Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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What Clinton’s E-mails Reveal About Her Support for CIA Drone Strikes

by Micah Zenko
June 10, 2016

Hillary-2011 U.S. Secretary of State Clinton talks before House Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington (Larry Downing/Reuters)


A revelation today about Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her time as Secretary of State may indicate her preference using military force over diplomatic considerations. It was known since January that the content of twenty-two emails that went through the private server were classified at the “top secret/SAP [special access programs]” level, referring to highly classified intelligence gathering or covert programs run by the Pentagon and CIA. At the time, Clinton told NPR, “the best we can determine” is that the emails in question consisted solely of a news article about drone strikes in Pakistan. As Clinton stated: “How a New York Times public article that goes around the world could be in any way viewed as classified, or the fact that it would be sent to other people off of the New York Times site, I think, is one of the difficulties that people have in understanding what this is about.”

Today, Adam Entous and Devlin Barrett reported that the e-mails were not merely forwarded news articles, but consisted of informal discussions between Clinton’s senior aides about whether to oppose upcoming CIA drone strikes in Pakistan. According to Entous and Barrett when a potential strike was imminent—or if it occurred during the holidays when staffers were away from government computers—the covert operation was then debated openly, albeit vaguely without mentioning the CIA, drones, or the militant targets specifically.

The State Department was given a voice in the intensity and timing of CIA drone strikes in Pakistan, after then-Ambassador Cameron Munter reportedly opposed certain covert operations that occurred during especially sensitive points in the U.S.-Pakistani bilateral relationship, or when domestic opposition to the strikes were at their highest. As he later described this process: “I have a yellow card,” Munter recalled, describing the new policy. “I can say ‘no.’ That ‘no’ goes back to the CIA director. Then he has to go to Hillary. If Hillary says ‘no,’ he can still do it, but he has to explain the next day in writing why.” It was after Munter raised objections to drone strikes that Sec. Clinton and her aides would debate the merits of them, including through emails that were forwarded to Clinton’s private account.

Entous and Barrett’s reporting includes this critical passage:

“With the compromise, State Department-CIA tensions began to subside. Only once or twice during Mrs. Clinton’s tenure at State did U.S. diplomats object to a planned CIA strike, according to congressional and law-enforcement officials familiar with the emails.”

During Clinton’s tenure between January 2009 and February 2013, the CIA conducted 294 drone strikes that killed 2,192 people, 226 of whom were civilians. (For the data see here, which is based on averages within the ranges provided by the New America Foundation, Long Wars Journal, and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.) In other words, of the 294 CIA drone strikes in Pakistan, Clinton’s State Department objected to fewer than one-percent of them. If elected to the White House, would she similarly prioritize CIA counterterrorism operations over the concerns of senior U.S. diplomats? The evidence from her time as Secretary of State suggests that the answer is overwhelmingly “yes.”

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