That may seem like a wildly premature question in the summer of the year before the presidential election. To which I would respond: It’s too early to know the answer to the question, but it’s not too early to ask it.
I say that because of the extraordinary developments surrounding Mrs. Clinton’s private email server, which we now know contained material classified as Top Secret and is now in the hands of the FBI. It was on August 11 that the FBI took possession of Clinton’s server hardware and three thumb drives in her lawyer’s possession, which are said to contain copies of everything she turned over to the State Department. In addition, experts say that tens of thousands of emails she deleted may be recoverable. Which means Mrs. Clinton has now lost control over events, which is precisely what she was trying to ensure when she created her own homebrew computer system in the first place.
Here’s some of what we know so far:
- Mrs. Clinton, in attempting to cover up her actions, has lied on multiple occasions.
- Two veteran prosecutors in the Justice Department’s National Security Division are overseeing the investigation. One of them helped manage the prosecution of David H. Petraeus (the retired general and former CIA director was sentenced to probation earlier this year and fined $100,000 after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of mishandling classified materials.)
- Experts say it’s a virtual certainty that her server was compromised by foreign intelligence services.
If you want to understand the gravity of the situation, I’d urge you to watch this interview with Robert Baer, a former CIA operative and CNN national security analyst. Mr. Baer pointed out that if he had sent a document like the one Hillary Clinton had on her server over the open Internet he’d get fired the same day, escorted to the door and probably be charged with mishandling classified information. When asked if this situation was a “deal breaker” for Clinton’s presidential candidacy, Baer said, “As a national security employee, a former one, yes.”
“I can’t tell you how bad this is,” he added. “A lot of things get talked about, a lot of gossip, but having documents like this sent across the Internet, it could be hacked very easily and probably were hacked, is a transgression that I don’t think the president of the United States should be allowed to, you know, have committed.”
Bob Woodward, who knows about such things, said that the Hillary Clinton email scandal “reminds me of the Nixon tapes. Thousands of hours of secretly recorded conversations that Nixon thought were exclusively his …. Hillary Clinton initially took that position, ‘I’m not turning this over, there’ll be no cooperation.” Now they’re cooperating. But this has to go on a long, long time, and the answers are probably not going to be pretty.”
That rather understates things. What we’ve seen so far has not been pretty at all. And with the FBI driving this investigation, things may get a whole lot less pretty for Mrs. Clinton. I understand the argument of those like Ross Douthat of the New York Times that “I simply do not believe that the Obama Justice Department is going to indict the former secretary of state and Democratic front-runner for mishandling classified information, even if the offenses involved would have sunk a lesser figure’s career or landed her in jail.” Still, in a career marked by scandal, this one has the potential to be politically lethal. We’ll know soon enough if it is.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times.