“Morning Joe” name partner Joe Scarborough today called for firings in the federal government following the New York Times report that Hillary Rodham Clinton used a personal e-mail account during her tenure as secretary of state. “In 2015, it’s a terrible breach of public trust … and a lack of transparency, and it does feed into a narrative,” railed Scarborough. “And … you wonder how this happened, where she knew. And the Obama administration knew. Everybody in the State Department knew that there was this requirement and yet for four, five years, she didn’t use it.”
As the conversation shifted to the IT personnel at the State Department, Scarborough said, “Somebody needs to be fired. In fact, quite a few people need to be fired.” That might be a tough case to make — considering that if you’re a staffer at the State Department, you may well lack the authority to force the SECRETARY OF STATE to change her e-mailing habits.
Those considerations aside, Scarborough makes an important point about transparency. Think about the Freedom of Information Act, a tool used by news organizations, activists and motivated citizens to find out where their taxpayer dollars have gone. “The net effect of using a personal account is you’re circumventing FOIA,” says Gregg Leslie, the legal defense director at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP).
So how could a FOIA requester back in, say 2010, have secured access to Clinton’s official e-mails. Through one of two avenues, specifies Leslie: If the requester had specified that the search covered official federal records on Clinton’s government e-mail address and on any personal e-mail accounts, they might have secured the communications in question. Another possibility is that the FOIA officers would have been aware of Clinton’s personal account — under the domain clintonemail.com — and searched it for responsive records. “If the FOIA officer doesn’t know about that account, they’re not going to search it,” says Leslie. According to a Business Insider story, the White House is contending that the secretary’s personal account was a matter of “public” knowledge years ago.
From this point onward, the department will indeed include this account in its searches: “To the extent that FOIA requests come in, and it is determined that Secretary Clinton’s emails may be responsive, her emails will be searched in connection with those requests,” notes a senior State Department official in an e-mail to the Erik Wemple Blog. So news outlets looking to probe Clinton’s tenure at State during her likely 2016 campaign will have a full search archive available to them — the department now has a stack of 55,000 pages of Secretary Clinton’s e-mails.
OK, but what about FOIA requests that came in while Clinton was in office? Today the Erik Wemple Blog asked the department whether they would have pulled in relevant communications that zipped back and forth on clintonemail.com. “FOIA searches are conducted using records that are in the possession, custody and control of the Department at the time that the search is conducted. To the extent that we had access to them through her emails with State Department officials, they would have been included in FOIA searches,” responded the official. We’ll defer to Scarborough for an interpretation of that point.