The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

What Hillary Clinton's Emails Tell Us About How She'd Deal With Terrorism

Reading them is the only way to know.

by Mike Pearl
Nov 30 2015, 7:10pm

Read: Why You Actually Should Care About Hillary Clinton's Damn Emails

According to some new poll results from last week, America trusts Hillary Clinton to fight terrorism more than Donald Trump, or any Republican presidential nominee (although Jeb Bush is within the margin of error). That's especially good news for Clinton as a Democrat, since polls typically show that voters trust the Republicans more than her party when it comes to keeping the US safe from groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda.

But as with any issue during a presidential election, it's impossible to know whether that kind of trust is earned, or based on the emotions Americans feel after watching campaign commercials.

But Clinton spent a little over four years as America's top diplomat, and in that period of time, her role as Secretary of State put her front-and-center in America's anti-terrorism efforts. That also means the public is entitled by law to dig through all of her correspondence from that time, as long as doing so doesn't jeopardize national security.

The full record of her emails from that time still only exists on a private email server she set up—a legally questionable state of affairs. But after some legal grappling with VICE News, the State Department has released thousands of her emails, revealing—to anyone committed to, as VICE News' FOIA expert Jason Leopold put it, "actually sitting down, and fucking reading every goddamn motherfucking email"—what went on behind the scenes when Hillary Clinton was the one shaping foreign policy.

Jason is one of the few people who actually does just that—or at least gets pretty fucking close. Since he uses the same coffee machine as me, after I read those poll results, I thought I should sit down and ask him what the emails can tell us about Clinton's potential presidency, and specifically how a future President Hillary would deal with the terrorist threats facing the US.

VICE: You probably saw this new poll that shows that more than any other 2016 candidate, America trusts Hillary Clinton to fight terrorism. What do you think about that?
If anyone took the time to really dig into the emails, you can see that Hillary is very, very aggressive on issues revolving around terrorism, [but] that she has not made any decisions—at least from what I've seen—unilaterally, on her own, on issues related to Al Qaeda.

So what was she up to?
During that first year when she was Secretary of State, she was not just becoming sort of adjusted or adjusting herself to this sort of position, she was also sort of laying the groundwork basically for what kind of president she would later end up being—particularly related to issues of foreign policy. As Secretary of State, she was the nation's top diplomat, and you can see this evolution of how aggressive she was.

Specifically, what did the emails say about her involvement in the war in Afghanistan?
[Former Clinton advisor Mark Penn] was advising her to be very, very aggressive on the troop surge in Afghanistan in 2009. [He argued that] Obama wasn't being tough enough, [that] she needed to be tougher; she needed to get behind the generals who were saying that we need to root out remnants of Al Qaeda and put the Taliban in its place. We look to her as this figure of someone who's sort of hawkish.

It's not wrong to think of her as a hawk though, is it?
She is very hawkish. But she's also somebody that takes a lot of advice, and had to be talked into it. She did have to be talked into it. There was another [email] in there about when she was going out to Pakistan [that shows] how she was advised by [retired Army] General Wesley Clark—because she met with him, she wanted to talk about these issues—that she needed to be aggressive with Pakistan in saying, 'You need to do more with Al Qaeda. You guys need to do more in order to get rid of Al Qaeda, root out Al Qaeda.'

Do you get any sense of her personal opinions and emotions from the emails?
What was really interesting in one of the emails is how she reacted to the plight of women, particularly young girls, in Pakistan and elsewhere who were being mistreated. Like, for example, there was this young Yemeni girl who was being brutalized and was trying to get a divorce. Her story appeared in an article, and she [Clinton] expressed not just concern, but wanted to know what the State Department could do in terms of its resources, and what they could do to help in situations like that.

Is that an indication of how she might feel about the Syrian refugees?
If you can look at this girl that I just mentioned, Clinton's question was to her staff, to her advisers was, "What can we do? Can we do anything for her? Can we bring her and her family to the United States?" That's just one example of an individual, but on the whole, there wasn't anything about the refugees as sort of a larger group and what to do [about their situation.] There were instances with Boko Haram and the fact of what they were doing, and that the US needed to step in and help, but nothing that sort of rose to the level of 'let's bring 'em to the US.'

I could see why people may look at this like, 'Oh yeah, now we like her!' But that's the whole point of the emails!

Are there clear examples in the emails that inform us about what actions she would take as the leader of the country?
Well, with Pakistan, she was told [by her advisors] that the Pakistanis have to more aggressively pursue Al Qaeda—that's what she was told to say. That's exactly what she did. When she ended up visiting Pakistan on October 28, 2009, she accused Pakistani officials of giving safe haven to Al Qaeda terrorists. So that's what she said publicly, and weeks before she was getting all of this advice.

So when you imagine her coming up with a terror platform today, you picture her getting similarly hawkish advice from her friends?
You can certainly see how she would act as president. She has a lot of foreign policy experience. Particularly right now, you can look at what she's saying with regard to the Islamic State—that we need to be more aggressive—appealing to people who want to hear that, versus the current president, who is saying that it doesn't make sense to send troops out there.

So basically, she's complex? That's what we've learned?
You don't get a complete picture, but you get a pretty damned good picture of what she was like as the nation's top diplomat, and how she served in that position with regard to dealing with countries that were allegedly giving safe haven to terrorists, like Pakistan. And how she sought out advice. Then you've got another side of her—this complete human side—where here's a person who's actually seeing a young girl suffering human rights abuses. So yeah, you know, that's what makes this person a very complex character.

Careful man. You might accidentally make people like her.
I could see why people may look at this like, 'Oh yeah, now we like her!' But that's the whole point of the emails is that it underscores that she's a complex political figure, where she makes some decisions that the public might get behind and other decisions that might be cause for concern, particularly on foreign policy.

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter. Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter too.

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