• Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Subscribe
  • RSS

AP: Administration Officials Using Secret Email Addresses

email

The Associated Press is reporting that many top Obama Administration officials are apparently using “secret” email accounts:

WASHINGTON (AP) – Some of President Barack Obama’s political appointees, including the secretary for Health and Human Services, are using secret government email accounts they say are necessary to prevent their inboxes from being overwhelmed with unwanted messages, according to a review by The Associated Press.

The scope of using the secret accounts across government remains a mystery: Most U.S. agencies have failed to turn over lists of political appointees’ email addresses, which the AP sought under the Freedom of Information Act more than three months ago. The Labor Department initially asked the AP to pay more than $1 million for its email addresses.

The AP asked for the addresses following last year’s disclosures that the former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency had used separate email accounts at work. The practice is separate from officials who use personal, non-government email accounts for work, which generally is discouraged – but often happens anyway – due to laws requiring that most federal records be preserved.

The secret email accounts complicate an agency’s legal responsibilities to find and turn over emails in response to congressional or internal investigations, civil lawsuits or public records requests because employees assigned to compile such responses would necessarily need to know about the accounts to search them. Secret accounts also drive perceptions that government officials are trying to hide actions or decisions.

“What happens when that person doesn’t work there anymore? He leaves and someone makes a request (to review emails) in two years,” said Kel McClanahan, executive director of National Security Counselors, an open government group. “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.”

Agencies where the AP so far has identified secret addresses, including the Labor Department and HHS, said maintaining non-public email accounts allows senior officials to keep separate their internal messages with agency employees from emails they exchange with the public. They also said public and non-public accounts are always searched in response to official requests and the records are provided as necessary.

The AP couldn’t independently verify the practice. It searched hundreds of pages of government emails previously released under the open records law and found only one instance of a published email with a secret address: an email from Labor Department spokesman Carl Fillichio to 34 coworkers in 2010 was turned over to an advocacy group, Americans for Limited Government. It included as one recipient the non-public address for Seth D. Harris, currently the acting labor secretary, who maintains at least three separate email accounts.

Google can’t find any reference on the Internet to the secret address for HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Congressional oversight committees told the AP they were unfamiliar with the non-public government addresses identified so far by the AP.

Ten agencies have not yet turned over lists of email addresses, including the Environmental Protection Agency; the Pentagon; and the departments of Veterans Affairs, Transportation, Treasury, Justice, Housing and Urban Development, Homeland Security, Commerce and Agriculture. All have said they are working on a response to the AP.

As the article notes, this practice is different from the problem that has arisen at both the state and federal levels in recent years of public officials using private email accounts to conduct official business. This becomes a problem because it is often seen, and indeed may well be, as an effort to get around the laws that require all official communications to be archived. At the Federal level, the applicable law is the Presidential Records Act, which requires all official communications and other documents that are produced by the Executive Branch to be archived and, at the end of a given President’s time in office, turned over to the National Archives for proper archiving. When employees use personal email to conduct official business, they break the chain and make it far more difficult for proper records to be maintained. Indeed, use of a private email address likely means that the communications will remain secret.

In this particular case, there are two issues. The first one is whether these “secret” email addresses will themselves end up being covered by the Executive Branch’s archiving procedures. As the article notes, if an Executive Branch appointee or employee who has one of these accounts leaves, what guarantee is there that anyone is going to be aware of the existence of this “secret” account and make sure that it is properly archived. Similarly, as the article notes, the existence “secret” email accounts raises the possibility that information that ought to be subject to a Freedom of Information Act request or a subpoena will be missed.

On some level, I can understanding the reason why top level officials might want a second email address for their communications. Cutting down communications to only the most important email is something that everyone who uses email has struggled with for several years now. I’m even willing to accept that there’s nothing nefarious about what’s going on here. However, it raises too many questions too be acceptable and, politically, it’s yet another nail in the coffin that is President Obama’s campaign promise to have a “transparent” Administration.

Related Posts:

About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. george says:

    Actually I’d be surprised if they didn’t. Its pretty standard procedure for people in any corporation who have both a public and a private face.

    And tracking it shouldn’t be a problem, because the email addresses and accounts all still live on the servers – the IT department will be aware of them (unless those officials are acting as their own IT support, including running servers etc, which I doubt).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 1

  2. nitpicker says:

    Oh, bulls**t. Unless you can find proof you griped about this when the Bush administration did the same thing, this whole post is just more proof of how you’re becoming a reliable Republican hack (no matter your actual party).

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 11 Thumb down 9

  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    what guarantee is there that anyone is going to be aware of the existence of this “secret” account and make sure that it is properly archived.

    Outside of every one who ever sends anything to this “secret” e-mail account you mean?

    I understand the concern of making sure everything is properly archived, but when the AP is reporting about them, I don’t think “secret” is the proper word to describe them anymore.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  4. john personna says:

    Very funny Doug. You are honest enough to say it is no big deal, and then you say but it will damage the administration … because “I blame Obama!”

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 17 Thumb down 0

  5. john personna says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    It sounds like “public” and “internal” email accounts, where are indeed no big deal.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  6. Rob in CT says:

    Clearly this was part of Obama’s PsyOps assault on America!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  7. Tony W says:

    This is nonsense. Do you think corporate CEOs sit around and read the e-mail that comes to their publicly-advertised addresses? Don’t you think there might be a “secret” way for colleagues and direct reports to e-mail them?

    This is nothing more than a continuation of a silly hunting trip, seeking some sort of scandal to pin on the administration. As has been mentioned before on this forum, whenever there is a legitimate scandal it is likely the American public will simply ignore it because of all this wolf-crying.

    Whatever happened to the concept of a loyal opposition?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 1

  8. stonetools says:

    I think Doug himself knows this is BS.Had the AP used the word “private” instead of “secret” it wouldn’t even be news.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 0

  9. Tim D. says:

    This would sound terrifying… if I had never had a job and never used email before.

    I would be shocked if this weren’t the case, actually. Seems like good management practice to make sure top officials can communicate effectively and not be overwhelmed by spam. As long as it’s a .gov address there should be no transparency issues. Pretty much a nonsense story.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0

  10. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    Here’s the part of the story you’re missing here: EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson didn’t just use a fake e-mail address, she created an entirely fictitious EPA employee named “Richard Windsor” under whose name she conducted official business. The intent was obvious: they wouldn’t have to turn over any e-mails involving “Richard Windsor” unless they were asked for by name, and since he didn’t exist, no one would think to ask for them.

    They slipped up, though, and a couple got out, letting the cat out of the bag.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 8

  11. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @nitpicker: Oh, bulls**t. Unless you can find proof you griped about this when the Bush administration did the same thing, this whole post is just more proof of how you’re becoming a reliable Republican hack (no matter your actual party).

    Oh, bullshit right back. Note that “Richard Windsor” was awarded certificates as a “scholar of ethical behavior.” This was an entire fictitious identity Jackson set up, not just an alternate e-mail address. That ThinkProgress story is just typical Soros-funded left-wing propaganda.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 10

  12. john personna says:

    Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution links to a a very interesting study on irrational beliefs today.

    Basically what they find is that people partisans will claim all kinds of things, but then when you offer them a reward, they back off:

    They ran two experiments. In the first, they split respondents into two groups: Those in the control group were asked basic factual questions about politics; those in the treatment group were asked the same questions but were entered into a raffle for an Amazon gift card wherein their chances depended on how many questions they got right.

    In the control group, the authors find what Bartels, Nyhan and Reifler found: There are big partisan gaps in the accuracy of responses.

    Basically this explains all the crazy stuff we see at blogs like OTB.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  13. mantis says:

    Why does Jay Tea’s puppet Jenos link to Brietbart instead of a real news organization? Because he would then be linking to details such as this:

    “For more than a decade, EPA administrators have been assigned two official, government-issued email accounts: a public account and an internal account,” EPA said in a statement to POLITICO. “The email address for the public account is posted on EPA’s website and is used by hundreds of thousands of Americans to send messages to the administrator. The internal account is an everyday, working email account of the administrator to communicate with staff and other government officials.”

    High-ranking officials from George W. Bush’s EPA agree that the arrangement is nothing new, and say they were never under the impression that the internal account was a secret. Senior EPA leadership and EPA regional administrators had the email address, as did anyone to whom the administrator provided it, and the messages were all considered part of the public record.

    When it comes to public records and FOIA requests, “both the public and internal accounts are reviewed for responsive records, and responsive records from both accounts are provided to FOIA requesters,” EPA said.

    Nice try, chuckles.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 1

  14. JKB says:

    Well, the devil is in the details.

    Just internal, not really a problem. Although, those usually are in the person’s name but with some private indicator to make it unique.

    But this being government, if some of those with business before the agency had the private email while it was not made available to others, then that’s what you call a problem. And a nice political scandal.

    So they can easily sort this out, just provide a “pen register” of who was talking to whom. No need for content of the communications. But why would they be wanting to keep who they were corresponding with a “secret”?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 8

  15. john personna says:

    @mantis:

    Why does Jay Tea’s puppet Jenos link to Brietbart instead of a real news organization?

    I didn’t really tie it in, but that’s what the Alex Tabarrok [article is all about]. The answer is that (1) his post costs him nothing, (2) it gives him some partisan feel-goods, and (3) the inaccuracy of his post has no downside for him.

    [If he doesn't have the internal constraint to be honest, we can't give it to him.]

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 1

  16. john personna says:

    @JKB:

    Any reasonable search software, looking for conversations about John Doe, will bring up all accounts.

    If they started giving each other code names and using dead drops that would be something else, but nothing in this story suggests that the private accounts have obfuscated identities.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  17. JKB says:

    @Tony W: Do you think corporate CEOs sit around

    So are you saying we should consider government officials in the same manner as the much maligned corporate executive? So corporations are good now? I can’t keep up with the fickleness of opinion regarding corporations.

    And let’s not forget corporate CEOs are conducting private corporate business and are not required to ensure all citizens receive equal treatment under the laws and regulations.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 8

  18. rodney dill says:

    …as long as they don’t start using double secret emails.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  19. john personna says:

    @rodney dill:

    Please do not post while on probation.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  20. When discussing internal accounts, please note that these are know accounts, easily subject to FOIA requests, and directly linked to the user.

    What’s going on here with the “secret” ones are that the agencies are attempting to hide them from transparency.

    But, then, Obamazombies will do and say anything to protect their Messiah.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 9

  21. Moderate Mom says:

    @rodney dill: Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  22. Nikki says:

    @William Teach:

    But, then, Obamazombies will do and say anything to protect their Messiah.

    Get back to us when you can come up with a blog post or comment you wrote decrying the practice when the Bush admin did the exact same thing.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 2

  23. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    Apparently the trolls are wearing their Clue-Resistant Underwear today.

    This isn’t a case of an official having a secondary, private e-mail for their own official use. This is the EPA administrator constructing a fictitious identity to avoid having to reveal those e-mails. The identity involves a sex change and personnel records that give false credibility to “Richard Windsor” being an actual person, and not Lisa Jackson’s alter ego.

    But we’re dealing with an administration for whom lying is their instinctive response. Especially when dealing with Republicans, the general public, or anyone who isn’t one of their well-trained sycophants.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 6

  24. rudderpedals says:

    Government officials using yahoo or gmail for official business: Problem

    Government officials using their assigned .gov addresses for official business: Not a problem.

    Any questions?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  25. Tony W says:

    @rudderpedals:

    Government officials using yahoo or gmail for official business: Problem

    Unless that official is Sarah Palin

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  26. Tony W says:

    @JKB: Comparing an executive’s administrative behavior to that of a government executive hardly makes me an apologist for corporate America’s sins.

    Nice attempt at a straw man, but the point has been made and you lost the argument.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  27. Tim D. says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13: I will admit that it doesn’t seem like a good idea for the internal email to have a different name, but that doesn’t (necessarily) make it nefarious. You claim but don’t present any evidence that the alias has been used to avoid proper disclosure. And the politico article states that FOIA and archiving procedure take the internal email into account. That’s the important thing for transparency.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  28. mantis says:

    @Jay Tea’s lying puppet Jenos Idanian #13:

    This is the EPA administrator constructing a fictitious identity to avoid having to reveal those e-mails.

    As has been shown, this is false. You are a liar.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 2

  29. Jenos Idanian says:

    @mantis: “Richard Windsor” wasn’t simply an alias or a DBA or a nom du net. “Richard Windsor” was awarded an EPA certificate as a “scholar of ethical behavior.”

    “Richard Windsor” is right up there with “Lennay Kekua” and “George P. Burdell.” He’s almost as legen-wait-for-it-dary as Lorenzo Von Matterhorn.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  30. Dan Cooper says:

    When I read this story, I was concerned about something as simple to do as a government official creating a Gmail account or Yahoo account and using that for certain official business.

    It’s easy to justify using a primary email address like joebiden@whitehouse.gov and a secondary one like joebidendirect@whitehouse.gov just to separate the different types of messages to different inboxes. Both of these inboxes can be archived as they are both part of the federal government’s IT infrastructure.

    But if the Veep uses his @whitehouse.gov address and joebiden@gmail.com for official business, that latter address is going to escape scrutiny by nearly all federal record-keeping processes and by any FOIA requests.

    We already know that ex-CIA director David Petraeus used a Gmail address in addition to his CIA address to conduct unofficial “official” business with his primary and secondary mistresses.

    I fear that it’s this form of private email address abuse that’s the greater danger.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0