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I spent much of my adult life serving in the Marine Corps. Over those 26 years, I learned firsthand the consequences of poor decisions. Sometimes these errors were unavoidable, the result of bad luck or unforeseen events. While tragic and regrettable, the consequences of these mistakes were easier to take as part of the fortunes of war. What I could never tolerate were mistakes made from willful ignorance or the outright flaunting of established rules and procedures. Whether we were officers or enlisted, grunts or pilots, we all knew there was one standard no matter who you were. This idea isn’t unique to the Marine Corps, and Americans have always believed that no one, no matter how high ranking, is above the law.
The FBI’s decision to let Hillary Clinton escape prosecution for her “extremely careless” handling of classified information is troubling because it calls into question the American belief that we are all equal before the law. In the case of Secretary Clinton, we find there are two standards: one for the political elite, and one for the rest of us. In my military career, I knew firsthand that handling classified information was a sacred trust. Keeping those secrets safe protected American lives and ensured the security of our nation. I also knew that the penalties for violating this trust were severe. Mishandling classified material was, and continues to be, a career-ending move in nearly any job.
Previously, we’ve held all public officials to this high standard, regardless of their office. We’ve seen military officers like David Petraeus prosecuted and a Director of the CIA, John Deutch, forced to resign, narrowly avoiding legal penalties for mishandling secrets by securing a pardon from President Bill Clinton. This isn’t a partisan issue, with both Republicans, like Scooter Libby, and Democrats, like Sandy Berger, facing stiff penalties for mishandling secrets and putting critical intelligence at risk. The protection of classified information transcends politics, or at least it should.
The FBI found that Secretary Clinton sent at least 110 emails marked classified from her completely unauthorized and unsecure private server. Previous to the FBI investigation, Clinton claimed the emails were classified after they reached her server, but that was an outright lie: documents were clearly marked classified when she sent them from her private email address on her private server. Eight of these email chains contained information so sensitive it was marked “Top Secret: Special Access Program,” a classification reserved for only the most highly guarded intelligence operations like clandestine counterterrorism operations or spy satellite capabilities. Clearly, if Clinton were still the Secretary of State when this behavior was discovered, she would have had no choice but to resign or face termination.
This kind of wanton disregard for our most sensitive secrets disqualifies Clinton from ever handling classified information again. More disturbingly, the failure of the FBI to recommend her prosecution for these failures means we’re creating two standards, one for political elites and another for everybody else. Any normal professional in our intelligence community would have been punished long ago for these kinds of reckless mistakes. Instead, we’ve accepted a double standard that’s unsafe for our country and downright un-American in its injustice. When I retired from the Marine Corps, I thought I understood the single fair and equal standard we have for preserving our nation’s secrets. We cannot have two standards, especially when our national security is involved. We are one nation with one set of laws and powerful politicians should face the same penalties as our service members and intelligence professionals when they break them.
Col. Paul Cook (Ret.) represents California’s 8th Congressional District and currently serves on the House Armed Services, Foreign Affairs, and Natural Resources committees. He served in the United States Marine Corps for 26 years, earning two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star Medal with a V for Valor.