Tempest in a Teabag

The latest Hillary Clinton “revelation” that Republicans and right-leaning pundits are shouting from the rooftops (and from every media outlet that will provide them an audience) is that Secretary Clinton instructed an aide to turn talking points from a classified cable into a nonpaper. According to the anti-Hillary crowd this incident provides clear proof that Mrs. Clinton instructed staff to violate secrecy rules and thereby endanger national security. That contention is utter nonsense, as anyone with even the slightest familiarity with the operation of American diplomacy would know. Transferring talking points into a nonpaper is completely normal and is probably done hundreds of times a day by American diplomats serving around the world.  If the so-called experts quoted in the press recently cared more about truth and less about scoring political points, they would have said so.

To understand what Secretary Clinton was doing and why it should be viewed as entirely normal requires only a small amount of “Diplomacy 101” background, starting with three key pieces of vocabulary.

“Talking Points” are a list of facts, policies or other information that U.S. officials can draw upon during meetings with foreign counterparts. Talking points range from the very specific to a simple tick-list of topics to cover. Most commonly for American diplomats serving overseas, those talking points originate in Washington, DC, and are intended for delivery to officials of the government of the country where the American diplomats are serving. At times, however, American diplomats are instructed to deliver talking points to people other than their host foreign government. Other audiences could include diplomatic colleagues from friendly nations assigned to the same foreign country, to non-governmental agencies, to public gatherings or even at press conferences. By their very nature, talking points are intended to be released to some foreign government(s), officials or potentially even to the public.

“Classified Cables” include all communications between the State Department and U.S. Diplomatic and Consular outposts that include at least some classified (Confidential, Secret, or Top Secret) information. If there is any classified information in a cable, the entire cable must be handled via channels and methods approved for classified national security information. While it may seem counter-intuitive, talking points and even press guidance intended for the widest possible public distribution frequently arrive within classified cables. This happens because the cable conveying the talking points may also contain sensitive or even highly classified background information for the American Ambassador and/or others at an overseas post. The talking points are intended to be conveyed to others outside the Embassy; the classified background information is not.

“Nonpapers” are a standard tool used by diplomats around the world. The term refers to any written communication that lists some pieces of information but contains no identifying marks as to the origin of the information or who conveyed it. The term “nonpaper” reflects the fact that the paper itself has no status as an official communication. Nonpapers are commonly left behind by diplomats delivering talking points as a courtesy so that the person on the receiving end of the exchange can listen rather than take notes. For this reason, it is extremely common practice for American diplomats serving abroad to take the talking points they have been instructed to deliver to a host government and turn them into a nonpaper.

Knowing just these three common diplomatic terms is enough to debunk all of the nonsense being brandied about by partisan hacks. When unable to receive a complete classified cable that likely included both classified background information that must be protected and talking points intended to be passed to a foreign interlocutor , Secretary Clinton instructed her staff to transfer the talking points only to a non-paper that she would read and potentially even leave with the foreign official(s) she would be meeting. It was, in all likelihood, the most normal request in the (diplomatic) world.

I am not saying that it was right for Secretary Clinton to use a personal email account for official business. I believe it was not.  More broadly, rules and accepted practices that allow political appointees to behave in ways that are forbidden for career staff are almost always counterproductive.  Downsides to making special exceptions to rules and regulations for political appointees range from decreased efficiency and loss of transparency to an increased likelihood of unethical behavior.  Such exceptions to established rules are, unfortunately, quite common; they did not start with Clinton or the Democratic Party, nor are they unique to the State Department or even the Executive Branch of government.  Some of the worst examples of abusing personal position I have ever witnessed were committted by members of Congress.  Former Secretary Clinton’s decision to use private email for official business is just one example of this genuinely bipartisan and long-standing policy failure.



3 thoughts on “Tempest in a Teabag

  1. You tell them, Ken. Thanks for giving us the background that might be normal for those in the state department but totally “foreign” to most of us “the people”… if the press would point this out along with all the negative spins from both sides, may be it would stop them from spreading more lies in this election.


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