Why I think the email ‘scandal’ matters

The Hillary Clinton email saga continues.
On one level, this is an overblown scandal — an excuse for the press to continue with its decades-long fascination with all things Clinton and all things awry in the Clintons’ world. That is the argument that Paul Waldman makes here, which is cited by another journalist in this tweet:

I agree the coverage has been “bungled,” but there is something much greater at stake, something that goes beyond the specifics of this controversy and cuts to the core of what democratic and open government might mean.
This is about transparency. It is about the way new technologies affect old rules governing government records, and about crafting new rules going forward, and it is about how candidates for the nation’s highest office (it’s about more than Clinton) view transparency and what their commitment to the concept may be.
That’s why I haven’t been able to let the conversation drop.
Here is a response I offered on Facebook to a friend who pointed out that this was not an Iran-Contra moment — there is no Ollie North shredding documents — and that there is nothing we can do about the past. Here is what I said (I’ve added paragraph breaks for ease of reading). I think it sums my thinking up on this and why I believe this needs to spark a national conversation:

(A)sking why it happened the way it happened is realistic and necessary. I agree that covering this as a “Clinton scandal” is short-sighted and overly reductive. But reviewing what happened in the past, looking at what the use of a private email server might mean for access to public records, is key to creating better safeguards going forward.

It also is important to understand what the presumptive Democratic candidate believes about transparency and access. Why use a private server? How did she ensure the protection of government-related emails? Who vetted the private emails before they were deleted? Who decided what could be released and when? You are right that we can’t go back and fix what happened in the past, but we need to understand the past to create new rules and to judge the person who is likely to be the next president.

The fact is, there are multiple laws in place governing federal correspondence — not just the email rule that came on line at the end of her tenure in office. The archives act likely covers the correspondence, for instance. And the Freedom of Information Act, which is the focus of a suit by the AP, certainly does. 

In the suit, the AP is alleging State dragged its heels on requests for records, and it is requesting a wide range of documents — now including those from the private server. There is some question as to how the use of the server may have affected FOIA requests in the past — when someone asked for correspondence on an issue, for instance, did State include anything from the private server? Why not? Again, this goes to the heart of why it existed in the first place. Here is a quotation from the AP report on the suit:

The AP had sought Clinton-related correspondence before her use of a personal email account was publicly known, although Wednesday’s court filing alleges that the State Department is responsible for including emails from that account in any public records request.

“State’s failure to ensure that Secretary Clinton’s governmental emails were retained and preserved by the agency, and its failure timely to seek out and search those emails in response to AP’s requests, indicate at the very least that State has not engaged in the diligent, good-faith search that FOIA requires,” says AP’s legal filing. 

Specifically, AP is seeking copies of Clinton’s full schedules and calendars from her four years as secretary of state; documents related to her department’s decision to grant a special position to longtime aide Huma Abedin; related correspondence from advisers Philippe Reines and Cheryl Mills, who, like Abedin, are likely to play central roles in a Clinton presidential campaign; documents related to Clinton’s and the agency’s roles in the bin Laden raid and NSA surveillance practices; and documents related to her role overseeing a major Defense Department contractor.

The AP made most of its requests in the summer of 2013, although one was filed in March 2010.

The issue here is transparency. We can pretend that we can move forward without understanding what happened in the past– that the past is the past and we have no choice but to move on — but we would be setting ourselves up for failure and allowing not only Clinton, but all of the candidates off the hook. Everyone of them should be answering questions about their commitment to transparency.

I’m including the full Facebook thread below:

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