Hillary Clinton

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John R. Schindler
08.12.15 – 4:50 PM ET

These weren’t just ordinary secrets found in Clinton’s private server, but some of the most classified material the U.S. government has.

After months of denials and delaying actions, Hillary Clinton has decided to turn over her private email server to the Department of Justice. As this controversy has grown since the spring, Clinton and her campaign operatives have repeatedly denied that she had placed classified information in her personal email while serving as secretary of state during President Obama’s first term. (“I am confident that I never sent nor received any information that was classified at the time it was sent and received,” she said last month.) Her team also denied that she would ever hand over her server to investigators. Now both those assertions have been overturned.

Hillary Clinton has little choice but to hand over her server to authorities since it now appears increasingly likely that someone on her staff violated federal laws regarding the handling of classified materials. On August 11, after extensive investigation, the intelligence community’s inspector general reported to Congress that it had found several violations of security policy in Clinton’s personal emails.

Most seriously, the inspector general assessed that Clinton’s emails included information that was highly classified—yet mislabeled as unclassified. Worse, the information in question should have been classified up to the level of “TOP SECRET//SI//TK//NOFORN,” according to the inspector general’s report.

You may have seen acronym lists like these on declassified documents before—and glazed over them. This is the arcane language of the cleared cognoscenti, so let me explain what this means:

• TOP SECRET, as the name implies, is the highest official classification level in the U.S. government, defined as information whose unauthorized release “could cause exceptionally grave damage to national security or foreign relations.”

• SI refers to Special Intelligence, meaning it is information derived from intercepted communications, which is the business of the National Security Agency, America’s single biggest source of intelligence. They’re the guys who eavesdrop on phone calls, map who’s calling whom, and comb through emails. SI is a subset of what the intelligence community calls Sensitive Compartmented Information, or SCI. And these materials always require special handling and protection. They are to be kept in a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF, which is a special hardened room that is safe from both physical and electronic intrusion.

• TK refers to Talent Keyhole, which is an intelligence community caveat indicating that the classified material was obtained via satellite.

• NOFORN, as the name implies, means that the materials can only be shown to Americans, not to foreigners.

In short: Information at the “TOP SECRET//SI//TK//NOFORN” level is considered exceptionally highly classified and must be handled with great care under penalty of serious consequences for mishandling. Every person who is cleared and “read on” for access to such information signs reams of paperwork and receives detailed training about how it is to be handled, no exceptions—and what the consequences will be if the rules are not followed.

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