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Exactly How 'Sophisticated' Is Hillary Clinton on Email Use and Classification?

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Reps. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., (center) and Thomas Massie, R-Ky., listen as Comey testifies. Reps. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., (center) and Thomas Massie, R-Ky., listen as Comey testifies. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Amid the fireworks at Thursday’s House hearing featuring FBI Director James Comey came a dispute—largely along partisan lines---about the sophistication of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

The Republican agenda on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee was to grill Comey on whether politics tinged his decision not to prosecute Clinton for sending classified information on a private email system. The Democrats’ agenda was to portray the hearing itself as Republican political theater.

Each made their case differently when addressing what Comey called the key to his decision not to prosecute: What was Clinton’s intention and thinking when she set up the private server?

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Republicans repeatedly noted that Clinton was an attorney, first lady and U.S. senator before becoming secretary of State, upon which time she would be expected to be briefed and understand the ins and outs of handling classified material.  Clinton “would be sophisticated enough to understand what a “C” in parentheses means,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., referring to the State Department manual’s label for identifying classified material in the text of an email.

Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., noted that as an agency head, Clinton was “an original classification authority,” after asking Comey whether Clinton set up her private server to “shield information from the public.”

Comey’s response was perhaps surprising. Not only did he say Clinton made the server arrangement primarily “as a matter of convenience,” but he added: “Our investigation did not find that she’s that sophisticated” on these issues. (She didn’t have a computer in her office at State, he noted, though she did ill-advisedly use mobile devices overseas.)

Comey said he didn’t believe Clinton consulted with her attorney on which emails her staff should delete to remove personal ones before turning 30,000 over to the State Department. And Comey noted, as he had in his blockbuster Tuesday press conference, that Clinton’s team did send more classified materials than it had acknowledged using unsecured email accounts. Yet Clinton’s vetting attorneys did not read the texts of the emails but relied on the subject lines to make judgments about which were work-related.

Democrats, for their part, defended Clinton’s sophistication level as being closer to that of an average employee—or member of Congress. Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., noted that classification labels do not appear in the subject line of an email. “So if Clinton really were an expert and followed the State Department manual, the header would not tell her it was classified,” he noted. Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., said that Clinton in the course of doing her work “just might miss a small C in parentheses in the body of an email.”

Two Democrats proposed that the Oversight committee itself should subject to the same rules on use of personal email and handling of classified material required of agencies. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., noted that committee Chairman Chaffetz, R-Utah, lists his personal email account on his congressional business card.  “We would like your guidance on what we could learn from this episode on the use of personal email for federal employees” and members of Congress, she told Comey.

Comey’s surprised realization—arrived at during the FBI investigation--that Clinton may not be as sophisticated as he’d thought, did not soften his characterization of her actions on sensitive emails as careless.

“An unclassified system is no place for conversations involving classified material,” he declared.  “Everyone ought to be aware of it, and employees ought to be trained in it,” including members of Congress, Comey said under questioning on whether letting Clinton go free sets a bad precedent. “My primary concern” from the Clinton email episode “is what other employees in government might think.” The consequences agency employees face for mishandling classified material—reprimand, loss of clearance, demotion, termination—“are still going to be there.”

Charles S. Clark joined Government Executive in the fall of 2009. He has been on staff at The Washington Post, Congressional Quarterly, National Journal, Time-Life Books, Tax Analysts, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, and the National Center on Education and the Economy. He has written or edited online news, daily news stories, long features, wire copy, magazines, books and organizational media strategies.

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