U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton checks her mobile phone at the United Nations Security Council in 2012. (Photo: Richard Drew/AP Photo)
It was a Thursday morning, Jan. 26, 2012, and Hillary Clinton was standing onstage in the three-story, redwood-paneled Dean Acheson Auditorium at State Department headquarters in Washington, D.C., to speak with some of the 25,000 or so people who flesh out the department’s organizational chart. Three years into her tenure, Clinton had been building a reputation for being eager to think hard about technology. Around the world, she pitched the idea that the networked society was remaking international relations, producing a need for “21st-century statecraft.” InWashington, she gave speeches extolling Internet freedom. Inside Foggy Bottom headquarters, she launched an in-house online forum, calling it the Sounding Board.
But Clinton knew full well that the State Department’s own technology was lagging behind. She chuckled knowingly when the moderator that day said that one of the hottest questions on the Sounding Board was about Internet Explorer 7 — so sluggish and dated that while activists in the Middle East were using Twitter to organize protests, those inside the State Department could see only a broken version of Twitter.com.
The question put to Clinton: When were those working at the State Department finally going to get a decent browser on their computers?
Once Clinton stopped laughing, she made a declaration. “I’m happy to announce that Google Chrome will be deployed worldwide on February 14.” Consider it, she said, a Valentine’s Day present.
The town hall meeting lasted just over an hour and covered topics ranging from the Armenian genocide to limits on career advancement for Foreign Service officers. And yet, says Ian Schuler, who served in the department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the time, “She could have said, ‘You’re all getting Chrome,’ dropped the microphone and walked out. Because that’s all anyone talked about.”
There is perhaps no figure, now or ever, in American politics like Hillary Clinton: a former first lady, a powerful secretary of state, a potential Democratic presidential nominee. But standing there that day, Clinton was one of many presidential officials who have found themselves confronted with jalopy technology and a desire to maintain some degree of control over their records. In fact, the saga of Clinton’s use of a nongovernmental email address is, in many ways, rooted in a question of control. Clinton, as secretary of state, would take control of which tools department employees had to do their work. And she would take control of the archive she would leave behind after what would turn out to be her 1,472 days in Obama’s Cabinet.
The then-secretary of state at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs in The Hague, 2011 (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
A desire to be in command is natural, even healthy, in politicians. But for those charged with keeping the apparatus of government chugging along, it can also be where it all starts to go wrong.
The inconvenience of government tech
Joining the State Department, recalls Schuler, who is now CEO of the Washington, D.C., technology firm Development Seed, meant being assigned a “computing device that worked almost like a real computer.” Talk to others who have worked with and around State’s IT, and you hear phrases like “old” and “1990s tech” and “f—-ing terrible.” Explains Schuler, “The technology is optimized for security. It’s not at all optimized for doing work or for connecting with people beyond the State Department. It means you spend a lot of your day without any way to connect to the outside world. And that can make it really hard to do your job.”
It’s easy enough to chalk up the shouting over Clinton’s decision to use clintonemail.com instead of government tools to yet another bout of Clinton hate or a fresh instance of Hillary Clinton being held to a higher standard than anyone else in politics. After all, Colin Powell used a personal account as secretary of state, from 2001 to 2005, and admitted on ABC’s “This Week” that he “retained none of those emails.” Peter Daou, the Internet director for Clinton’s 2008 run for president, in a blog post dismissed the complaints about her as the whinging of the Beltway “innerati.” And Philip “P.J.” Crowley, who served as assistant secretary of state for public affairs from 2009 to 2011, agreed to talk about the Clinton emails — a subject he clearly considered trivial — only if we could work around an interview he already had scheduled on “real-world issues like the Islamic State.”
But there are many others who have deep experience with the workings of the federal government who — though they may not want to shout it from the rooftops — find what Clinton did unsettling. They include Democrats, good-government activists and by-the-books federal employees who argue that they’d be pummeled if they did what she did. It’s not the biggest issue in the world, perhaps. But it is a setback for those interested not just in transparency and accountability but also in dragging the federal government into the modern technology era.
Secretary of State Colin Powell at a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2004 (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)
“People should see getting a government email address as a benefit,” says one high-ranking federal official who asked to remain anonymous because of the awkwardness of critiquing Clinton. “It should make your job easier,” says the official, “not harder.” But as things stand, the BlackBerrys loaded with Microsoft Outlook that are given to State Department employees can feel like a burden.
BlackBerry’s long dominance inside government IT circles is, in part, a holdover effect of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, when the then-novel devices proved the only reliable means of communicating. But it’s also due in part to the fact that Microsoft products — and those who sell them — dominate the town’s IT landscape, and BlackBerrys have long played particularly well with Microsoft’s email products.
Indeed, the fact that government workers are still regularly issued BlackBerrys when most of the United States has moved on to iPhones and Samsung Galaxy smartphones, serves as a hard, plastic reminder of the remove from the general population at which government technology operates.
POEMS for the secretary
When it comes to the secretary of state, though, the department has attempted in recent years to lighten the technological burden.
It’s little-known, but there is a high-security, concierge email system made just for the U.S. secretary of state and others on the “seventh floor,” as Foggy Bottom’s executive suite is dubbed inside the building. It’s called, officially, the Principal Officers Electronic Messaging System, but it is known inside the department as POEMS. Schuler remembers traveling with those whose email accounts were on POEMS and witnessing that they received 24-hour support, far beyond what he jokingly calls the “plebes” in the department got. A State Department spokesperson describes POEMS as a “carve-out” from the department wide email system, with “services tailored to what the secretary would need.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the State Department Dean Acheson Auditorium in 2010 (Photo: Xinhua/Zumapress.com)
Beyond that, Foggy Bottom isn’t all that eager to speak of POEMS. There are only a handful of references to it online. I found one reference, with a number for a “POEMS Help Desk” in an old PDF of a State Department directory. I hadn’t yet deduced what the acronym represented, so I rang the POEMS number and asked the person who answered if he might be able to tell me what POEMS stood for. “No, I cannot,” he said. Can anyone at the State Department tell me? “No.”
Still, it’s clear that Clinton opted out of the Principal Officers Electronic Messaging System, the framework specifically designed by those on the federal payroll to meet the unique needs of a U.S. secretary of state.
“When I got to work as secretary of state,” Clinton said in the press conference she held two weeks ago at the United Nations about the controversy, “I opted, for convenience, to use my personal email account, which was allowed by the State Department, because I thought it would be easier to carry just one device for my work and for my personal emails instead of two.” She went on. “Looking back, it would’ve been better if I’d simply used a second email account and carried a second phone, but at the time, this didn’t seem like an issue.”
The two-devices-is-simply-too-much argument was roundly mocked, partly because modern cell phones, at least, let you set up two email addresses or more on one device. But that might be one of the few choices Clinton made that was coloring well within the lines: Best practices for government workers dictate not putting personal applications on devices paid for with tax dollars. But it was also mocked because — though there are moves afoot in official D.C. toward a “Bring Your Own Device” culture — hauling around two cell phones is still something much of Washington does as a matter of course. Clinton granted herself an early exemption from the hassle, but what about everyone else? “If it’s inconvenient for her to use, does she not think it’s inconvenient for everybody else?” asked the same anonymous official. “Did that not make her prioritize wanting to fix that system?”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton checks her mobile phone in London. (Photo: Stefan Rousseau/Reuters)
Plenty of State Department employees, those with experience with the situation say, do grant themselves their own mini-exemptions, on occasion — perhaps dashing off a few quick iPhone emails from home rather than taking 10 minutes to log in to a virtual private network (VPN), deleting emails to get back below inbox size limits while out and about, or waiting weeks to get their hands on a laptop to take overseas.
What perhaps none will admit is doing it all the time with every sort of email, out of concern, in some cases, for exposing themselves to a safety breach — a constant threat. In her book “Hard Choices,” Clinton noted that State Department officials were targeted by email phishing attacks of remarkable “sophistication and fluency.” But she has said there are no signs that her email was ever violated; moreover, the servers that actually housed them were in her home and thus guarded by the U.S. Secret Service. Indeed, it might be easier in some ways to protect a handful of people using clintonemail.com than it is to safeguard all of POEMS.
Add into the mix that Clinton’s email address — firstname.lastname@example.org for most of her time at State — might not, in itself, have been a dead giveaway that she was working outside official circles. An unexpected domain name could have suggested to some a sanctioned security plan for her account (“OPSEC,” in national security speak) to throw off hackers. Though even an off-the-books address would probably have used “.gov,” the possibility might help explain why no one raised a red flag over the address while Clinton was in office. But there’s also another, more likely, explanation: Few saw it attached to emails that clearly had to do with State Department work.
The home of former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton in Chappaqua, New York (Photo: Mike Segar/Reuters)
The email blackout in Foggy Bottom
“I knew exactly what her address was,” says P.J. Crowley, the former State Department spokesperson. Crowley is known for speaking his mind; an active, often colorful, tweeter while in office, Crowley resigned after delivering a negative opinion of the Pentagon’s treatment of alleged WikiLeaks source Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning. “I don’t recall any conversation where this was an issue. It wasn’t a big deal. It just never came up as an area of concern.”
But Crowley also paints a picture of working with Clinton where email was never much of an issue at all. Like many national security principals, Clinton, he says, was one step removed from day-to-day email traffic. “Email to her was not the means by which we communicated with her,” says Crowley. “We primarily used old-fashioned forms of communications: meetings, paper, phone calls. In formulating positions, the staff would use email a great deal. But the secretary isn’t necessarily going to be integrally involved in the sausage making, and getting those perspectives to the secretary, that was usually done on paper.”
Besides, Crowley says, “She was always staffed, and there was always someone with her.” When something was time-sensitive, “More often than not we’d email the staffer and say, ‘Hey, when she pops out of the meeting, can you make sure she’s aware of Y?’ We did a lot of communicating toward her.”
It’s a work pattern that is ingrained in the geography of the State Department. The so-called “Mahogany Row” where the secretary’s suite is located, is a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF. Those entering must drop their mobile devices into tiny lockers and take with them a numbered key.
Being more email-adjacent than email-dependent isn’t all that unusual for high-ranking officials. David Almacy was the Internet director for the George W. Bush White House from 2005 to 2007. Bush swore off email when he took office. But Almacy remembers that he’d sometimes get internal emails saying “Some people over here were wondering…,” knowing that some people and over here meant the president of the United States, sitting in the Oval Office.
But if Clinton wasn’t actively using email as part of her daily grind — and she’s said that there was just one email to a foreign peer, an official in the United Kingdom — that might raise more questions than answers. Clinton has since turned over to the State Department, she says, more than 30,000 work-related emails. Some of those are ones she simply received and could involve the lunch menu in the State Department cafeteria, for instance. But what of the rest?
P.J. Crowley, communications director at the State Department, in 2009 (J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)
“The opposite of the spirit of the law”
In some ways, there’s little new under the sun here. “There’s a long history of secretaries of state not wanting their communications public,” says Nate Jones, the director of the Freedom of Information Act Project at George Washington University’s National Security Archive.
Indeed, while serving overlapping tenures as national security adviser and later secretary of state in the Nixon and Ford White Houses, Henry Kissinger amassed more than 15,000 transcripts of his telephone calls. Many are frank conversations with President Nixon or about the Vietnam War. He destroyed the original tapes, and after he left office in 1977, he claimed the written records as private papers. Some were later turned over the State Department and posted on State.gov, forming a treasure trove of insights into how that administration operated on matters big and small.
At 11:05 a.m. on Oct. 29, 1976, for example, Kissinger had a quick call with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, one in a number of historic backchannel conversations, about computers that the U.S. was newly exporting to the USSR. Dobrynin believed that computers had considerable symbolic value in painting the Soviets as technologically advanced. Kissinger wanted to make sure his Soviet colleague knew what he was getting: something not quite on the cutting edge. “I wanted to tell you on the computer, we have sold you the same computer two years ago,” Kissinger told Dobrynin, adding later: “There is only a slight technical difference with respect to safeguards, which is of no practical consequence.”
Those “Kissinger telcons,” as they’re known, have enormous value for historians; in 2005, Walter Isaacson used them to write his “Kissinger: A Biography.” But Kissinger, during his life, was eager to maintain control over them. During the Carter administration, the Supreme Court ruled that while the 1966 Freedom of Information Act applied, the 1950 Federal Records Act — limited as it was to the work of federal agencies —dictated that only his records compiled in his duties as secretary of state had to be released. (It wasn’t until the post-Watergate Presidential Records Act that presidential papers would formally shift from being the personal property of the president of the United States to belonging to the United States.)
And the fight over the Kissinger papers goes on. On March 4, just as the Clinton email story was breaking, the National Security Archive sued the State Department for delaying the release of some 700 remaining transcripts — 38 years after Kissinger left office.
Today, knowing that all executive branch emails might one day be housed in a searchable, online archive raises concerns about whether such a practice would have a chilling effect on internal debate. David Almacy, the Bush-era White House Internet director, says that the prospect of being read by future audiences was always in the back of his mind. He recalls making sure to record his positions in emails during the Bush administration’s mistake-filled response to Hurricane Katrina.
That was one part making sure that generations to come had a historical record to study for lessons, he says, and one part, he admits with a laugh, covering his posterior for posterity.
In 2012, the Obama White House issued new rules for federal record-keeping, saying, “Records protect the rights and interests of people, and hold officials accountable for their actions. Permanent records document our nation’s history” It’s part of an ongoing effort to make sure those rules keep up with the digital age and an increasingly online government.
Clinton, though, has argued that the laws in place when she was in office allowed what she did. The long-standing Federal Records Act operates in part on a good-faith basis, requiring that the head of each agency preserve a public record “containing adequate and proper documentation of the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, and essential transactions of the agency.” But Clinton allies have argued that it wasn’t until 2014 that the rules were adjusted to specifically include electronic records, including emails.
There’s certainly a lot of wiggle room, and the federal government’s official record-keepers haven’t yet gotten onto firm footing on what to do about emails and other electronic records. The National Archives, for example, still uses a print-to-file system, though since 2005 it was been working on getting its Electronic Records Archives up and running at a federal ballistics lab in Rocket Center, West Virginia. In 2013, the Archives launched Capstone, an optional system that will help agencies archive by focusing on those officials whose emails are most likely worth saving. By 2017, the Obama White House has said, all emails must be stored as electronic records. But the powers-that-be are still struggling to cope with the practical considerations of saving what federal archivists calls “the overwhelming volume of email that Federal agencies produce.”
U.S. President Richard M. Nixon, right, with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger outside the White House in 1973 (Photo: AP Photo)
And in the meantime, say archivists, complying with just the letter of the law isn’t enough. Clinton’s people have argued that to abide by the rules, “it was Secretary Clinton’s practice to email government officials on their ‘.gov’ accounts, so her work emails were immediately captured and preserved.”
No biggie then, right? Not so, says the National Security Archives’ Nate Jones.
To understand why, you have to understand how Freedom of Information Act requests generally work. When a member of the public or the press submits a request to an agency’s FOIA office, he or she is asked to be as specific as possible about the information being hunted. Often requesters are asked to “perfect a request” by naming the senders or recipients involved. And whereas the expectation laid out in the 2014 law cited by Clinton defenders (even though the law formally applies only to presidential staff) is that you’re forwarding a copy to yourself, Clinton, instead, fractured her email trail, scattering it across the email caches of dozens, if not hundreds, of staffers. That has the effect of adding an extra dash of secrecy — not to mention difficulty — to an already challenging process.
“The FOIA shop,” says Jones, “would have to do some real sleuthing. If they can’t search her email, they would have to search the records of everyone she emailed.”
Bear in mind, too, that until very recently, the State Department — like other federal agencies — had no system in place that allowed the automatic archiving of emails . Document-by-document decisions on what required archiving in order to comply with record-keeping lawswere left up to the individual staffer. As Attorney General Eric Holder has told federal employees, “FOIA is everyone’s responsibility.”
That means that Clinton, even if she had used a State.gov address, would have been the official responsible for deciding which of her files to preserve. But what Clinton did was effectively shift the burden of manually archiving those records to her staff, pulling them into the mix and exposing them to potentially unexpected congressional oversight. Rep. Trey Gowdy, the South Carolina Republican leading a committee investigating the 2012 death of a U.S. ambassador in Benghazi, Libya, announced last week that he had subpoenaed the email records of “a number of individuals within the State Department, other than Secretary Clinton.”
Could a good K Street lawyer make the case that Clinton broke no laws on the books nor expressly violated in-house rules? Yes, most likely. But some in the good-government world argue that that’s a pitiful standard.
John Wonderlich is the policy director at the nonpartisan D.C. transparency group called the Sunlight Foundation. “Terms like ‘illegal’ are not always helpful,” he says, arguing that an agent of government can fail to meet the expectations of her position even if she doesn’t break any laws. Says Wonderlich, “What she did was the opposite of the spirit of the law.”
The spirit of the law isn’t one of perfection. Incidental use of personal accounts is, generally speaking, no major offense, the same way that you might use your company’s fax machine to send a permission slip to your kid’s school. But that’s something different from using it to launch a start-up. Anthony Clark is the author of the forthcoming book on presidential libraries called “The Last Campaign.” And from 2009 to 2011, Clark was a legislative director for the Democratic side in the House of Representatives, running a series of congressional investigations on breakdowns in federal record-keeping.
“There are few people who have spent as much time thinking about this topic as I have,” says Clark, and he’s probably right. “And I know of no example of a federal official at any level who only used a personal email account.”
One investigation Clark took part in had to do with a former U.S. deputy chief technology officer named Andrew McLaughlin who, in spring 201o, was reprimanded by the White House, for using a Gmail account in the course of his work.
“One of our employees recently fell short,” John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, wrote in a memo to staff members, adding and underlining for emphasis that “all OSTP-related email communications should be conducted using your OSTP email accounts.”
It’s not likely that Clinton didn’t know she was similarly exposing herself to potential criticism, says Anthony Clark, the presidential library historian. It’s that, having been subject to such extraordinary scrutiny throughout her public life, she made a calculation. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it was the former first lady and future presidential candidate who was the one Cabinet official that we know of who exclusively used personal email accounts. A person in that position is thinking about both legacy and viability.”
“It’s understandable,” says Clark. “But that still doesn’t make it right.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arriving in London in 2015 (Photo: Brian Snyder/AP Photo)
The state of digital democracy
“The federal government is pretty good at giving out what the federal government wants to give out,” says Nate Jones of the National Security Archive. Federal records laws, chief among them the Freedom of Information Act, represent, he says, “the fighting chance for the public to get what it wants from the federal government.”
If there’s a constant, multigenerational battle between politicians’ desire for privacy and the public’s desire to know what is being done in its name, the public is likely coming up short at the moment. And it’s difficult to see how that balance doesn’t get even more skewed as government gets even more digital. Email was invented in 1973, but it is only relatively recently that it has become a building block of governing. For every official presidential email archived by the William J. Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Ark., there are a dozen held by the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas. Indeed, the Bush Library stores 200 million email records — or a remarkable 68,ooo for every single day he was president. And those numbers will no doubt climb as so-called digital natives become national security advisers, chiefs of staff and presidents.
And if they have absolute control over the digital record, it will increasingly serve as absolute control of the historical record.
As for current Secretary of State John Kerry? Those around him report that he is frequent emailer, one who “primarily uses a State.gov account,” says that same State Department spokesperson. “Since around the time he started,” says the spokesperson, “he has had a system in place called ‘journaling’ to capture the emails he sends and receives.” An aide to Kerry regularly captures any personal emails that might have gone astray. But Kerry, too, seems to be among those who dismisses his predecessor’s email practice as a trivial concern.
Kerry was asked about it while in Saudi Arabia to discuss, among other topics, political instability in Yemen. “Let me check on that,” he deadpanned, “when I actually have time to pay attention to such an important issue when I get home.”
To the Sunlight Foundation’s John Wonderlich, the seemingly offhand remark encapsulated a reflexive sense of privilege on the part of a U.S. secretary of state that is both infuriating and depressing. “For him to minimize that is just so frustrating. This is about power. Who gets access to what information is about power.”
A few minutes later on in our conversation, Wonderlich searched for some way of summing up why Hillary Clinton’s emailing is something, regardless of Kerry’s dismissal, deserving of all the attention being paid to it. He eventually comes up with this: “What I keep thinking about is the State Department’s role in building democracy overseas — and how they never would recommend other countries doing things this way.”