Rank has its privileges — and the executive rank has one in particular. The State Department announced yesterday that they will not release 22 e-mails from Hillary Clinton’s e-mail server containing top-secret information, but they also will withhold another 18 unclassified e-mails. Those messages involve President Barack Obama, and the State Department has decided to honor a claim of executive privilege to keep those out of the public record:
Separately, the State Department said on Friday that it would be similarly withholding 18 emails sent between Clinton and President Obama, “to protect the president’s ability to receive unvarnished advice and counsel.”
The emails, made up from eight email chains, “have not been determined to be classified,” Kirby told reporters on Friday. “They are entirely separate and distinct from the emails that were upgraded.”
The White House had asked for the emails to be kept secret in October.
On one level, this is a rather straightforward executive privilege claim. Normal communications between a president and his aides — Cabinet secretaries would fit in that description — can be exempted from regular archival and oversight functions as a way for presidents to get blunt assessments. (Whether they do or get mostly yes-men feedback is another matter.) That would not apply if the communications served an illegal purpose, as Richard Nixon found out in Watergate, but for the most part direct communications between a president and a political appointee can be claimed to have privilege. This seems no different.
On the other hand, though, these e-mails might undermine Obama’s contention that no one knew that Hillary Clinton exclusively used an unauthorized and unsecured e-mail server. That has been the White House position ever since the scandal broke, distancing themselves from the stench by claiming that they assumed she used official communications systems for her work. That may be possible, but it stretches credulity — and the executive-privilege claim here undermines it. If these communications were so sensitive to Obama’s decision-making process, why would he have allowed them to be conducted through a private e-mail server at all? He certainly could tell by her domain name that it wasn’t an official system (which would use a .gov extension). Wouldn’t Obama have said, “Let’s take this discussion to a more secure system,” if he was unaware that Hillary didn’t use State Department e-mail at all?
Also, let’s not forget that the State Department and the White House have decided not to release the 22 e-mails at all because of the high likelihood that others have copies of Hillary’s system, and they don’t want to tip off where the highly sensitive information is within it. It’s not going to be very difficult for the same malefactors to find Obama’s e-mails in the e-mail system. The only people who won’t be seeing these messages will be ordinary American citizens; other nations and organizations have probably been reading them for years. Don’t be surprised when they start floating to the surface, no matter how many claims of executive privilege the White House makes.
Update: Fixed a redundant construct in the first paragraph after the excerpt.