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Clinton Case Raises Questions About Discipline For Government Employees


As we've heard, James Comey said today that if an FBI agent had handled classified material as carelessly as Secretary Clinton did, the agent would not have been prosecuted, but would have been disciplined. What kind of infractions merit what kind of discipline? We're going to ask Susan Hennessey. She's a former lawyer for the National Security Agency and is now managing editor of the Lawfare blog. Welcome to the program.

SUSAN HENNESSEY: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: What have been some examples of carelessness with classified information by, say, career government employees and what kinds of discipline were imposed?

HENNESSEY: Right. So certainly there's examples that run the gamut. There have been historical examples of really very serious compromises of classified information and very careless compromises of classified information by government officials. In fact, CIA Director John Deutch had his security clearance suspended by George Tenet after he left office based on allegations that he had prepared classified documents on an unclassified computer.

SIEGEL: We're trying to get the situation as close as possible to that of Secretary Clinton's, of course, the idea of having a server at home in your basement seems to be extremely unusual if not unique. But if a rank-and-file State Department employee were to send and receive messages - some classified - with a personal email account, what in your experiences would the likely repercussions be for that?

HENNESSEY: So obviously it would differ dramatically based on the individual circumstances, but certainly it would not be unusual for someone to lose their security clearance, and it would not be unusual for someone to lose their employment based on that kind of activity.

SIEGEL: Several Republican members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee today claimed that Mrs. Clinton received favorable treatment. If loss or suspension of a security clearance is one disciplinary step, can you imagine her being denied intelligence briefings, say, after her nomination?

HENNESSEY: No, I would not expect for her to be denied information - access to intelligence briefings. Whenever the director of National Intelligence who determines what briefings the nominees will receive decides what information to share, he's basing the assumption based on a certificate of election by the American people. Elected officials in the United States have access to classified information without having to undergo any kind of background check. So it's really - it's very, very different contexts being the presidential nominee versus being a rank-and-file government employee.

SIEGEL: If any of the - I gather fairly numerous State Department advisers who helped Hillary Clinton with her email arrangement - if they still work at the State Department, would they now face likely discipline?

HENNESSEY: It's possible that they will face some kind of administrative sanction. That will be up to the discretion of the State Department. There are some hazards in coming down too harshly on employees following a mistaken security breach or even a negligent security breach.

The important thing is that an individual employee report it and that mitigation measures are taken. So if an individual agency is viewed as being too harsh, firing people that can create a situation in which employees are afraid to disclose that a breach has occurred and that can actually lead to a worse ultimate security situation.

SIEGEL: I guess the question that a lot of people have and that Republicans in Congress seem to have answered to their satisfaction is - is Foggy Bottom and is the Pentagon crawling with people who are now saying, boy, Jones who used to work on the desk next to mine, he got ruined for doing less than this. And here Hillary Clinton seems to be getting away scot-free.

HENNESSEY: Look, there is always the perception that there are special rules for top officials that exist in a lot of different contexts. We see it in the publication of the memoirs of former government officials, you know, in the non-prosecution or plea deals, for example, of General Petraeus and elsewhere. So this sense of that there are special rules for other people that certainly exists. That said, I don't think that there's anyone in the State Department or elsewhere who can say if I had done the same actions as Secretary Clinton, I would face criminal prosecution. And that's really the question that's before us right now.

SIEGEL: Susan Hennessey, managing editor of the Lawfare blog and former lawyer for the NSA, thanks for talking with us.

HENNESSEY: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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