The revelation that top political appointees in President Obama’s administration are using “secret” government email accounts has left influential Republicans salivating at the thought that the exclusive Associated Press story constitutes another White House scandal. But is this another big controversy, or not that big a deal?
Some in the GOP, including U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., are concerned that the “secret” emails may be a violation of the public records law since as emails couldn’t be obtained in investigation because the probers wouldn’t know of their existence.
While the report is certainly newsworthy, it’s not like this hasn't happened before. As the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, pointed out, nonpublished email accounts were used by officials in George W. Bush’s administration.
The center’s blog, ThinkProgress, said at least four Bush administration officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had two government email accounts, with one of those accounts being private. Among the officials who had a private email account was former EPA head Christine Todd Whitman, the former governor of New Jersey (email@example.com and Whitman.Christine@epa.gov.) The blog learned of the separate email addresses simply by contacting the EPA.
“The AP story gives the impression that this is unprecedented, making no mention of the use of multiple addresses by previous administrations,” ThinkProgress noted.
Obama Press Secretary Jay Carney also said the exclusive was not earth-shattering news and took issue with the AP headline for the story: “Top Obama Appointees Using Secret Email Accounts.”
“There’s nothing secret,” Carey told the AP. He acknowledged that some Obama appointees had two government email addresses, but that the private accounts were used so they wouldn’t be inundated with messages from the public.
The AP story indicated that an Obama cabinet member, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, was among the officials with a so-called secret email account. Her private address was identified by the AP as KGS2@hhs.gov. Her public account is Kathleen.Sebelius@hhs.gov.
Kel McClanahan, executive director of the open government group National Security Counselors, told the news wire service that the separate email accounts can give the appearance that officials are trying to be deceitful.
"What happens when that person doesn't work there anymore? He leaves and someone makes a request [to review emails] in two years," McClanahan said. "Who's going to know to search the other accounts? You would hope that agencies doing this would keep a list of aliases in a desk drawer, but you know that isn't happening."
But ThinkProgress said that’s not an issue and that Alexander’s concern that Obama officials may be breaking the public-records law has no merit.
“[T]he release of [the EPA] information shows that both the public and private email addresses are public record and that any legitimate [Freedom of Information Act] request or subpoena for records would include those sent to and from both addresses,” ThinkProgress wrote.