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Hillary Clinton's personal email account looks bad now. But it was even worse at the time.

Clinton in 2012 with Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Philip Gordon.
Clinton in 2012 with Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Philip Gordon.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty

The New York Times report that Hillary Clinton used a personal rather than governmental email account during her four years at the State Department looks bad. In addition to creating a security risk, this practice circumvented (though may or may not have outright violated) federal record-keeping regulations that are meant to keep government business transparent.

But this story looks even worse if you transport yourself back to early 2009, when Clinton first became of Secretary of State and, according to this story, initially refused to use a governmental account. The Bush administration had just left office weeks earlier under the shadow of, among other things, a major ongoing scandal concerning officials who used personal email addresses to conduct business, and thus avoid scrutiny.

The scandal began in June 2007, as part of a Congressional oversight committee investigation into allegations that the White House had fired US Attorneys for political reasons. The oversight committee asked for Bush administration officials to turn over relevant emails, but it turned out the administration had conducted millions of emails' worth of business on private email addresses, the archives of which had been deleted.

The effect was that investigators couldn't access millions of internal messages that might have incriminated the White House. The practice, used by White House officials as senior as Karl Rove, certainly seemed designed to avoid federal oversight requirements and make investigation into any shady dealings more difficult. Oversight committee chairman Henry Waxman accused the Bush administration of "using nongovernmental accounts specifically to avoid creating a record of the communications."

That scandal unfolded well into the final year of Bush's presidency, then overlapped with another email secrecy scandal, over official emails that got improperly logged and then deleted, which itself dragged well into Obama's first year in office. There is simply no way that, when Clinton decided to use her personal email address as Secretary of State, she was unaware of the national scandal that Bush officials had created by doing the same.

That she decided to use her personal address anyway showed a stunning disregard for governmental transparency requirements. Indeed, Clinton did not even bother with the empty gesture of using her official address for more formal business, as Bush officials did.

The most generous interpretation is that she just preferred her personal email. A less generous one is that, like many politicians before her, using a personal email was a deliberate ploy to avoid transparency (Clinton took some hits when she released her private emails as first lady, so transparency had hurt her in the past) and perhaps even hamper potential investigations.

Perhaps even more stunning is that the Obama White House, whose top officials were presumably exchanging frequent emails with Clinton, apparently did not insist she adopt an official email account. At some point during Obama's first year, there must have been at least one senior official who dealt with the political fallout of Karl Rove using a personal address, then turned around and fired off an email to the personal address that Hillary Clinton used exclusively. That this continued for four years is baffling.