On Monday, the New York Times published an article by Michael Schmidt with the headline, “Hillary Clinton Used Personal Email Account at State Dept., Possibly Breaking Rules.” The media coverage that ensued wasn’t quite so measured.
FOX: Another potentially major scandal tonight, for Hillary Clinton.
ABC: accused of exclusively using a personal account to conduct official government business. It involves tens of thousands of emails from Clinton’s 4 year tenure as Secretary of State.”
CNN: The questions tonight: Did she break the law? Is she hiding something?
The media couldn’t agree whether Clinton had in fact broken a rule or a law, and if so, which one. While Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic’s website said that “this was willful, flagrant disregard for public records rules,” a former Sunlight Foundation director blogged that if Hillary wanted to keep something off the record, she would just pick up the phone like everyone else in public service. Hardly comforting.
For her part, Clinton released a statement Tuesday saying that “For government business, she emailed them on their Department accounts, with every expectation they would be retained.” The next day she tweeted: “I want the public to see my email. I asked State to release them. They said they will review them for release as soon as possible.” On Thursday, Reuters reported that the State Department expects the review to take months.
Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, has been working on making the public record public for over two decades, but even he was surprised by the intense interest in the case.
Blanton: The New York Times caught me driving on the new jersey turnpike on Monday - I had to pull over into a gas station to talk about the federal records act and that has to be a first!
Brooke: And what were they asking you?
Blanton: Well, the first question was, Is this totally over the edge? And the answer was, actually not. This seems to have happened dozens of times with how many public officials - Carl Rove in the Clinton white house, I would tell them this story of us bringing the lawsuit to save the white house email back in 1989. And the story of getting Bill Clinton's white house to put in an electronic archiving system. They said, Really, this has been going on that long? And I said, yes - even today,federal agencies aren't even required to save all their email. And aren't required to do so until 2016. So one reporter just said to me, Look, there's only one question my editors want you to answer. Did she break the law? And I said, well, the answer is yes, and no. And he said, Oh my gosh. Can't you just make it one or the other?
Brooke: What about Clinton's defense that in all of her official correspondence she used the recipient's official email address and therefore those emails are already archived within the government. Does that hold any water?
Blanton: It holds some water. Certainly most of an email she sent would reside on official servers but probably in various departments. So emails she sent to officials in the defense department or elsewhere would not necessarily be included on the state department.
Brooke: But they would be at the pentagon?
Blanton: Right, but there's a core argument that the central system of records for secretary of state Hillary Clinton is the one that's on her server. And you shouldn't be relegated to finding copies of it in other places. You know, the federal records act calls for systems of records that really preserve and maintain the records of real importance to history. And what is more important to our diplomatic history than messages sent and received by the secretary of state. So the argument that hey, copies exist in the recipient's email, that's fine, but it only goes so far. It doesn't meet your responsibility under the law.
Brooke: Under the law that was finally ratified after she left that position.
Blanton: No, I would argue that the federal records act has been around for decades.
Brooke: Since 1950--but didn't specifically reference digital communication.
Blanton: That's correct, but the principal that you've got to save your records if they're of historical or administrative importance, that's been in the law and that doesn't matter what the medium is. The defense that Ms. Clinton's spokespeople have offered that I think is stronger is simply that they checked to see what her predecessors had done. And finding out that Colin Powell systematically used personal email, which he writes about in his memoir - well that's pretty interesting. If you're Ms. Clinton, you're coming in as new secretary of state, and you've got your republican predecessor of very high standing having done exactly this, you think, Ok, that's alright! I'm covered.
Brooke: Of course, she is in a white house where even Obama's blackberry emails were double backed up on government servers.
Blanton: Exactly. And that I think is the weakness of her defense. Because President Obama, to his enormous credit - we had a pending lawsuit against George W. Bush who got rid of president Clinton's archiving system for email -
Brooke: Made it even more impenetrable.
Blanton: Well, it ended up with whole days of the vice presidents office featuring no incoming or outgoing email? That seems a little odd.
Brooke: It was all in a man's sized safe.
Blanton: [Laughs]. And they blamed it on a technological transition- oh, it just didn't get saved in the same way. So we had to get back into court just like we had done against Reagan and Bush 41, and force them to create a new e-archiving system and President Obama from day 1 has aided by that. All of his blackberry messages are double backed up and so-forth. And the Obama message to the rest of the government in settling that case is, Everybody should be doing this! And that's the moment when agencies should have just said, well, the white house is doing this, we better do it. And unfortunately that did not happen.
Brooke: Ok, so you're saying this is going on across the government. So what do you think - and this is a political question - what do you think of Jack Shafer's recent column. He's the Politico media columnist. And by no means a Clinton apologist. And he wrote this week that "The press would never force an ordinary politician to sweat over such an indisgression unless the emails actually contained newsworthy surprises. But Clinton's hide has been so tenderized by scandals and pseudo-scandals over the past two decades that the hounds of the press can't resist nipping on her flesh when they catch the scent.
Blanton: Boy, he's got a way with the phrase, doesn't he.
Brooke: He does, but that seems to be true, doesn't it?
Blanton: You know in her case, she's not only a major personality and celebrity, but most people think she's running for president, and this practice of the private email may have been fine for Colin Powell, but I kinda bet if Colin Powell had been running for president in 2008, it might have become an issue then.
Brooke: Now to be clear, Shafer thinks the press should be nipping at her flesh. In fact, he thinks there's probably news in the emails that she didn't turn over. Do you?
Blanton: That may be true. I don't know that for the fact. And given the hyper levels of attention that they certainly must have expected - the Clinton staff and advisers probably bent over backwards to give as much as possible. And this separating out of the official documents from the personal documents is something that professional civil servants and archivists do all the time on these official systems. There's just an opening for political critics to say, wait a second, we shouldn't leave it up to Ms. Clinton's aides to do that separation. It wasn't done in the normal process. And my bet is that they're going to have to be some kind of state department intervention, maybe a sampling done by the state department inspector general. Just to put to rest that question you just asked - is she still hiding something in the rest of those emails not turned over, or were they genuinely the Chelsea and dentist emails.
Brooke: You loved the fact that this story was printed in the Times. It put a big spotlight on a persistent problem. But is this the full blown scandal that many say it is, or is it merely a symptom?
Blanton: Without knowing the substance of the content of the emails you can't draw a conclusion that this is an enormous scandal. But what it should be is a wake up call that we are way behind the curve on our public record systems. And given the digital reality its really easy to save and store electronic records and its becoming easier and easier to search them, retrieve them, review them, etc. So this should be the wake up call to other government officials that its a no-no. Don't use your private email. You've got 20 days max to move something over from your private email if you had to use your private email. But its got to be in the official systems. Period. Full stop. And so, I think as a documents fetishist, I would say I'm doubly delighted because it raises a set of issues that have been a crisis for 25 years and maybe gives the National archives and records administration some extra juice when it goes to try to enforce this stuff and save our history.
Brooke: I have to say that you are the truly the happiest person I've spoken to all week.
Blanton: [Laughs]. Bless your heart. It's a target-rich environment out there.
Brooke: Thank you so much.
Blanton: Thank you so much.
Brooke: Thomas Blanton is the director of the national security archive at George Washington university.