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A Lesson from Germany, for Clinton's E-Mail Scandal

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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The more threatening Hillary Clinton's alleged mishandling of classified information becomes to her chances at the presidency the more I think the story has a relevant precedent.

In 1974, 12 days after it was revealed that his personal assistant had been an East German spy, Willy Brandt, the chancellor of West Germany, announced his resignation. While Britain's Profumo affair had disastrous consequences for the government of Harold Macmillan in 1963, I can't think of another example of a leader of this caliber being brought low by being too careless with secret information, and there are important similarities -- and differences -- in the Brandt and Clinton cases that are interesting to consider.

First, the similarities.

Both are progressives with powerful enemies in the conservative establishment and media. Brandt was hounded by the center-right CDU party, which tried unsuccessfully to remove him from office through a no-confidence vote in parliament, and by the newspapers of conservative Berlin publisher Axel Springer. Clinton is the favorite target of all Republican presidential candidates, conservative talk radio hosts and Fox News. 

Neither Clinton nor Brandt knowingly passed any classified information into the wrong hands. Clinton's could have been stolen by hostile powers, as a hacker proved possible in 2013. Brandt's was in fact stolen, though it was never clear exactly which, and how many, documents were trafficked.  

In both cases, the politicians underestimated the risks of their actions. Clinton knew her arrangement to be unorthodox and that the U.S. government discouraged the use of private e-mail for official purposes, though it wasn't directly banned. Brandt's assistant, Guenther Guillaume, was a suspected spy since 1973. Brandt was told of the suspicions by Interior Minister Dietrich Genscher -- and asked to behave as if nothing was amiss to avoid alerting Guillaume. Even so, Brandt's decision to allow Guillaume to keep handling documents with the highest NATO security classification -- which he promptly passed on to his East German handler in Sweden -- probably went beyond what was required for surveillance purposes.

There are two important differences. The first, of course, is that in the German case it was clear beyond any doubt that West Germany's enemies had the secret information. In the U.S. one, it cannot be established with any certainty even if the Clinton server's logs are available and can be parsed.

The second difference is that Brandt resigned, taking "political responsibility for negligence," though he didn't have to; Clinton clings to her political ambitions. The two have a different understanding of "the unwritten laws of democracy," which Brandt cited when he quit his post.

Brandt's enemies claimed Guillaume's access left Brandt, rumored to be a drinker and a womanizer, open to blackmail. The leftist chancellor denied it, but he understood that hanging on to power could jeopardize his cause, namely a course toward peaceful convergence with the East that Brandt believed would eventually lead to Germany's reunification.

Hillary Clinton, on the contrary, clearly believes that her cause would suffer without her. "What we need is a plan, and a commitment, and me, yes thank you," was how she put it during a recent campaign appearance in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

In retrospect, she is probably right to fight on. Clinton's enemies put a lot of stock in legalistic definitions of classified information. The Federal Bureau of Investigation may take such a legalistic approach, too. How much damage, however, could Clinton's handling of sensitive data could have caused to U.S. interests?

In Brandt's case, it's clear now that the documents Guillaume passed on to the Stasi, the East German secret police, didn't do West Germany much harm. Inside knowledge of Brandt's friendly convergence plan scared East German leader Erich Honecker, who was apparently jealous of the West German leftists' dialogue with the Soviet Union. If the Soviets acted on the intelligence Guillaume apparently provided -- such as tidbits on U.S. President Richard Nixon's mistrust of France and other internal problems within NATO -- history has forgotten any trace of such action. The Soviet Union fell apart, Germany reunited, and Markus Wolf, by then former head of Stasi intelligence, wrote a letter of apology to Brandt ("Well, that doesn't help much now," the ex-chancellor is said to have remarked grumpily after reading it).

Did Germany benefit from Brandt's resignation? I doubt much would have changed had he remained chancellor until the next election and fought on as an active politician. The Social Democrats became unpopular for economic reasons by the 1980s anyway, and then had their ups and downs like any major party.

Intelligence agencies are maniacal about classifying every bit of information that they don't want anyone to have. History shows that much of it is not particularly useful to a country's adversaries, even if obtaining it is gratifying. 

There may be a legal case against Clinton that would amount to what Brandt named as the reason for his resignation -- negligence. Yet it probably wouldn't mean she's unfit to serve as president. Brandt, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, is fondly remembered by many Germans, and his kneeling in Warsaw in memory of the Jews murdered there is one of the most memorable political acts of the second half of last century.

Even if there is enough evidence against Clinton, it should be up to the voters to decide whether she is fit to occupy the White House (a presidential pardon would be a fitting mechanism to ensure that, should push come to shove).  After all, the real question raised is one of character and judgment. Brandt should have left it up to the German voters, too. Perhaps he would have lost the next election, and perhaps Clinton will lose this year. That, however, is not the point.

(Corrects location where Willy Brandt knelt in remembrance of murdered Jews in article's 13th paragraph. It was in Warsaw, not at Auschwitz.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net