Hillary Clinton is facing the first major controversy of as-yet-unofficial presidential campaign, and it has all the hallmarks of the kind of scandal we remember from the 1990s: it started with questionable decisions she made, her opponents are losing their minds over it, it will drag on and on, and in the end Republicans will probably fail yet again to get what they want out of it.
But this is an important story, and Clinton must answer a number of questions about it.
In case you haven’t heard, earlier this week it was revealed that during her time as secretary of state, Clinton didn’t use a .gov email address, but instead conducted official business via her personal email account. We then learned that Clinton had set up her own email server instead of using a commercial service like Gmail.
At the moment, it appears that her use of a private email may have been problematic, but it wasn’t a violation of the law. The relevant rule in effect when she was secretary states: “Agencies that allow employees to send and receive official electronic mail messages using a system not operated by the agency must ensure that Federal records sent or received on such systems are preserved in the appropriate agency recordkeeping system.” But it doesn’t specify anything about when you have to do this. When the State Department requested her work-related emails last year, she turned over 55,000 pages worth.
What we have now is a rather absurd situation, in which everyone’s trying to figure out how this all worked and what the implications are, but the one person who could answer most of the questions hasn’t yet given an interview about it. But eventually, she’ll have to. And here are some things she ought to be asked:
1. Why did you decide to use a private email address for official business instead of a state.gov address? The best starting point is the original decision, because it sure looks like an attempt to escape accountability. Government emails will be much more easily subject to Freedom of Information Act requests and congressional subpoenas, both of which Clinton could have anticipated she’d be subject to. She’d obviously never say, “I did it because I didn’t want anyone to see my communications,” but she needs to be pressed on her rationale for doing this.
2. Why did you set up your own private email server? There could be multiple reasons. The most obvious is control. Emails hosted by Google or Yahoo are under their control, not yours; with her own system, Clinton could do things like permanently delete messages. Another is the perception, though perhaps not the reality, of security. Clinton may have felt that if she hired her own security consultants to set up her system, she’d be more assured that it was secure than the systems of a big corporation or the State Department (which has been hacked in the past).
According to experts, however (see here, here, or here), the system she set up may have been more vulnerable to hacking than the State Department’s own system. Why did she do this, and how carefully did she consider the potential downsides of it?
3. How can we be sure that you turned over everything to the State Department? Clinton tweeted that she wants the State Department to release the 55,000 pages of emails she passed along to them. But at the moment, we have only Clinton’s word that what she passed along represents everything she sent or received regarding official business during her four years as secretary of state. This is one of the main reasons why it’s a bad idea for high-ranking officials to be able to use private emails for public business (as they still are; under more recent legislation they just have to turn everything over more quickly). Is there any way for us all to be assured that what she turned over is complete?
4. Did any classified information get passed through that email account? Such a thing could certainly happen unintentionally, say if someone else mentioned such classified info in an email to Clinton. She needs to be pressed on whether this might have happened, and what steps she took (if any) to avoid it. And there’s plenty of information that is sensitive but not officially classified. She needs to be pressed on the possibility that sensitive information might have passed through that account, too.
5. Did any of your staff suggest that it might be better to conduct official business on a state.gov account? As many commentators argued, someone probably should have said to Clinton, “Ma’am, it might not be a good idea to do official business through your private email, even if it’s allowed.” It would be good to know if there was ever a discussion weighing the pros and cons.
6. Do you think these rules are adequate to provide the public the information it needs, and to produce the transparency both you and President Obama pledged yourselves to, or do we need a stricter set of regulations? Clinton is (almost certainly) running for president, so we should know if she’ll push to change these rules if she wins. We’ve had lots of arguments in the past about the limits of executive branch secrecy — you may remember when Dick Cheney moved heaven and earth to keep secret the list of oil company executives he met with when formulating the Bush administration’s energy policy, under the justification that he couldn’t get “candid advice” from them if the public knew who they were.
This episode has brought a new question to light. Should we simply ban people in the executive branch from using private emails for official business? What’s Clinton’s position on that?
Republicans are obviously hoping that somewhere there’s an email that reveals the true depths of Hillary Clinton’s villainy, and if they look hard enough or issue enough subpoenas, they’ll find it. If history is any guide, they won’t find any such thing, but they’ll drive themselves insane looking for it. Still, their mania to discover the malfeasance they’re convinced is there (whether it is or not) doesn’t change the fact that Clinton has no one to blame for this but herself. For whatever reason, she made that decision to use her private account for her official business. It was clearly a mistake at best, for a number of reasons.
Clinton needs to sit down with a journalist who can ask her these questions — and follow up. The occasional tweet is not going to be enough.