On March 11, days after it was reported that Hillary Clinton relied exclusively on a private email account in her work as Secretary of State, the State Department’s Inspector General posted a report that described a widespread failure to preserve Department emails.
The report raises as many questions about the performance of its author, the Department’s internal watchdog office, as it does about the email problem.
Though it wasn’t released until Clinton’s emails became a top story, the report’s information was gathered much earlier—between January 24 and March 15 of last year, the report says.
The publicly released version of the report bears marks that show it was previously labeled “SENSITIVE BUT UNCLASSIFIED,” a designation that commonly keeps unclassified information from public view.
As reflected in an appendix to the report, the data the IG’s office gathered hinted that the problem extended to the Secretary’s office. However, instead of pursuing that lead, the report essentially declared the Secretary’s email beyond the scope of its analysis.
“These assessments do not apply to the system used by the Department’s high-level principals, the Secretary, the Deputy Secretaries, the Under Secretaries, and their immediate staffs, which maintain separate systems,” a footnote to the report says.
So where was the State Department’s internal watchdog while Clinton conducted official business through private email housed on a server in her New York home?
The short answer is that, for the four years Clinton served as Secretary, there was no IG at State. The post was left in the hands of a temporary Inspector General—a longtime member of the same diplomatic corps he was responsible for overseeing. The vacancy at State was part of a pattern that has played out across many federal departments and agencies during the Obama Administration. As POGO has reported, temporary IGs can be weaker watchdogs because they are less secure in their position and would need the support of the White House or their department leadership to ascend to the post on a permanent basis.
When President Obama nominated a permanent IG for the State Department in June 2013, the post had been vacant for 1,988 days.
The longer answer is that, even under new leadership, the Inspector General’s Office had ample opportunity to spotlight the problem with Clinton’s emails.
The report released this month warned that only a tiny percentage of the emails generated by State Department employees were being preserved as official records, and it said some employees have avoided preserving them as official records “because they do not want to make the email available in searches.” Of more than a billion emails sent in 2011, Department employees created only 61,156 “record emails,” the report said. The report noted similar findings in an IG report published in September 2012, when Clinton was still Secretary.
The 2012 report recommended that the Department “implement a plan to identify and capture all record email in the State Messaging and Archive Retrieval Toolset,” known as SMART.
But the report released this month suggests that wasn’t happening in the Office of the Secretary. Appendix D, which lists the number of “Record Emails” in 2013 in each of many State Department offices, shows a total of seven (“7”) in the Office of the Secretary.
“During the course of its review the OIG team learned that the senior Department officials do not utilize the SMART system to archive official emails,” IG spokesman Douglas Welty said in response to questions the Project On Government Oversight submitted March 17. “Therefore, the limited scope of OIG’s review did not reach the issue of retention of official email by Secretary Clinton or other senior officials.”
“Although we would have liked for this inspection to have been completed sooner, it was not, due to a variety of factors—many of which were beyond OIG’s control,” Welty said.
According to Welty, the Department’s internal watchdog learned about Clinton’s email practice when the public did.
“OIG was first alerted to the issue of Secretary Clinton’s use of a private email server to send and receive official emails in the recent media reports,” he said.
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