In a new interview with Fox News’ Catherine Herridge, former Intelligence Community Inspector General I. Charles McCullough III describes the “blowback” he experienced from Hillary Clinton’s campaign organization and her allies in official Washington while he was reviewing the emails from her private homebrew server in 2015 and 2016. (Video below)
McCullough undertook this task at the behest of Congress, which wanted to know what kinds of material had passed through the server when Clinton used it for official State Department business. The reviews of both McCullough and his counterpart at the State Department found that “several dozen” of about 2,100 classified emails had been marked as containing highly classified information, including 22 that were Top Secret or above.
Here are some of the disclosures from McCullough’s interview:
– Backlash began immediately, in January 2016, after he briefed the Republican leadership in Congress about the Top Secret and higher material in the Hillary emails.
“All of a sudden I became a shill of the right,” McCullough recalled. “And I was told by members of Congress, ‘Be careful. You’re losing your credibility. You need to be careful. There are people out to get you.’”
– Later in 2016, close to the election, McCullough was told very explicitly that when Hillary entered the White House, he would be one of the first public officials fired.
As Election Day approached, McCullough said the threats went further, singling out him and another senior government investigator on the email case.
“It was told in no uncertain terms, by a source directly from the campaign, that we would be the first two to be fired — with [Clinton’s] administration. That that was definitely going to happen,” he said.
– Yet according to McCullough, James Clapper himself – then the Director of National Intelligence – had agreed when he was first briefed on the classification findings that what had passed through Hillary’s unsecured private server was extremely serious.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper…was also disturbed by the independent Clinton email findings.
“[Clapper] said, ‘This is extremely reckless.’ And he mentioned something about — the campaign … will have heartburn about that,” McCullough said.
He said Clapper’s Clinton email comments came during an in-person meeting about a year before the presidential election – in late December 2015 or early 2016. “[Clapper] was as off-put as the rest of us were.”
– Clapper’s political concern about the Hillary campaign having “heartburn” with McCullough’s findings probably drove the loss of access for McCullough as he plowed through his task.
After the Clapper meeting, McCullough said his team was marginalized. “I was told by senior officials to keep [Clapper] out of it,” he said, while acknowledging he tried to keep his boss in the loop.
– McCullough came under pressure from Senate Democrats, who sent him a letter in March 2016 suggesting that the review he was honchoing wasn’t a fair and impartial one. (McCullough was recommended for the IG job by Clapper and appointed by Obama in 2011. Moreover, he was not making the judgments about classification level himself; he was passing on what came from intelligence agencies.)
Six weeks before the 2016 election, McCullough says, Senator [score]Dianne Feinstein[/score] pressured him to respond to the Democrats’ letter. He refused, offering to resign immediately. Apparently, Feinstein didn’t push it further at that point.
There are other nuggets from the interview, but these form a useful backdrop against which to recall just a few points from the reporting we had available at the time McCullough was doing his job.
State tried to quash the investigation
For example, in 2015, a Hillary lieutenant at the State Department, Patrick Kennedy, wanted to stonewall the investigative process entirely. (Hillary had left State in 2013, but Kennedy was Undersecretary of State under John Kerry.) The investigation had begun as directed. But State tried to quash it with internal maneuvering (emphasis added):
Since June, the department has pushed back forcefully against the IGs’ repeated warnings that reams of classified material sat on Clinton’s private server. [McCullough was joined by State Department IG Steve Linick in this effort. – J.E.] A preliminary probe by the IGs in June found that State Department attorneys had overruled findings by their subordinates that some of the e-mails contained national-security secrets. Without sustained pressure from both IGs — and two bombshell announcements the watchdogs made on July 23 and August 11 — the public would likely still be unaware that classified materials were found in e-mails on the server, that these materials were classified at the time of their sending, and that in at least two cases these materials were Top Secret. …
Both IGs expressed alarm at State’s use of retired Foreign Service officers rather than intelligence officers to review Clinton’s communications; at the department’s storage of the e-mails on a system that wasn’t designed to safeguard “Top Secret” information; and, especially, at the apparent reversal of at least four findings of classified material by the department’s lawyers. They recommended that State include FOIA specialists from several intelligence agencies in the review process; that it have intelligence personnel review the system on which the e-mails are being stored while they’re reviewed to ensure that it is secure enough to house Top Secret materials; and that it allow the intelligence community to act as the “final arbiter” on classification questions.
Kennedy rebuffed their requests.
State tried to sell the theme that the emails were “determined” to have no classified info
Shortly afterward, still in 2015, an anonymous source told Politico that a review of Hillary’s emails within the intel community had determined that they weren’t classified.
James Clapper’s office denied that on the record:
A spokesman for Clapper said the review of the emails has not been completed. “ODNI has made no such determination and the review is ongoing,” Clapper spokesman Brian Hale said.
But Politico was happy to pass on the weak spin – from an unnamed source – that an unverifiable procedural decision had been made about handling the material, and that that was proof the emails weren’t classified:
However, the source said State Department officials had already received instructions from intelligence officials that they need not use the strictest standards for handling the two emails in dispute – meaning that they aren’t highly classified.
This gambit was shown up by subsequent events, of course. But at the time, Senate Democrats seized on the anonymous report as exonerating evidence for Clinton. Although Clapper’s office said clearly it had made no such determination, here’s Dianne Feinstein again:
“DNI Clapper’s determination is further evidence that there was no wrongdoing by Secretary Clinton,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). “The classification process is complex and subjective, but this confirms Secretary Clinton did not send classified information through her email account. It’s time to put this issue behind us and move on.”
Hillary accused the IGs of “colluding with the Republicans”
In January 2016, after McCullough briefed Congress on the initial findings about the classified email contents, Hillary doubled down on her claim that she had never sent or received highly classified emails via her private server. The McCullough review had found the following:
A report issued Tuesday by the intelligence community’s internal watchdog, Inspector General I. Charles McCullough III, found emails on Clinton’s server that were marked as “special access programs” — a classification above “top-secret.”
“To date, I have received two sworn declarations from one [intelligence community] element,” McCullough said in a letter to Congress. “These declarations cover several dozen emails containing classified information determined by the IC element to be at the CONFIDENTIAL, SECRET, and TOP SECRET/SAP levels.”
Hillary’s campaign dismissed this as political collusion by McCullough with Republicans:
A spokesman for Clinton said earlier Wednesday that an inspector general who reported finding highly classified emails on the former secretary of State’s server was colluding with Republicans in attempts to attack the White House hopeful.
Clapper refused to have a damage assessment done on the material exposed in Hillary’s emails
In mid-September 2016, right about the time Feinstein was pressuring Charles McCullough to make a public response on the Senate letter accusing him of bias, DNI Clapper decreed that there would be no damage assessment done on the classified information exposed through Hillary’s private email system.
An intelligence community directive implemented on Clapper’s own watch in 2014 (see link above) mandated such an assessment for the kind of exposure the Clinton email server represented. But Clapper decided against it:
The most sensitive classified information leaked [via the server] and possibly obtained by foreign intelligence services included ultra-secret information on U.S. drone strikes, according to American intelligence officials.
James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, agreed with security officials who argued against the need to carry out the damage assessment. Intelligence officials argued in internal discussions that since many details of the drone missile program targeting terrorists were disclosed in earlier leaks unrelated to Clinton’s use of a personal email server, gauging the damage done by her conduct would be difficult, and possibly unnecessary.
Melstad, the DNI spokesman, declined further comment when asked the reasons behind Clapper’s decision not to launch the damage assessment.
Other officials said Clapper’s decision appeared based on political considerations and was an effort to avoid embroiling American intelligence agencies in charges they were attempting to influence the outcome of Clinton’s bid for the White House.
The intelligence about drone strikes was compromised by its transmission on Clinton’s private server. The information is classified above the Top-Secret level and limited to distribution to a few officials in what is called a Special Access Program—an intelligence compartment used to prevent the disclosure of the government’s most secret information.
At this point, we should take a deep breath and recall that these various tough calls and difficult considerations came up not because law, order, and security are a pain in the neck, but because Hillary Clinton – wholly unnecessarily – used a private, un-secured email server for thousands of emails’ worth of State Department business.
Keep in mind also that the discussion above makes it clear there was no actual dispute about the classification level of what was exposed in the emails. The decision for the DNI was not whether the material was classified, but what political problems it would generate to do anything further about them during an election cycle.
How classified were the most classified emails? This classified
In her interview with Charles McCullough, Catherine Herridge presses him on how classified the 22 Top Secret and higher emails were. McCullough is clear that they were very highly classified (and, of course, the “SAP” compartmentation is indeed a hard dividing line for access. It is designed to keep knowledge of the details of very sensitive operations to a minimum).
The Fox report summarizes it thus (emphasis added):
As one of the few people who viewed the 22 Top Secret Clinton emails deemed too classified to release under any circumstances, the former IG said, “There was a very good reason to withhold those emails … there would have been harm to national security.” McCullough went further, telling Fox News that “sources and methods, lives and operations” could be put at risk.
But did we have reason to know that before this new interview? Indeed we did. In 2016, Daily Wire’s Chase Stephens called out a passage from McCullough’s testimony to the House Oversight Committee, under questioning from [score]Jason Chaffetz[/score] (then the committee chairman; emphasis in original):
Republican Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah, Chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, asked the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community, Charles McCullough, “Can you provide this committee, in a secure format, the classified emails?”
“I cannot provide a certain segment of them because the agency that owns the information for those emails has limited the distribution on those,” McCullough explained. “They are characterizing them as OrCon, ‘originator control,’ so I can’t give them to even Congress without getting the agency’s permission to provide them.”
“Which agency?” Chaffetz interjected.
“I can’t say that in an open hearing sir,” McCullough replied.
Chaffetz, in disbelief, responded, “So you can’t even tell me which agency won’t allow us, as members of Congress, to see something that Hillary Clinton allowed somebody without a security clearance, in a non-protected format to see. That’s correct?”
The chairman then asked McCullough if he can generally tell the committee what the emails were about.
“We shouldn’t get into the details of these emails in an open hearing,” McCullough responded. …
McCullough responded with the final nail into how serious these emails were, telling the congressional committee that, “This is the segment of emails that I had to have people in my office read-in to particular programs to even see these emails. We didn’t possess the required clearances.”
“So even the Inspector General for ODNI [Office of the Director of National Intelligence] didn’t have the requisite security clearances?” Chaffetz clarified.
“That’s correct. I had to get read-ins for them,” McCullough said.
While in one sense we shouldn’t oversell the meaning of this – investigators sometimes have to get read into classified programs in order to complete investigations – we can also read the right meaning into it. This isn’t some junior enlisted military person mishandling a generic class of information, or exposing the one highly classified program he or she interacts with on a daily basis. This is the Secretary of State we’re talking about.
She has access to a lot of America’s most sensitive programs for specific reasons. What she is “read into” is a big deal, not something routine that she shares across the board with hundreds of other people on Capitol Hill who are read into similar levels of intelligence. It does matter that not only did McCullough and his people have to be specially read into the programs in question, but that he couldn’t simply share that information with members of Congress whom he knew to already be familiar with highly classified intel themselves. (I’ve been there. Especially for SAP information, this all rings true.)
Note that all of this is verifiable. We don’t know for sure what Chaffetz did about it afterward, but the read-in documentation McCullough alluded to would be resident with the relevant agenc(ies), and Congress could get hold of the records if it pursued the matter.
That is the level of compartmentation we’re talking about. That’s what was in Hillary’s un-secured emails, sent via her private server. And that’s just one aspect of the material; there could have been a lot of highly exploitable material in the less classified content as well.
The State Department and Senate Democrats tried to slow-roll and silence the investigation in 2015 and 2016. Hillary herself, of course, dragged her heels and changed her story a number of times throughout that period. James Clapper may have found it “extremely reckless,” but he also wanted nothing to do with investigating it, and decided just before the election that it would be too politically sensitive to do a damage assessment on it, even though his own community directive required one.
Charles McCullough did manage to get his job done. James Comey and Loretta Lynch made sure that that didn’t matter. The Department of Justice would not pursue the matter further.
As is usual in these cases, Catherine Herridge asked McCullough what would happen to him if he did what Hillary had done.
Asked what would have happened to him if he had done such a thing, McCullough said: “I’d be sitting in Leavenworth right now.”
As it was, for doing his job, Hillary’s campaign threatened that she would fire him as soon as she took office as president.