. Am I correct in that?
DIRECTOR COMEY: That would be a reasonable inference.
Clinton also pointed out in the interview that the email chain in question should not have been marked at all, as it was a discussion about a condolence call that didn't meet the criteria for being marked classified. Again, the FBI report contains information about the incident that was contained in the original "problem" document.
Distortion 5: "Former Secretary of State Colin Powell advised Clinton, according to her, to be 'very careful' in how she used the private email. And the FBI notes show that a computer specialist whose name was redacted deleted an archive of Clinton emails just weeks after the existence of Clinton's private server became public in March of 2015."
These things are written and phrased in a way as to make it seem as if they're connected. According to Clinton, she took Powell's email (note: which we do not have for comparison) to mean that she should be careful to treat any work-related email on her private server as a government record. Whether or not that is true -- and I am personally inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to Colin Powell while leaving open the possibility that he was implying a less-legal meaning -- it is unconnected to the testimony of the IT worker, whose redaction is worked into the statement as if to make it appear more shady. In addition, the redacted worker corroborated statements from two other Clinton officials that they had changed email policy the previous year, and that the automatic deletion of all personal emails older than 60 days was supposed to have been executed several months earlier.
That worker claims that sometime in March 2015, he had an "oh, shit moment" and deleted the archive file that he was supposed to have done months earlier, and did so without the knowledge of anyone else even peripherally involved. In fact, it appears as if the redacted worker made an earlier false statement about this in an attempt to cover up his negligence.
Again, Clinton is being maligned for the legal disposal of personal material, and the facts are presented in such a way as to force a conclusion that isn't necessarily true. Or fair.
Distortion 6: "The FBI said it requested 13 mobile devices which potentially were used to send emails using Clinton's private email system. The Clintons' law firm could not produce any of them -- one staffer told investigators he destroyed two mobile devices by breaking them in half or hitting them with a hammer."
This is the closest to being true on its face, yet NBC and Todd were still unable to present the accusation in an even-handed manner. First, the facts. These were devices used for some time between 2009 and 2013 on either of her two phone accounts, and were requested long after. It was not uncommon for her to use a new device for only a few days before switching to an older model with which she was more familiar. Her IT people handled the purchase and migration of data, and SIM cards were typically removed and destroyed afterwards. No specifics were remembered of where things were disposed of, but one IT staffer did recall smashing or breaking phones on 2 occasions. Her lawyers were able to locate and submit 2 old devices but they turned out not to be from the time period that the FBI was interested in.
I know that personally I have had at least 9 phones since that time, and I am in possession of only 2 anymore. I have destroyed or returned my old SIM cards and not thought about those devices again. In my devices that didn't include removable SIM cards, I took a drill to the phone in order to protect personal information like credit card numbers. And I'm not Secretary of State. There's nothing there that I can begin to see as abnormal or untoward. Why it is presented using the "sensational" pieces of the story is something that NBC should answer for.
Many people around politics have built careers based on the blind acceptance of the belief that Bill and Hillary Clinton are criminals of the highest order, and their eternal witch hunt has infected their public image in ways that are perhaps unprecedented in American politics. But slurs and innuendo should not be enough to discredit anyone, and fabricating or distorting a case should be rejected and pointed out for what it is.