The news in today’s New York Times that Secretary of State Clinton did not use a government e-mail account during her service in office, but rather handled her official e-mail communication through one or more “private” accounts is a disappointment. Cabinet level officials are not entitled to simply exempt themselves from the full demands of government records and freedom of information laws.
This is one of those areas where we need to “walk the talk” if we are going to provide effective leadership on open governance and rule of law.
One of the things that makes this especially disappointing is that this problem came up prominently in the Bush Administration where a large number of officials in the White House were using a non-government system through the Republican Natiional Committee. The company I worked for at the time was involved in dealing with the mess of trying to recover public records involved in White House e-mail over a period of years. It appears likely that Mrs. Clinton will be the only candidate for president next year with much actual foreign policy experience, which many voters might consider to have quite a lot of weight in light of our experiences with inexperienced presidents over the past fifteen years. Unfortunately, this public records situation seems to be a case where readily available learning from past problems was not applied.
A couple of other points: first, it seems quite striking that Ambassador Scott Gration was severely criticized by the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General, in the lead up to his resignation, under Secretary Clinton, for his use of insecure private e-mail accounts; second, if the Secretary of State was during her four years in office not using an official e-mail account at all, it seems to strain credibility to think that this mode of operation was not understood and effectively acquiesced in by a whole lot of other people in government.
Based on the reporting it appears that the records have been identified and preserved and will be available. I also recognize that the way that most of us use e-mail is a difficult match with the requirements of government records and freedom of information laws and that there will inevitably be issues, challenges and disputes in certain areas. Nonetheless, if we are to have a system based on the rule of law and a government “of laws, not of men”, the highest federal officials are no more entitled to simply opt out of the system than are, say, the members of a local school board.
He has willfully disregarded Department regulations for the use of commercial email for official government business, including front channel from the Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security against such practice, which he asserted to the OIG team he had not seen. (This topic is addressed later in the report.)