Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton drew scrutiny Monday night for a New York Times report that detailed a lack of transparency during her time as secretary of state. According to the report, Clinton used a personal email address exclusively for communicating with department officials, leading to questions about whether she complied with federal law and whether it was a major security mishap.
Clinton’s record as secretary of state was already under the spotlight in the past week. Last Wednesday, reports emerged that foreign governments donated millions of dollars to the Clinton Foundation while she was in the position.
The new revelations could add to the perception that she and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, have not been fully transparent about their dealings despite pledging to form a more transparent federal government in 2008.
However, there is some precedent — the State Department said current Secretary of State John Kerry is the first at his position to "primarily" use an official "@state.gov" email address. (Though the department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about what constitutes “primarily,” and if any other officials during Clinton's tenure primarily used a personal account.)
There are other issues at play as well.
Here’s how the latest revelation breaks down: Thousands of Clinton’s emails as secretary of state were not properly archived as official government records because she used a personal email address to conduct some government business. According to The Smoking Gun, she used an address on the domain “ClintonEmail.com.”
The Times reported that Clinton’s aides sifted through her personal email account and decided which records to turn over for archiving, resulting in more than 55,000 emails being provided to the department.
Some experts said that huge security risks could be at stake, depending on how expansively she used her personal email address.
“Hillary’s preference here is surely that she wanted to decide, with a long political future presumed ahead of her, what could remain private correspondence,” said Ian Bremmer, the president of the global political risk firm Eurasia Group. “But in an age of WikiLeaks and cybercriminals forcing transparency on private accounts, this becomes a risk to U.S. national security.
“To be clear, at this point we don’t know that Hillary actually used private email for correspondence with foreign nationals,” he added. “But that’s an issue they need to address quickly.”
Christopher Parsons, a Toronto-based cybersecurity expert with the think tank Citizen Lab, explained the security difference between a personal and official government email.
“The core security advantage is that the U.S. government will be attuned to the risk of her communications being deliberately targeted and, as such, would have a chance to maximize protections afforded to her communications,” Parsons said. “Moreover, data sent and received in U.S. government systems could be protected according to the sensitivity of the communications. So when sending classified or secret documents, a higher standard of care could have been provided.”
Why is this happening now?
State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf said in an email that Clinton’s use of the personal email address came to light when the department began seeking records from Clinton and other past secretaries who have manned the department in the email era.
The department is updating its records-retention policies to fall in line with guidance stemming from a 2011 presidential memorandum updating the federal government’s policies.
This came as the State Department also received a separate request from the House Select Committee investigating the 2012 terror attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, when Clinton was secretary of state. Harf said in response to the committee’s request that the department provided it with about 300 of Clinton’s emails.
“From the moment that the Select Committee was created, the State Department has been proactively and consistently engaged in responding to the Committee’s many requests in a timely manner, providing more than 40,000 pages of documents, scheduling more than 20 transcribed interviews and participating in several briefings and each of the Committee’s hearings,” Harf said.
Not a big deal?
The State Department and spokespeople for Clinton defended her move as secretary of state, and downplayed the security questions. Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill said in a statement that she had followed the precedent of past secretaries of state in communicating “through her own [personal] 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. He didn’t say whether or not she had communicated with foreign leaders or diplomats through her personal email. But he said, “both the letter and spirit of the rules permitted State Department officials to use non-government email, as long as appropriate records were preserved.”
A senior State Department official noted that Clinton was well aware of the security protocols through various types of communications. The official pointed to a 2011 interview with NBC’s Savannah Guthrie in which Clinton said she has “a lot of security restraints on what I can and can’t do.”
Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.