Aides to Hillary Rodham Clinton have declined to explain why she did not set up a State Department e-mail account. (Kevin Lamarque/AP)

Former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton appears to have operated in violation of what the White House said Tuesday was “very specific guidance” that members of the Obama administration use government e-mail accounts to carry out official business.

Clinton did not have a government account at the State Department but instead used her personal e-mail account. That was permissible only if all e-mails relating to government business were turned over and archived by the State Department, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said at his daily briefing.

“Very specific guidance has been given to agencies all across the government, which is specifically that employees in the Obama administration should use their official e-mail accounts when they’re conducting official government business,” Earnest said. “However, when there are situations where personal e-mail accounts are used, it is important for those records to be preserved, consistent with the Federal Records Act.”

Earnest said the administration would have to rely on Clinton’s assurances that she met the fallback requirement of sending along the pertinent e-mails to be archived.

In Clinton’s case, that happened only after the State Department requested records from her and other former secretaries last fall, around the time the records law was updated.

Hillary Clinton’s private e-mail address that she used while secretary of state reinforces everything people don’t like about her, argues The Post’s Chris Cillizza, and is very dangerous to her presidential ambitions. (The Washington Post)

About 300 of Clinton’s recovered e-mails were turned over to a congressional committee investigating the 2012 deaths of four Americans at U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya. The chairman of that panel, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), said Tuesday that the former secretary of state used multiple personal accounts.

“You do not need a law degree to have an understanding of how troubling this is,” Gowdy told reporters at a news conference. “One should also be concerned about the national security implications of former secretary Clinton using exclusively personal e-mail accounts for the conducting of official U.S. foreign policy.”

But Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill said that “both the letter and spirit of the rules permitted State Department officials to use nongovernment e-mail, as long as appropriate records were preserved.” He noted that the current secretary of state, John F. Kerry, is the first one to have an official e-mail account.

Aides to Clinton declined to explain why she did not set up a State Department e-mail account. Clinton did not address the e-mail controversy during a political speech in Washington on Tuesday night.

Controversial practice

By the time she came to the department, in 2009, the practice of high government officials conducting government business using personal e-mail accounts had become controversial. Democrats were intensely critical of George W. Bush administration officials, including top political strategist Karl Rove, who used an account registered by the Republican National Committee for e-mails sent from the White House.

There was also a question of timing: Registry information indicates that the domain clintonemail.com, which was used for some of her personal e-mails, was created on Jan. 13, 2009 — one week before Obama was sworn into office and the same day Clinton’s confirmation hearings began before the Senate.

At the State Department, spokeswoman Marie Harf said, “there was no prohibition on using a non-state.gov account for official business, as long as it’s preserved.”

“In the process of updating our records management — this is something that’s sort of ongoing given technology and the changes — we reached out to all of the former secretaries of state to ask them to provide any records they have,” she said.

Clinton was the only former secretary to send back e-mail records in response to the department’s request, Harf said.

She also said that the department has “no indications” that Clinton used personal e-mail for classified information.

“She had multiple other ways of communicating in a classified manner, including assistants or staff members printing classified documents for her, secure phone calls, or secure videoconferences,” Harf said.

Because she used personal e-mail, it was left to Clinton and her aides to determine which communications would end up in government archives, officials and experts said.

A political problem

Both allies and critics say Clinton’s tendency to hold information close has often caused her political problems, going back to her years as first lady.

Early in husband Bill Clinton’s first term as president, Hillary Clinton was put in charge of his signature effort — an overhaul of the nation’s health-care system. She chose to operate largely behind the scenes, initially refusing even to release the names of the 500 people who worked on the task force that helped put together her proposal.

Clinton White House officials also faulted the first lady for stonewalling when reporters began probing a failed Arkansas land deal known as Whitewater. After she refused to make documents related to the deal public, an independent prosecutor was appointed — leading to the investigation that ultimately spiraled into a sex scandal and Bill Clinton’s impeachment.

ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos, then one of the president’s top advisers, wrote in his memoir that the decision to withhold the documents from public scrutiny was the White House’s biggest mistake and the thing he would pick “if a genie offered me the chance to turn back time and undo a single decision from my White House tenure.”

“On this issue, Clinton wasn’t commander in chief, just a husband beholden to his wife,” Stephanopoulos wrote. “Hillary didn’t want it out — and she had a veto.”

Republicans, including some of her potential 2016 rivals, quickly pounced on the revelations about Hillary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail account.

“Transparency matters,” former Florida governor Jeb Bush wrote on Twitter just hours after the news broke. His message said that Clinton’s “emails should be released,” as his were, and he included a link to his Web site, JebBushEmails.com.

However, all the e-mails Bush has released were required to be made public under Florida law, and he has no plans to release any beyond those.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said his panel will coordinate with the Benghazi committee to determine whether Clinton’s use of personal e-mail violated the law.

When Earnest was asked whether that was a possibility, he said: “I come down wherever the State Department attorney comes down.”

He added that “based on what we know,” Clinton and her aides acted legally.

Speaking Tuesday night at a gala fund-raiser honoring the 30th anniversary of Emily’s List, a super PAC that works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights, Clinton stuck closely to the themes of economic fairness and women’s empowerment she is expected to stress in her campaign. The group is already working alongside other pro-Clinton super PACs.

The entire event had the flavor of a Clinton-for-president pep rally, with many of the speakers suggesting that 2016 is finally the year to elect a woman as president.

Clinton is expected to announce her candidacy next month.

Ed O’Keefe and Philip Bump contributed to this report.