Hillary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail address for official business when she was secretary of state probably didn’t break the law. But that doesn’t mean that the privacy and security problems raised aren’t a serious cause for concern. Clinton owes it to the American public — both as a former cabinet member and as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee — to move swiftly to hand over all of her e-mail correspondence to the federal government.
Most senior federal employees use e-mail accounts provided to them by the government. The reason is simple: By using an internal e-mail service, the government can ensure that the correspondence of senior officials meets security requirements, and it allows official correspondence to be archived. Indeed, the Federal Records Act requires that all work-related e-mails sent by federal officials from a private e-mail service be forwarded to a government one, in order for them to be saved for posterity. But, as reported in The New York Times, shortly before Clinton became secretary of state in 2009, she set up a domain called clintonemail.com, with a server registered to her home in Chappaqua, N.Y., that would handle all of her correspondence — both private and work-related. Certain key aides, such as Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the State Department, Huma Abedin, were also given e-mail addresses linked to the server. Clinton’s only comment on the matter has been a tweet in which she called on the State Department to release her e-mails.
Clinton’s use of a private e-mail address might seem innocuous, but it has had real consequences. A congressional committee looking into the Benghazi attack was unable to get the documents they needed, because the State Department couldn’t access Clinton’s e-mails. Numerous Freedom of Information Act requests from news organizations such as the Associated Press went unfulfilled for the same reason.
Clinton’s actions probably aren’t illegal — the Federal Records Act was amended, after she left office, to include e-mail, and when that change went into effect, Clinton aides handed over 50,000 pages of her official correspondence at the request of the State Department. But it certainly broke with clear guidelines from the White House about the issue — which call for e-mails to be turned over to the government for preservation. There’s also an optics problem: Regardless of Clinton’s reasons for setting up her own private server, she has for years been dogged by complaints that she holds back sensitive information — see the Whitewater scandal during the 1990s. This latest fracas plays directly into the hands of her critics.
The best course of action is for Clinton to hand over all of her e-mails from the time she served as secretary of state to the State Department — not just those her aides decide to release. That way the public can be sure that all relevant information is preserved as it should be. If she doesn’t, she’ll be giving the Republicans all the ammunition they need to attack her record on transparency if she decides to run for president.