The real lesson from the Hillary Clinton email imbroglio

March 6, 2015
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton checks her mobile phone before a conference at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in London

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton checks her mobile phone before a conference at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London, March 29, 2011. REUTERS/Stefan Rousseau/pool

The big political news of the moment is that Hillary Clinton, while she was secretary of state, conducted the people’s business from a private, likely non-secure email account. It was used for everything, as the New York Times explained in breaking the story, from foreign affairs to Clinton Foundation enterprises to planning Chelsea’s wedding.

Commentary has focused on what all of this says about the Clintons’ penchant for secrecy, their habit of skirting the rules and what insiders call their “unforced error” in allowing such an embarrassment to happen.

But that stuff is probably the least interesting of the lessons here. More important is what the current flap says about the tension between the drive for transparency and the instinct for privacy, the way in which government growth has outrun legal limitations, and the irreducible ways in which principles are bound up with partisanship.

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President Richard M. Nixon during a press conference on Watergate. REUTERS/Nixon Library

In the 43 years since security guard Frank Wills discovered the door taped open by the burglars at the Watergate in Washington, D.C., ethically sensitive people have agreed that transparency in government is a Good Thing. Because of this consensus, meetings have been opened to the public, documents have been preserved and Freedom of Information Act requests have become standard procedure for journalists and interest groups.

It is hard for us to remember that much of what we now call “secret,” with all its connotations of security classifications and presumptive illegitimacy, used to be thought of as simply private. There were things that did not have to be kept especially secret because no one would have thought of divulging them to the public.

A friend who held a high State Department position in science and technology once told me about reading the minutes of a meeting of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s senior science advisers.

“It was amazing,” he said, “the unvarnished things these people said because they were confident their remarks would never be in the newspapers.”

By the time my friend told me this story, bureaucratic communications had changed. “You get a memo,” he explained, “and you want to comment. You don’t write the comment on the memo, because the comment becomes part of the public record. So, you put the comment on a Post-It Note and send it to the next guy, who reads it and throws the Post-It Note away.”

So much for the historical record — and for the idea that you can force people to make their private thoughts public. Leave aside the question of whether it is a good idea to do so. If you try, you may be sure that those people will find ways around your high-mindedness.

They will use Post-It Notes. They will establish private email domains. They will do business verbally instead of in writing. The public record they create will be sanitized into something incomprehensible that requires a machine designed by Alan Turing to decode.

Which brings us to the size of that public record. The issue is not just whether particular pieces of government information are classified or unclassified. More important is that expanding governments — state and local as well as federal — produce so damn much of it. As historians Matthew Connelly and Richard H. Immerman recently pointed out in a New York Times op-ed article, the State Department alone produces 2 billion pieces of e-mail a year.

Rep. Trey Gowdy interrogates IRS Commissioner John Koskinen in Washington

Representative Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) in Washington, Monday June 23, 2014. REUTERS/James Lawler Duggan

In response to the Benghazi select committee headed by Representative Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), the State Department recently turned over some 300 emails. But by that time, the department had asked secretaries of state reaching back to Madeline Albright to produce private emails as well, so that the relevant ones could be added to the public record. In response, Clinton’s lawyers have turned over some 50,000 emails from her private account.

The State Department says it will now search the e-mails for material responsive to the select committee’s request. “I want the public to see my e-mails,” Clinton tweeted late Wednesday night. “I asked State to release them.” The State Department says the review of those emails will take months.

Good luck to them. In fact, good luck to anyone trying to comb through the many thousands of pages of documents that the emails represent. The amount of real and virtual paper produced by government has increased at a pace that far outstrips anyone’s ability to put it in order, let alone make it intelligible.

Connelly and Immerman suggest that mitigating the mess calls for less secrecy and more transparency. Officials should not be allowed to classify a piece of information, they say, without declassifying another piece. Classifying something that should not be classified should be an offense as serious as unauthorized disclosure of information that is properly classified. If the executive branch cannot do the job, Congress should step in.

With all due respect, the problem is far bigger than that.

Unless and until technology saves us, we will keep drowning in this information, classified and unclassified. It will be extremely difficult to find out whether something scandalous has gone on if we have to search through the hundred-thousandth document in the last box in order to find it.

Which, in turn, brings us to the misuses and uses of partisanship, both low and high. It is hard to motivate anyone to plough through those hundreds of thousands of documents, but one of the most effective means of doing so is the hope of finding out something damaging about your opponents.

They need not be members of the opposing political party or even adherents of an opposing ideology — they can just be people who you believe have violated some very important principle.

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President Richard M. Nixon gives his farewell speech to members of his Cabinet and staff in the East Room of the White House, following his resignation August 9, 1974. REUTERS/FILE PHOTO.

It is safe to say that, in one sense or another, Clinton is an opponent of Gowdy. It is also safe to say that Gowdy is a very skilled and determined prosecutor with considerable resources at his disposal. If the puzzle of the Clinton emails and Benghazi is going to be solved, you would bet on his select committee as the vehicle for doing it.

Is this good or bad? If the search for transparency is a means to get the goods on your opponent, does the motive de-legitimize the exercise — creating a “manufactured controversy,” as a Clinton spokesman has put it?

That has been and remains the post-Watergate dilemma: The quest for transparency has almost always been a partisan one; and this fact, perhaps more than any other, prevents us from taking a proper measure of the balance we should strike between privacy and disclosure.

Welcome to the latest round.

17 comments

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Sorry, the REAL lesson is whether or not we want someone who treats her public position as a private matter setting the standard as president.

Also, two FYIs: Clinton turned over 55k pages of email, not 55k emails. With strings of forwards and possible attachments, that can make a big difference.

Clinton turned over 55k printed pages, adding another hassle to any electronic searching and hiding all metadata. Makes a difference.

Posted by WeMeantWell | Report as abusive

What would you do after being personally attacked and investigated for 20+ years?
The GOP MO attack first, then search for anything to support supposed wrong doing.

Posted by Amwatching2c | Report as abusive

I am a lifelong Democrat, whose first Presidential vote was for McGovern in 1972, and who in later years voted for Carter, Dukakis, Clinton, Kerry and Obama. I am also a retired US Department of State Senior Foreign Service Officer of 35-plus years and presently find myself once again working there.

Your article explores a number of legitimate issues. But your exploration cannot hide or diminish the fact that State’s rules require ALL staff to use their @state.gov account for official business. Hillary’s not doing so exposes her once again — and confirms for many neutral observers — “the Clintons’ penchant for secrecy, their habit of skirting the rules…….” This tendency and her exaggerated sense of entitlement are the reasons I could not support her in 2008. Her insularity at State and the inadequacies of some of the schedule C (political appointees) she brought with her to State in 2009 cause me to look for another Democratic candidate in 2016.

Posted by Giacomo51 | Report as abusive

http://harpers.org/blog/2008/01/the-emai ls-that-dick-cheney-deleted/

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

She has decided the rules do not apply to her. Her own private email server? How many foreign governments responded to her emails with $$?

Posted by EdwardMax | Report as abusive

The real lesson is that anything other than real information will be used to distract the American people from reality and real issues. This is a nonsense story that means nothing.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Nonsense?! This story highlights the deviousness of hillary and her ilk to conduct the nations business “off the record” to hide their malfeasance.
“Secret” Government is here…

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

Definitely fits the bill of a manufactured controversy.

Posted by Sal20111 | Report as abusive

Politicians … if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. You serve … not rule.

Posted by aeci | Report as abusive

Reuters, totally biased and not credible. Go get your news somewhere else.

Posted by coughmaster | Report as abusive

the real lesson is:

she is a politician. like some many politicians before her, she has come to regard her activities and actions as exempt from policy, decency and law because . . . well, because she’s famous and privileged and a politician and the rules do not apply to her. see rock stars.

people who live in security provided glass houses, don’t drive, don’t shop, don’t have to get to work, don’t have to deal with life’s little issues simply loose touch – eventually coming to the conclusion their little super-privileged world is of course how everyone lives.

Posted by Breadie | Report as abusive

Hillary’s lack of ethics — conflicts of interest while SOS vs fundraising — turning a blind eye to her husband’s use of the oval office as a place to abuse a young employee — has much to do w/ my loss of enthusiasm for her. It’s ridiculous to imagine her behaving w/ more sense than she repeatedly lacks —— oh yes, she’s a heavy drinker —– give her the reins of the free world? What fantasy plan do you follow when you depend on people you cannot trust?

Posted by TigerFalls | Report as abusive

Hillary’s lack of ethics — conflicts of interest while SOS vs fundraising — turning a blind eye to her husband’s use of the oval office as a place to abuse a young employee — has much to do w/ my loss of enthusiasm for her. It’s ridiculous to imagine her behaving w/ more sense than she repeatedly lacks —— oh yes, she’s a heavy drinker —– give her the reins of the free world? What fantasy plan do you follow when you depend on people you cannot trust?

Posted by TigerFalls | Report as abusive

On a higher level, human’s strive for material advances (read: technology) trumps our strive for humanity. We’ve learned how to send the machines to Space, but we still don’t care much about removing our sh.t from there… let alone our own planet.

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

Where is Ken Starr, Goudy is a light weight hatchetman who probably couldn’t find a Blue Dress for Mrs Clinton to wear for her Inauguration.

Posted by Amwatching2c | Report as abusive

I think some important points are being missed. This attack on Hil began from the Left, not the Right. The NYT was the lead this story. It comes as details are emerging on the increasing alarm among D’s as to their national situation. Their own analysis shows them looking at 3 more election cycles before they can START to think about retaking the House.

The Personalization of the Party, by Bill and by Barry, has been a disaster. Obama WAS on the ballot last November, and the results were a catastrophe. He may hear the voices of the non-voting, but that don’t translate into winnable agenda. Hillary is perfectly willing and capable of consuming every bit of Dem resource for her campaign, with the result being an even larger hole for the rest of the party.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

Despite everything, Mike Barnicle sticks by their inherent “goodness.”
“As for Barnicle, the Clintons’ noted pattern of dishonesty has done nothing to shake is conviction that ‘[t]hey’re good people.’ They just ‘do not lead a normal life.’ – See more at: http://newsbusters.org/blogs/bryan-balla s/2015/03/06/msnbc-mike-barnicle-blames- hillarys-decades-long-security-bubble-he r#sthash.hqbGXDfc.dpuf

Posted by epipen | Report as abusive