On January 20, 2001, I sat at my office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building just steps away from the White House to begin the first day of the George W. Bush administration. Before booting up my computer, I had to physically remove a band placed across my computer by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reminding me that all records, files, and documents were the property of the United States government.
Some four years later when I resigned as a special assistant to the President, I was reminded by a lawyer from the White House Counsel’s office that all documents, emails, and files must be turned over so they could be properly archived. Despite their obvious personal and historical value to me, I could not leave the White House with memos and other documents I had prepared for President Bush and members of his senior staff as keepsakes—everything had to be handed over.
Which brings us to the current case surrounding former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the revelation that she did not use a government email account during her time in office. The New York Times story that generated a firestorm across cable news outlets yesterday is revealing on several levels in how Mrs. Clinton and her staff relied on their interpretation of the Federal Records Act as to which records and documents must be retained. For example, the Times piece notes that “Mrs. Clinton’s advisors reviewed tens of thousands of pages of her personal emails and decided which ones to turn over to the State Department.” Sorry, Team Hillary, it doesn’t work that way.
All of my emails during my time at the White House were saved and preserved by the National Archives and Records Administration. That means all professional emails written to staff as well as personal emails written to friends. Wouldn’t it be nice to have the luxury to have combed through all of my emails and decide which I would like to share with the government and which documents would be better left out of the official record? My documents are all in the historical record, and so should be those of the former Secretary of State.
Supporters of the former Secretary State and putative Democratic nominee for president in 2016 are clever in their parsing of words and claims that since Mrs. Clinton did not use a government email account, the information from her private account is above scrutiny. The Federal Records Act is quite explicit that all federal agency heads—which Mrs. Clinton once was—“shall make and preserve records containing adequate and proper documentation of the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, and essential transactions of the agency and designed to furnish the information necessary to protect the legal and financial rights of the Government and of persons directly affected by the agency’s activities.”
There are many policies, decisions, procedures, and essential transactions conducted by Secretary Clinton that the public has a right to see. Did the Secretary email Libyan consular officials the night our outpost in Benghazi was attacked? What orders did she give and to whom did she give them?
Did Secretary Clinton receive reports that raised the alarm bells about the threats posed by radical jihadists plotting terrorist activities in the name of Islam? If the status quo is allowed to remain‚—because Secretary Clinton and her team have decided which documents the government may have and the rest be damned—many important questions will never be answered.
Sadly, Secretary Clinton and her husband have a history of being secretive about their activities. One can never forget that former Clinton National Security Advisor Sandy Berger was caught stuffing confidential documents down his pants while ostensibly reviewing them at the National Archives, or the boxes of files that had been subpoenaed during the Whitewater affair that mysteriously appeared on the third-floor residence of the White House years later.
I’m not suggesting that Clinton has intentionally broken the law, but I am asserting that federal employees know all documents and emails must be preserved—why should the former Secretary of State and her loyalists believe a different standard should apply to them?
While it is too early to say whether this incident of using a private email account to conduct official business as America’s top diplomat will derail Clinton’s political ambitions, one question hangs over this affair: Are the American people prepared to return to the days of legal hair-splitting, quibbling about what the term “is” is and other flim-flam language designed to obfuscate should the Clintons return once again to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? I hope that answer is a resounding No.