Return to

Sept. 8, 2016
Notes from the Pentagon

Clinton email compromised in hostile cyberattacks
The FBI’s once-secret report on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s email system reveals that messages sent to aides were compromised by hostile foreign actors.

The FBI did not elaborate on the identity of foreign cyberattacks that normally refer to activities of sophisticated foreign intelligence services or criminal groups. The bureau was also unable to “conclusively” say whether classified information sent on Mrs. Clinton’s emails and mobile phones was compromised by “cyber means,” the report said. FBI cybersleuths blamed their inability to obtain all Mrs. Clinton’s old devices and computers for the inconclusive results.

However, the FBI did conclude that Mrs. Clinton sent emails to people with computer systems that were penetrated by foreign hackers.

“The FBI did find that hostile foreign actors gained access to the personal email accounts of individuals with whom Clinton was in regular contact, and, in doing so, obtained emails sent to or received by Clinton on her personal account,” the report noted.

Mrs. Clinton used 13 handheld devices and several nongovernment computer servers in an apparent bid to evade federal record-keeping laws that require senior government officials to preserve their communications. Most of the classified information found in Mrs. Clinton’s thousands of private emails sent and received between 2009 and 2013 was relatively low-level “confidential” classified information.

The most serious potential national security damage, however, was related to the discovery of extremely sensitive intelligence that was found on some of the emails.

Additionally, Mrs. Clinton used the unsecure email while traveling outside the United States and sent numerous emails to the president that may have been intercepted by foreign intelligence services.

The FBI confirmed that the Clinton emails included information classified at the highest security level, known as “Top Secret/Special Access Program.” The information probably involved the very secret internal discussions used in nominating and conducting missile-armed drone strikes against terrorists. The issue of target nomination and internal debate over the targeting is mentioned in the FBI report.

FBI Director James B. Comey, in announcing he would not recommend prosecuting Mrs. Clinton for the security lapses, criticized the former secretary and current Democratic presidential nominee as “extremely careless” in the “handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.”

Mr. Comey said Mrs. Clinton also used the unsecure email system while on the territory of “sophisticated adversaries,” usually a reference to China and Russia.

“Given that combination of factors, we assess it is possible that hostile actors gained access to Secretary Clinton’s personal email account,” Mr. Comey said in July.

Special Access Programs are used to protect intelligence, defense and foreign policy information considered so sensitive that it requires extraordinary security above the top secret level. SAPs, as they are called, limit access to the extremely sensitive information to a few people who are cleared for access based on their need to know.

An example would be the military planning and preparations for the 2011 special operations raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

The electronic and digital communications of senior U.S. leaders are known to be targets of foreign intelligence services, including those of Russia and China.

Disarmer in chief
President Obama’s legacy-building efforts to be remembered as a leader on the issue of nuclear disarmament suffered a setback recently when senior officials dissuaded him from adopting a controversial and, according to some experts, dangerous “no first use” nuclear policy.

A U.S. official confirmed a New York Times report this week that both Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Secretary of State John F. Kerry opposed the nuclear policy change.

“No first use” is a policy that includes a public declaration that the United States would not be the first state to use nuclear weapons in a conflict. Nuclear strikes would be limited to retaliation for an initial nuclear attack.

The White House suggested in July that the nuclear policy shift, advocated by anti-nuclear activists, was under consideration. Ned Price, a White House National Security Council official, said the president was continuing to seek policies outlined in his 2009 speech in Prague calling for eliminating all nuclear weapons.

Mr. Price, who is traveling in Asia, could not be reached for comment. An NSC spokesman did not respond to emails seeking comment on the decision not to endorse the no-first-use doctrine.

Rejecting the nuclear policy shift was based on the large-scale nuclear weapons and missile buildup by both Russia and China. Both nations are engaged in comprehensive strategic nuclear forces modernization programs, including new nuclear weapons, missiles and other delivery systems.

In addition, Russia has adopted a new military doctrine that calls for using nuclear weapons during conventional wars under a policy called “escalate to de-escalate.” Defense officials have called the escalatory nuclear doctrine dangerous.

Obama’s mixed message on China
As he has done throughout his presidency, President Obama continued to send mixed signals to China during a speech in Vientiane, Laos, on Tuesday.

Praising U.S.-China economic cooperation, Mr. Obama stated that serious differences with Beijing remain.

“Our two governments continue to have serious differences in important areas,” the president said, without outlining what those differences are.

Mr. Obama then stated that the United States would continue to be “unwavering in our support for universal human rights, but at the same time, we’ve shown that we can work together to advance mutual interests.”

Washington and Beijing, he said, are working to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear arms and seeking to disarm North Korea of its nuclear weapons. And the president emphasized what he said was “historic leadership” by both countries to address the issue of global warming.

“So I will say it again: The United States welcomes the rise of a China that is peaceful and stable and prosperous and a responsible player in global affairs, because we believe that that will benefit all of us,” Mr. Obama said.

The president avoided all mention of the most serious issue facing the region: creeping Chinese maritime hegemony over disputed islands.

As the president met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Hangzhou this week, China deployed 11 ships near the disputed South China Sea feature known as Scarborough Shoal. The shoal has been declared a red line by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who warned Beijing that any militarization on Scarborough Shoal, like the artificial island-building at three nearby reefs, would bring serious consequences and isolation for Beijing.

Mr. Obama’s diplomacy-oriented policies have translated into few shows of military strength in the region, and the lack of American power projection has rattled many countries in the Asia-Pacific region who fear the United States is withdrawing from its decadeslong role as regional peacekeeper.

“We’re here to stay,” Mr. Obama said. “In good times and bad, you can count on the United States of America.”

Mr. Obama then asked rhetorically whether the future will see disputes resolved peacefully or “lead to conflict.”

However, the problems the president outlined in his remarks made no mention of Chinese island-building and militarization. Instead, the regional dangers he outlined include terrorism, arms proliferation, climate change and human trafficking.

The only reference to the Chinese threat to the region was the oft-stated claim that the United States “will continue to fly and sail and operate wherever international law allows, and support the right of all countries to do the same.”

Mr. Obama canceled a meeting in Laos with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte after Mr. Duterte referred to Mr. Obama a “son of a bitch” when asked by a reporter how he would respond to any questions about extrajudicial killings of drug dealers targeted in a Manila government anti-crime program.

The snub is a setback for efforts to bolster U.S.-Philippines defense ties that are focused on thwarting Chinese militarization of some of the Spratly Islands. The two reportedly met “informally” in a holding room before the summit’s gala final dinner, Philippine officials said late Wednesday, although there was no word of any substantive discussions in the brief meeting.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

  • Return to