Open Government Experts: Hillary's Use of Personal Email 'Brazen Decision' to Flout Law

When Hillary Clinton began using a personal e-mail account to conduct official business as secretary of State, she made a “brazen decision” to flout the law and deny Americans access to records they deserve, according to a panel of open government experts and political watchdogs. What’s more, they say, dozens of officials in and out of the Obama administration must have known about her use of the private e-mail.

The panel spoke Tuesday at a presentation hosted by Judicial Watch, a conservative, nonpartisan government watchdog group that has sued the Department of State in an effort to get records related to Clinton’s tenure at Foggy Bottom. The group also has made numerous requests under the Freedom of Information Act, which requires most non-classified government documents, including e-mails, to be open to public scrutiny.

Tom Fitton, director of Judicial Watch, says they have been stymied time and again by both Clinton and the State Department in efforts to obtain the former secretary’s correspondence, especially as it relates to the 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Four Americans died in the attack by Islamic militants, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.

Conservatives and government watchdog groups have long suspected that Clinton and the Obama administration engaged in a cover-up about when officials knew about the attack, and how much they did to help those killed — or to prevent it from happening in the first place.

Half of Messages Deleted

The revelation earlier this year that Clinton used a personal e-mail account and server to conduct business as secretary of State has been harshly criticized by both Democrats and Republicans. Critics say her decision brings up important questions, among them:

-  With a private server installed at her home in Chappaqua, N.Y., and not hooked up to any government archiving system, how can anyone be sure she or her aides didn't delete some e-mails, instead of saving them to be archived, as required?

-  Who knew about the use of personal e-mail and did anyone try to address it with her during her time as secretary?

-  And why did Clinton use personal e-mail in the first place, instead of the official government system federal workers are supposed to use?

Clinton has said she used it out of “convenience,” and said she did nothing wrong, noting that the State Department allows the use of personal e-mail on the job. Everything she did, Clinton insists, was aboveboard.

Not so fast, panelists at Tuesday’s presentation said.

“The Federal Records Act, as a practical matter, allows for occasional use of a personal e-mail account under exceptional circumstances,” explained Dan Metcalfe, a professor at American University and the founding director of the Department of Justice’s Office of Information and Privacy.

But Clinton went far beyond “occasional use,” Metcalfe said.

“She says clearly that she did not begin or ever use the official State Department e-mail account,” he said. “She only used the personal e-mail.”

Moreover, if personal e-mail ever is used, messages are supposed to be preserved and immediately sent to the appropriate archiving system, Metcalfe said. That was never done in Clinton’s case, he added.

Indeed, Clinton said messages concerning official business were handed over to the State Department — but only after she had left her post there. That amounts to about half of the 60,000 e-mails she sent as secretary, she said.

What’s more, she had her staff, not a disinterested official responsible for archiving government documents, decide which messages contained “official business.” So, open government experts say, there’s no telling what threshold her aides used to determine what was official and what wasn’t — or whether any other criteria was used to decide what to withhold.

Even more disturbing is the fact that Clinton said she deleted the remaining e-mails — about 30,000, supposedly personal, messages — and wiped her personal server clean, meaning it’s unlikely anyone at the State Department or other agencies will be able to double-check whether any of those messages should have been preserved.

“This amounts to a flouting, if not a violation, of the Federal Records Act, which says all federal agency employees have an obligation to take some steps to preserve things for posterity,” Metcalfe said.

Critics are also suspicious of the 30,000 figure. It would be highly unusual, Metcalfe says, to find fully half of the e-mails a secretary of State sent during his or her tenure were personal in nature.