There's really a place for private conversations in government.
With the 2016 presidential race off and running, the growing controversy over Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton's prohibited use of a private email account and server to conduct her official business as Secretary of State is certainly not going away soon.
Initially, the controversy centered around whether Clinton set up the account and intentionally violated the Federal Records Act, and even committed a felony in doing so. The law requires federal officials using private email to conduct their business to copy and turn over such correspondence to the National Archives within 20 days.
Writing in National Review, Shannon Coffin said,
Setting up a shadow email server to conduct all official business as Secretary of State is an action plainly undertaken for the purpose of evading federal-records laws. And Clinton was successful at that, avoiding congressional and citizen demands for review of her record during her term in office.
While at that point, the controversy centered on the intent and legality of her use of the account. It could have evolved into a debate about the need and overreaching of the Federal Records Act and a much needed discussion about how the evolution of sunshine laws and obsessive recordkeeping of communications stymies the conduct of good government.
But then came the revelation by her attorney to Congress that there were "no copies" of the emails she sent while Secretary of State, and she later told reporters that she "chose not to keep" her private personal emails.
In other words, Clinton wiped out the entire contents of the email account, which in terms of more primordial communications sent up more red flags ala Richard Nixon's erasing of the White House tapes.
So now that Clinton obviously obstructed the inquiry over her use of personal emails by eliminating them (although they are still floating around out there in cyberspace), more questions about how much Clinton really knew about events and deaths of American diplomats in Benghazi, Libya are reappearing.
Now Clinton has been asked to appear, in private, for an interview with the House committee investigating the Benghazi attacks, which surely continues Clinton down the road of controversy toward calls for the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate both her behavior as Secretary of State and her email deletions.
Public officials, whether they be Hillary Clinton or the local dog catcher, should be able to conduct their official business within a framework that allows for some private discussion and communications, and the lack of record-keeping too.
Like any interaction between fellow individuals, whether it be at work, in a social setting, or at home, there's a place for private talk, correspondence -- and acrimony too -- which in turn makes for better learning and understanding without the constraints of public oversight.
In my personal experience as a county legislator, one of the biggest problems for the Board was the inability to meet as a group in private to hash out differences and have conversations free of the press and the public hanging on every word.
The vaunted quest for open government, and the related goal of preserving all interactions by our public officials, stymies free and thoughtful conduct of our governments as much as it prevents shady private dealings and corrupt activities. There needs to be more common sense applied in how we constrain our public officials.
It's a shame that the fight now is going to center around Clinton's questionable actions to continue to thwart the legal review of her thoughts and actions rather than to debate her right to backchannel as a part of her job as Secretary of State.
Madam Secretary Clinton, as our chief diplomat, should have had the unfettered right to conduct a conversation, either written or oral, particularly in diplomatic circles where secrets are essential to formulate good and lasting policies that can affect our nation for decades.
But the way things stand, the debate over whether Clinton committed a felony a number of times will prevail, particularly as this email controversy knocks her out of an uncontested road to the Democratic nomination.
Published in Context Florida on April 6, 2015
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