Hillary Clinton’s claim that most work-related emails sent from her personal account were preserved in the electronic files of other State Department officials fell apart Friday.
After a week of deflecting questions about how emails were handled during Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state, the agency finally acknowledged that the email traffic of other senior officials was not automatically or routinely archived.
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The loose record-keeping practices, which were immediately criticized by historians and open government advocates, are only now being corrected.
“It’s very troubling,” said Nate Jones of the National Security Archive, a non-profit group which gathers and disseminates declassified government records. “People in the community of recordkeepers and historians had known that our history was at risk for a long time….It’s a wake up call, I think, for the public at large, which assumed everyone had Gmail capabilities and didn’t realize how backward the government was.”
The practices raise the possibility that many messages of historical importance were destroyed unless individual officials made a practice of saving their emails or printing out paper copies.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said it would be incorrect to call the emails destroyed since some might be retrievable through technology. But she acknowledged that regular archiving of the work email in-boxes of senior officials besides the secretary did not begin until “February of this year.”
“I wouldn’t state it’s ‘lost to history’ because there are technical means of gaining access to past information,” Psaki said. “I’m not an expert on the technical capabilities.”
Clinton had said at a news conference Tuesday that she believed the vast majority of work-related emails she sent or received from the private account, linked to a server at her New York residence, were “immediately captured and preserved” because she was in correspondence with other officials using “.gov” accounts.
But in another day of intense questioning from reporters, Psaki said automatic archiving began just last month for “dozens” of top officials – such as deputy secretaries, under secretaries and assistant secretaries. “Our goal is to apply this to all employee mailboxes by the end of 2016,” she said.
The state spokeswoman previously said Secretary of State John Kerry uses an official account and his emails have been archived since soon after he succeeded Clinton.
A Clinton spokesman had no comment on the department’s disclosure.
However, some transparency advocates said it’s now incumbent on the former secretary and likely 2016 presidential candidate to explain why she thought she was preserving her emails simply because they were sent to someone with a “.gov” address.
NEW YORK – MARCH 10: Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks to the media after keynoting a Women’s Empowerment Event at the United Nations March 10, 2015 in New York City. Clinton answered questions about recent allegations of an improperly used email account during her tenure as secretary of state. (Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty Images)
“She spoke as if she could just roll along with the firm expectation and belief that at least the ‘vast majority’ were being ‘handled’ in that way. From whence did that come? That’s the question that arises now,” said former Justice Department Office of Information and Privacy Director Dan Metcalfe, who now teaches on secrecy issues at American University’s law school. “What was her foundation for even that? Did someone incorrectly tell her that that was happening, or did she incorrectly make such a self-serving assumption?”
Psaki also revealed Friday that the department “recently” requested copies of work-related emails some current and former State officials had sent or received on private accounts. She said she believed the letter requesting such records was sent earlier this week and was related to investigations underway on Capitol Hill.
“There have obviously been requests from Congress for certain information,” Psaki said. She did not immediately have details on how widely the department’s request for current and former officials was distributed.
Clinton sent copies of 55,000 pages of emails to the State Department in December in response to a letter sent in October to her and three other former secretaries seeking copies of work-related records held in private accounts. State is now processing those emails for public release under Freedom of Information Act standards.
Clinton also said Tuesday that she disposed of about 32,000 emails on the same account after her lawyers determined the messages were personal in nature.
Psaki declined to answer reporters’ repeated questions about whether the department was satisfied with Clinton’s explanation for her use of a private email account as secretary.
Later in the briefing, however, Psaki suggested that there was confusion among some State Department employees about what was and was not being automatically saved.
“I assume some assumed that was happening at the time as well,” Psaki said. “We’re updating it because it’s an imperfect system.”
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