Hillary Clinton’s Hawkishness Revealed in Her Emails

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Hillary Clinton at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, on October 20, 2011. As secretary of state, she pushed for closer cooperation with Pakistan on both the war and economic development. Of the 294 CIA drone strikes in Pakistan, Clinton’s State Department objected to fewer than 1 percent of them. Kevin Lamarque/reuters

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

A revelation about Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her time as secretary of state may indicate her preference for using military force over diplomatic considerations.

It was known since January that the State Department had subsequently upgraded the classification of the content of 22 emails that went through the private server to the “top secret/SAP,” or 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.”

On June 10, Adam Entous and Devlin Barrett reported that the emails were not merely forwarded news articles but contained 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 was at its 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 Secretary 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 1 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.”

Micah Zenko is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.