The long-awaited Hillary Clinton press conference held at the United Nations on Tuesday was her unofficial admission that she’s running for president. Why else would the former Secretary of State and frontrunner for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2016 take questions about her private email account, housed on a private server at her Chappaqua, NY home?
Although Clinton broke no laws, the fact that she kept all of her email traffic outside of State Department control has prompted critics, particularly Republicans focused on the terrorist attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya in 2012, to raise concerns about whether the former Secretary of State is being sufficiently transparent.
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Most federal employees use a “.gov” email account, and in the case of the State Department, those emails are archived. When employees use a personal account for federal business, they are expected to turn over those communications to the government for archiving. Clinton apparently did not turn over any of her emails to the State Department until she was asked to do so last year – long after she had left her post.
In her relatively brief 22-minute appearance on Tuesday, Clinton said that she had complied with all applicable laws, and that her staff had erred on the side of transparency when they went through some 60,000 emails stored on the server in the process of determining which needed to be turned over to the State Department and which were purely personal.
She noted that the vast majority of the emails that were identified as official records were already in the possession of the State Department because they had been sent to or received from “.gov” accounts.
Clinton revealed that of the 60,000 emails, about half had been turned over to State, while some or all of the remainder were erased. The implicit message from Clinton was that she and her staff should be trusted to make the judgment about which emails were and were not official federal records. That’s something her legions of supporters may well accept, but many in the media as well as her political opponents are far less sanguine about her actions.
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By late Tuesday, Clinton left a number of significant issues unaddressed. And, as she progresses toward what appears to be an inevitable run for President, they are virtually certain to be forced back into public view.
1. Who was involved in the vetting process, and what standards were applied?
Throughout her discussion of the email issue, Clinton frequently referred to a “process” that unnamed people followed to determine which of her emails were work-related and which were not.
“We went through a thorough process to identify all of my work- related emails and deliver them to the State Department,” she said. What she didn’t say is who the “we” in question was, and what the actual process was that “they” followed.
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Clinton’s defense is that this is standard procedure for government employees who use personal email to conduct official business. It’s a bit disingenuous, though, as the rules are mainly aimed at employees who occasionally or even accidentally use their private email for official correspondence – not for a cabinet secretary who exclusively uses private email.
2. Why were the emails delivered to the State Department in paper form rather than electronically?
When Clinton complied with the State Department’s request for any emails related to official business, she reportedly did so by delivering some 30,000 of them – on paper. On its face, it’s difficult to understand why messages sent in an inherently electronic medium would need to be converted to paper in order to be delivered to the State Department. If nothing else, a lot of trees died for that project when an inexpensive flash drive would have done the job.
So, why provide what The New York Times described as “dozens of boxes filled with 50,000 pages of printed emails” instead of electronic copies? In the absence of another reason, many have focused on the fact that while hundreds of thousands of emails can be searched for terms such as “Benghazi” in a matter of seconds, it could take weeks or more to conduct a search of that much paper.
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3. What else is on the server?
According to Clinton, the server on which her personal emails were stored was set up for the office of her husband, President Bill Clinton, and was located on their property in Chappaqua, NY, which is guarded by the U.S. Secret Service.
That, of course, greatly complicates any decision about turning over the server itself from the Clintons’ perspective. In addition to the former secretary’s own emails, it appears at least possible that it could contain private correspondence and other materials belonging to her husband, the former president.
4. Are the erased emails truly gone?
Clinton’s admission that she erased 30,000 of the approximately 60,000 emails on the server because they were personal in nature leads to the natural question: Are they really gone?
Typically, “erasing” a file on a computer does nothing but tell the computer that the space formerly taken up by that file on the hard drive is now available. It does not, however, mean that the data will automatically be overwritten. There are ways to permanently delete email from a drive, but it is unclear whether Clinton took such steps, leading to the possibility, at least, that the erased emails still exist.
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5. Does she have the legal right to maintain custody of the server if it is subpoenaed by a Congressional Committee?
Clinton could not have been more clear in her comments that she has no plans at all to acquiesce with suggestions that she, at minimum, turn the email server over to a third party who can assess the emails and any other data on it to determine what is and what is not a federal record.
“The server contains personal communications from my husband and me, and I believe I have met all of my responsibilities and the server will remain private and I think that the State Department will be able, over time, to release all of the records that were provided.”
This answer, most likely, will be utterly unsatisfactory to Republicans in Congress, most of all to South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, who is chairing the House Select Committee on Benghazi. Gowdy has already said that he expects to require Clinton to testify before his committee on two occasions. How he will respond to Clinton’s position on her emails may further complicate matters.
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