woody zimmermann 120For young men and old, that’s always the question in various contexts. Whatever this brings to my readers’ minds, however, the “she” of whom I speak is Hillary Rodham Clinton – Democratic Party heir-apparent and possible next president of the United States. And the complete question is: Will she be indicted, or won’t she?

If I knew the answer, I would certainly be a rich man. But I hocked my crystal ball after Republicans blew the last election, and I can offer no particular expertise in the law beyond common sense (which does not always apply). I do know a few things about politics, however, and a good deal about handling classified info, owing to my long career doing government-contracting work for a private engineering firm. Most pundits know politics, and some know law, but few know very much about a work-environment where sensitive info is actually generated, stored, and handled. It is a world entirely apart.

Based on my professional experience, I can say that the sensitive-info environment is severe and quite unforgiving. If you’re not acquainted with this kind of work you might consider the controls (and possible punishments) extreme and unnecessary. But they must be so to motivate workers to keep material that might harm the nation from being compromised. The proverbial Sword of Damocles hanging over the workplace discourages sloppiness that might otherwise become common in both government and contractor establishments. What happens without this level of regulation and enforcement in the business arena can be seen in the large-scale compromises of sensitive financial information that now occur regularly. The lack of laws to govern (and punish) carelessness (and even criminality) in handling sensitive customer-information has resulted in thefts of these data, with little consequence.

In the classified workplace, forgetfulness or negligence can result in fines, dismissal, and even jail-time. Failing to lock a safe at the end of the workday, or accidentally carrying classified documents home in your briefcase can get you in big trouble. Even tossing into the unclassified trash a blank page stamped “SECRET”– as I once did – can earn you a severe scolding and no supper that night. (This was just a “procedural” mistake, not a security violation. But I learned not to repeat it.)

Acts with outright criminal intent are obviously punished severely. Carelessness or negligence is one thing, but an action taken with the deliberate aim of circumventing or thwarting laws that govern classified information is something else entirely. It’s not about intending to harm the country. You need not be a spy to be punished. Merely doing something you know you shouldn’t do is a security violation. If you’re an ordinary working-stiff, you’ll be hammered for it.

Mrs. Clinton’s use of a private, unsecured central computer (i.e., “server”) to handle her e-mails, and her mixing of personal correspondence with her official correspondence as Secretary of State, were actions she should have known were completely out of bounds. With respect to those actions, four possibilities emerge:

  1. She did not receive a proper security-briefing when she assumed her post;
  2. She was properly briefed, but she didn’t understand or remember what she was told;
  3. She was briefed, but she didn’t follow the regulations due to incompetence;
  4. She got the right briefing and she understood the rules, but she deliberately disobeyed them for her own purposes.

Political supporters of Mrs. Clinton have tried to confuse the public by claiming that right-wing conspirators are just waging a campaign of “baseless accusations.” Mrs. Clinton, herself, maintains that she “did nothing wrong” and that “no classified information” went through her private server. (That latter claim has already been disproved by FBI investigators.) Other defenders have deliberately deceived the segment of the public that wouldn’t know classified data from the classified pages of the newspaper. Mrs. Clinton and her party are depending on the fact that many voters simply won’t comprehend the seriousness of what she has done. Nevertheless – despite all the smoke and feathers flying – those four possibilities remain at the heart of this matter. Let’s look at the consequences that could flow from each one.

If (1) is true, then this fact should be disclosed without delay. The parties who failed to brief Mrs. Clinton properly should be held accountable under official guidelines. Unfortunately, however, most Americans know that ignorance of the law doesn’t excuse you from obedience or consequence. Will your plea of not knowing that the speed limit is 35 get you past a ticket from the state cops? If it won’t work in that trivial venue, how much less can a high-ranking official get away with mishandling national secrets? You don’t need a law degree to see that it’s no-go.

Moreover, how can an individual whose office stands her third in line for the presidency claim that she “didn’t know” what was secret and what wasn’t? It’s impossible! In political terms, Mrs. Clinton can’t claim high-level office as a presidential qualification, while arguing that she was “too inexperienced” to realize when information was extremely sensitive. She can’t have it both ways. She could be indicted, even if she was poorly briefed, but I doubt if this can happen.

Should either (2) or (3) be true, Mrs. Clinton’s suitability for high office would be called into question, and her campaign for the presidency wrecked – on the same grounds as cited for Item #1. Being stupid or incompetent isn’t a crime, but it can certainly disqualify you for elective office. The public – including (I pray) many members of her own party – should be scared silly to learn that incompetence (or senility) was present at that level of their government. She could never be elected.

If (4) is true, a criminal indictment must be brought without delay, along with full disclosure of why Mrs. Clinton deliberately broke the law. If she did it to conceal that she hustled money for the Clinton Foundation from countries she was dealing with as Secretary of State, then broader charges of political corruption must also follow. (Even Democrats should be able to see this.) Such findings could never be covered up inside the Department of Justice. Leaks would spring up everywhere, informing the public that a fix was attempted. DoJ resignations would follow, and a political tsunami would sweep away all Democratic hopes for the 2016 presidential race. It would be the greatest political disaster since the 1974 Watergate scandal that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation. Just as was true then, an attempt to cover up high-level criminality would produce an uncontrollable political situation.

Thus, Mrs. Clinton might be indicted on the security issue, if it is found that she intended to break the law. If she did it to cover up other criminality, she will be in deep trouble. Even Mr. Obama would not be able to save her. Should he make the attempt – unlikely, in my view – his own political legacy would be damaged beyond repair. President Clinton recovered from impeachment because his media allies persuaded the public that it was “just about sex.” Delivering Mrs. Clinton from prosecution for security violations and/or corruption is in a whole different league.

Will Mr. Obama risk his personal and political integrity to save Mrs. Clinton? I leave the question as an exercise for the reader.