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re: scandal

News & Features | April 6, 2015

In the aftermath of the report that Hillary Clinton exclusively used a personal email account to conduct official business as Secretary of State, one question lingers in the mind of many Americans: was this “scandal” as shocking as it was made out to be?

A week after the initial revelation, Clinton said in a press conference that she used the personal account “for convenience” because she “thought it would be easier to carry one device.” One device, which does not seem to be the Blackberry that Clinton talked about in an interview last month in Silicon Valley. In the same interview, Clinton went on to describe what “one device” really entailed: “I’m like two steps short of a hoarder. So I have an iPad, a mini iPad, an iPhone and a BlackBerry.” Gaffes like these seem myopic for a politician as shrewd as Clinton.

Clinton is a towering figure in American politics, and the coverage of the email “scandal” reflects this fact. Every aspect of this story has been analyzed, examined, and written to death.

A scandal like this matters to the media and the American public because it brings into question the leadership ability of the politicians who have so much influence over our nation and society. In the case of Clinton, the email scandal seems to reinforce all of her perceived flaws—namely that she is a secretive, out of touch, career politician.

Technically, when Clinton served as Secretary of State, there was not an explicit, categorical prohibition against federal employees using personal emails, according to Daniel Metcalfe, former director of the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy. It was only after Clinton concluded her term that the National Archives issued a recommendation that government employees should avoid conducting official business on personal emails. Initially, the rules were structured so that high-level officials like Clinton had the flexibility and jurisdiction to sometimes use a personal email, such as responding to a national security emergency in the middle of the night.

But by exclusively using her personal email, it appears that Clinton violated that National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) Code of Federal Regulations, which requires federal agencies to document agency activity so that they are readily available when needed. Thus, the problem does not lie in using a personal email address, but instead in the fact that the emails stored on the personal email account were not recorded properly. Clinton has argued that her emails were archived in the system because she was in the habit of sending them to other government employees with email addresses ending in “.gov”. Experts, on the other hand, say that using personal email, while not explicitly prohibited, was a skirting of law.

Despite allegations to the contrary, Clinton does not seem to be hiding her emails from the public. In response to a 2014 query from the House committee investigation into Benghazi, Clinton turned over 55,000 pages of emails from her personal account that the department didn’t previously have. While this may have appeased some, Clinton also revealed that, in going through her past emails, she deleted about 30,000 messages, emails that Clinton’s team claims do not relate to the State Department. Regardless, the lack of transparency leaves people in doubt, questioning the fact that Hilary was able to pick and choose which to give the government.

The truth is that Clinton, who served from 2009 to 2013, is not the first politician, nor the first Secretary of State, to rely heavily on personal email accounts for government work. Her predecessor, Colin Powell, also sent emails to State Department employees using his personal email, though he maintains that this practice was the exception rather than the rule. In fact, the State Department said Clinton’s successor, John Kerry, is the first secretary to use a standard government e-mail address ending in “state.gov”.

According to Vox, “Virtually all government officials use personal emails, and, as most reporters know, sensitive communication routinely comes over that email rather than the official channel—or, even more frequently, it comes in a phone call or an in-person meeting.” In other words, public officials are constantly choosing what they think should be archived. In principle, Clinton should have used a government email, but in practice, the difference between her and her peers is smaller than it looks.

The question of greater concern is whether Clinton’s work conducted through her personal email was secure. Clinton said that she ran her email on a homemade system and stored the data on a local server. According to Clinton, “The system we used was set up for Pres. Clinton’s office. And it had numerous safeguards. It was on property guarded by the Secret Service,” says Clinton. Though this seemed like proper protection to Clinton, it left the emails highly at risk for hacking. Guarding a server with the Secret Service reveals the hubris and ignorance in Clinton’s system, a distinctly analogue defense against digital threats. Writers at the Washington Post asserted that this “protection” made it seem “as if the primary risk was not cybertheft but rather burglars sneaking in to steal floppy disks.”

And while Clinton claims that there were “no security breaches,” experts emphasize that if there had been successful security breach, Clinton almost certainly wouldn’t know about it. Digital theft is covert and doesn’t leave a trail.

This is where the Clinton email scandal becomes a real issue. While government email systems aren’t impenetrable, they boast far greater security and theft recognition system more sophisticated than anything Clinton could produce individually. By using a homemade system, Clinton reveals that she didn’t understand the risks involved. By continually dismissing this scandal as a non-issue, Clinton made herself seem even more secretive and out of touch. The media and Clinton’s Republican opponents will certainly attempt to drag out this story through election time. But by failing to recognize her actions as scandalous, Clinton created a scandal.

Art by Rachel Cunningham.