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Editorial: Email scandal is all about transparency

Last modified: 3/8/2015 12:52:36 AM
Before H.R. Haldeman’s first day as President Richard Nixon’s chief of staff in January 1969, he was urged by a friend and political scholar to keep a diary. It didn’t take much convincing for Haldeman to realize that his unique access to the president and his aides would be invaluable to historians, and he agreed to undertake the task. So every night, he recorded either by hand or dictaphone the events, large and small, of the day, and stored the tapes and notes in a White House office for safe keeping.

In April 1973, the Watergate scandal brought an end to Haldeman’s tenure and, subsequently, his journal. As he gathered his things in his office under the watchful eye of FBI agents, he was told to leave the diary where it was. His observations, regardless of how personal, belonged to the government. It would be years before he would be given access to his own notes.

Four decades later, as Hillary Clinton finds herself accused of ignoring the Federal Records Act, the idea of a government official not having complete control over observations and information related to his or her professional responsibilities seems almost quaint.

On Monday, the New York Times reported that Clinton used a personal email account to conduct her duties as secretary of state from 2009 to 2013. On Tuesday, the Times wrote that Clinton’s use of the private account shielded her from requests for information filed with the State Department, including from congressional investigators looking into the Benghazi attack. On Wednesday, the Associated Press said that Clinton not only used a private email account, she actually operated her own email server from her home in Chappaqua, N.Y.

And down, down the rabbit hole we go.

A Clinton spokesman told the Times that she has complied with the “letter and spirit of the rules,” which is the united defensive posture of Team Clinton. Over the next days and weeks, they will focus on the timeline of the Federal Records Act and say this or that amendment wasn’t signed into law until after Clinton stepped down as secretary of state. The thing is, none of that matters. Or at least it shouldn’t to voters.

Claims that they “adhered to the spirit of the rules” is a game of intellectual dishonesty too many politicians enjoy playing. What they are really saying is that anybody with even moderate reading comprehension skills understands the meaning of the law, but by employing a team of lawyers, the language itself can be muddied and removed by degrees from its intent. The bottom line is that a secretary of state should understand the importance of preserving correspondence not only for the historical record but for the transparency that is crucial to a representative democracy.

Unfortunately, Clinton’s disregard for transparency seems to be in line with the philosophy of the Obama administration, which has excelled at exemptions, foot-dragging and extensive redacting when it comes to Freedom of Information Act requests.

For those who greet this kind of secrecy with a shrug and say, “It’s no big deal,” consider this year-old assessment from Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, as reported by the Associated Press: “I’m concerned the growing trend toward relying upon FOIA exemptions to withhold large swaths of government information is hindering the public’s right to know. It becomes too much of a temptation. If you screw up in government, just mark it top secret.”

The availability of information to the public – at the local, state and federal levels – is trending in the wrong direction and has been for a long time. That is the problem with Hillary Clinton’s private email account. If the yawning divide between the people and those who represent them continues to grow, the vision of democracy we attribute to the nation’s founders will take on the feeling of a fleeting dream.


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