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April 14, 2016
Notes from the Pentagon

Obama redefines secrets in Clinton defense
President Obama this week redefined the definition of classified information in comments made Sunday in defending Hillary Clinton’s placement of secrets on a private email server while she was secretary of state.

Asked to square comments he made in October asserting Mrs. Clinton did not jeopardize national secrets with later disclosures that over 2,000 of the emails contained classified information, including data deemed “Top Secret,” the president said she did not “intentionally” put American security in jeopardy.

“And what I also know, because I handle a lot of classified information, is that there’s classified, and then there’s classified,” Mr. Obama told Fox News interviewer Chris Wallace. “There’s stuff that is really ‘Top Secret, Top Secret,’ and there’s stuff that is being presented to the president or the secretary of state that you might not want on the transom, or going out over the wire, but is basically stuff that you could get in open source.”

That explanation, however, is contradicted by Executive Order 13526, signed by Mr. Obama himself in December 2009. The order includes three levels of security classification — Top Secret, Secret and Confidential — and defines each by the amount of “damage” caused by its unauthorized disclosure. The damage ranges from “exceptionally grave” to “serious” to unspecified “damage,” for Confidential information.

The order goes on to say that no information should be classified “unless its unauthorized disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause identifiable or describable damage to the national security” in eight categories. The categories include U.S. “foreign relations” activities, the most likely type of information compromised by Mrs. Clinton’s email server that was stored in the bathroom closet of a Denver IT company and employed unsecure Internet networks vulnerable to eavesdropping and foreign interception.

Mr. Obama said he continues to believe Mrs. Clinton’s email server did not jeopardize U.S. security, although he did not say why. He also insisted he is not interfering with the ongoing FBI probe into the email server

. The Obama administration, for its part, has a poor record of protecting secrets and has been the victim of what some analysts say are among the most largest and most damaging leaks of classified information in the nation’s history.

First in 2010, the administration, in seeking greater intelligence sharing, suffered the leak of more than 750,000 classified documents to Wikileaks by Army Pvt. Bradley Manning that exposed recruited agents in Afghanistan and other sources.

That was followed in 2013 by the theft of over 1.7 million National Security Agency classified documents stolen by disgruntled insider and former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who charged falsely that the agency was engaged in a conspiracy to spy on Americans despite legal constraints and severe restrictions on all its domestic activities.

U.S. officials have said the Snowden leaks caused severe and persistent national security damage, including weakening efforts to track and counter Islamist terrorists.

Former U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Joseph diGenova said Mr. Obama’s remarks was a “bank-shot” effort to influence the FBI probe.

“But I think it was an unforced error of major proportions,” Mr. diGenova told Inside the Ring. “The Bureau doesn’t like being pushed. They will do whatever they have to.”

FBI Director James Comey has said there’s no timetable for the Clinton investigation, an indication he is pushing back against political pressure from critics who say the probe is taking too long.

“It all comes down to whether Comey will cave,” Mr. diGenova said.

As for Mrs. Clinton’s alleged carelessness in mishandling secrets, as the president asserted, “gross negligence in handling classified information is a crime,” he said. “The bottom line is that if this were any other federal employee, the case would be clear and brought — loss of clearances, loss of job, and jail.

” Former Pentagon Inspector General Joseph E. Schmitz, also criticized the president’s remarks.

“It is absurd to suggest that there is some classified information you can disclose or compromise, and others you cannot,” Mr. Schmitz said. “Compromise of any classified information is illegal, and usually results in at least the suspension of the responsible person’s security clearance.”

U.S. gains N. Korea secrets from defector
U.S. intelligence agencies have gained a windfall of secrets over the past year when a senior North Korean intelligence officer defected to the South.

U.S. officials said the defector escaped the totalitarian regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un through China in 2014, and reached South Korea in January of 2015.

The South Korean Defense Ministry confirmed the defection this week and identified the defector as a colonel in the Korean People’s Army and senior official of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the spy agency created in 2009 from several intelligence agencies. The RGB conducts espionage and other clandestine operations, including hacking operations.

Information supplied by the colonel has been shared in the recently-created intelligence-sharing group on North Korea that includes Pentagon intelligence and CIA officials along with counterparts from South Korea and Japan.

Intelligence sharing between Washington and Seoul is one of the main sources of information on the secretive regime in Pyongyang.

The intelligence defector is part of a growing number of senior and midlevel North Koreans who are fleeing Kim’s regime. In addition to the intelligence defector, several North Korean diplomats and officials involved in overseas financing have defected in recent months. “The numbers are increasing,” said one source familiar with the defections.

The trend in defections coincides with other troubling signs of instability inside North Korea.

In February, the army chief of staff, Gen. Ri Yong Gil, was executed, reportedly for corruption and factional conspiracy.

Chinese ridicule censorship of Panama Papers
Beginning April 4, China’s Internet censors aggressively blocked all foreign and domestic news reporting on internal documents disclosed from a Panamanian law firm implicating the brother-in-law of Chinese President Xi Jinping in purchasing three overseas companies often used for shady financing. Relatives of eight current or former Chinese leaders and officials were linked to the offshore companies often set up to evade taxes or avoid scrutiny from government authorities.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei declined to comment on the leaked records April 5, insisting reports about the leaks were “chasing the wind and grasping at shadows,” the Chinese equivalent of hearsay. However, all mention of the exchange with reporters was omitted from official ministry transcripts of the briefing — an indication of the extreme sensitivity of the leaks.

The reporting on the so-called “Panama Papers” scandal is a major embarrassment for Mr. Xi, who has made fighting corruption the central theme of his rule as Communist Party general secretary., a group that monitors Chinese censorship, said key words blocked by censors in Chinese Internet searches include “Panama,” “documents,” “leak,” and “Putin.

” In response, Chinese online critics of the censorship have began using the term “brother-in-law” as a sarcastic surrogate for Mr. Xi. The president’s brother-in-law, Deng Jiagui, who is married to Mr. Xi’s older sister, purchased three companies in the British Virgin Islands in the early 2000s, according to the documents

. Other online comments included criticism of the Foreign Ministry for calling reports about the papers “hearsay,” noting that the disclosures led to the resignation of Iceland’s prime minister and thus must be accurate.

Indirect online criticism flourished temporarily until censors removed critical postings. Some Chinese expressed surprise that more current and former Chinese leaders were not named in the papers. One online posting said: “The most corrupt were those who shouted all day about ‘opposing corruption.’”

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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