WASHINGTON – A high-ranking State Department official said Wednesday it’s “not acceptable” for any agency employee to conduct government business on a private email server as former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton did.
Joyce Barr, the agency’s chief freedom of information officer, made the comment under questioning from Republican senators who used a Senate Judiciary hearing on open records laws to attack Clinton over her email practices.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said that Clinton’s approach amounted to a “premeditated and deliberate” attempt to avoid open records requirements.
Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina said that anyone who took such an approach should be fired, and asked Barr whether it would be considered acceptable.
Barr said that she had not been aware of Clinton’s decision to conduct all her State Department email on a private server but that the agency has now made it clear to employees that such an approach would not be acceptable.
“I think that the actions that we’ve taken in the course of recovering these emails have made it very clear what people’s responsibilities are with regard to record-keeping,” she said. “We continue to do training, we’ve sent department notices, telegrams, we’ve talked to directors and I think the message is loud and clear that that is not acceptable.”
Clinton, who is running for president, has defended using a personal email account while serving as secretary of state as a matter of personal convenience. She says she has turned over to the State Department all work-related emails — more than 30,000 of them — though House Republicans investigating the 2012 attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, are demanding more. They insist the server itself should be examined by a third party.
A spokesman for Clinton’s campaign declined comment. Clinton has agreed to testify on Capitol Hill later this month at the request of the special committee investigating the Benghazi attacks.
Barr acknowledged problems with the State Department’s overall performance responding to open records requests, calling an existing backlog of 18,000 requests “unacceptable.” But she insisted improvements were being made even as the number of requests keeps growing and the agency is understaffed. Like other government agencies, the State Department is bound by laws including the Freedom of Information Act that generally require them to maintain records and make them available to the public when asked, with some exceptions.
Karen Kaiser, general counsel at The Associated Press, testified that despite promises of greater transparency by the Obama administration, most agencies are not abiding by their legal obligations under open records laws. “Non-responsiveness is the norm, and the reflex at most agencies is to withhold information, not to release it,” she told senators.
Lawmakers are weighing legislation to improve the Freedom of Information Act, but Kaiser said agencies should also be made to comply with the laws already enacted.
“We can have all the wonderful laws on the books and the presumptions of disclosure written in, but if the agencies don’t abide by the requirements we’re in a bad position,” she said.