Clinton emails show need for higher accountability for public figures

Claire Smith

On March 3, news broke of unconfirmed 2016 presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton’s exclusive use of private email over her four years as Secretary of State. Both Americans and the media are stuck between Clinton’s insistence her actions were empty of impropriety and conservative conspiracy theories about her decision’s implications. What I now regard as a non-issue is still fuel for Republican fodder weeks later.  

I cannot deny that there was substance to the initial outrage over Clinton’s decision to opt out of using a State Department email address. As critics have pointed out, the location of Clinton’s private server in Chappaqua, New York, did not put it under the protection of Clinton’s security detail or her direct control. It was also against State Department policy: A 2005 order instructed employees not to use their personal emails even for “normal day-to-day operations,” and a 2011 cable from Clinton’s office reiterated the prohibition on using personal emails for any official state business. Finally, government officials were terminated for not complying with those orders during Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State, lending her slip the stench of hypocrisy. In her March 10 press conference, Clinton offered mere convenience as her only excuse. 

Yet Clinton rectified her fault when she submitted over 55,000 documents  to the State Department in an effort to clear her name. Later, when the U.S. House Select Committee on Benghazi subpoenaed Clinton and several members of her office, it was all but guaranteed that the Republican-led committee would unearth any hint of misconduct. Clinton appeared free from further suspicion. 

Clinton’s decision to operate exclusively from a private email on a personal server was irresponsible. It was also without precedent: Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice said they both had private emails, but only conducted state business over state-protected servers. Perhaps Clinton’s decision was also arrogant; the chief diplomat of the United States excusing themselves from department-wide rules seems indicative of some measure of frayed everyday workplace ethics, in addition to an obvious lapse in common sense. 

But Clinton is not the menace to national security conservative circles have suggested. In an official statement on his congressional office’s website, Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL), a member of the House’s Select Committee on Benghazi, compared the Clinton emails to Nixon’s self-edited responses in the Watergate proceedings, which was an act of treason. 

In the House Republicans’ Weekly Republican Address on March 14, Rep. Susan Brooks, R-IN, ludicrously suggested Clinton’s emails lay the blame for the Benghazi attack at Clinton’s feet, shamelessly rewriting history after Clinton confirmed she received no soluble security requests prior to the Benghazi attack when she testified before Congress on Jan. 23, 2013; in any case, such requests likely would have been denied because Republicans slashed $300 million from the State Department’s Worldwide Security Protection program. Finally, though Rand Paul may insist otherwise, I am not of the belief that the communication of Clinton’s yoga schedule specifically over a private server was, in and of itself, a threat to national security. 

Though it took Clinton a full week to get in front of the would-be scandal’s message with a press conference, a CNN/ORC poll released Wednesday reported untouchable gains over other potential Democratic nominees. Clinton towers nearly 50 points ahead of her nearest competitor, Vice President Joe Biden. 

Scandal and all, Clinton should be preparing for a primary coronation in 2016. And the right knows it. The would-be scandal remains in the media because of conservative doggedness and partisan pettiness, not because of voter concerns. 

It is all too easy to forget that bipartisanship can serve as a system of checks and balances to hold the opposing party accountable. But we as a people, and the right wing as a party, do not have the privilege of rewriting the history of a leading Democrat’s decades of public service because a convenient opportunity arose. Capitalizing on Clinton’s mistake for partisan gains would be a grave mistake: It would be a dismissal of a governmental malaise at best and an exploitation of a system-wide failure at worst, instead of the correction of it. Much must change, and Clinton is only part of the problem.

It is almost a given that Clinton will ride out this storm. She has not only been a devoted public servant but a bulldog in the advocacy of herself and countless others. Clinton is a survivor. Though Clinton made herself an exception to one of our country’s highest office’s rules, I argue that we can face this as an opportunity to re-examine government-wide lapses in accountability. I choose to remember this is as an issue of insisting that officials live by the rules meant to safeguard us all — in literally any case, a nobler alternative to partisan opportunism.

Smith is a is a history and humanities junior from Austin. Follow Smith on Twitter @clairesysmith.