Saturday, July 9, 2016

Classified Information

Whenever a serious issue impacts our nation, Congress usually gathers for briefings in what is called a classified setting. Sensitive information is then shared by Executive Branch officials. The topics range from national security issues to details about ongoing investigations of individuals, but at all times, we are reminded that the information discussed is to be considered classified. This is a legal way of protecting the general welfare of the United States. We also leave any electronic devices outside.

In other meetings or congressional hearings, conversations sometimes bump up against firewalls of classified information. The discussion then ceases, or the participants agree to meet at another time in a secure setting to more deeply explore areas of sensitivity. Even at my church, someone recently asked me about one of the more speculative aspects of the Orlando shooting. Instead of providing further details, I said, “I can’t talk about this because I received a classified briefing on the topic.”

I provide these examples to give you a window into how classified intelligence is integrated into responsible processes on Capitol Hill. I’m sure you are familiar by now with the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email practices during her tenure as Secretary of State. This week FBI Director James Comey, a dedicated public servant who is held in high regard on both sides of the political aisle, spoke to the American public about the results of that investigation. Unfortunately, after characterizing Hillary Clinton’s use of emails of private servers as “extremely careless,” he dismissed any consequences. This begs the question: would any other American be treated the same?

Take the case of a Marine who mistakenly took classified documents from his workplace. He was found guilty, busted in rank to the lowest enlisted grade, sentenced to confinement, and had to forfeit pay for three years. The Marine was convicted of “gross negligence," the standard under the law. The distinction between Director Comey’s chastisement of Secretary Clinton for "extreme carelessness" and “gross negligence” remains murky.

Although avoiding politicizing the issue will be difficult, especially during an election season, the heart of the matter now before us is one of fairness, equal treatment, and institutional trust. When there is a perception that position, power, and politics overcome the demands of justice, we have lost a sacred space in America.

There is an ancient Russian expression: “riba gnyote s'golovey,” which means “the fish rots from the head.” We rightly expect our leaders to be held to very high standards—and this is weighty for those of us entrusted to lead. When there is slippage, the implications go way beyond individual failing—it tears at our sense of unity, fosters distrust of institutions, and robs of us of collective dignity. Recall that scene in the movie Braveheart when William Wallace discovers that he is betrayed by the leader of the Scottish. He can’t breathe.

The source of America's strength is the lived reality that everyone has rights, everyone has a chance, and everyone must take their share of responsibility. We do not tolerate double standards well and perhaps our sensitivity to these values is a cause for hope in our country. Remember Nebraska's motto? Equality Before the Law.

About the Author:

JEFF FORTENBERRY has served as the U.S. Representative for Nebraska's 1st congressional district since 2005. He is the Chairperson for the Subcommittee on Department Operations, Oversight, Nutrition and Forestry. Vice Chair of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights and has a seat on the Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia.

He is a member of the following Caucus groups: Civil War Battlefield Caucus - Congressional Biofuels Caucus - Congressional Farmer Cooperative Caucus - House Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Caucus - International Conservation Caucus - Sportsmen's Caucus.

Congressman Fortenberry has become the most knowledgeable representative on Capitol Hill for nuclear security issues.

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