Sunshine Week, created by journalists to highlight “the public’s right to know what its government is doing, and why," starts Sunday. But the glare began sooner, and may last longer, for likely presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton.
On Tuesday, the former first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state used a United Nations backdrop to face an international press corps eager to hear her comment on the controversy surrounding the use of personal e-mail while she was America’s top diplomat. The news, of course, comes in the context of the 2016 campaign. But it transcends politics and is equally about governance, diplomacy, journalism and the public’s right to know. Sunshine, in other words.
It’s disappointing that Clinton’s clouded judgment led her to ignore an October 2009 regulation from the National Archives and Records Administration that, according to the New York Times, stated that agencies where workers were able to use private e-mail “must ensure that federal records sent or received on such systems are preserved in the appropriate record-keeping system.”
Clinton didn’t. Instead, according to a Washington Post analysis, about half of the 62,320 e-mails sent or received during Clinton’s tenure were deleted.
“What we learned from [Clinton’s] response was merely a series of political messages more than any real clarification of what happened,” said John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit government and political accountability and transparency organization. “The most surprising revelation to me is that the remainder of e-mails were deleted very recently. … The intention seems to be to avoid any kind of risk or exposure and to very closely manage how her communications were given to Congress or the media or anyone else.”
The disappearance of e-mail gives the appearance that Clinton was controlling information that journalists — and, most important, the public — have a right to know.
“This isn’t an abstract question about record keeping that only a librarian would care about. This is about power,” Wonderlich said.
And power needs to be checked by the press, among other institutions, said Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a journalism educational organization. “We live in a system where in general people in power often do their best to keep secrets that the public should know about, and it’s the job of journalists in their watchdog role to shine a light in those dark corners,” Clark said. “I think in a highly polarized political culture that openness and transparency are more important than ever. Every time a government official tries to conduct public business in the shadows, you can count on the fact that there is no noble intent behind it.”
These shadows may have obscured “stories that should have been told,” Wonderlich said. Citizens deserve to know, and journalists are certainly still interested, as evidenced by an Associated Press (AP) lawsuit filed a day after Clinton’s news conference. The AP is seeking release of e-mails and documents dating from Clinton’s tenure at the State Department. The news service said that repeated requests filed under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act have gone unfulfilled, including one from five years ago.
“The press is a proxy for the people, and AP will continue its pursuit of vital information that’s in the public interest through this action and future records requests,” Karen Kaiser, AP’s general counsel, said in a statement.
Beyond journalism and the public it serves, sunshine is essential for diplomatic success.
“E-mails and cables and notes by the secretary of state which document our nation’s foreign policy in a dangerous world, those are essential not just in history, but to her successors to know what was said to whom, and what needs to be followed up on,” said Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, a nongovernmental organization based at George Washington University. “It’s essential to the department to know what next has to be done. It’s required by the law to be kept for history. So it’s a deterrent effect against bad behavior. That’s one of the fundamental insights of the American constitutional system, is that when you presume disclosure … that really deters the kind of corruption and off-the-books behavior you see in so many countries and even occasionally our own.”
The deleted e-mails may, or may not, be revealing. They may, or may not, say a lot about Clinton, her husband and their foundation, which like everything else associated with the former first family is often dogged by controversy. Conversely, they may reinforce an image of a determined diplomat trying to protect and project U.S. values and interests. But it shouldn’t be just up to Clinton to decide who views the e-mails.
Clark called the entire episode disappointing. “When you think about a public servant whose record is as admirable as Hillary Clinton’s, you want to think that they would prosper in an environment of open government and transparency. You don’t want to think that you’re watching another episode of ‘House of Cards.’ ”
Perhaps most important, Clinton’s conduct means that at a time of increasing international and domestic threats, much of the sunlight in the presidential race will shine on the past instead of the future.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.