The firestorm surrounding Hillary Clinton’s use of personal email during her time as secretary of state culminated in a highly anticipated news conference this week.
What did we learn?
Clinton explained her decision to bypass a state email address for her own account (and personal server) came from a desire for “convenience,” and maintained her choice fell well within the boundaries of federal law and State Department rules.
Do the facts add up? To get to the bottom of things, we interviewed Tom Blanton, archive director at the National Security Archive.
“Technically, is she correct when she says I’m allowed? Yes, she wasn’t prohibited from doing it,” noted Blanton. “But every piece of language from the Foreign Affairs Manual, to the Code of Federal Regulations, to the [Federal Records] statute itself, says you shouldn’t,” Blanton continued. “It’s discouraged.”
Blanton’s organization files Freedom of Information Requests, releases declassified documents and serves in his words as “a permanent force pushing for greater openness in government.”
He explained that President Obama’s signing of the Federal Records Act of 2014 (an update to a 1950’s- era law) required state officials to submit all work-related email within 20 days.
That law went into effect after Clinton left her post.
However, there’s more to the story on improving federal record keeping. A 2011 Presidential Memorandum called on all state agency heads to reform their management of official records. Clinton was serving in President Obama’s cabinet when that directive came down.
Moreover, Blanton adds that Clinton’s own state department administration issued a memo asking employees not to use personal email, while the secretary used her personal email. It’s a statement cited by numerous Clinton critics, and fact-checked by Politifact, which found the claim, “Mostly True.”
Now, what about the core defense Clinton offered on Tuesday, that nearly all her work-related email correspondence was captured anyway?
“In meeting the record keeping obligations, it was my practice to email government officials on their state or other ‘dot-gov’ accounts, so that the emails were immediately captured and preserved,” Clinton explained.
Can we poke any holes in this argument, that as long as Clinton emailed officials using their federal email accounts, the information would get archived?
“She’s counting on those individuals at ‘state.gov’ to print it out, stick it in a box, and it’s not necessarily saved,” Blanton said. “When those people leave the State Department, after 90 days, their email accounts are mostly wiped out. And so there’s no guarantee that it gets saved just by who you send it to. The head of the agency’s got that responsibility. And that was a question she did not really address.”
Much of the focus then turned to how the former secretary distinguished between work-related and personal emails. Clinton disclosed about 30,000 emails to the State Department, and kept roughly the same amount private on her server (or deleted them).
“I think that given that it’s an independent server, nobody has any way to verify what she did or didn’t do without the server,” remarked Senator Richard Burr (R-North Carolina), who serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Burr and many of his GOP colleagues, such as South Carolina Congressman Trey Gowdy, are calling on Clinton to let an ‘independent arbiter’ look at the server and determine if everything pertaining to her job has been disclosed.
“I have absolute confidence that everything that could be in *any way* connected to work is now in the possession of the State Department,” Clinton declared.
If you’re wondering about the process, Clinton spelled it out in a nine-page fact sheet.
The bulk of her email search consisted of three steps:
-Searching for all ‘dot-gov’ accounts
-Looking for the first and last names of roughly 100 State Department and U.S. Officials
-Querying key words such as “Benghazi” and “Libya”
Blanton observed that these steps, while moving in the direction of a more open approach, might not quiet concerns of abuse of power.
“I think that her critics probably won’t be satisfied with that transparency, unless and until some independent party like a national archives professional person, or a state department inspector general, goes back and takes a look at the way that search was done,” Blanton said. “[It needs to be] a person who talks to people like her personal lawyer who did the search, and gets a little more detail about what was there and what was deleted.”