Amid growing speculation about the extent to which President Barack Obama is using his power to bolster the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, recent comments made by the commander in chief about the "shit show" in Libya, among other things, underscore how difficult that line is to toe.
During a telling interview with Fox News this weekend, Obama admitted that "failing to plan for the day after" the 2011 U.S.-backed toppling of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was "worst mistake" of his presidency.
The admission followed similar comments made by the president in a lengthy interview with the Atlantic published this month during which he called Libya "a mess" and privately described the failed state as a "shit show."
Given that the overthrow of Gaddafi is "one of the policies cited by Clinton as one of her chief accomplishments," as Vanity Fair's Tina Nguyen notes, Obama's statements could be problematic for the former secretary of state.
During a television interview in 2011, Clinton infamously joked about the fall of Gaddafi saying, "We came, we saw, he died." Even on the campaign trail, the presidential hopeful defended the employment of military support in Libya, describing it as "smart power at its best."
Obama’s comments highlight a growing divide with Clinton as she seeks to win the Democratic presidential nomination. As secretary of state, Clinton was one of the strongest proponents of the U.S. intervention in the Libyan civil war against Gadhafi; according to the New York Times, the decision to commit military assets to ending the dictator’s 42-year-old regime was “arguably her moment of greatest influence as secretary of state.” While Obama has now pointed to that decision multiple times as one of his biggest regrets, he has also used the same logic to defend his reticence to intervene in Syria, where Clinton has urged a more militaristic approach, including a no-fly zone.
While Obama remains officially neutral in the Democratic race, as CNN notes, "He did vote in the Illinois primary—meaning he plainly prefers one candidate over the other—and hasn't been hesitant about defending his former secretary of state against political attacks and allegations of wrongdoing. But in doing so, his hands remain tied."
Meanwhile, the ongoing Justice Department investigation into possible national security violations Clinton may have committed through her use of a private email server has added another fraught layer to this dynamic.
In recent days, Obama received fierce criticism for acknowledging that, in his mind, there are different levels of "classified" information—a revelation which critics said betrays his favoritism for Clinton.
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"And what I also know, because I handle a lot of classified information, is that there are—there’s classified, and then there’s classified," Obama said in the "Fox News Sunday" interview. "There’s stuff that is really top secret top secret, and there’s stuff that is being presented to the president or the secretary of state, that you might not want on the transom, or going out over the wire, but is basically stuff that you could get in open source."
As New York Times reporters David Sanger and Mark Landler wrote Monday, "these are distinctions the Obama administration has not necessarily made in its treatment of classified information when dealing with news organizations, whistle-blowers or government officials accused of leaking information."
Indeed, some of the individuals who have been prosecuted by the Obama administration for disclosing "classified" information fumed, and joked, over the president's remark.
If only I had known. https://t.co/yrPg8uxiQO
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) April 10, 2016
Anyone have the number for the Attorney General? Asking for a friend. https://t.co/yrPg8uxiQO
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) April 10, 2016
To protect Hillary, Obama invents a brand new theory of classified information unavailable to "lower rank-and-file" https://t.co/cZLZCd2bDg
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) April 12, 2016
"If you’re on trial for unauthorized disclosure of classified information, you don’t get to say, 'there’s classified, and then there’s classified,'" Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, told the Times.
While the president may have been making a comment on the bureaucratic nature of the classification process, the statement "failed to grapple with the fact that a bunch of people in his administration have been caught up in a meat-grinder as a result of classification policy," Aftergood added.
"It’s a two-tiered system of justice for people who have allegedly mishandled classified information," Jesselyn Radack, a whistleblower attorney and director of national security and human rights for the Whistleblower and Source Protection Program at Expose Facts, told Shadowproof journalist Kevin Gosztola. "If you are powerful or politically connected, you have nothing to worry about. But if you’re a low-level whistleblower whose made revelations that the government doesn’t want people to know about torture, about secret surveillance, about drones, that makes you fair game for prosecution and prosecution for espionage."
Citing President Richard Nixon who once declared, "If the president does it, that makes it legal," Gosztola writes: "In this case, if Hillary Clinton did it but the establishment still has a use for her because she is running for president, then it is legal."