The final act in David Petraeus’s fall from grace played out yesterday, when the retired four-star general agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of removing and retaining classified material without authorization.

General Petraeus, the hero of the successful U.S. troop surge in Iraq in 2007-08, was accused of providing notebooks to Paula Broadwell, an Army Reserve officer who had an affair with Petraeus while writing a book about him.  Some of the so-called “black books” contained classified information, and Petraeus lied to investigators when they asked if he had supplied material to Major Broadwell, author of All In: the Education of David Petraeus.

As The New York Times observes, the plea deal spares General Petraeus the humiliation of a public trial and allows him to get on with his new, lucrative career as a government consultant, educator and partner in a major equity firm.  But if he had any political ambitions, those are (presumably) gone; the affair and conviction would be more than enough to hound him from any race.

We’re about to find out if Hillary Clinton has a similar problem.  It was revealed earlier this week that Mrs. Clinton never used her official, government e-mail account while serving as Secretary of State.  Instead, she created her own e-mail domain, with a server located in her Chappaqua, New York home.   The Times reported Monday that Mrs. Clinton used her private account to conduct official business, raising serious questions about security and her compliance with the Federal Records Act.

As for the “security” of Hillary’s e-mails, that train left the station a long time ago.  The infamous hacker Gucifer, now cooling his heels in a Romanian jail, first disclosed existence of the back channel system when he hacked into the e-mail account of Sidney Blumenthal, the long-time aide and confidant to the former Secretary of State.  While rooting around in Mr. Blumenthal’s e-mails, he found a series of messages sent to Mrs. Clinton.  Many contained intelligence information, apparently gathered from Blumenthal’s various contacts.  In some instances, he cautioned, the summaries contained “extremely sensitive” information, drawn form sources close to various foreign groups and governments.  Details of the e-mails were published at The Smoking Gun, but the information did not include Mrs. Clinton’s responses.

Obviously, if a lone hacker was able to uncover Mrs. Clinton’s e-mail domain, it wouldn’t be very hard for the intelligence services of Russia, China and other U.S. adversaries to access her messages as well.  And it raises legitimate questions about the type of information the former secretary of state was sending via unsecure e-mail.

That’s because federal officials–heck, anyone with a security clearance, system access and “need-to-know” are required to use secure e-mail networks to transmit classified information.  Technically, Mrs. Clinton was supposed to have at least three government e-mail accounts, on the NIPRNET (which is used for sensitive, but unclassified information); SIPRNET (for information classified as “Secret”) and JWICS, which handles material classified as Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmentalized Information (TS/SCI).

Apparently, Clinton never bothered with establishing a SIPRNET or JWICS account, which should be been standard practice from her first day on the job.  So far, no one from Hillary’s camp has explained why she saw no need for a classified e-mail account.  Needless to say, even NIPRNET is more secure than Mrs. Clinton’s home-based server.                 

The rationale for her “approach,” is readily apparent.  By utilizing her own e-mail system, Hillary hoped to avoid federal rules covering e-mails, letters and other correspondence from senior officials, which are considered public records and supposed to be retained for potential use by congressional committees, historians and members of the media.  Current regulations make some exceptions for classified and sensitive information.

But Mrs. Clinton and her aides made no effort to preserve the e-mails during her time in office.  In fact, aides to the former secretary of state didn’t turn the first batch of her e-mails–55,000 pages of material–until two months ago, almost two years after she left office.  A former director of litigation for the National Archives said it was “almost inconceivable” that an agency would allow its cabinet-level head officer to rely on a private e-mail account to conduct official government business.

A spokesman for Hillary Clinton told the Times she has been complying with the “letter and spirit of the rules.”

But then again, the Clintons have always viewed “the rules” as something that applies to other people, or subject to their interpretation.  Hillary clearly knew what she was doing when the private e-mail system installed, and calculated that most of her messages would never see the light of day.

Of course, that was before hackers got into Blumenthal’s e-mail account (highlighting Mrs. Clinton’s back channel network) and before Benghazi, which sent Congressional investigators looking for her correspondence.  Now, the real question is what she sent through that private account.  The odds she didn’t transmit classified information are decidedly slim; at Foggy Bottom, secret and even TS/SCI data are part of assessments and cables reviewed by the SecState every day.  And if their only e-mail account is on a unsecure server, there’s a very good chance that classified material will be found in messages already turned over, and those being sought by Congress and watchdog groups.

There is a certain irony to all of this.  While serving as Secretary of State, Mrs. Clinton forced the resignation of the U.S. Ambassador to Kenya, retired Air Force Major General Scott Gration.  An audit of his management in Nairobi cited a number of problems, including the use of a private e-mail account to conduct government business.  Gration, who persuaded a number of retired generals and admirals to endorse Barack Obama in 2008, had served as ambassador for only one year when the audit was conducted.

Almost three years after Gration stepped down, his former boss is now under scrutiny.  And, with most of her e-mails still outside the State Department’s control, there’s a good chance that many will disappear, if they haven’t already.  Mrs. Clinton’s IT firm can claim a hard drive crash or some other malfunction that wiped away thousands of messages–and unlike the IRS–there may not be a back-up system that can be easily identified (or subpoenaed).

That’s not to say that Hillary is home free.  Some of the e-mails recently turned over to Judicial Watch (in response to an FOIA lawsuit), confirm Mrs. Clinton knew early on that the attack on our consulate in Benghazi was a terrorist strike and not the product of an anti-Muslim video.  Many of the messages were sent by Clinton aides, using government e-mail systems.  It will be interesting to see how that traffic compares to messages sent through Hillary’s private network at the same time.

This we know: much of the early information on Benghazi was based on State Department communications, social media postings (by the terrorists involved) and signals intercepts by the National Security Agency.  As we’ve noted in the past, an attack on an American diplomatic facility would meet the criteria for CRITICOMM intelligence reporting by NSA, know in the past as a FLASH CRITIC.  Those intercepts are supposed to be on the President’s desk within 10 minutes of the event.  Someone on Congressman Gowdy’s staff might want to compare CRITICOMM reporting from that night with the information circulating in Mrs. Clinton’s unsecure e-mail system.                        

What happens if classified information turns up in those e-mails?  Will Mrs. Clinton face the same charges as General Petraeus?  Don’t hold your breath.  After all, the rules are for the little people.

While Clinton defenders try to spin this latest scandal, a lot of Democratic party activists are getting nervous.  Quoting The New Republic (hardly a right-wing publication), Mrs. Clinton has committed a lot of “unforced errors” during the run-up to her expected presidential bid.  For someone who was considered an “inevitable” nominee just weeks ago, Hillary suddenly looks very vulnerable.  When a former Democratic governor of Maryland (Martin O’Malley) takes a pass on a Senate race he could have won in a walk–and is working on his own presidential campaign–Mrs. Clinton is facing serious trouble, indeed.