LONDON – 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.
In the 43 years since security guard Frank Wills discovered the door taped open by the burglars at the Watergate in Washington, 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.
In response to the Benghazi select committee headed by South Carolina Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy, the State Department recently turned over some 300 emails. But by that time, the department had asked secretaries of state reaching back to Secretary of State 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.
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.
Suzanne Garment, a lawyer, is the author of “Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics.”
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