Danielle Allen is a political theorist at Harvard University and a contributing columnist for The Post. She is also chair of the Mellon Foundation board, which has funded ITHAKA, Portico’s parent organization, as well as other initiatives concerned with archiving digital content.
The 58-page FBI memo on Hillary Clinton’s email usage as secretary of state is a gripping must-read not only for every American historian and scholar of Internet communications technology but also for fans of novelist David Foster Wallace and, of course, every American voter.
Bottom line: Clinton’s mistake was, as she has said, to have decided to use a private server. There’s not much duplicity, deceit or intention to evade to be found in this memo. What the document does reveal is Clinton’s colossal failure to understand the monumental responsibility she took on with her choice; namely, the direct duty to archive public records.
I call this job monumental not merely because it is important — and it is — but also because it is a task to which the entire profession of librarians and archivists is dedicated. Across centuries, these most serious and earnest of professionals have honed their procedures for preserving the public record. Yet the rapid technological transformations of the past two decades have stretched them mightily. The hardest struggle has been to figure out how to master the project of archiving born-digital content, items that are “created and managed in digital form,” to quote a memo from the Online Computer Library Center.
Even the pros are just starting to get on top of that project. If you want to get a sense of just how hard the work is, check out the history of Portico, a nonprofit organization focused entirely on preserving and ensuring the discoverability of born-digital content. It signed its first agreement with a major national library, the British Library, only in 2013. In the incredibly challenging world of archiving born-digital records, Clinton’s homespun operation didn’t have a chance.
This is what jumps out of the memo. The story of stuff that is missing, or turned in late, or not initially acknowledged to exist, or accidentally saved in inappropriate places only to be deleted later by low-level staff, appears to be mainly a tale of a bumbling group not remotely close to being equipped to handle, at a public-records standard, the material for which they were responsible. My favorite example is the laptop that either went missing in the U.S. mail or got lost in an office move. And one can’t help but laugh at the Kafkaesque humor of the FBI’s depiction of the poor lawyer trying to get through 55,000 pages of email to find everything work-related.
(Honestly, I think no one should comment on a scandal involving 55,000 pages of email if they can’t bring themselves to read the 58 pages of the FBI memo.)
Here is where the appeal is for fans of Wallace, whose unfinished, posthumously published novel, “The Pale King,” captures bureaucracy in overdrive, overheating in its insatiable desire for an impossible coherence. The Clinton email archive, like Wallace’s novel, never will and never can be a unitary whole. This will frustrate us forever, unless we recognize the facts of our modern condition in the face of the intersection of bureaucracy and technology. This frustration — so powerfully expressed by this memo and by the Republican production of one investigation after another — is what Wallace brilliantly predicted.
One doesn’t come away from this memo feeling that one has spotted any effort on the part of Clinton to deceive. She sought convenience and delegated to others the project of producing an efficient and easily usable communications system. Her mistake was in failing to recognize that her communications also needed to fulfill other functions. Clinton forgot that she needed to ask for sound records management.
The communications system inside the State Department, however inefficient, is indeed organized to support the additional function of archiving of public records. Probably, the capacity of the State Department to archive born-digital content is itself not terrific. Note in the memo how much of State’s own archiving practice depends on having people print out emails that ought to be archived.
In fact, honesty among archivists requires admitting this: No one is yet that great at managing born-digital content. Not the National Archives, not the Library of Congress, not the major university libraries. But, that said, the State Department at least has professionals working on it, and the support of all the professionals at the National Archives aggressively focused on the demands of digital-age record-keeping. They may not have mastered it yet, but at least they get the project.
The Clinton email team had no records management professionals. That’s the basic point. In addition to her aides, there were only tech people, who come off as having fair to middling ability, and, eventually, lawyers. All were overwhelmed by their responsibility for managing state records, something for which they had zero training. They didn’t even know enough to know what they didn’t know. They failed, as Donald Rumsfeld would have said, because of the unknown unknowns.
Historians will be fascinated by what this memo reveals about how the archives they rely on for writing their histories come into existence. Scholars of information and communications technology will be glued to the fine-grain detail the memo provides on the strain new technologies are causing for bureaucracies.
But what does this memo mean for voting Americans? I think it’s basically this: If you’re trying to weigh Donald Trump’s and Clinton’s characters against one another, look elsewhere than this email scandal. No deep Clinton character flaws are in evidence here. This is a story about a moment when Clinton failed to recognize that professional expertise was necessary, in a rapidly evolving area where many are struggling.
Reading about her reliance on the people who were responsible for her records management system is a little bit like reading about Trump’s reliance on his children. That’s all.