Should we care about Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal email address when she served as Secretary of State?
On Monday the New York Times broke the story that, during her four years as Secretary of State, Clinton never had an official State Department email address and instead exclusively used a personal address to conduct official business. As a result, her emails were not maintained on governmental servers, which may have violated the Federal Records Act. The Times reported that her aides later went through her emails and decided which ones to give to the State Department.
Following up on the story, yesterday the Associated Press reported that Clinton’s private email address traced back to a personal computer server at her home in New York. The House Committee investigating the attacks on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya has now subpoenaed her emails, and Clinton said last night that she has asked the State Department to review the emails that her aides provided to the department and release them to the public. Clinton’s defenders say there is no evidence that she acted with ill intent, and note that other politicians have used personal email accounts.
So, should we care about this incident? I think we should, for three reasons. First, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for us to expect high-ranking public officials like the U.S. Secretary of State to comply with federal law. I don’t buy the “other people did it too” defense, and saying Clinton wasn’t a conscious lawbreaker is about as lame a justification as you can concoct. Is the fact that the senior member of the President’s Cabinet apparently was unaware of basic rules of federal record-keeping really helpful to her? Was she ignorant of and non-compliant with other rules set by federal law, too?
Second, where were Clinton’s aides and other State Department officials and federal officials in all of this? When they started to get email from her personal email address, didn’t they raise the issue of her non-compliance with federal law — or all they all blissfully ignorant of the Federal Records Act, too? Are federal employees simply not trained in straightforward administrative requirements of federal law, or were they afraid to raise the issue of Clinton’s non-compliance because they worried about the reaction?
Third, the rules set by the Federal Records Act are important, and aren’t just another set of inexplicable red-tape requirements in the byzantine mass of federal regulations. Storage of all communications by federal employees in federal departments means that records of those communications will be archived and readily available in the event the activities of the employee are investigated. The employee won’t get to pick and choose which records will be accessible and thereby tailor the story to make themselves look good.
More importantly, in this world of constant data breaches, storage of official email on personal servers is asking for trouble. Perhaps the Clintons have the most well-staffed, advanced IT section in the world constantly safeguarding their personal server from attack, but I’d rather trust the federal government to keep the Secretary of State’s confidential communications with the President and foreign leaders secure from the hackers. Are we really confident that malignant foreign governments didn’t plant malware in the Clinton server and obtain real-time access to her communications? Clinton’s decision to conduct official business on a personal email account strikes me as both naive and extremely reckless — which aren’t exactly qualities I’m looking for in a presidential candidate.