Jeb Bush used his private email account as Florida governor to discuss security and military issues such as troop deployments to the Middle East and the protection of nuclear plants, according to a review of publicly released records.
The emails include two series of exchanges involving details of Florida National Guard troop deployments after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the review by The Washington Post found.
Aides to Bush said Saturday that none of the emails contained sensitive or classified information, and that many of the events mentioned in them were documented in press accounts, either contemporaneously or later. But security experts say private email systems such as the one used by Bush are more vulnerable to hackers, and that details such as troop movements could be exploited by enemies.
Bush is actively considering a run for president and has sharply criticized likely Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton for her use of a private email account when she served as secretary of state. He called it “baffling” that Clinton didn’t consider the potential security risks of discussing diplomatic and national security issues by using an email account not tied to a government server.
An unknown number of the emails housed on Bush’s server were redacted or withheld from public release because they contained sensitive security issues, Bush representatives have said. Communications director Tim Miller said general policy was for Bush to discuss sensitive National Guard issues in person with only occasional briefings by email that “wouldn’t contain information that should not be in the public domain.”
“This Democrat opposition research dump of a few innocuous emails that Gov. Bush voluntarily posted on a website only highlights how large the gap is between him and Clinton in the area of transparency,” Miller said in a statement.
As governor, Bush used his account, email@example.com, to conduct official, political and personal business, including plans to woo new businesses to the state, judicial appointments and military matters, the email records show. His email server was housed at the governor’s office in Tallahassee during his two terms; he took it with him when he left office in 2007.
He later turned over about 280,000 emails for state archives under the requirements of Florida records laws, or about half of the total emails on the server. In one email sent four days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the top general for the Florida Air National Guard told Bush that “we are actively planning sequences in preparation for mobilization orders should they come.”
“They have not come at this time,” wrote Ronald O. Harrison, who was adjutant general of Florida. “We are pretty good at anticipating the type of forces potentially needed and are prepared to respond to the president's call.”
“Keep me informed of the mobilization,” Bush wrote in reply.
Bush officials noted that many of the deployment orders issued after 9/11 were included in news reports at the time, including some of those mentioned in the Bush emails.
In November 2001, Bush and an aide to then-Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan exchanged messages about the deployment of National Guard troops to a nuclear power plant in Crystal River, Fla. The aide wrote Bush that a state lawmaker had called to say she thought “it is imperative that the Crystal River nuclear facility have National Guard security.”
Bush wrote back: “Florida power does not want it. We are reducing or getting rid of guard protection in the other plants.”
Aides to Bush argue that the nuclear plant discussions were innocuous and mostly public anyway. After the 9/11 attacks, the International Atomic Energy Agency had warned that terrorists might try to attack nuclear power plants.
Bush dispatched Guard troops to protect two South Florida nuclear power plants but not the Crystal River facility. The plant’s operator, Florida Power Corp., declined the governor’s offer of security, according to local news reports at the time. Aides also say Bush’s server was secure because it was kept at the governor’s office.
But Johannes Ullrich, a cybersecurity expert who is dean of research at the SANS Technology Institute, said private accounts in general are more susceptible to attacks than government email addresses, particularly attacks in which a hacker establishes a look-alike account that allows them to impersonate as the account holder.
Encryption technology was also far less sophisticated in 2001, he said, which could have made Bush’s emails particularly insecure while traveling. If hackers gained access to Bush’s account, he said, there’s a chance they could break into the account of the National Guard commander or other officials with whom Bush exchanged emails.
“The bigger issue here is, what else can an attacker do?” Ullrich said. “Now I may be able to penetrate a National Guard commander’s laptop by infecting it or by impersonating Jeb Bush’s account. . . . Now you may even be able to give the order to remove troops or change deployments.”
In recent days, Democrats, reeling from the criticism of Clinton’s email practices, have stepped up their critique of Bush on the same topic, arguing that he used his personal email to avoid public scrutiny of his actions as governor.
“The GOP presidential hopefuls’ attacks on this issue are completely disingenuous, and there are still a litany of questions Republicans need to answer, like what emails has Jeb Bush not turned over?” said Holly Shulman, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee.
Bush rebuffed such criticism during an event in New Hampshire on Friday. “I’m not surprised that the Clinton operatives would suggest this. It’s kind of standard operating procedure,” he told reporters, referring to Democratic charges that his email situation was no different than Clinton’s. He added later that he was “totally transparent. I have a BlackBerry as part of my official portrait, for crying out loud. There was nothing to hide.”
Under Florida law, Bush was required to hand over emails related to his time in office. Bush aides say there were about 550,000 e-mails on Bush’s server when he left office in 2007, although a portion of those came from before he began his tenure. About half that number were eventually turned over to state archives.
As noted Saturday by The New York Times, the archive process continued until last May, when attorneys for Bush delivered 25,000 additional messages. Aides have defended the pace of Bush’s compliance, saying that it took seven years because of his volume of correspondence.
In February, Bush launched a website, JebBushEmails.com, telling visitors that “they’re all here so you can read them and make up your own mind.”
Bush’s aides have strongly defended the process used to release his messages, noting that other potential GOP presidential candidates haven’t released any emails or are having emails released only as part of ongoing government investigations. The list includes former Texas governor Rick Perry; Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Perry and Jindal have used private email for government business, according to the Associated Press. Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley (D) — who is also weighing a presidential bid — said last week that he used a private Gmail account as governor to communicate with aides and Cabinet officials.
When Bush published his emails in February, aides said many messages would be withheld or redacted to comply with state law barring the release of messages including Social Security numbers, confidential business issues or law enforcement and other security matters. Some of thepublished emails initially included Social Security numbers, forcing Bush’s team to quickly redact them — an early stumble for the governor’s fledgling presidential efforts.
A spokeswoman for the Florida secretary of state’s office did not return a request for comment Saturday to explain why some emails were released and others withheld, saying any answer would require a fuller legal interpretation that wouldn’t be available until next week.
Bush’s archives include a handful of other messages from leaders of Florida’s National Guard. There are copies of the “Florida National Guard Activity Report” from August 2000 and December 2000, with information about troop deployments to the Caribbean, South Korea and Kuwait; the activation of units; and details on training exercises and drug seizures.
In October 2000, Harrison emailed Bush to remind him that 170 Florida Air National Guardsmen from Jacksonville would be deploying to Saudi Arabia to enforce the southern Iraq no-fly zone. The message said they would “coincidentally travel over with a group of 90 from the Texas Air National Guard” — a unit that was under the command of Bush’s brother, George W. Bush, who was then Texas governor.
The next month, a lieutenant commander with one of the deployed units e-mailed Jeb Bush to thank him for sending a message of support, noting that “our unit has played a key role in missions directly related” to ongoing tensions between Iraq and Israel.. The officer added that “you can assure your brother the F-15s from your state could take the F-16s from his state!”
Immediately after news broke March 2 about Clinton’s use of a private server, Bush faulted her for not releasing her emails from her time as secretary of state, writing on Twitter that “Transparency matters.” He later raised concerns about Clinton’s decision during an interview with Radio Iowa.
“For security purposes, you need to be behind a firewall that recognizes the world for what it is, and it’s a dangerous world, and security would mean that you couldn’t have a private server,” he said. “It’s a little baffling, to be honest with you, that didn’t come up in Secretary Clinton’s thought process.”
On Friday night, after a meeting with potential supporters, Bush was asked to respond to criticism that he, like Clinton, was allowed to self-select which emails should be turned over for archiving. “I was way too busy to decide,” Bush said, before clarifying that his general counsel was among those involved in selecting which emails to turn over. “It was a process that was based on the law itself, and we complied with the law and all during this time we’ve complied with the law, even in my post-governorship,” he said.
Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report, which originally appeared in The Washington Post.