Politics & Policy

Why the E-Gate Epidemic?

(Mikael Damkier/Dreamstime)
From Petraeus to Hillary, public servants have been trying to manipulate the historical record in their favor.

Former CIA director David Petraeus plea-bargained to a misdemeanor count of unauthorized removal and retention of classified material after having given classified government information to his one-time mistress, Paula Broadwell. How was Petraeus’s transgression uncovered? By exposure of a non-government e-mail account that he had set up to communicate with Broadwell free of CIA scrutiny.

After a series of Democratic scandals in the New York state legislature, Governor Andrew Cuomo is instituting a policy to have the e-mails of state employees automatically deleted after 90 days. Apparently, Cuomo did not want e-trails of politicians’ communications. Meanwhile, the former speaker of the New York state assembly, Sheldon Silver, faces charges of corruption and was forced by subpoena to turn over computer correspondence.

Under the Cuomo plan, a politician like Silver could delay and obfuscate for three months, and then safely assume that almost all of his communications had safely vanished — in a fashion that pre-e-mail politicians could never have imagined.

In December 2012, shortly after the re-election of Barack Obama, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson quietly stepped down without much public notice. Jackson, in apparent violation of the law, had been under federal investigation for fabricating a phony e-mail persona, “Richard Windsor.”

Jackson, using the Windsor persona, communicated in a way that allowed her to skirt federal record-keeping laws. But Jackson not only wished to exchange e-mail beneath the radar of the federal government that employed her, she also wanted to create an alias that might weigh in favorably on her own agency’s policies.

In surreal fashion, Jackson’s self-created Windsor also received an award from the EPA for meritorious service — perhaps the first case of a bureaucrat rewarding her own electronic alter ego.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is now trying to explain away her own e-mail scandal. During her tenure, she may have broken federal laws by creating several personal e-mail accounts on her own private server.

Like Petraeus, Clinton ostensibly sought to avoid leaving an electronic trail that might have allowed the government to have full access to her correspondence, in her case while serving as secretary of state. Earlier, Clinton had issued a cable to State Department employees warning them not to use their personal e-mail accounts for national-security reasons — even though she herself did exactly that.

Clinton even went so far as to create her own private-domain server that in effect allowed her to adjudicate which of her government communications would eventually be deleted and which would be retained.

Consider the controversies that arose and contentious decisions that were made during Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state: failed reset with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the pullout of all U.S. peacekeepers from Iraq and that country’s subsequent implosion, the estrangement from Israel, the killing of U.S. personnel in Benghazi and the scapegoating of an obscure video-maker. In theory, Clinton alone could have chosen to release official or unofficial communications that she found useful and to simply delete those she found problematic — messages that, most likely, only her staff knew existed.

Why, otherwise, would Clinton avoid all standard, required government e-mail accounts to create her own for official business — even with the risk that her shenanigans would be exposed as unsecure, unethical, and potentially unlawful?

In all of these e-mail scandals, the root of the problem is not, as is sometimes alleged, undue government intrusiveness into the private lives of federal officials. After all, the public deserves transparency — even with regard to bureaucrats’ private correspondence, at least while they are in office and communicating as public figures.

Public service is also voluntary. It is usually of a limited nature. And it requires accountability to the public. 

The real problem is that our public servants are using their electronic correspondence to affect their public records — indeed, to massage history itself far more easily than had been done in the pre-computer age.

A CIA director who is entrusted with the nation’s secrets cannot use e-mail to facilitate secret lives in a way that would be difficult with just postage stamps and phone calls.

Jackson created a false identity that enhanced her own reputation in a way that would have been nearly impossible with a typewriter or pencil.

With the aid of high-tech correspondence, Clinton attempted to decide for herself which of her e-mails should be subject to oversight — in a manner difficult for prior secretaries of the pre-electronic age who were forced to leave a clumsy carbon paper trail.

E-mail speeds things up. It expands the power of communications and allows one to message far more people, far more often — and sometimes more stealthily.

Our public servants who get caught up in these electronic scandals are not victims of a new face of intrusive Big Brother. Instead, they are using technology to become a sort of Big Brother themselves.

— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals. You can reach him by e-mailing author@victorhanson.com. © 2015 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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