Claims That Clinton Lied About Emails Dissolve Under Scrutiny

Claims That Clinton Lied About Emails Dissolve Under Scrutiny

The media has created a misleading narrative about her honesty.

November 1, 2016

Donald Trump’s supporters seem to feel that you can tell that Hillary Clinton is lying just by seeing her lips move. While their view might be dismissed, many people who favor Clinton also believe she has problems with the truth. She certainly has an image problem. Fact checkers such as The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler have identified far more misstatements by Trump than by Clinton, and the proportion of Trump to Clinton misstatements grows larger if one only considers four Pinocchio whoppers. Opinion polls nonetheless indicate that voters think Clinton is as likely as Trump to lie or more likely.

This election cycle, no allegation of lying has been more prevalent and done more to harm Clinton than the claim that she has repeatedly lied when discussing her email and, in particular, when denying or explaining away the presence of classified information on her server. The Post’s Kessler has given two of her statements four Pinocchios and accorded three Pinocchios to others. If Kessler meant to say that some of her statements were mistaken, he is correct. If he means to say her statements were lies, which is what that fourth Pinocchio implies, his judgments are at best unproven and in most cases wrong. Like other prominent fact checkers, he reports findings in ways that make it easy to confuse misstatements with lies. In evaluating a person’s honesty the distinction is fundamental.

A misstatement is a statement made with no intent to deceive that turns out to be untrue. A lie is an untrue statement made with intent to deceive or, if one wants to stretch the definition, with such little concern for accuracy as to constitute reckless disregard of the truth. If Donald Trump, despite seeing Obama’s long-form birth certificate, honestly believed that Obama had been born in Kenya, he would not be lying in the strict sense of the term, but he could be called a liar if we include in our definition statements made in reckless disregard of the truth. Misstatements are caused by knowledge gaps, faulty observations and memory problems. Lies bear on honesty. The reckless disregard of the truth, Trump's specialty, speaks not just to honesty but to integrity as well.

Clinton has made misstatements regarding the presence of classified information on her server. But did she lie? Not only is there no convincing evidence that she has lied, but there is also considerable reason to believe that Clinton thought she was telling the truth. I will use Glenn Kessler’s analyses to justify my point, but I could use claims by other fact checkers as well.

Consider the earliest Clinton email statement that Kessler examined: “I did not mail classified material to anyone on my e-mail. There is no classified material.” Clinton reiterated this claim later when attention was again focused on the issue, but soon after she said something a bit different: “I did not send classified material, and I did not receive any material that was marked or designated classified.” Kessler regards the latter claim as “careful and legalistic phrasing,” which “raises suspicions.” A more charitable view and a more accurate one is that her later qualification is the essence of honesty.

Put yourself in Clinton’s shoes. Some three to seven years earlier you had as Secretary of State received more than 30,000 business-related emails. Thinking back over these emails, you would try to recall whether any of them had been marked classified. (Classified documents are supposed to scream out their status with “can’t miss” markings on the top and bottom of every page.) You might also, without recalling any specific messages, be certain that if you had received a document marked classified on an unsecured account you would have made certain that the message was properly handled, and you would have spoken to the person who sent it. Recalling neither seeing a message with classified markings nor doing what you know you would have done had you received a message marked classified, you might confidently assert, as Clinton did, that there was no classified information on your server. 

The next day, however, an aide might point out that you could not be sure that no message you received was classified. The most you could know is that to the best of your recollection no material you received was marked classified. If you were concerned with accuracy, you would correct the record by saying what you could be sure was true, namely, you “did not receive any material that was marked or designated classified.” Far from raising suspicions or being legalistic in a way that suggests deception, you have revised your statement to be sure that you say no more than you can honestly claim to know. Then a respected fact checker treats the revised statement as if it suggests dishonesty!

Michael Candelori/Creative Commons

Opinion polls indicate that voters think Hillary Clinton is as likely as Donald Trump to lie or more likely. Here, Trump holds a rally in Newtown, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, on October 21, 2016. 

Kessler’s analysis is wrong because he does not understand how the classification system works. (While working for the Department of Homeland Security, I was charged with working with DHS security to write our Division-specific classification manual.) The bulk of his column suggesting that Clinton was evasive or lying when she said there was no information marked classified on her server focuses on a message Clinton received from the British Foreign Secretary David Miliband reporting on what he learned on a trip he had recently made to Afghanistan. The message, sent from the Foreign Secretary’s own home email account through two aides indicated that it was meant for Clinton’s eyes only. One may suppose that the message contained classifiable information, and consistent with this State chose to classify the message after the fact. But contrary to Kessler’s impression, the message has no bearing on Clinton’s veracity when she said she had no classified email on her server. Miliband knew how to send a classified message between allies. He chose instead to send an unclassified missive.

Kessler writes as if Miliband’s desire that only Clinton read the message is tantamount to classification. It is not. Suppose, for example, that a State Department investigator discovered that State had ignored an urgent request to upgrade the smoke filtration in the safe room of the American consulate in Benghazi, and that if the filtration had been upgraded, the American ambassador who took refuge in this room would have survived.  She might well have relayed this information to Clinton in a message marked “for your eyes only.” But far from implying that the message should be classified, the message could not be classified after the fact. Obama’s executive order on classification expressly excludes classifying messages to save agencies from embarrassment.

The only people who could have classified the message Miliband sent to Clinton, assuming no one else read the message, were Miliband and Clinton. Neither chose to do so.  Moreover, when State later classified the message to preclude its release, it labeled it “confidential,” the government’s lowest classification level. Decisions on whether to classify information as confidential are often judgment calls, and errors tend to be in the direction of overclassification. Nevertheless, Kessler devoted most of his original analysis of Clinton’s truthfulness to discussing this message, although it tells us nothing about her veracity.

While Clinton’s receipt of the Miliband message should not have gotten her any Pinocchios, Kessler used it, together with the other post-classified messages, as the basis for awarding two of the nosey guys. Kessler apparently thought Clinton should have treated some unclassified messages as classified given their contents, and from this mistaken perspective he saw her attempt to state accurately what she knew—namely that no messages on her server were marked classified—as “wordsmithing.” Later, he reconsidered, not to correct his error but to upgrade his Pinocchio rating from two to four following FBI Director James Comey’s announcement that Clinton would not be prosecuted. Kessler found in the Director’s testimony strong evidence that Clinton had lied. On his scale, four Pinocchios equates to a “whopper,” a common name for a big lie.

Kessler’s decision to award four Pinocchios turned on two portions of Comey’s statement. First Comey testified that 110 emails on Clinton’s server contained classified information. This contradicted Clinton’s initial claim that there was no confidential information on her computer. It provides, however, no reason to think Clinton was intending to deceive when she made that claim. Classified information is recognized by its markings or by other circumstances that make its classified status clear. Only three of about 30,000 documents even arguably had such markings. These form the second pillar that Kessler used to support his view that Clinton had told a whopper. 

Brookings Institution/Creative Commons

FBI Director James Comey. 

The three “smoking gun” documents contained a “C,” a marking which indicates that a portion of a document is classified “confidential.” Yet their presence does nothing to call into question Clinton’s honesty when she said she did not recall seeing any documents marked classified. If any portion of a document page is classified, the page must be marked as it would be if everything on the page were classified. A “C” would be placed on a document to indicate that only the words or sentences so marked are confidential, and that other information on the page is either not classified or classified at a higher level. Without page markings and given the innocuous nature of what is often classified confidential even if Clinton had, the day after reading the documents, said she had seen no messages that were classified it would be unlikely to have reflected dishonesty. Not only does the suggestion of dishonesty disappear entirely when we are talking of three message in 30,000 recalled years after they were read, but in fact in two of the three cases “Cs” had been inadvertently left on declassified documents. Indeed, when Director Comey was asked whether Clinton should have realized that the “C” markings meant that a portion of a document was confidential, he replied that while he once might have thought that, he was no longer sure and didn’t find Clinton’s denial incredible. If failing to recall that three of 30,000 messages on her server contained “Cs”, or failing to know that “C” stood for confidential, means that Clinton’s denial that information marked classified on her server is a “whopper,” one can only ask “Where is the beef?”

The other email-related four Pinocchio award that Kessler gave Clinton was for her suggestion that FBI Director Comey had said her public comments on her email had been truthful. Comey did not say that. He said that the FBI had no reason to believe Clinton had lied when they interviewed her. It is, however, hard to see in Clinton’s statement any intent to mislead. As she later explained, and as is clear from Comey’s statement before the House Committee that almost immediately challenged his decision to recommend against prosecution, the FBI interview covered the issues Clinton had addressed in her public statements and in talking to the FBI she reiterated what she had said to the public. If the FBI thought her statements to the agents who interviewed her were honest, then it is fair to suggest that the veracity of her public statements had been validated by the FBI even if her words were literally untrue.

Here are some questions asked at the House hearing the day following Director Comey’s conclusion that Clinton had committed no indictable offense, together with Director Comey’s answers:

Q. “Did Hillary Clinton lie?”

A. “We have no basis to conclude she lied to the FBI.” 

Q. “Did Secretary Clinton know her legal team deleted those emails? [The reference is to emails that should have been turned over to State.]

A. “I don’t believe so.”

Q. “Was the reason she set up her own private server because she wanted to shield communication from Congress and the public?” 

A. “I can’t say that. Our best information is that she set it up as a matter of convenience.”

Q. “Did Secretary Clinton or any member of her staff intentionally violate federal law?” 

A. “We did not develop clear evidence of that.”

Q. “Was she evasive?” 

A. I don’t think the agents assessed she was evasive.”

Q. “So if Secretary Clinton was an expert at what’s classified and what’s not and were following the [classification] manual, the absence of a header would tell her immediately that these three documents [marked with a “C”] were not classified. Am I correct in that?”         

A. “That would be a reasonable inference.”

Q.  “Did [Clinton] lie to the FBI in that interview?” 

A.  “I have no basis for concluding that she was untruthful with us.”

The Post’s Glenn Kessler was quick to raise Clinton’s claim that she had no classified information on her server from two Pinocchios to four based on a brief statement by Director Comey, but he has not revised his judgment downward based on Comey’s more detailed comments. Indeed, his website still gives Clinton three Pinocchio’s for claiming that she set up her personal server as a matter of convenience, although this is the conclusion the FBI reached.

I don’t mean to dump on Glenn Kessler. Other fact checkers have also found fault with Clinton’s statements regarding her email. Moreover, Kessler does a generally good job in ferreting out the truth and performs a public service. But I do think many people, Kessler apparently included, approach Clinton’s statements expecting they will find she lied. This colors their judgments. Also, too many people, fact checkers included, equate honest misstatements with dishonest lies. If we want to evaluate a candidate’s truthfulness, this distinction must be made. Calling misstatements Pinocchios makes for a misinformed rather than a better-informed public.

Don LaVange/Creative Commons

Representative Jason Chaffetz. 

I have discussed only a few evaluations of Clinton’s veracity on one narrow issue. She has, however, been accused of telling lies throughout her career. Consider Benghazi, Whitewater, and Vincent Foster’s suicide. Clinton has been accused of lying with respect to each of them. But each has been thoroughly investigated, and she has never been shown to have lied. Nevertheless, her image as a truth teller has been tarnished. Repeated charges, almost always by Republican opponents, have generated lots of smoke, and experience teaches us that if there is enough smoke, there must be a fire. Seldom do we realize that smudge pots can generate even more smoke than fire. Clinton would, no doubt, argue that her reputation for untrustworthiness is based almost entirely on smudge pot smoke, which I believe is a fair assessment. 

However, not every false Clinton statement reflects an opponent’s vendettas. She may be criticized for a number of “unforced errors.” But even these are likely to be misstatements and not lies. All memory is a reconstruction based on traces of what we have experienced. Memory is malleable; memories change over time and they can be implanted. Experiences may be confounded. In particular, we may confuse things we were told or experienced second hand with what actually happened. On occasion Clinton appears to have done this.

Clinton, like all politicians, tries to say things in ways that will most help her. This can involve taking things out of context, clever wordsmithing, dodging questions, unjustly harsh attacks and, on occasion, lying. It is how the game of politics is played in this country. But Clinton is at a disadvantage. Because she has a reputation for lying and devious activities stoked by Republicans over the course of her career, people, including many journalists, are primed to attribute dishonesty to her when evidence is poorly understood or ambiguous. We saw this recently when mainstream media reported on a document in which an FBI staffer seemed to suggest that representatives of the State Department and the FBI agent were treating a State Department request to declassify a document on Clinton’s server as a quid pro quo for approving the assignment of extra agents to a foreign embassy. The Washington Post’s headlined this story, “Hillary Clinton’s email problems just came roaring back.”

This “Clinton is in trouble again” spin ignored some salient facts. The exchange occurred more than two years after Clinton had left the State Department; Clinton almost certainly did not know of the exchange, much less have input into it; Clinton had nothing to gain and may have had something to lose by declassifying the message and making its content public, declassifying one message would not have changed the narrative surrounding the presence of classified email on Clinton’s server, and if there was the suggestion of a quid pro quo it was the FBI that had requested it. Had a person other than Clinton been involved, a reporter might have noticed these facts. Rather than a front-page story, there would have been no story at all because there was no story there. A similar dynamic is at work in the readiness of the press and others to label Clinton’s misstatements “lies.”

We see further evidence of how image colors perceptions in reactions to FBI Director Comey's letter informing Representative Chaffetz that the FBI had discovered messages traceable to Clinton’s private server in the course of an unrelated criminal investigation, and that the Bureau would examine them to see if they had any bearing on the FBI's inquiry into Clinton's use of a private server. Chaffetz immediately characterized this as a reopening of the investigation into Clinton's behavior, and the immediate media reaction was to accept and spread widely this interpretation. Trump went even further suggesting that Comey never would have written his letter had there not been substantial evidence that Clinton had committed a crime. Neither interpretation is correct, yet many people, including originally too many reporters, find at least the first and perhaps the second interpretation plausible. 

A fair reading of Comey's letter is that the most that can be said is that the FBI will examine the newly discovered email to see if there is any reason to revise its judgment about the innocence of Clinton's behavior. Moreover, Comey made clear that none of the emails had been examined, and that the FBI examination might show them to be of no significance. Yet with Clinton it seems to be guilty until proven innocent rather than innocent until proven guilty. Egged on by Republican politicians and the Trump campaign, many people seem willing to believe that this new email trove will contain as yet unrevealed classified information that will lead Comey to revise his decision not to recommend prosecution. The odds of this happening are, however, small. Even if previously unrevealed classified emails are found, unless they contain classification markings, nothing about them would change the basis for Comey's original judgment.

There is no reason to believe that Clinton is less honest or trustworthy than most politicians, and she may well be more honest in what she tells voters than many of her more trusted peers. One can accuse Clinton of misstating facts, but among her misstatements honest errors appear far more common than intentional efforts to deceive. Indeed, the latter are hard to find. Clinton’s remarks have been closely scrutinized by her political enemies for at least 25 years. Any fact she has gotten wrong is likely to have been labeled a lie. How many have there been? And how many people would appear consistently trustworthy if their every public comment for a quarter of a century were closely scrutinized by their enemies, and any mistakes they made derided as lies? Few people would survive the endless investigations and scrutiny as well as Clinton has. And that’s the honest truth. 

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