Information Asymmetry and Obama’s Hacked Emails.
Last week CNN and the New York Times reported that the breach into the Department of State’s unclassified email systems had spread to the White House. While the server containing the President’s emails was not breached, an unknown number of unclassified emails he sent to other aides (if we believe the anonymous administration sources quoted by the New York Times) were read by Russian hackers and shared with the Russian intelligence service.
Only the hackers, the people the hackers shared the emails with, and (presumably) some in the Obama administration know how many emails were breached and what their content was. This means that the public is faced once again with the dilemma of political “information asymmetry” –when we are rendered more powerless because we are not allowed to know the magnitude of a problem facing our elected representatives.
Reading between the lines of the Times article, White House officials seem to be saying: this is our problem, let us deal with it, and stop prying. (The official explanation given to the Times was to “avoid tipping off the Russians.”)
While some may be more than happy with this explanation, it doesn’t work so well for me. Here are a few questions about the situation:
- How many emails were breached and what was their general content? Was it mundane, day to day information? Merely information about “his golf game?” Or were they conversations with diplomats and ambassadors where the president may have emailed something unclassified but still geopolitically sensitive: “I think we should (or should not) allow Russia to control events in the Donbass region” ? Do Americans have a right to know what their president actually thinks? Or are the nothing-burger explanations of Josh Earnest, Jen Psaki and Marie Harf the best we deserve?
- Given the our government’s relatively poor cyber security, how likely is it that American adversaries had access to the content that Manning and Snowden (and others) leaked, before the American public did? Is it possible that our adversaries had already culled SIPRnet, or gained admin system access to NSA and other classified systems? How likely is it that the information these “traitors” released to the public was already known by our adversaries?
- If these emails have indeed been shared with the Russian intelligence service, could its advantage be leveled if the White House (or another group of hackers) posted the emails online? Is it better for only a rival to have this information? Or everyone, including the president’s constituents?
The questions above are asked seriously, and I know the answers are certainly complicated. And it’s currently –by design– impossible for us on the outside to have enough information to meaningfully tackle them. But if we judge by this administration’s past practice, it will bury its head in the sand, refusing to admit that the need for discussion about access to information actually exists.
The Department of State refuses to admit that the WikiLeaks State Department Cables are authentic, redacting (flagging, actually) large portions in response to FOIA requests. To its partial credit, the Office of National Intelligence declassified a large amount of information on US dragnet data collection in response to the Snowden Revelations (and continues sucking all the data up), but at the same time it allows the agencies it oversees to continue to hide 1940s-era histories.
For Pete’s sake, the first thing the sputtering National Declassification Center (a flagship Obama classification reform initiative) chose to declassify were the Pentagon Papers, already available in every public library, hardly a revelatory symbolic declassification.
So. I predict the Administration and its securocrats will again attempt to proceed as if it were business as usual. The only thing worse that private discussions being revealed to a foreign adversary –private discussions being revealed to the public.
I will, however, end with a glimmer of good news. The public will eventually know what was in President Obama’s emails, including those hacked by the Russians. After he’s left office, of course. The P5/B5 “withhold it because you want to” exemption –which these emails would certainly be withheld under– expires 12 years after the date the document was created (the drafters of the Presidential Records Act had foresight FOIA drafters did not). And unlike former President George W Bush and former Secretary of State Clinton, President Obama took action in 2009 to ensure that his email and the email of his White House employees would be preserved for the public to see.
Delayed satisfaction? Yes.
Denied public engagement? Yes too.
The power of political Information Asymmetry.