clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

There was no good reason for Hillary Clinton to use private email

New, 157 comments

Email is the best way to keep track of our public servants, but our leaders keep resisting

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

There are three things I remember vividly from when I took my oath of office as a career federal employee in the current administration: the mountain of paperwork required to get signed up for my health benefits, the peppy presentation by the guy who ran the office gym, and the very serious, very clear instructions regarding federal records. The messages were loud and clear. Don’t lose or break your equipment, and don’t use your own. I don’t know what kind of orientation Hillary Clinton got when she joined the administration, but we now know she chose to use her own equipment.

Before I was a career fed at an agency, I was a political appointee at the White House — a staff constantly under scrutiny from the press, more so than most of our non-political colleagues. Because of that pressure, we invoked the "Washington Post test" nearly every day. How would you feel if the email you’re writing showed up on A1 of the Post? Did someone send you an email saying something you were uncomfortable with? Respond in writing making it clear you disagree. Did someone ask you over the phone to do something you’re even remotely uncomfortable with? Ask them to put it in writing — in email.

It wasn’t just bureaucracy, regulations, and red tape that made this demand for transparency clear. We all knew the stories of others in government who had been chastised for failing to properly maintain their records. Just before Obama took office, Bush administration officials, including Karl Rove, were charged with "using nongovernmental accounts specifically to avoid creating a record of the communications" in the middle of political scandal. The IRS was admonished for its inability to produce a full record of Lois Lerner’s emails due to a computer crash. Deputy White House CTO (and former Google public policy director) Andrew McLaughlin was scolded for using his personal Gmail instead of his .gov address to conduct business. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius caught flak for using email aliases, even though they were on federal systems and being documented like any other .gov address.

I never ran into anything that would be A1 material in my time as a government employee, political or career. But the burden — the seriousness — of leaving records behind and recording our work was ever-present.

Why go through the trouble of creating a personal email system?

The New York Times and others reported this week that Hillary Clinton used a non-government email account to conduct government business during her tenure as Secretary of State, likely breaching at least the spirit of federal regulations requiring that such communications be logged. Clinton’s staff has responded by saying they complied with both the spirit and the letter of relevant regulations. A tweet from Clinton’s own Twitter account states plainly, "I want the public to see my email. I asked State to release them. They said they will review them for release as soon as possible." But if they fully intended to keep records of all her correspondence, why did they go to the trouble of setting up a personal server in her own home to send emails?

Clinton spokesperson Nick Merrill told Business Insider that for government business, Clinton emailed colleagues on their official government accounts "with every expectation they would be retained." But as Gawker reported, some of Clinton’s top aides, including her deputy assistant secretary of state and her deputy chief of staff, allegedly had their own private accounts — meaning any emails sent exclusively between State’s top leadership weren’t automatically being retained by the government. To make things worse, Clinton’s staff gets to decide which emails to turn over to the government. There’s nothing transparent about this scheme.

Clinton surrounded herself with tech-savvy advisors

This wasn’t a matter of ignorance. Clinton famously surrounded herself with tech-savvy advisors from Silicon Valley like Jared Cohen and Alec Ross, pushing the reserved agency to adopt what they called "21st century statecraft." Clinton’s boss, President Obama, appointed the first federal Chief Technology Officer and has claimed to prioritize transparency efforts across his administration. Even without those senior advisors, there is an entire federal agency — the National Archives and Records Administration — that concerns itself with records keeping. And the Obama White House has made it clear that they issued "very specific guidance" to administration officials telling them they should use official email accounts when conducting government business.

At this point, we can only guess why Clinton and her staff chose not to use official systems. And the most obvious guess at this point is a fear of transparency. Congressional oversight committees, FOIA-demanding journalists, diligent historians, and even everyday citizens have more ways than ever to monitor the work of public officials and to acquire records of their correspondence, budgets, and all manner of comings and goings. Just today, the House committee that has been obsessed with Clinton’s involvement in the Benghazi embassy attack for years subpoenaed her personal email account.

We don't know how much email there is, or if any has been deleted

But how much actual business does a cabinet secretary conduct over email? Closed door meetings happen all the time. Press access to leaders and politicians is tightly controlled. White House staff frequently have off-the-record meetings at coffee shops across the street from their offices to avoid having their guests appear on visitor logs. Still, Clinton seems to be sitting on a trove of email. Following reports this week about her private email habits, Clinton’s allies assured the public that more than 50,000 emails have already been turned over to the state. We just don’t know how many more there are and if any have been destroyed.

Of course, as Vox’s Ezra Klein argues, it’s silly to think everything our leaders do will be caught by the public eye. We’ll never be fully aware of what our secretaries of state say and do or to whom. Watergate taught politicians not to tape their calls and, maybe, not to use official email accounts. But honest leaders shouldn’t be afraid of sunlight. Hillary Clinton had an easy opportunity to participate in a system that keeps government more accountable for its actions, and she opted to evade it.

Mike Case is chief of staff at Vox Product.