Hillary Clinton’s email problems do not end with her illegal privatization of government communications or her Nixonian stonewalling of questions about how much of her public record she has destroyed in order to avoid public scrutiny.
She must also defend her broader record at the State Department—a record of building information technology systems designed to keep the vast majority of public records from becoming public.
In 2009 the State Department began an overhaul of its email system in order to bring its system into better compliance with federal disclosure laws. That expensive system (ironically called “SMART,” State Messaging and Archive Retrieval Toolset) locked Clinton’s State Department into a records retention system that would have made Nixon envious. The heart of the problem at the State Department reflects a problem that Clinton is having personally. In order to monitor a public official’s activities—for lawfulness or even just good judgment—one cannot entrust the object of scrutiny with the responsibility of deciding which of their records will become public. Not only has Clinton brazenly asserted this power in her particular case, she built a massive system that relies on poorly trained employees to predesignate as they see fit which of their emails will become public records. Predictably, State Department employees almost never preserve their emails.
The State Department’s office of inspector general recently released a previously withheld 2014 review that documents the system’s failures. According to that report, “employees have not received adequate training or guidance on their responsibilities” for using the new system. The results have been disastrous: of more than a billion emails created in 2011, employees chose to preserve only 61,156. What’s worse, performance deteriorated during Clinton’s watch; in 2013 the number of preserved emails declined to 41,749.
The OIG report goes on to provide even more granularity about the magnitude of failure on Clinton’s watch. In 2013, the entire Belfast consulate preserved only one email—perhaps if work is that slow in Northern Ireland we should just close the consulate down. Embassies and consulates in Cape Town, Curacao, Durban, Dubai, Krakow, Naples. and other similar offices each preserved only a single email for all of 2013.
Many other offices did not do much better. The embassy in Copenhagen preserved 6 emails, the consulate in Jerusalem preserved 17, the Reykjavik embassy preserved 4, the Sarajevo embassy preserved 7, and the U.S. Mission to NATO preserved 7. Tellingly, the Office of the Secretary—not just Clinton, but her entire immediate office—preserved only 7 emails in 2013.
To be fair, Clinton is not the only Obama administration appointee to violate federal laws relating to retention and disclosure of public documents. Former Environmental Protection administrator Lisa Jackson circumvented her agency in a similar manner to Clinton, although she entrusted her communications to the cloud instead of a private server in her personal residence.
President Obama and former HHS Secretary Sebelius have quickly tried to separate themselves from Clinton’s woes, but that should not be an easy task for either one of them. The White House office of the chief information officer has quietly, but repeatedly, promoted the idea that evasion of government cellphone, email and procurement rules in order to use new and hipper technologies was part of the Obama mission.
That White House message was enthusiastically received at HHS under Secretary Sebelius’s watch. Her agency’s performance with regard to transparency was in many ways worse than State’s under Clinton. Her staff actively spread the lie that healthcare.gov did not retain any information on individuals using healthcare.gov at the same time that they were awarding huge contracts to well-connected contractors to maintain a database for that information. That database, known as MIDAS, includes notes made by contractors who take calls from confused members of the public, such as me.
Shortly after I wrote about MIDAS last October in The Weekly Standard, I filed a privacy act request with HHS for all my records retained as a result of my phone calls to healthcare.gov. A woman called me promptly to tell me that there were no such records in the system. When I started quoting my own article, she responded, “Oh, that data base...” and promised a prompt response. Despite that promise, I still have received nothing.