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Clinton Email Probe Recalls Past Scrutiny Over Classified Information


The ongoing FBI inquiry into Hillary Clinton's private email server is still following the presidential candidate on the campaign trail. Federal agents want to know if any U.S. secrets were compromised through her unusual set up while she worked as secretary of state.

Clinton has not been named as a target of the FBI probe, but NPR's Carrie Johnson reports there's a long history of top officials getting scrutiny over classified information.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Talk to national security lawyers and they'll tell you lapses in handling secret information come up a lot more often than you might think. Remember this case?


ROBERT SIEGEL, BYLINE: Retired Army General David Petraeus has agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor count of mishandling highly classified intelligence.

JOHNSON: Petraeus was forced to resign as CIA director after federal agents found he allowed his biographer and mistress to read his top secret diaries. Those black notebooks contained war plans and names of covert operatives.

In court papers, prosecutors said Petraeus lied to the FBI about it. Last year, a federal judge sentenced him to probation. And years earlier, there was this.


MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: Sandy Berger, who served as national security adviser to President Clinton, was in court today. He told a federal judge that he intentionally took copies of classified documents from the National Archives in the fall of 2003.

JOHNSON: Berger said he stuffed those papers into the pockets of his clothes, took them outside and destroyed them. Berger also got probation after his misdemeanor plea.

But few top officials ever face criminal prosecution for breaking the rules or the laws on classified information. There's a reason for that, according to secrecy expert Steve Aftergood.

STEVE AFTERGOOD: There's a hierarchy. The secretary of state, for example, has been personally delegated presidential authority to decide what is classified and what can be declassified. Someone who's two or three tiers below her in the bureaucracy does not have that same authority.

JOHNSON: Long-time defense lawyer Abbe Lowell has represented lower level government employees charged with violating these laws. He's often criticized the system as being rife with double standards.

But Lowell says there are some common threads he can find in who actually gets prosecuted. For example, it matters what the official does with the information.

ABBE LOWELL: You're generally dealing with an official who should've known better. So the national security adviser should know better than to take documents out of a secured location to make it convenient for him to work at home.

The head of the CIA should know better than to provide notebooks filled with some material that is at least sensitive, if not higher than sensitive, to somebody writing a book about him and with whom he has a relationship.

JOHNSON: Lowell says the laws on misusing classified information address first and foremost actual spying, real damage to national security rather than technical violations of the law like this one involving a former attorney general.


MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: The Justice Department's inspector general has found that Alberto Gonzales mishandled top secret documents.

JOHNSON: Investigators said Gonzales improperly stored notes on some of the most sensitive issues in the George W. Bush presidency - the detainee interrogation program and the warrantless wiretap program.

But no one outside the government apparently got their hands on the materials, and the Justice Department declined to prosecute him. That makes sense to former prosecutor Amy Jeffress.

AMY JEFFRESS: There are many other alternatives for people who violate these rules, and criminal punishment should only be used in the, you know, most serious cases.

JOHNSON: That means, she says, targeting officials who had a bad intent for charges that carry jail time. And there are big questions about whether the FBI will find that bad intent in the Clinton case.

CORNISH: We want to hear a little more from Carrie Johnson now. First of all, where do things stand in the FBI's investigation?

JOHNSON: Look for Hillary Clinton's aides, close aides, and State Department personnel to be interviewed soon, Audie. And at some point, it's likely the FBI will knock on Clinton's door, too.

Clinton said on NBC this weekend the FBI has not approached her yet. But that may be the final step before federal agents recommend whether there's a criminal case to be made here at all.

CORNISH: So does that mean the investigation and charges could come in a matter of weeks, or are we talking about months here?

JOHNSON: Well, the FBI director, James Comey, recently told Congress he's made the case a personal priority. He wants it to be done promptly and independently. But it's not clear yet whether everything will wrap up before the Democratic convention in July.

As for Hillary Clinton, she told interviewers she's not worried about the timing. She says she simply exchanged messages with government employees and that she didn't do anything wrong.

CORNISH: That's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thanks so much.

JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.