At the second presidential debate, Donald Trump said he would call for a special prosecutor to look at Hillary Clinton’s “email scandal.” And Trump seems to score well with voters when he hits hard on it. For Clinton, it’s the front on which she seems most vulnerable, particularly in conservative outlets, because it’s turned into vessel for a larger message: that Clinton can’t be trusted.
Just look at all the stories Breitbart puts under the “Hillary Clinton Email Scandal“ tag. It’s a mishmash of stories — including ones about her hiding health problems, which have nothing to do with email. All the articles together weave a storyline that seems more egregious than the individual parts that make it up.
But at the core of it, there really are problems. And we should be able to talk about those problems with clarity. Vox’s Jeff Stein created a concise framework about the scandal, so we made a cartoon that pinpoints the primary issues at play.
First, let’s walk through what actually happened
To understand what exactly it was that Clinton did, we need to understand what an email server is. It’s the technical underpinning of the controversy.
It’s basically like a post office. It’s a computer connected to the internet that sorts through letters and delivers them.
And much like a post office, the server has three jobs:
So that means the person in charge of this digital post office — a postmaster, if you will — has an important job. This person has to implement security features to make sure the server can do its job well. This person also has control of the messages coming in and out.
Normally for the secretary of state, this responsibility would’ve belonged to people in federal government who have the expertise to maintain email systems.
But when Clinton was offered an email address on State Department servers, her staff refused. Instead, they used a server in the Clinton’s home, maintained part time by two staffers.
We don’t know why Clinton used a private server. She says it’s because she only wanted to carry one mobile device — and since State Department devices only allowed for State Department email addresses to be added to the phone, she chose to use her personal device and her personal email.
But this is what led to multiple problems — and multiple storylines around those problems.
Problem 1: Clinton made herself vulnerable to hackers
Clinton’s private server had several potential points of vulnerability, so it was possible for spies to hack into the system — both to view messages or to reroute messages.
There was no evidence that Clinton’s server was breached, but hackers are good at covering their tracks, and the FBI hints that it thinks a hack was likely.
On her servers, an FBI investigation in July 2016 found 81 email chains that ranged from confidential to top secret, but intelligence agencies overuse these labels, so it’s unclear if revealing these emails would’ve actually threatened national security.
Eventually, Clinton’s staff hired a private company to run their email servers in Secaucus, New Jersey. This was a more secure option, but still not ideal. In fact, if we’re talking about pure security, it’s unclear what the best option would’ve been.
Even if Clinton used the State Department mail servers, it wouldn’t have been foolproof. The State Department has been accused of having poor institutional security, which manifested in a 2015 hack of its unclassified email system.
Problem 2: Clinton may have been trying to skirt transparency laws
Email servers are physical computers — and the person who controls those servers has your data.
When Congress was investigating the terrorist attacks in Benghazi, it asked the State Department for Clinton’s emails. But the department only turned over eight emails. That’s because Clinton’s emails were on her own server, not theirs.
That said, Republicans have insisted Clinton did this to avoid having her emails released or subject to the Freedom of Information Act. In other words, the accusation is that she did it so the public couldn’t see her communication. This goes to motive, which means it’s difficult to prove either way, and anyone who claims otherwise is speculating.
But the idea that she is actively trying to hide her communication feeds into a more absurd accusation that we should dismiss: that Clinton tried to delete emails from her server during the House’s Benghazi investigation. Vox’s Jeff Stein has a good timeline showing why this theory makes no sense.
What has been lumped into this storyline: the idea that Clinton is compromised
There is another completely separate case that has to do with emails but gets thrown into the “Clinton email scandal” bin as well. The right-wing transparency group Judicial Watch obtained emails between top officials at the State Department and the Clinton Foundation.
Some think it shows that people who donated to the Clinton Foundation received preference from the secretary of state’s office. There is no evidence to back this up, and this storyline has nothing to do with her private server. It’s another story, like the one about her health, that is woven into the larger narrative that Clinton can’t be trusted.
What we should actually take away from this
There are two primary problems with Clinton’s decision to use a private email server.
The first is cybersecurity. The FBI concluded that Clinton and her staff were not fully aware of the threat they exposed themselves to. It points to a larger problem with government, where public servants outside the intelligence agencies often treat cybersecurity as an afterthought. Last year, Congress did pass a law that allows private companies to work with government to improve cybersecurity, and this year President Barack Obama created acommission on cyber defense. But there are still massive political and bureaucraticproblems that the next executive has to deal with.
The second issue is transparency. The Obama administration has been among the “least transparent“ in recent history, even though Obama promised greater transparency during his 2008 campaign. The administration has kept entire government programs secret,stonewalled public records requests, and viciously gone after those who leak information.
An Associated Press investigation found that the backlog of public records requests grew 55 percent under Obama. So whatever Clinton’s motive was for the private server, it brings up concerns about whether the public’s right to know will continue to erode under the next administration. And Donald Trump hasn’t exactly been the model for transparency either, though he has tried to create the illusion of it.
Both of these are massive, nuanced issues that raise real questions about how Clinton or Trump would govern. It touches on two increasingly relevant issues about our data — how we should protect it, and who should be able to see it. But they’ve been reframed into this amorphous narrative about trust.
Correction: A previous version of this story said Clinton’s server contained 81 emails ranging from “classified to top secret,” but it should read “confidential to top secret.” There are three levels of classified information: confidential, secret, and top secret.