The Clinton Emails and Proper Digital Records Storage

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Below is a post from Hilary Barlow about the the Clinton email scandal and government digital record storage. If you have an issue you would like to write about for this blog series or a previous post that you would like to respond to, please email archivesissues@gmail.com. Please note that opinions expressed in Archivists on the Issues posts do not indicate an official stance of SAA or the Issues and Advocacy Roundtable.

As Hillary Clinton is now the Democratic nominee for President of the United States, it’s worth remembering that her issues with email are part of the federal government’s checkered history with proper digital record storage. As Secretary of State, Clinton was not the first federal official to hide emails in a private server. In 2007, it came to light the Bush Administration officials did the same thing, with Karl Rove et al holding the bag. But Hillary Clinton’s emails shouldn’t just be a Republican talking point. Even if she isn’t the first, her blatant abuse of proper records practices, along with the inability or disinclination of others to sanction her actions, are a discouraging portent for the future of digital recordkeeping in the highest echelons of American government.

On July 5, FBI Director James Comey revealed that, while he found that Clinton had sent and received confidential information via her private email server, he was not recommending that she be indicted by the Department of Justice. On July 12, Attorney General Loretta Lynch backed Comey’s recommendation. Details about Clinton’s record-keeping practices were already troubling, more specifics have come to light.

It first became apparent that Clinton was using a private email account in March 2013, when a hacker accessed the email of her aide Sidney Blumenthal. The existence of the account received wider attention in the summer of 2014 when the House Select Committee on Benghazi realized that there were no official emails belonging to Clinton in State Department records. Since then, the emails have been a target for anti-Clinton Republicans and an election talking point.

Clinton turned over around 30,000 emails to the State Department in December 2014. Comey revealed on July 5 that many e-mails were lost in transfers from old to new servers, and that his team uncovered e-mails outside of the surrendered 30,000 that had either been lost in those transfers or deleted. Clinton has claimed the deleted emails were personal, which may be true, but since they were taken out of official recordkeeping channels completely history will never know for certain. The provenance of Clinton’s State Department emails is complicated to say the least and permanently so.

In March of 2015, the SAA issued a statement expressing concern at the use of non-governmental e-mails by government officials in general and Clinton in particular. The Council noted 2014 amendments to the Federal Records Act and the Presidential Records Act “to prohibit the use of private email accounts by government officials unless they copy or forward any such emails into their government account within 20 days.”

Though the amendments were finalized after Clinton had completed her term as Secretary of State, there have been questions about whether Clinton violated the Act as it stood during her term, as well as the State Department Foreign Affairs Manual. Comey stated during a House Oversight Committee hearing that he believed Clinton had violated the Federal Records Act, at least “in some respects.” Attorney General Loretta Lynch went a step further than Comey, stating that the Federal Records Act was not under the purview of the investigation.

As President, Clinton would be expected to abide by the 2014 amendments to the Presidential Records Act. Similar to the Federal Records Act amendments, in which government officials are expected to use an official email and forward emails to official channels within 20 days if a personal account is used, the Presidential Records Act puts the burden of compliance is specifically on the President and Vice-President.

Comey noted in his statement to the press on July 5 that while Clinton would not be prosecuted, other individuals could face “security or administrative sanctions” in similar circumstances. The heavy implication is that low-level staff are likely to face consequences that higher-level officials can avoid. This sets a troubling precedent, not only for Clinton’s likely presidential administration, but for digital recordkeeping in the federal government overall. Alongside the Bush Administration email scandal in 2007, there is a bipartisan pattern of misplaced emails. Adding the complacency of both Comey and Lynch creates an overall picture of disregard for these issues.

What can we expect from Hillary Clinton’s administration and future administrations with regard to record-keeping and overall transparency? And no, I don’t think Donald Trump would be better on any of these issues. I shudder to even think of the information practices under his administration, but regardless of who is in the White House this case will set an important precedent. Ultimately, effective documentation thrives in an environment of clear standards, consistent application and a culture of accountability. This is a systemic issue bigger than Hillary Clinton, though her role as a major presidential contender and former Secretary of State should not be underestimated. The weak responses from Comey and Lynch are alarming because of the implications for the culture of accountability in the federal government surrounding these issues, and the pattern they set for future records practices.

One would hope that the 2014 amendments to the Federal Records Act and President Records Act will spur Clinton and others to properly store records for posterity. Since Hillary Clinton has been dogged by the email issue throughout her campaign, perhaps her administration will be more attentive to digital records to avoid future scandal. Personally, I will be very interested in seeing how a Hillary Clinton administration will handle records.

Hilary Barlow earned her Master of Information degree in 2015 from the University of Toronto. She currently works as a Preservation & Digitization Technician at Penn State University.

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