A year after Hillary Clinton’s private email system was first disclosed, nearly all of the attention is focused on how many of the previously hidden emails contained classified information and how much legal trouble the former secretary of State and current presidential candidate might be in.
Were the emails sensitive, confidential, secret or top secret? Should they have been considered “classified at birth” or only in retrospect? Did Clinton violate rules or laws governing the handling of classified information? Very quickly, it all gets pretty arcane. No wonder Bernie Sanders said he was sick and tired of hearing about it.
But the original sin is neither complicated nor open to partisan misinterpretation. It involves compliance with the federal open-records law known as the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.
President Obama explained the principle himself on his first day in office in the first line of a presidential order on FOIA: “A democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency.” The same day, Clinton was confirmed as secretary of State. Disregarding the spirit of Obama’s directive, she created a highly unusual private email system that had the effect of shielding her official communications from the public, nosy reporters and her political enemies in Congress.
Clinton argues that was not her intent, that she merely acted out of convenience. But if she had read just two paragraphs into her boss’ memo, she’d have known that her motive was irrelevant: “Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve.” In other words, convenience does not trump openness.
For the next four years, what Obama had ordered should be public was, instead, shrouded in secrecy. Clinton didn’t just ignore the commander in chief, she ignored the FOIA law, which her own party worked mightily to strengthen in the years after President Nixon’s Watergate scandal.
In considering the roots of the Clinton email controversy, it’s worth remembering the old saying that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that people aren’t out to get you.
There can be no doubt that, just as Clinton has alleged, the congressional investigation into the 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was designed in part to score political points against the Obama administration and to damage a future Clinton presidential campaign.
Nevertheless, members of Congress, like reporters and the public, had a right to access Clinton’s emails as part of their investigation regardless of motive. And were it not for the dogged partisanship of Republicans and the actions of a hacker, Clinton’s private email system might never have come to light.
Nine days after the Benghazi attack, Congress asked for any State Department emails related to the subject. It took two years before Congress was given access to a single email from Clinton’s private account. By then, four House committees and two Senate committees had already issued their reports on the issue.
Today, thousands of Clinton’s State Department emails have been published in batches as a result of lawsuits brought by journalists and political activists to enforce FOIA requirements. U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan, a President Clinton appointee, said last month that the “case is about the public’s right to know,” and that the State Department’s handling of Secretary Clinton’s server created at least a “reasonable suspicion” that open-records laws were violated.
Giving ammunition to partisan enemies is not a flaw in the Freedom of Information Act; it’s a necessary byproduct. By shining light on the actions of government officials and exposing these actions to political opponents and journalists alike, the law is designed to encourage public servants to act with integrity. That’s especially worth remembering this Sunshine Week, an annual news industry initiative that promotes openness in government.
The Democratic front-runner’s penchant for secrecy, despite protestations that it was all inadvertent, raises significant questions about her commitment to transparency were she to reach the White House.
USA TODAY’s editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff. Most editorials are coupled with an opposing view — a unique USA TODAY feature.
Tags: accountability, classified information, Clinton email controversy, Clinton Foundation, Clinton’s private email system, Deplorables, doctor's orders, following doctor's orders, Freedom of Information Act, Hillary Clinton's basket of deplorables, Hillary Clinton's ego, Hillary Clinton's emails, Hillary Clinton's health, Hillary Clinton's lies, Hillary Clinton's paranoid fear of the media, Hillary Clinton's paranoid fear of the truth, transparency