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Washington's Email Scandal Isn't Just About Hillary Clinton

Why does the federal government leave it up to officials to decide which records to keep?

Clinton Global Initiative/Facebook

When is an email scandal not really an email scandal?

There’s no doubt that Hillary Rodham Clinton’s decision to use a private email server in her house — and to delete more than 30,000 emails she claims were private — is an issue for her future presidential campaign.

But it’s a blip compared to how it highlights just how backward Washington can be when it comes to dealing with technology. Very backward, as it turns out.

Two weeks after the New York Times broke the news that former Secretary of State Clinton used a private email account exclusively while in office, the furor over that revelation hasn’t died; it has just settled into a slow boil.

All very noisy still, even if the email scandal isn’t about email at all, since Clinton appears to have taken advantage of the federal government’s lax records policies. It’s more about trust, or lack of trust, in Clinton, who hasn’t historically been the most forthcoming of politicians.

Instead, it mostly illustrates a broader problem in Washington, which is that it still relies on politicians and bureaucrats to save important (or embarrassing) records when there’s so much automatic archiving software available.

Let’s be clear, D.C. has never been the most tech-savvy place. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham looked antiquated recently on “Meet the Press” when he admitted he has never sent an email, an odd stance for a person who sits on the Senate Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law.

But he’s hardly alone. For every Rep. Sean Duffy of Wisconsin, who takes selfies and Snapchats with his office staff, there’s a Sen. Chuck Schumer, who still carries an old flip phone.

And remember the now-deceased Sen. Ted “The Internet … Is a Series of Tubes” Stevens of Alaska, who made those memorable remarks while serving as head of the Senate committee with jurisdiction over telecom and Internet issues?

If not, YouTube — the biggest of tubes out there — certainly does:

The disconnect between Silicon Valley and Washington becomes very stark when you consider that most federal bureaucrats must still actually print out their email messages for archival purposes.

Here’s the thing: Hillary Clinton was right when she told reporters that the system is designed to put the onus on officials to save their own records. “For any government employee, it is that government employee’s responsibility to determine what’s personal and what’s work-related,” she said.

That’s actually the way the National Archives and Records Administration has set the system up — much to the dismay of reporters, historians and political operatives who dig for dirt on opponents. While the National Archives has a blanket electronic records preservation policy, it leaves it up to individual agencies to set their own rules. Some obviously do it better than others.

And while text messages, chat transcripts and other electronic communications might be technically covered under the National Archives rules, good luck finding a federal agency that keeps them. The fact that government agencies are still struggling to automatically archive emails in 2015 is perhaps the bigger scandal here.

But the focus on Clinton remains, and she’ll be answering questions about this email debacle for months. On Friday, Gawker joined other organizations in suing the State Department in an effort to get the agency to finally cough up emails from aides during Hillary Rodham Clinton’s time at the agency.

It joins the growing stack of lawsuits piling up on some State Department desk over unfulfilled Freedom of Information Act requests for records during Clinton’s time as the nation’s top diplomat. State Department lawyers are currently plowing through 55,000 pages of emails Clinton provided from her private home email account. (That’s 55,000 pages, not 55,000 emails.)

Naturally, Clinton’s press conference brought back a lot of bad memories, which you could see from the essays pouring forth from older members of the Washington press corps.

“The circus is back in town,” proclaimed veteran political writer Karen Tumulty. Her Washington Post colleague, Dan Balz, wrote that the press conference “offered a hint of what the future could be like — and it looked a lot like the past, with a controversy building until there was no other choice but to speak publicly about it and a media crush that no other candidate would attract.”

But does anyone really care outside the Beltway? Not really, as it turns out.

Pew Clinton poll

Pew Research released an interesting new poll last week, which found that younger Americans don’t care as much about Clinton’s emails as older Americans. Just four percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 followed the Clinton email story closely, according to the poll, compared to 31 percent of Americans 65 or older. (To be fair, younger people generally showed very little interest in other major news events.)

That generational disconnect to the Hillary email scandal isn’t hard to understand. Older Americans endured more than eight years of various Clinton-related scandals, including Whitewater, suspiciously-profitable commodity trading deals, former deputy White House counsel Vince Foster’s suicide and The Dress.

In contrast, millennials were still mostly in elementary or middle school during the years the Clintons were in the White House and were mercifully spared from having to think about any of this.

Nor do they much care about most things related to email, largely since they don’t use it much. Stats are down among this key demographic on usage of this technology, even as the growth of ephemeral messaging options like Snapchat explodes.

Dealing with those sorts of disappearing communications by government bureaucrats is a scandal for future years, even if the Clinton team might relish such a world right about now.

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