Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Hillary & Hubris: A Tragedy in Email

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In Agamemnon, the first play of Aeschylus’ Oresteia Clytemnestra (with her lover Aegisthus) plots to murder her husband Agamemnon when he returns home from the Trojan War. When the Great King returns homes he finds a red carpet spread before him. But only the gods are permitted to walk on crimson. Yet, the Great King, returning from a historic victory, could not allow his feet to touch mundane earth, that would be a dishonor. Agamemnon frets about this, fearing the gods will strike him down for his affront. Clytemnestra goads her husband into walking on the crimson tapestries. And the thing about Agamemnon - his hubris, his fatal flaw - is that granted a choice between surrendering honor or claiming too much, he will always choose the excess of honor. (This is the conflict that sparks the Illiad!) Of course, Clytemnestra was plotting to entangle him in this carpet and murder him.

This incident echoes down to the present day. All of us have our fatal flaws. In the Odyssey Homer gave that sage counsel of steering towards the less evil. But knowing what is our particular tendency to greater evil is tough to discern. We steer because of a lifetime of habit, of character.

I thought this applied to Dick Cheney and his penchant for secrecy. There are of course virtues to secrecy. It is not always wrong to be secretive, especially in matters of national security. But there are also times when secrecy is exactly the wrong choice. In the wake of the terrible hunting accident, when the vice president shot his friend, Cheney’s instinct was not to discuss it with the public. But there was no way in which this could have failed to be a national story. Cheney’s reticence only fueled the fire. And it contributed, was perhaps the nail in the coffin, to his once outsized role in the administration.

Now we see, with the Hillary imbroglio that she too shares this particular hubris. In a profound way it undermines her ambitions. Her primary virtue as a candidate is experience. She has been there and done that. Yet, having spent much of the 1990s fighting with special prosecutors over her documents - fueling suspicions that she was hiding something - she goes ahead and recreates that scenario by building her own private email system with which to do the State Department’s business - refueling those suspicions.

A confession: in the late 1990s I was a Clinton-hater. I was running with a neo-con crowd and as a junior member of the conspiracy thought Iraq was a good idea. I’ve learned things since, but I can’t feel all that guilty since my policy influence was exactly nil (I can feel humbled perhaps, but not guilty). 

But, back to the Clintons.

My research on the vice presidency, in which I studied politicians and their doings, left me with a fair amount of respect for them and the tough, tough decisions they have to make. Also, the Clinton administration had its achievements. One could argue he was a great Republican president, giving us NAFTA, welfare reform, and a balanced budget. He got a good hand as president, but he also played it well.

So Hillary has been running for president since 2000, arguably earlier. She has a lot of assets as a candidate. I take experience in presidential candidates seriously and she has it in spades. We like to talk about people having good instincts on policy, but instincts only take you so far. The Presidency is a job like no other in the world. Hanging around the White House and being close to the President counts as experience. The Executive Office of the President is an extensive bureaucracy in its own right, with thousands of employees and agencies. Just figuring out where the White House stands on an issue - before getting to the inter-agency process - is a big deal. The various constituencies within the White House on an issue can easily fill a conference room. Figuring out how to make this institution, which really is the president’s steering mechanism for the ship of state, work for you is not a small problem. Presidents (including Bill Clinton) have wrestled with this problem in their early years. Hillary spent eight years in the White House watching the president closely. She’ll have a pretty good idea of how to get things done.

Presidents who want to accomplish anything significant have to work with congress. The gap between state legislatures and Capitol Hill is significant. The game is the same, but the arena gets bigger and the other players are much better. Consider, Congress has 535 members. State legislatures usually have less than 200. Assume a president or a governor has formidable powers of persuasion and, on any given issue, can usually persuade about a dozen recalcitrant members to shift their votes. In Congress that represents 2.5% of the total. In a typical state legislature (say my home state of Maryland) that would represent almost 7% of the total. A governor has a lot more options. In the past few decades we’ve been electing governors to the presidency and most have struggled with congressional relations.

Hillary spent eight years in the Senate and was, by most accounts, respected and well-liked in the Senate. She will not be flummoxed by the institutional calendar and prerogatives.

Finally, her time as Secretary of State was invaluable experience. Outsiders vastly underestimate the importance of understanding the mechanisms of foreign policy. It is fine to argue the U.S. should pursue a strategy of aligning with state X or pressuring state Y. The actually ways in which these things are done are more mysterious. There is no “pressure adversary” button on the desk in the West Wing.

Hillary, in a way no candidate since, George H.W. Bush, brings experience to the table. We wanted “no-drama” Obama but, for various reasons, didn’t exactly get that (not all of these reasons were his fault of course.) But Hillary, well, when she get up to the plate she’ll know how to hit a big-league fastball.

So all of that being said, Hillary’s email “issue” fundamentally raises questions about whether she’s learned anything!

Let’s be charitable.  At her big press conference, her answer was that simply she wanted to carry one device for all her emails (this response has it’s own problems - namely a certain level of arrogance). Let’s assume that Hillary is not conspiring to keep information from the public and that she honestly thought conducting official business over a jury-rigged personal network based on a server in her house was the least bad solution to these problems. 

Anyway, the federal archiving regulations were ambiguous in 2009 when she took office. State’s IT is pretty rickety and believed to be insecure. So, this made sense at the time. (Could she have changed in 2011 when the White House issued a new policy - well, yeah - but let’s say it wasn’t her top priority.)

Let’s not question motivations. I DON’T think there is anything to Benghazi as a scandal. They may have bobbled the ball, but it was a tough play. The Clinton Foundation is up to stuff, undoubtedly, but I sort of assume that they have some shady donors. Lots of prestigious universities and foundations take money from checkered sources seeking to burnish their reputation.

But the fact that she chose this solution shows very poor judgment in two critical areas.

First, Hillary’s email problem is a counter-intelligence nightmare. My buddy BJ Tucker, a brilliant guy all-round but with real expertise on CI, wrote to me:
CI personnel, if they are involved, would look to have the email servers undergo a forensic examination to look for intrusions, anomalies, etc. I suspect that would find a few because the State Department itself came under several cyber attacks – some of which are ongoing. Data was exfiltrated from State and its possible that an email floating in the archive would have her personal address on it. Once a foreign intelligence service, or a freelance hacker, had that they could use the email headers to track it down. I’m betting that how Guccifer found this email address in the first place. If a few reporters can figure this out, then we have to suspect the likelihood that a nation state did as well. This leads into the content of the emails. In the classified world we have a problem with aggregation. Aggregation occurs when someone marries seemingly disparate unclassified information into one document and inadvertently creating something that is classified. Happens quite frequently, but its become more of a problem in the cyber age. It’s possible that some of the emails contained sensitive information, and someone with access to the archive could start putting things together. Hopefully anything that has been pilfered – if anything was – is now outdated. Another thing to consider is that State has access to several different classified systems with email capabilities for program compartmentalization. Again, it’s not uncommon for users to get confused and share classified information on the wrong system, or worse put it on an unclassified system. This is something else that would be looked at. 
So first, it was just bad security. Did no one tell her this?

But the bigger issue is how someone with her savvy and experience could make such a mistake.

Hillary spent the better part of a decade going back and forth with independent prosecutors over documents and tangling with “a vast right-wing conspiracy.” So knowing that there is this vast conspiracy on the hunt for her mis-doings she developed a email system practically designed to make them apoplectic with outrage and suspicion.

Well, haters gonna hate. Maybe Hillary, knowing how many were salivating to impugn her, was actually baiting them. This would rally her supporters closer and - by focusing on this on the campaign trial - save her from actually having to talk about issues. Understand, once you start talking policy some people will be happy, but some will not. If you can be ambiguous about your policy and let people see in you what they want, you are in a great position on the campaign trail.

If it’s a wonderful strategy. But I’m not sure it will work. The whole point of an experienced president, a steady hand on the wheel, is to not have endless pointless mini-crises, that devour the President's energy and get in the way of actual work. Richard Neustadt called them “piglets” as opposed to the massive policy failure of the Bay of Pigs. If Hillary, with her vast experience and time in office can’t avoid “stepping in it” on this relatively minor issue, do we really want four years of this?

Roughly 47% of the electorate will go for Hillary no matter what and 47% to the other candidate. The election will come down to a relatively small number of people in key swing states. They are not wise Solons, recognizing their critical role as the ultimate decides of our great democracy. They are the least informed voters (welcome to democracy.) They will vote based on general impressions and this email issue reinforces the most negative impressions of Hillary. This email issue (and we are talking about the Clintons, so who knows what other strange stuff will come up) just reminds me people of silliness of the 1990s. One can easily imagine these uninformed yet critical voters, thinking, “Ugh, these people again? Aren’t we done with their craziness yet? Why are they rebooting that franchise?"

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