Say, remember when using secret communication strategies was good enough to get Eric Holder to swear out a warrant application naming a reporter as a co-conspirator in espionage? Good times, good times. The Associated Press found out that top officials in the Obama administration have secret e-mail accounts that allow them to operate clandestinely, and that even FOIA demands don’t penetrate the secrecy:
Some of President Barack Obama’s political appointees, including the secretary for Health and Human Services, are using secret government email accounts they say are necessary to prevent their inboxes from being overwhelmed with unwanted messages, according to a review by The Associated Press.
The scope of using the secret accounts across government remains a mystery: Most U.S. agencies have failed to turn over lists of political appointees’ email addresses, which the AP sought under the Freedom of Information Act more than three months ago. The Labor Department initially asked the AP to pay more than $1 million for its email addresses.
The AP asked for the addresses following last year’s disclosures that the former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency had used separate email accounts at work. The practice is separate from officials who use personal, non-government email accounts for work, which generally is discouraged – but often happens anyway – due to laws requiring that most federal records be preserved.
The Obama administration told the AP that there’s nothing untoward about the practice. They claim that any records produced in inquiries includes the secret e-mail accounts, but the AP found only one instance where that proved to be true. Furthermore, oversight committee members on Capitol Hill have never heard about this practice until now:
Agencies where the AP so far has identified secret addresses, including the Labor Department and HHS, said maintaining non-public email accounts allows senior officials to keep separate their internal messages with agency employees from emails they exchange with the public. They also said public and non-public accounts are always searched in response to official requests and the records are provided as necessary.
The AP couldn’t independently verify the practice. It searched hundreds of pages of government emails previously released under the open records law and found only one instance of a published email with a secret address: an email from Labor Department spokesman Carl Fillichio to 34 coworkers in 2010 was turned over to an advocacy group, Americans for Limited Government. It included as one recipient the non-public address for Seth D. Harris, currently the acting labor secretary, who maintains at least three separate email accounts.
Google can’t find any reference on the Internet to the secret address for HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Congressional oversight committees told the AP they were unfamiliar with the non-public government addresses identified so far by the AP.
Who has the secret accounts? So far, the AP has only heard back from Labor and HHS. Labor initially wanted to charge the AP over a million dollars to get the information, hardly a model of transparency and a violation of their own FOIA rules, which prohibits charging news agencies for information. At HHS, both Sebelius and now-former CMS Director Donald Berwick had secret e-mail addresses. At Labor, Harris had three, one of which was secret. The AP has published both e-mail addresses for Sebelius and Harris.
This follows the exposure of “Richard Windsor” as former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson’s e-mail sock-puppet. The EPA, by the way, still hasn’t responded to questions about whether e-mails from the “Richard Windsor” account were produced in FOIA and Congressional requests for information from EPA and Jackson.
The better question is why do these public servants have private accounts? The Obama administration claims it’s because e-mail gets too difficult to handle when the addresses are made public, but that’s nonsense. Cabinet officials have staffs to handle their communications; no one thinks Sebelius has to plow through the mail and e-mail all by herself each morning. This secrecy from the supposedly “most transparent administration ever” is yet another troubling piece of evidence about the nature of this White House and of bloated and unaccountable government in general.