North Korea had just tested an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting Alaska, and the Trump administration was scrambling to react. But it seems Nikki Haley, Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, had lost her password for classified communications.
That’s why on that fraught July 4, 2017, she was typing away on her BlackBerry 10 smartphone, sending “confidential” information over a system meant only for unclassified material.
Haley was in a rush as she headed to her office—“On my way in”—shooting emails back and forth with top aides who’d been with her since she was governor of South Carolina. She needed to make a statement, and they were drafting it for her. “Let’s clean this up,” she writes after looking at some of the copy. “Pretty this up for me,” she says.
The next day we discover what the problem is with her communications. “Can’t find my password for the high side,” she writes.
The stylistic suggestions and the apparent explanation for using less secure messages was in a trove of emails recently obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the watchdog organization American Oversight.
But most of the content is blacked out—and the redactions note various classification criteria as exempt from FOIA requests, including the B1 category: “classified national defense and foreign relations information”; 1.4(B) “foreign government information”; and 1.4(D) “foreign relations or foreign activities of the United States, including confidential sources.”
For an administration obsessed with security lapses others have committed, and for a still-rising star in the Republican Party, this could be more than a little embarrassing.
“The American public has heard for years what the standard is for senior State Department officials mishandling classified information in their emails,” says Austin Evers, executive director at American Oversight, a self-described “nonpartisan, nonprofit ethics watchdog… investigating the Trump administration.”
“Ambassador Haley may have found it inconvenient to update her password,” Evers told The Daily Beast, “but, as we all know, ‘convenience’ is not an acceptable reason to skirt information security rules. She should be held to the same standard as everyone else.”
Asked for comment, a spokesperson for Haley requested to see the emails in question and then did not respond further.
Since 2015 at least, when investigations of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s private email use became a major issue, Donald Trump and the Republicans have made references to her emails a constant refrain. In 2016, at the height of the presidential campaign, Trump famously called on Russia to help him find missing Clinton emails. Then-FBI Director James Comey called Clinton’s practices “extremely careless,” but not worthy of a criminal prosecution, and his brief reopening of the case just before the election may have contributed substantially to her loss.
Now almost three years into the Trump presidency, his administration and his congressional defenders are still fixated on Clinton’s supposed lapses. They use the issue as a knee-jerk riposte to the many accusations leveled at Trump, including mishandling classified material. Indeed, the rampant whataboutism has made “but her emails” an inside joke inside the Beltway. But the Trump obsession won’t go away.
The Washington Post reported in September this year that State Department investigators had notified scores of present and former State Department staffers whose communications were found in Clinton’s unsecured emails that they “have been identified as possibly bearing some culpability” for “security incidents” as the content of those emails is examined and classified ex post facto.
Unlike Clinton, Haley did not use a private email account exclusively, and did not use one to send the emails in question. She left her Cabinet post in the administration last year when she resigned as UN ambassador. She is currently pushing her new book, With All Due Respect: Defending America with Grit and Grace, pitching herself as one of Trump’s great defenders amid widespread speculation she is looking to replace Vice President Mike Pence on the 2020 ticket and eventually make a run for the presidency in 2024.
In July 2017, the issue Haley and her staffers were discussing over the State Department’s OpenNet system for unclassified communications was the clear and present danger of nuclear war with North Korea. “There was no time to waste,” Haley writes in her book. “The missile launches were ongoing and the regime’s capabilities were increasing with each launch.”
Precisely because of the crisis atmosphere, Haley’s use of OpenNet for classified communications could be of serious concern. State Department communications often are targeted by hackers, and the Russians, Chinese, Iranians—and North Koreans—have some of the most effective. In September 2018, State acknowledged there had been what it described as “activity of concern in its unclassified email system.” The hack supposedly affected fewer than 1 percent of users and involved personal information, according to the State Department alert notice published by Politico. But the most successful hacks, of course, are the ones that go undetected, and the system’s vulnerability is a matter of record.
After the frantic events of July 4 and 5, 2017, Pyongyang would test more ICBMs, including one capable of carrying a nuclear warhead anywhere within the continental United States. In early September, Pyongyang tested a hydrogen bomb.
President Trump would threaten North Korean leader Kim Jong Un with “fire and fury” and dismiss him as “Rocket Man.” Kim would keep on testing missiles and testing Trump, until Kim was satisfied he could threaten major American cities with a nuclear attack. The situation grew dire indeed until Trump embraced the idea of a summit and claimed the problem was solved. Certainly tensions abated. But so far, North Korea has kept its nukes and its ICBMs.
One of the emails obtained by American Oversight shows that on July 5, 2017, as Haley continued to communicate on the OpenNet system, and as she was addressing the Security Council, former Georgia Congressman and House Speaker Newt Gingrich sent a message to then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Gingrich struck a Strangelovian note. If North Korea could not be coerced, “We may need a war surviving strategy,” he wrote, including “nuclear attack survival systems.”
As Haley tells the story of the United Nations Security Council negotiations for tough new sanctions against North Korea, she first cajoled the Chinese into backing them, partly to avert what seemed to be Trump’s threats of a catastrophic war. In her book, she says this was a ruse. Trump was just pretending to be a madman, she claims, even though she told the Chinese, “I can’t promise you the president won’t act on his own if you don’t work with us.”
Haley’s approach to the Russians was a little different, and she gives the impression in her book that she shamed them into support of North Korea sanctions. But according to the emails obtained by American Oversight, on Monday, July 10, 2017, Haley started arranging to share intelligence with Russia about the July 4 North Korean missile test: “I will try and reach out to Russia wed [Wednesday] and see if they want it. Would aim for the end of the week.”
What happened next? The Haley emails released so far don’t tell us. But Russia, if you’re listening …