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Clinton e-mail flap reveals common practice

Hillary Rodham Clinton checked for messages during a 2011 flight to Tripoli while she was secretary of state. Kevin Lamarque/reuters

WASHINGTON — Hdr22@clintonemail.com. Jeb@jeb.org.

No, these are not 2016 campaign accounts. These are the latest, highest-profile examples of private e-mail accounts used by powerful officials to conduct government business. Both political heavyweights just happen to be preparing campaigns for president.

Reports this week that Hillary Rodham Clinton relied on her personal account entirely, and did not even have a government e-mail address during her tenure as secretary of state, have triggered a firestorm over the accountability of public officials and the security of valuable information. It turns out Jeb Bush had a personal account, too, while governor of Florida.

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Both used their own digital servers, revealing the high degree of personal control they held over all their official e-mails.

The disclosures highlight an ethical controversy in all levels of government and underscore just how easily politicians can set up systems that operate beyond the scrutiny of the public they were elected to serve.

Personal e-mails for public business “is not rare at all,” said Miles Rapoport, a former Connecticut secretary of state and current president of Common Cause, a Washington-based advocacy organization that promotes government accountability. “We have [Freedom of Information Act] laws and records preservations laws for reasons of transparency and accountability, and having huge numbers of e-mails on private servers doesn’t get us there.”

Top officials at the Internal Revenue Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and Chemical Safety Board have recently faced similar criticism for using their personal accounts for work.

These shadow accounts help protect officials against subpoenas and embarrassing exchanges that might wind up as someone’s latest blog post.

“Communications housed on a personal e-mail server would allow an individual to more easily delete messages, because there wouldn’t be external copies necessarily floating around,” said Jennifer Henrichsen, a technology fellow at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

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While Clinton’s use of personal e-mail does not technically break State Department rules, The Washington Post reported Thursday night that the agency is examining whether some of her e-mails included sensitive information and should have been sent through a special security system.

The sensitivity of Clinton’s mission as the top US diplomat from 2009-2013 has been one factor fueling the controversy. Additionally, her expected run for the nation’s highest office has increased the scrutiny on her approach to accountability and transparency.

Since this week’s report The New York Times, Clinton has not responded in detail on the matter. All she has offered is a tweet.

The Internet service Clinton used for her e-mails was registered to her home in Chappaqua, N.Y., the Associated Press first reported, and the server that operated it was located nearby.

A tech-savvy teenager could buy a domain name and an e-mail associated with it for as little as $10 a year. Servers cost several hundred dollars. But most people use free e-mail services like Gmail or the ones in the agencies where they work.

While some insist Clinton violated open record rules, others contend the laws are murky.

The personal set-up raises separate security concerns. Federal agencies employ people to keep intruders out of their system. And Clinton was an avid user of e-mail. Her Twitter page shows her wearing sunglasses as she sat in a plane with a Blackberry in her hand.

“The real question is, ‘Is it responsible for the top diplomat in the US to use an e-mail server that is not run by a team of dedicated security experts?” said Christopher Soghoian, a technologist with the American Civil Liberties Union.

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The State Department has said Clinton did not send classified information through e-mail, but Soghoian noted personal information about her stress levels or hints at what makes her tick are helpful tidbits for those who want to build psychological profiles.

A Clinton spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.

Republicans, delighted by the revelations, have accused her of scheming to hide her e-mails from the public.

A House investigative committee on Wednesday subpoenaed all e-mails from the clintonemail.com domain related to the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya.

The Republican-led committeee first discovered her personal account when seeking documents between Clinton and her aides regarding the incident at the American consulate in Benghazi.

Republicans have not mentioned Bush’s similar actions.

Bush had a different tack. The former governor often responded to press inquiries or public questions from his personal account.

He released a slew of e-mails from his two terms of governor in February, even establishing a jebemails.com site to view them.

The former governor jumped on the Clinton furor, blasting his own tweet on Monday that encouraged her to release the e-mails. “Transparency matters,” he said, including a link to his website.

Bush left office eight years ago and released his e-mails only last month. A Bush spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment about his server.

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Officials, for years, have devised ways to avoid making uncomfortable e-mails public. Just as former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney prepared to leave office in 2007, aides bought their computer hard drives and almost all his administration’s e-mails were wiped from a server.

State Department general policy said Clinton should use an official account, according to a report in Politico Thursday. The federal law says the State Department needs to retain her personal e-mail records relating to official business. Last year, Clinton’s staff culled through her personal e-mails and turned over 55,000 of them.

This left it up to Clinton to determine what she wanted to hand over to the State Department and what to withhold.

“I keep imagining if a Cabinet secretary hired her own private security team or personal staff to do her public relations, no one would accept that,’’ said John Wonderlich, policy director for Sunlight Foundation, a Washington nonprofit that advocates open government.

“If we don’t reform it, we’re giving Cabinet-level officials the ability to create private emails systems and set their own rules.”


Jessica Meyers can be reached at jessica.meyers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessicameyers.