Just when the controversy over Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while Secretary of State had fallen out of the public eye, despite an ongoing FBI investigation, the Obama administration’s critics have a new potential target: Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
The New York Times reports that Carter used a personal email account to conduct official business, a violation of Pentagon rules. Compounding the error in judgment is that Carter, a physicist, continued to use the account for two months or possibly longer after Clinton’s use of a “homebrew” email arrangement was uncovered by the House Select Committee on Benghazi.
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The difference between Clinton and Carter is that Carter backed up all emails on the Pentagon server, as required. Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook downplayed the development in a statement:
"Any email related to work received on this personal account, such as an invitation to speak at an event or an administrative issue, is copied or forwarded to his official account so it can be preserved as a federal record as appropriate," he said. "After reviewing his email practices earlier this year, the Secretary believes that his previous, occasional use of personal email for work-related business, even for routine administrative issues and backed up to his official account, was a mistake."
"He takes his responsibilities with regard to classified material very seriously," Cook added.
That tidy explanation might not sit well with the American public, or on Capitol Hill. Depending on the volume and scope of the messages Carter sent, public confidence in his ability to steer an agency that is due to receive $514 billion in baseline funding for fiscal 2016 could erode rapidly.
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Clinton, now the Democratic presidential frontrunner, can certainly attest to that phenomenon. The steady drip of news about her server, and her poor handling of the controversy, removed the veneer of inevitability from her White House bid and boosted her rivals. While she has recovered some of the support she lost, the GOP is sure to revive the issue next year.
Congressional Republicans, critical of President Obama’s efforts to defeat Islamic extremists in Iraq and Syria, could try to paint Carter as another Obama “rule breaker,” dismissive of one of his core responsibilities in the fight against cyber warfare. For example, the GOP could ask pointed questions about the security surrounding Carter’s personal email account, given the Pentagon’s status as a target for hackers in countries like Iran, Russia and China.
If Republicans sense there is a political advantage to be gained by chiding Carter, any type of investigation could be slow-rolled for weeks, possibly months as they pore through Carter’s emails. The timing of the revelation also doesn’t help Carter, who has seen his star fall in the eyes of Congress since his confirmation earlier this year as the war effort has stuttered along.
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Last week he and Senate Armed Services Committee chair John McCain (R-AZ) had several testy exchanges over the U.S.-led fight against ISIS, including the status of the remaining $116 million to equip Syrian rebels, and a host of other topics, like the status of several civilian nominees for Pentagon positions.
On Thursday, McCain signaled that Congress plans to review Carter’s arrangement.
“With all the public attention surrounding the improper use of personal email by other Administration officials, it is hard to believe that Secretary Carter would exercise the same error in judgment,” McCain said in a statement, referring to Clinton, who served on the Armed Services panel as a senator from New York.
“The Senate Armed Services Committee has requested copies of the emails and will be conducting a review to ensure that sensitive information was not compromised,” McCain added.