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In Using Personal Email, Aide Says Clinton Didn't Break Law


Independent watchdogs and members of Congress are crying foul today. There are reports that Hillary Clinton always used a private account to send and receive email throughout her tenure as secretary of state. The government is now trying to reconstruct her electronic paper trail. Clinton's staff recently turned over tens of thousands of pages of personal emails, nearly two years after she had stepped down as secretary. Critics say that process gives Clinton too much discretion to conceal sensitive paperwork. NPR's Scott Horsley has more.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: A State Department spokeswoman says Hillary Clinton did not break any rules by relying solely on her personal email account. Federal law allows government officials to use personal email so long as relevant documents are preserved for history. That's little consolation though to watchdog John Wonderlich. He's with the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation, which promotes government transparency.

JOHN WONDERLICH: She may have complied with the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law is - and our expectations for public service - are public servants use their official email accounts.

HORSLEY: The State Department spokeswoman says most of Clinton's emails were sent to and from other department employees. So they were automatically stored on government servers. But archivists have to rely on Clinton herself to turn over messages sent to and from people outside the government. The New York Times, which broke the story, says Clinton gave the State Department some 55,000 pages of emails about two months ago. Wonderlich says there's no way for the public to know if any important messages are missing.

WONDERLICH: The final arbiter of what's public or what's turned over to Congress shouldn't be private staff working for Hillary Clinton. It should be State Department employees who are bound by duty to the public interest.

HORSLEY: A Clinton spokesman notes past secretaries of state also relied, at least in part, on personal email. John Kerry is the first to use a government account primarily. But Clinton's practice is sure to draw extra scrutiny, especially if she runs for president as expected. One possible Republican rival, Jeb Bush, recently released a trove of his own emails from his time as Florida governor. Bush reacted to the Clinton email news by tweeting transparency matters. One group that's particularly interested in the Clinton email trail is the congressional committee investigating the 2012 murders of four American citizens at a diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya. Republican Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy called Clinton's reliance on a nongovernment email account nothing short of incredible.


CONGRESSMAN TREY GOWDY: She did not use personal email in addition to government email. She used personal email in lieu of government email. Now, you do not need a law degree to have an understanding of how troubling this is.

HORSLEY: The Sunlight Foundation's Wonderlich says what's particularly troubling is that Clinton apparently set up her personal email account in early 2009 just before taking the job as secretary of state.

WONDERLICH: Pretty clearly it seems that her motivation was to avoid any professional or political liability. Why else would you go about setting up an external email address from the State Department?

HORSLEY: White House Spokesman Josh Earnest was peppered with questions today about whether other administration officials knew Clinton was sidestepping government email. Earnest did not answer directly. But he says the administration's official guidance is that employees should use government email accounts when they're conducting official government business. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.