By now you may have heard that Colin Powell, a former Republican Secretary of State, not only used a personal email account during his time in office, but those emails are all gone. Deleted. Apparently they now exist only in the mind of God. Yet, you won’t remember a scandal over that issue for a simple reason: there was no scandal over that issue.
And by now you have certainly heard that Shrub III, while he was governor of Florida, used a private email account for personal and job-related exchanges. In fact, Jeb Bush got a lot of great mainstream press publicity for releasing 250,000 emails for reporters to rummage through. But there is a problem, as the Tampa Bay Times pointed out:
The Bush files, though enormous, are not complete, however.
The former governor conducted all his communication on his private Jeb@jeb.org account and turned over the hand-selected batch to the state archives when he left office. Absent from the stash are emails the governor deemed not relevant to the public record: those relating to politics, fundraising and personal matters while he was governor.
Keep all that in mind. Colin Powell, a Republican working for the federal government, couldn’t turn over his collection of on-the-job emails to the State Department because they are all gone. Not a trace of them. Jeb Bush, a Republican working for the state of Florida, released a ton of his emails to the public—but he got to pick and choose which ones were relevant.
Now, thanks to Media Matters, we have also been reminded of that time in 2007 when another email controversy was in the news. The George W. Bush-Karl Rove White House was using private email accounts—“controlled by the Republican National Committee”—to discuss government business and then, voilà:
Responding to congressional demands for emails in connection with its investigation into the partisan firing of eight U.S. attorneys, the White House announced that as many as five million emails, covering a two-year span, had been lost.
Although, as The Washington Post pointed out, the law required the White House “to maintain records, including e-mails, involving presidential decision- making and deliberations,” those emails were missing in action. And Media Matters documents just how uninterested most journalists were in pursuing the story with the kind of gusto that they are now pursuing the Hillary Clinton email controversy:
The White House email story broke on a Wednesday. Yet on that Sunday’s Meet The Press, Face The Nation, and Fox News Sunday, the topic of millions of missing White House emails did not come up. At all. (The story did get covered on ABC’s This Week.)
By comparison, not only did every network Sunday news show this week cover the story about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emails, but they were drowning in commentary. Between Meet the Press, Face The Nation, This Week, and Fox News Sunday, Clinton’s “email” or “emails” were referenced more than 100 times on the programs, according to Nexis transcripts. Talk about saturation coverage.
Of course, because it involved a Republican administration, the millions of emails that disappeared in 2007 wasn’t a big deal to Fox “News.” Or worse:
A search of Fox archives locates only one panel discussion about the story and it featured two guests accusing Democrats of engineering a “fishing expedition.”
From then-Fox co-host, Fred Barnes: “I mean, deleted e-mails, who cares?”
All of a sudden, because it involves the Clintons, there is a lot of caring going on at Fox and elsewhere about deleted emails.
But even outside of the conservative media sewer, there has been particularly damning coverage of Mrs. Clinton and her email decisions. On MSNBC’s Morning Joe—which in some ways is Fox and Friends in camouflage—there has been nearly universal condemnation of Clinton and suggestions she is hiding damning information, lying about her motives, and otherwise doing what it is that the Clintons allegedly always do: playing a gullible public for fools. All of this rock-throwing over emails, of course, is so far unsupported by any real evidence. It’s all speculation.
Let me be upfront about one thing. Long-time readers know I am not a big fan of former President Clinton. Never have been. From the time when I was a young and committed right-winger to my current middle-aged liberalism, I have always had doubts about his motives and his methods. Not to mention the fact that he has had a fairly clear problem with relationships involving relatively powerless and, in some cases, vulnerable women around him.
That being said, Mrs. Clinton has also lived some of her political life in the shade. There is no reason to go into all that here, since it is available elsewhere, but some of what she is going through now, involving those deleted emails, is the product of her husband’s lies and truth-twisting and some is the product of her own lack of transparency related to her often complicated and sometimes troubling professional relationships, prior to becoming First Lady.
Thus, it is understandable that the press is pursuing this email story like it is the scandal of the century, since journalists are eager to invalidate the completely ridiculous right-wing claim that the mainstream press has always been in bed with the Clintons and has let them get away with, literally, murder.
In any case, let me ignore the usual nuttery on places like Fox—where Fox and Friends passed on the Darrell Issa speculation that the deleted emails may contain a “stand-down order” related to Benghazi tragedy. I want to examine what, on the face of it, sounds like a reasonable question that was asked by a well-respected mainstream journalist, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell.
MITCHELL: Can you explain how you decided which of the personal emails to get rid of, how you got rid of them and when?
That sounds reasonable enough, right? What were the mechanics of the decision to delete certain emails and to forward others to the State Department? But Mitchell added this question:
And how you’ll respond to questions about you being the arbiter of what you release?
In other words, as Mitchell reiterated this morning on MSNBC, what gives you the right, Mrs. Clinton, to decide which emails to delete and which to keep? That also, at first glance, seems a reasonable question. Until you think about it. And journalists are supposed to think about it.
We now know that Hillary Clinton said she “wanted to just use one device for both personal and work emails” because it was convenient. And, as she pointed out, “It was allowed.” No one has contradicted that. The federal manual covering this stuff gives her and other government employees the right to determine what is personal and what is government business related. And no one this side of Rush Limbaugh has claimed she broke any laws by doing what she did, by going through her emails and deleting the ones that she decided had nothing to do with her job and were, thus, private.
Yet, a lot of people are having a problem with her right to do that. Many journalists, and most Republicans, want to see all of those emails. The more sober among them have proposed that a third party should get access to the Clinton’s server and look at all the emails and then decide which is personal and which isn’t. It’s important to understand why that would be grossly unfair to Hillary Clinton and an invasion of her privacy, as well as make it more difficult to get good people to enter public service.
First, we all now understand that most government officials in the executive branch use both government email accounts and personal email accounts during their working days. So, let’s suppose that Mrs. Clinton had also decided to use two separate email accounts while she was Secretary of State. One account would have been for her government-related business and the other for her personal, private business. Nice and neat, right?
Now, let’s suppose she decided to send a message to a friend on her private account. Would she be entitled to make that decision? Of course she would be. She wouldn’t be required to send personal emails through her government account. But suppose she wanted to ask that friend about, say, his opinion on the situation in Burma? Would she still have the right to do that using her private account? Damn right she would. And it would be her decision to do so. She would get to decide whether seeking the opinion of someone about Burma should be on a government-controlled server or on a privately-controlled one. Because, obviously, not everything a government employee does is the government’s business. And Secretary Clinton was entitled to have a private life and to send private emails.
So, what is the difference between deciding before the fact or after the fact which communications are private and which aren’t? Just because she, rather foolishly, decided to use only one device to send her emails while she was the Secretary of State doesn’t mean she isn’t entitled to now determine which emails fall within her right to privacy, assuming there is such a thing as privacy these days.
As much as some people hate to admit it, there is some element of trust involved regarding the service of public officials, whether they have one phone or two phones or a hundred phones. Unless we are prepared to pry into every second of their lives and demand that every syllable they utter or every word they type be part of the public record, we have to have some measure of faith that they are doing their jobs honestly, that they are properly separating their private lives from their public ones. If it turns out that Hillary Clinton knowingly broke the law by trying to delete emails directly related to the conduct of official government business, then she should be prosecuted.
One problem with all this is that before September of 2013, the regulations governing how federal agency employees used emails were apparently lax enough to allow those employees to use personal email accounts to conduct official business, so long as those emails were preserved in some way. Mrs. Clinton said yesterday that,
the vast majority of my work emails went to government employees at their government addresses, which meant they were captured and preserved immediately on the system at the State Department.
If it turns out that she deliberately deleted some relevant emails related to policy decisions involving her government job, emails that went to non-government addresses that were not preserved by the State Department, then she is in real trouble. But, as I said, there is exactly zero evidence that she has done anything wrong, not to mention illegal.
And for those Republicans in Congress who are after every jot and tittle that Hillary Clinton sent and received while she was working for the government as Secretary of State, David Brock has requested that they should also make available every jot and tittle, public and private, they have written while holding their government jobs.
Except that will never happen because almost all of them use private email accounts. And the communications of members of Congress are not subject to Freedom of Information Act requests. Therefore, anything they release would be strictly voluntary. They get to keep their privacy while demanding that Hillary Clinton surrender hers.
How bleeping convenient.