Few might remember it now, but there was a time when certain members of George W. Bush's administration were denounced as traitors. Virginia's current governor, Terry McAuliffe, was among the denouncers.
Back then—in 2004—McAuliffe headed up the Democratic National Committee. In an Oct. 15 interview on CNN, McAuliffe said Bush adviser Karl Rove had just spent "two and a half hours before a federal grand jury today answering questions about who in the White House committed treason by outing a CIA operative."
McAuliffe was referring to a scandal known as Plamegate. The backstory is complicated, but it boils down to this: During the run-up to the Iraq War, a fellow named Joseph Wilson wrote an op-ed in The New York Times undermining a key administration claim about Iraq's quest for weapons of mass destruction. This made the administration most unhappy. Not long afterward, someone told columnist Robert Novak and a few other members of the media that Wilson was married to one Valerie Plame, a CIA employee.
Plame was supposed to be undercover; her role as a CIA operative was classified. True, she was working in Washington at the time, but you still don't blab about these things. Outrage ensued, and suspicions coalesced around the theory that someone high up in the Bush administration had outed Plame to undermine Wilson's story. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, an adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, became the chief suspect.
To say this intrigue consumed Washington would be putting it mildly. A special counsel was appointed. Reporters went to jail for not revealing sources. The thing dragged on for years. The news coverage alone bordered on obsessive, for obvious reasons. "Villainous War-Mongering President Violates Sacred Tenets of National Security to Slime Truth-Telling Critic of War" must have been auto-saved on a thousand newsroom computers for easy repetition.
Libby eventually was convicted of lying to the FBI and a couple of other things, but Bush commuted his sentence. Anyway, by then it had been learned that a State Department official, Richard Armitage, was the original source of the leak. He had "casually disclosed" Plame's identity at the end of an interview with Novak.
Nevertheless, rage continued to simmer over the disclosure. It was—as The New York Times put it—"a serious offense, which could have put (Plame) and all those who had worked with her in danger." Wilson and Plame called it treason.
When he was asked if Karl Rove "is guilty of treason," Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) said, "Yes, I think so." Rachel Maddow and others agreed. The word got tossed around so much Plamegate was sometimes referred to as "Treasongate."
Which brings us to Hillary Clinton.
As the AP reported several days ago, "Clinton's home (e-mail) server contained closely guarded government secrets," including "material requiring one of the highest levels of classification." That material involves "special access programs," a "highly restricted subset of classified material that could point to confidential sources or clandestine programs."
Some of the material is so closely guarded that the State Department has chosen to withhold 22 of the e-mails, on the grounds that releasing them would be too damaging. One unnamed government official alleges the e-mails contain "operational intelligence" that could jeopardize "sources, methods, and lives."
But then, those e-mails might already have been released. The AP has reported that Clinton's server "was connected to the Internet in ways that made it more vulnerable to hackers." (In fact, the person who revealed Clinton's private e-mail address was a Romanian hacker named Marcel Lazar Lehel.) Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said "the odds are pretty high" that Russia, China, and other nations hacked into her server.
Clinton repeatedly has tried to bluff her way through all of this. First she claimed her e-mails contained no classified material. When that didn't hold up, she insisted she never received or sent material that was "marked" classified at the time. But as countless others have noted, whether the material was marked as classified is irrelevant.
Six years ago, a former NSA official, Thomas Drake, was prosecuted under the Espionage Act for keeping a printout of an email that was not marked classified. Eight years ago, Jessica Lynn Quintana pleaded guilty to knowingly removing classified material from a national research library; she had taken home printouts and information stored on a thumb drive.
In late September the State Department confessed that the safe it installed for Clinton's lawyer, David Kendall, so he could review her emails was not secure enough. It was good enough for some classified information, but "not approved for TS/SCI material"—i.e., Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information. Material like that is supposed to be held in a special facility designed for just such purposes—not, say, the basement of your home in Chappaqua, N.Y., which is where Clinton's server lived.
Clinton signed a nondisclosure agreement acknowledging that "negligent handling" of classified information "could cause irreparable injury to the United States." Confronted about that the other day, she dodged the question: "You can't get information off the classified system in the State Department to put onto an unclassified system, no matter what that system is."
Actually, you can. And she might have. There is evidence her aides might have copied material from the secure Secret Internet Protocol Router Network and the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications systems and pasted it into emails to her. "Turn into nonpaper w no identifying heading and send nonsecure," Clinton ordered a staffer at one point.
The very best that can be said of Clinton's behavior, which she claims was driven by personal convenience, is that it constitutes grotesque negligence. The FBI continues to investigate the matter. Perhaps, one of these days, she will testify about it before a federal grand jury. If so, it will be interesting to hear what Terry McAuliffe, et al., have to say about that.
This column originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.