The New York Times reports that Hillary Clinton exclusively used a personal email account to conduct government business while she was acting as Secretary of State, possibly breaking federal rules that stipulate official correspondence must be kept for the agency's records. Clinton, who served as Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013, reportedly did not have a government email account during her term and conducted official business exclusively through a private email account.
Personal accounts should only be used in emergencies
"It is very difficult to conceive of a scenario — short of nuclear winter — where an agency would be justified in allowing its cabinet-level head officer to solely use a private email communications channel for the conduct of government business," Jason R. Baron, a lawyer and former director of litigation at the National Archives and Records Administration, told The New York Times. Federal law states that letters and emails written and received by federal officials are government records and, unless they contain classified or sensitive materials, should be kept where third parties can access them. Personal email accounts are supposed to be reserved for use in emergencies.
Nick Merrill, a spokesperson for Hillary Clinton, said that she had followed the "letter and spirit of the rules," and said that she had "every expectation" that emails sent to other officials in the State Department would be kept, but did not specify whether she used any form of encryption to secure her correspondence. Merrill also did not reference emails sent to officials outside of the government and did not explain the wider issue of why Clinton decided to use a personal email account to communicate in her official business. The account itself was reportedly discovered by a committee investigating the attack on the American Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, after the State Department reviewed Clinton's messages and provided the group with 300 emails regarding the assault.
The National Archives has few ways to enforce penalties
Clinton's advisers have since combed further through the account, giving 55,000 pages of her personal emails as part of a State Department drive to comply with federal record-keeping practices, but it's not clear how many more were not handed over. Thomas S. Blanton, director of transparency advocacy group the National Security Archive, said that someone in the State Department "deserves credit" for asking for Clinton's records. "Most of the time it takes the threat of litigation and embarrassment," he said.
Blanton argues that personal emails are insecure, and that senior officials should not be using them to communicate. "It's a shame [record-keeping] didn't take place automatically when she was Secretary of State as it should have," he said, but The New York Times notes that penalties for not keeping proper federal records are "rare," because the National Archives and Record Administration has few ways to enforce its rules.
Still, Clinton's actions seem egregious compared to those of her successor as Secretary of State — John Kerry has used an official government email account since taking the job in 2013 — and could draw accusations of secrecy and a lack of transparency in the run-up to the next presidential election. In contrast to Clinton, possible Republican presidential race rival Jeb Bush recently released an archive of emails sent and received during his eight-year stint as governor of Florida.