The Dysfunction Exposed by the Clinton Investigation in the State Department and Beyond


Lost amid the attention devoted to FBI director James Comey’s July 5 announcement that the FBI would not bring charges against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was his broader criticism of the “security culture of the State Department in general, and with respect to the use of unclassified e-mail systems in particular.”

Assessing Comey’s assertion that State is lax when it comes to email security is not possible without reviewing the evidence that the FBI developed.  It must be borne in mind, however, that the State Department, far more than any other agency dealing with classified information, must deal with foreign officials and publics to fulfill its basic mission of carrying out the foreign relations of the United States.  While most diplomats are aware of the need to protect classified information, their culture is not — and should not be — one of secrecy, but of discretion.

Following Comey’s statement, even President Barack Obama weighed in on the email habits of State, confirming that he, too, was “concerned” about security at the department.  He explained that “the advent of email…is just generating enormous amounts of data…putting enormous pressure on the department to sort through it, classify it properly.”

Yet for senior officials, e-mail is not part of the information overload problem, but rather is often seen as a solution to it.  Policymakers at the highest level of government face a dilemma — how to receive reliable, unfiltered, and timely information on pressing matters.

This problem stems first and foremost from the sheer size of our national security bureaucracy.  State Department memoranda must often be cleared by a dozen or more offices within the department as well as a handful of outside agencies before they ever reach the desks of senior officials.  This process is meant to ensure that what top policymakers receive is well-coordinated and reflects the considerable collective expertise of our entire government. In reality, however, the process can become bogged down in longstanding policy disputes or bureaucratic turf fights, or even become a vehicle for marginal offices to assert their relevance.

The same process occurs in miniature in U.S. embassies overseas and is also reflected within the intelligence community. Indeed, a senior official might receive finished intelligence reports on the same topic from three or four different agencies, in addition to countless pieces of raw reporting.  For a policymaker trying to get ground truth, obtain sound recommendations, and make decisions on a wide variety of issues within narrow windows of time, these processes are unhelpful, producing a flow of information which is simultaneously too large, too slow, and too filtered.

Unfortunately, addressing the root cause of the problem — bureaucratic bloat — is hard and time-consuming.  So it is unsurprising that senior officials simply choose to circumvent the bureaucracy, turning directly to those they trust within or outside the bureaucracy for information and advice.

Yet such shortcuts themselves carry serious risks, of which the “leakage” of classified information is just one among many.  There is also the serious risk of confirmation bias — senior officials showing preference to those who affirm their preexisting views — and of principal-agent problems, wherein those turned to as sources of information use their favored status to advance themselves before the interests of the country.  Finally, turning to individuals means potentially missing crucial angles of policy issues and depriving oneself of the vast depth and breadth of expertise that is one of the U.S. government’s most valuable assets.

There are technological fixes that could help solve or at least ease the problem of coping with this immensity of information.  The government is famously slow to adopt new technology. Managing the two-way flow of information between principals and their agencies is still a task largely handled by scrappy staff assistants.  But properly addressing the problem should also focus on two lines of effort which are more prosaic but also more important and inarguably more difficult than any technological fix.

The first is organizational. The next president should charge his or her cabinet officials with cutting back and delayering our national security agencies.  This is a problem which has only worsened over the past eight years. The National Security Council staff has grown, special envoys have proliferated, and the State Department now has two deputy secretaries instead of one, meaning that resolving the tension between resource constraints and policy priorities is now organizationally the responsibility of the secretary rather than a deputy.

The second line of effort is managerial.  The next secretary of state should resist the urge — understandable perhaps, especially if he or she comes from outside the executive branch — to insulate himself with a loyal inner circle.  He should instead engage directly with the career staff of the Department and appoint trusted, empowered assistant secretaries to oversee them.  Having done so, he should avoid diluting or duplicating those assistant secretaries’ responsibilities through the creation of special envoys or new offices, which almost inevitably give rise to turf fights and unclear or redundant lines of responsibility.

Few would dispute that national security information must be secure, but while information security is necessary, it is hardly sufficient for the good management of national security.  If we want policymakers to make wise decisions, the bureaucracy must be engineered to provide them with the right information at the right time.


Michael Singh is the managing director and Lane-Swig senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He worked on Middle East issues at the National Security Council from 2005 to 2008.

Image: DoD photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley, U.S. Navy