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What Hillary Clinton Didn't Do What Hillary Clinton Didn't Do

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foreign affairs

What Hillary Clinton Didn't Do

The secretary of State didn't turn diplomats into spies.


Hillary Clinton at the Scranton, Pa. airport, April 21, 2008.(Getty Images)

Updated at 3:13 p.m. on November 30.

In 1792, America's first secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, supervised a relatively small diplomatic corps of ambassadors in 16 countries worldwide. One of their prime duties, he wrote in an instruction to them, was to collect and report “such political and commercial intelligence as you may think interesting to the United States.” 


The line between diplomacy and intelligence has never been bright red. But by the standards of some modern commentators, Mr. Jefferson should have tendered his resignation.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is being blamed for turning diplomats into spies, clandestinely, via the disclosure of a secret cable from April 2009 that Slate's Jack Shafer, who believes Clinton should resign, summarizes as requiring diplomats "to collect the 'biometric data,' including 'fingerprints, facial images, DNA, and iris scans,' of African leaders." Another cable "directed American diplomats posted around the world, including the United Nations, to obtain passwords, personal encryption keys, credit card numbers, frequent flyer account numbers, and other data connected to diplomats."

David Corn, writing in Politics Daily, predicts that Clinton will "survive the current storm," even though she might not deserve to.


Shafer and Corn are missing several significant bits of context just as much as they insinuate that Clinton is somehow seen as damaged goods in the wake of the WikiLeaks revelations. (The opposite is true: Clinton has been the chief damage control officer precisely because her credibility with allies and frenemies remains quite high.)

As to the allegation itself: Did Hillary Clinton order diplomats to spy?

The easy answer is -- no, she didn't.

But -- wait. The cable was issued in her name. So isn't she responsible?


In 1990, Secretary of State James Baker found himself in a pickle when reports appeared in the press that the American envoy to Iraq, April Glaspie, had tried to appease Saddam Hussein on the eve of his decision to invade Kuwait. The truth was different: Glaspie's own cable of the meeting noted that she had warned the Iraqi leader from invading its neighbor. But higher-ups at the State Department didn't get the cable, or misplaced it, and it took the U.S. government a while to correct the record. Baker didn't know enough to defend Glaspie; on television, he noted that 312,000 cables go out in his name each year. "What you want me to do is say that those instructions were sent specifically by me on my specific orders," he said at the time. He wouldn't play that game.

In Clinton's case, since the original order was sent to the State Department as an entity (just like it was sent to the Commerce Department as an entity), Clinton's name appears as the originator of the State cable providing further instructions.

The cable itself contains detailed requirements set by analysts at the CIA's National HUMINT Requirements Tasking Center. The HUMINT tasking center is, well, tasked with figuring out what type of intelligence the U.S. government needs and how best to obtain it. In 2004, the CIA determined that, in order to provide value-added insight to policymakers enmeshed in complex negotiations about war and terrorism, it needed more raw data on foreign dignitaries, the United Nations, and various countries. The CIA's decision to send out a tasking was itself derivative of a 2003 presidential national security directive issued by President Bush. The data would be used by many consumers: State's own intelligence branch; the National Security Agency, which has representatives in the center; the CIA; and the Defense Intelligence Agency, which compile extensive databases of all sorts.

In 2009, the CIA updated its requirements and reissued the directive, which went to all members of the intelligence community, joint intelligence centers of combatant commands, and even to selected cleared personnel representing the Departments of Agriculture and Commerce overseas, as the 8,500-word cable itself makes clear. There is some regret in the Obama administration that the 2009 instruction wasn't more carefully and narrowly tailored, but that's an issue for the intelligence community to sort out, not Clinton, who, in all likelihood, never saw it. (The State Department won't comment on the specific contents of any WikiLeaks cable.)

So once State got the order, Michael Owen, the acting State Department intelligence chief, dutifully distributed the instructions with a gloss as to what his shop could use to provide the intelligence community with better information.

Does the intelligence community spy on the United Nations? On friendly African leaders? You bet. Does the government want to collect sensitive and personal information on friendly international politicians, like the head of the World Health Organization? Somewhat uncomfortably, it does.

But the State Department doesn't have the capacity to tap phones and suck up data; foreign service officers aren't trained in tradecraft. They're not expected to collect intelligence for the sole purpose of feeding the CIA analytical beast. But there is an assumption made by every person who comes into contact with an identified member of the U.S. foreign service overseas that the representative of the U.S. government is going to act at all times in the interest of the U.S. government. So every foreign service officer gathers information to some degree or another. The directive helps to focus their efforts. There is no blurring of the lines; they're already blurred. Foreign countries seem to understand the unofficial role played by diplomats, and, indeed, often use it to communicate back-channel messages or float trial balloons.

So Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., did not ask members of her staff to collect diplomatic license plates or cell phones or biometric data on people her staff came into contact with. In all probability, that task fell to case officers at the CIA's New York field office and FBI counterintelligence agents. Maybe the National Security Agency's big ears played a role too.

There is a complication: many CIA officers serve under the cover of State Department officers. But this fact is also widely known. In embassies worldwide, the mix of the two is often combustible, and CIA has made an effort in recent years to find better ways of providing cover for their officers.

A coda: sometimes the State Department needs actionable, tactical intelligence. State's Bureau of Diplomatic Security is charged with protecting Clinton, with protecting embassies overseas, with investigating acts of terror against U.S. facilities overseas, and with protecting foreign dignitaries below the head-of-state level when they visit the U.S. Their intelligence needs are prodigious.

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