According to the State Department, Hillary Clinton’s use of a personalised email address during her time as secretary of state was no secret.
“The State Department has long had access to a wide array of Secretary Clinton’s records — including emails between her and Department officials with state.gov accounts,” State Department Deputy Spokesperon Marie Harf said in an email to Business Insider.
Business Insider asked the State Department about Clinton’s use of private email in response to a New York Times article published Monday evening that said her usage of a personal address “may have violated federal requirements that officials’ correspondence be retained as part of the agency’s record.” The Times further reported “her aides took no actions to have her personal emails preserved on department servers at the time.”
Some observers have cast the story as a “scandal” for Clinton, who is widely expected to run for president in 2016. Clinton has already faced accusations she is insufficiently transparent and the email story has already been tied to that narrative. However, Clinton’s team pointed to former State Department officials who defended her use of a personal email address and dismissed potential concerns.
Shortly after the Time story was published, Business Insider reached out to Clinton’s spokespeople. They put us in touch with two former State Department officials who argued Clinton was careful to utilise the address in a manner that went above and beyond regulatory requirements and ensured her communications were preserved.
The former officials, who requested anonymity in order to freely discuss Clinton’s emails and State Department policy echoed the notion the former secretary’s personalised email address was not kept secret. They said she used it to communicate with over 100 department staffers, other officials, and lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Clinton emailed from a personalised domain, clintonemail.com. Records show it was registered on the day of her confirmation hearing in January 2009. Along with State Department business, the officials said Clinton also used the email address to communicate with friends and family.
Her address was revealed in early 2013, shortly after she left the State Department. It was published when a hacker obtained messages written by her former aide, Sidney Blumenthal.
The president’s Principal White House Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz pointed to the hack when Business Insider emailed to ask if the White House was aware of Clinton’s use of a personal address.
“This was public years ago,” Schultz wrote.
He included a link to a Gawker article about the hack.
“So I guess every reader of Gawker was aware too!”
Still, even if Clinton’s use of the address was common knowledge in Washington, the Times reported it was “alarming to current and former National Archives and Records Administration officials and government watchdogs” who suggested it could allow her to pick and choose which of her official communications were preserved. The Times noted that, in the past two months, Clinton’s team turned over “55,000 pages” of emails to the State Department in response to a new “effort to comply with federal record-keeping practices.”
Clinton’s spokesman Nick Merrill issued a statement in response to the article wherein he argued Clinton corresponded with people on their government account whenever she conducted official business. In the statement, which he sent to Business Insider, Merrill claimed this meant Clinton knew all of her official emails would be preserved.
“Like Secretaries of State before her, she used her own email account when engaging with any Department officials. For government business, she emailed them on their Department accounts, with every expectation they would be retained,” Merrill said.
The two former officials claimed efficiency was one reason Clinton set up her own address. At the time, State Department policy would not have allowed her to have multiple email addresses on her Blackberry. Because of this, the officials said she opted to have one address for both personal and governmental communications. They two echoed Merrill’s statement and said Clinton took care to correspond with other State officials exclusively on their governmental addresses. The officials claimed this meant all of her emails and those sent to her were immediately preserved on government servers.
According to the two officials, regulations discouraged the use of personal email but did not prohibit it. Merrill also argued Clinton’s use of private email was not against the rules.
“Both the letter and spirit of the rules permitted State Department officials to use non-government email, as long as appropriate records were preserved,” he said.
Indeed, Clinton is not the first secretary of state to use personal email. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell used a private address while he held the job from 2001 until 2005. Harf, the State Department spokeswoman, said Clinton’s successor, John Kerry, “is the first Secretary of State to rely primarily on a state.gov email account.”
According to the officials, the printed pages emails Clinton’s team turned over to the State Department in recent months were largely duplicative of what was already stored on government servers. They argued the need to turn over the pages was merely a response to outdated regulations that require hard copies of messages the government has already preserved electronically. The officials also said these messages were turned over by Clinton with full knowledge they could eventually be made public.
Merrill’s statement also characterised the emails being turned over as a routine part of compliance as the State Department is in the “process of updating its record preservation policies to bring them in line with its retention responsibilities.”
“When the Department asked former Secretaries last year for help ensuring their emails were in fact retained, we immediately said yes,” Merrill said.
Harf, the State Department spokeswoman, indicated Clinton was not the only former secretary who was asked to turn over printed copies of her emails.
“Last year, the Department sent a letter to representatives of former secretaries of state requesting they submit any records in their possession for proper preservation as part of our effort to continually improve our records preservation and management,” Harf said, adding, “In response to our request, Secretary Clinton provided the Department with emails spanning her time at the Department.”
Harf said the State Department’s efforts to update its recordkeeping policies would “include regularly archiving all of Secretary Kerry’s emails to ensure that we are capturing all federal records.”
Along with potential transparency issues, the Times story raised the issue Clinton’s private email use could have posed a security risk.
The officials who spoke to Business Insider dismissed the idea Clinton’s personal email address was less secure than other methods of communication. They pointed out her address was not compromised when Blumenthal was hacked.
Citing a desire not to provide guidance for potential hackers, they declined to reveal the specific service employed by Clinton. However, due to these hacking risks, the officials insisted Clinton uses an email service that provides more robust security options than what is available on typical consumer email accounts.
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