Was It Wrong for Hillary Clinton to Use Private Email?

Frontrunner for 2016 Democratic presidential nomination is under fire for use of private email while serving as secretary of state. Why?

The Associated Press
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Hillary Clinton speaking at a women's equality event in New York on March 9, 2015.
Hillary Clinton speaking at a women's equality event in New York on March 9, 2015.Credit: AFP
The Associated Press

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, widely considered the frontrunner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, has been taking heat for her use of a private email account for all official business as U.S. President Barack Obama's secretary of state from 2009 to 2013.

So... Is there something wrong with that? Well, it does raise a few questions:

Was Clinton's email too secret?

A private account could have allowed her to withhold or destroy messages that she's legally required to turn over for congressional investigations or lawsuits or to make available to the public, the press and historians under open-records law.

Was Clinton's email too exposed?

A private email server may have left her sensitive government communications more vulnerable to people who shouldn't see them, such as hackers and spies, because it lacked the heavy security of government accounts.

The answers are fuzzy.

Clinton says she's turned over all relevant emails to the State Department. The House committee investigating the deadly attack on a diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, has issued subpoenas seeking messages that might not have been divulged.

Clinton hasn't released any information about her email server and its security features. Private email servers are generally not as reliable or secure as those used by the government or in commercial data centers.

Clinton aides and the State Department both say she never received or transmitted classified information on her private account.

What's different about Clinton's email?

She did all her official work as the nation's top diplomat using a personal email account. Federal officials are generally expected to use their agencies' email systems — the kind of addresses that have ".gov" at the end.

Clinton didn't use a commercial email server, like Google operates for Gmail, either. She had her own email server, traced to her hometown in Chappaqua, New York. The address: hdr22@clintonemail.com.

Prior secretaries of state also used nongovernment email for work at times, or avoided using email much at all. Indeed, the State Department says the current secretary, John Kerry, is the first to have an official "@state.gov" address like other employees use routinely.

The volume of the Clinton documents — she's turned over 55,000 pages — makes her use of personal email more striking.

Did Clinton break the law?

That's to be determined. Her aides say no.

Her use of private email appears to conflict with the spirit of Barack Obama's pledge to make his presidency the most open ever. She stands out even in an administration that has been criticized as failing to live up to that promise.

However, Obama didn't sign a law requiring the archiving of officials' emails, including those on private accounts, until last November. Clinton left the State Department two years ago.

Even back when she was in office, according to the White House, it was administration policy for officials to conduct their work on government email accounts. If their work strayed into personal emails, officials were responsible for making sure those messages were preserved for history.