Though Madame herself has said nothing out loud (she did send one Tweet) about the bubbling scandal that she used private email to conduct four years’ of official business as Secretary of State, perhaps to help shield her communications from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, there has been no shortage of third-party defenders.
Let’s take a look at their arguments, and see how they sound.
It’s Not Illegal
Clinton supporters fired their first shots claiming she did nothing illegal, that current laws on using personal email were enacted only in 2014. And so if you have done nothing illegal, by definition your actions are legal.
As to the rules/laws/regulations, there are some clear issues.
Clinton as Secretary of State held herself to lower standards than the rank and file. According to eight pages of State Department regulations (5 FAM 440, 443.1), “All Government employees and contractors are required by law to make and preserve records containing adequate and proper documentation of the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, and essential transactions of the agency (Federal Records Act, or “FRA,” 44 U.S.C. 3101 et seq).” Those regs have been in place since at least 2009, most since 1995. There’s also another section that’s relevant. The State Department through a series of memos and internal interpretations clarified that persons using personal email for government business should forward copies to their official account as soon as practical. There are no provisions for maintaining a private archive at home and turning over a curated selection years later when asked.
There is also what the official custodian of U.S. government records, the National Archives and Records Administration, in the 2009 National Records Act, has to say, specifically in 44 U.S.C. Chapters 31 and 33 and the regulations issued in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), specifically Subchapter B – Records Management of 36 (CFR) Chapter XII. See Records management by agency heads; general duties (§ 3101), Establishment of program of management (§ 3102), Transfer of records to records centers (§ 3103) and Certifications and determinations on transferred records (§ 3104). Read as much of it as you care to; the requirements are long, specific and mandatory. A personal email server in your home does not fit the bill.
Here’s the shortest version: In 2009, regulations required that any emails sent or received from personal accounts be preserved as part of the agency’s records.
Everybody Does It
The question isn’t whether Clinton was allowed to have a private email account; she was, as secretaries of state before her did. The question is whether she was allowed to be the steward of the archives under the 2009 Federal Records Act. She was not. That’s where the violation occurs.
There also exists an important question of degree. Though Condi Rice denies ever using any personal email for official business, and Colin Powell famously used an AOL account more than ten years ago as part of his attempt to drag State into the late 20th century vis-vis technology, no previous government official in the known history of the United States has set up his/her own personal email server and used that exclusively for four full years. The scale sorta really matters.
The other side of the “everybody does it” argument is that it is a really poor argument. Anyone who has been a teenager has likely tried it (“But Mom, everybody drinks beer at my age, yeah I know I’m not 18 but everybody does it!”) and seen it fail. Defendants who went on to become convicted felons also know how unconvincing judges find it when people offer as their criminal defense that others have committed the same offenses but just didn’t get caught.
It seems sad that such an excuse is even thrown out there for a presidential contender, never mind that some are willing to accept it.
What Does it Matter?
Absent someone starting an actual courtroom prosecution, this is not about whether an actual crime per se has been committed. It is about what Clinton’s image of open, good government looks like, what her plans for a transparent administration in line with America’s democratic principles might come to be. It is about whether what she says connects tightly to what she does.
It also matters because Clinton’s email actions were deliberate, and included an effort to hide what she was doing. Her email domain was registered in a way to hide its actual ownership (still unknown), and was set up just as she re-entered public life. Clinton never disclosed the email account until the media learned of it. That lack of disclosure continued even as she testified about the tragedy in Benghazi, assuring the public her Department’s internal review represented the full story. It could not have; she still held the emails at that time.
She still has not spoken about all of this, despite it being one of America’s top news stories.
Will she tell the electorate why she set up a personal server and did not use government email? For argument’s sake we’ll agree she was allowed, but that does not tell us why, and why matters.
Why didn’t Clinton turn over her personal emails years ago? Why only recently,and only when asked?
As president of the United States, will she encourage or condone Cabinet level officials to employ personal email servers in lieu of U.S. government systems?
How did she weigh out the security risks of using a personal email service? Yes, the emails were said to be unclassified, but if they were indeed not sensitive enough to warrant high levels of security, then one hopes they will all be released now, unredacted.
Is the way she handled her email at State and now in the aftermath indicative of her approach to public service?
Those things are in part what people are supposed to be assessing when they vote.
Suck It People, and Just Trust Me
Clinton’s people have said they combed through all of the (unknown amount) of emails and pulled out 55,000 pages, delivered literally on paper to the State Department so as to impede electronic searches (sorry to the intern who has to scan them) and of course eliminate the metadata. They all swear cross-their-fingers-hope-to-die that those are all the official emails in the stash. Honest sir, there can’t be even one more we might’ve missed.
But… Huge gaps exist in the emails Clinton provided to a congressional committee investigating the 2012 attack in Benghazi, the panel’s chairman said. Republican Representative Trey Gowdy said his committee lacked documentation from Clinton’s trip to Libya after the attack despite a popular photo image of her using her famous Blackberry during a flight to that country. “We have no emails from that day. In fact we have no emails from that trip,” said Gowdy. “There are huge gaps.”
So maybe Clinton’s staff missed just a few?
It’s All Republican Attack Cheap Shots
Which brings us to the all-purpose Clinton excuse: whatever bad things have happened to her and/or are being said about her are all a partisan attack, perpetrated by her Republican enemies, just like everything else from Vince Foster/White Water to 2008’s lying about being under fire in Bosnia to everything Benghazi.
And there is truth in that. It is without question that the Republicans will seize on anything negative about Clinton they can find. It is also without question that the Democrats will seize on anything negative about Bush or whoever they can find. Such is the nature of politics in America.
But that doesn’t mean what is under discussion is not true and it does not mean it does not matter. The easiest way for Clinton to escape answering questions is to stifle any discussion (“What does it matter anymore anyway?”) There are things that are worth talking about here, questions that need answers, regardless of whether you lean right or left. Don’t get sucked down the tunnel of partisan politics encouraging you to shut your brain off.
Think about it.
BONUS THOUGHT EXPERIMENT: Wouldn’t it be great is some mid-level State Department staffer set up her own email server in her apartment next week and sent a message to everyone at work she interacts with saying she was no longer going to use her official email account? Wouldn’t that be a hoot?
Image via AP
A Child’s Treasury of Clinton Email Excuses