During her brief press conference at the United Nations, Hillary Clinton offered a number of dubious defenses designed to excuse her decision to imperil American diplomatic security to preserve the “convenience” to which the former secretary of state had become accustomed as a U.S. Senator. Among them was her claim that she primarily communicated from her private email with other officials at State who had official accounts. Even though she had used a private email account exclusively, she insisted, most of her emails would have been archived because they were exchanged with State Department officials who used .gov accounts.
In mid-March, a State Department Inspector General review of the agency’s email practices revealed that Clinton’s self-defense might not have the firmest foundation. In 2011, “Department employees created 61,156 record emails out of more than a billion emails sent,” the report concluded. In 2013, fewer than 42,000 emails were preserved.
Still, Clinton could claim to be a victim here. The department she led for four years had shoddy email archiving practices and only barely complied with public transparency laws. Clearly, her defenders would say, she tried to comport with the law by primarily corresponding with officials who used public email accounts, but her good intentions were thwarted by the agency’s bureaucratic corner-cutting.
But a New York Times investigation calls even that claim into question. Of the 300 emails that Clinton turned over to the House select committee investigating the Benghazi attacks, some reportedly show the secretary of state using her private email account to communicate with aides who also used private email systems.
After noting that the secretary may have misled the public about the nature of her casual disregard for the law, The Times made the bizarre observation that Clinton’s emails were composed in a notably circumspect fashion. “Strikingly, given that she has set off an uproar over her emails, Mrs. Clinton is not a verbose correspondent,” The Times report observed. “At times, she sends her highly regarded foreign policy adviser, Jake Sullivan, an email containing a news article, with a simple instruction: Please print.”
It has been quite some time since Americans corresponded over email in the same way that Civil War veterans wrote to their loved ones for what might be the last time; employing flowery prose aboundant with metaphor and allusion to ensure that every letter is an oeuvre. While it might be difficult to envision David McCullough narrating the Clinton experience in a Ken Burns epic culminating in the mundane directive “print this,” that’s how most Americans interact over email. There’s nothing “striking” about it.
What is “striking,” according to the four officials who characterized the 300 emails submitted to the House Benghazi committee, is that Clinton aides Cheryl Mills, Philippe Reines, Huma Abedin, and Sullivan often conducted public business over exclusively private channels.
The scrutiny of how she used email has created the first test of her all-but-announced presidential campaign. At the time she was secretary of state, federal regulations said agencies that allow employees to use private email addresses, “must ensure that federal records sent or received on such systems are preserved in the appropriate agency record-keeping system.”
Nick Merrill, the spokesman for Mrs. Clinton, defended the aides’ use of personal email, saying that it was “their practice to primarily use their work email when conducting state business, with only the tiniest fraction of the more than one million emails they sent or received involving their personal accounts.”
Some may not be satisfied with that explanation or the records Mrs. Clinton has provided. Trey Gowdy, the South Carolina Republican who chairs the House Select Committee on Benghazi, has said he suspected Mrs. Clinton has not turned over all the Benghazi-related emails, and has asked Mrs. Clinton to turn over her server to a neutral party to examine all of her emails, including ones she deleted, to determine if others should be provided to his panel.
Much of The Times report indicates that Clinton’s electronic communications from that period – those to which the House investigators had access — appear to indicate that her conduct during and after the Benghazi attacks was forthright. In making that observation, however, The Times might have exposed even more troubling misconduct by the former secretary of state.