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'Secret' government email addresses could evade transparency rules, says AP

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White House stock obama - from White House flickr
White House stock obama - from White House flickr

Officials at the US Department of Health and Human Services, Labor Department, and other agencies have used separate, private email accounts that could pose transparency concerns, the Associated Press reports. Government email correspondence is considered a part of the federal record; it must be preserved and potentially released under Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. But while the email addresses of figures like HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius are published on public sites, the AP has found that several officials are also using private internal addresses, ostensibly to send mail without being "overwhelmed" by messages.

The AP sent requests for government agencies to turn over all email addresses of their officials; so far, some have complied, but 10 agencies have yet to provide lists. The Department of HHS initially turned over a long list but did not include even Sebelius' public email, and it later asked the AP not to publish a second "secret" one used for day-to-day business. The Labor Department asked the AP to pay over a million dollars to "pull 2,236 computer backup tapes from its archives and pay 50 people to pore over old records." Spokesperson Carl Fillichio later said that the bill had been a mistake, releasing the addresses.

Agencies say they search internal email accounts for transparency requests, but the evidence is murky

There's not necessarily anything shady about officials using unpublished addresses to sort out internal email. But the practice makes it harder to be sure that a request for government data is being honored in good faith. The Labor Department and Department of HHS said they searched both public and private emails when asked for records, providing full transparency. But the AP found only a single instance of an agency publicly releasing an email from a "secret" address. One transparency advocate also questioned whether these internal addresses were well-documented. "What happens when that person doesn't work there anymore?" asked National Security Counselors director Kel McClanahan. "You would hope that agencies doing this would keep a list of aliases in a desk drawer, but you know that isn't happening."

The first "secret" addresses were found in the Environmental Protection Agency last year, when conservative groups accused Obama's EPA of waiving FOIA fees for environmentalists but refusing to give waivers to conservatives. Former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson was found to be using a "secret" address under the name "Richard Windsor," which she used to communicate both internally and with environmental groups. The EPA is currently investigating the use of such accounts. President Obama has famously called his tenure "the most transparent administration in history," but the AP's report fits more with another view of the administration: that it greenlights surveillance and relentlessly cracks down on whistleblowing to keep its house in order.