Hillary Clinton’s email, and the pitfalls of transparency, accountability, and trust

This is serious.
This is serious.
Image: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
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At a press conference earlier this week, Hillary Clinton addressed the growing controversy over her clandestine email server. She was less than convincing.

She said she used a non-governmental email address while serving as secretary of state because she didn’t want to carry two phones—doesn’t everyone hate that? But not long ago she said that she did indeed use two phones (an iPhone and a Blackberry).

She also pointed out, repeatedly, how unprecedented it is to ask the state department to publicly release her emails. Except, everyone has been quick to note, she will give access only to about half (about 30,000) the emails she received while serving as a secretary of state. The others were personal in nature and have been deleted.

One of the journalists attending the conference asked:

How could the public be assured that when you deleted emails that were personal in nature, that you didn’t also delete emails that were professional, but possibly unflattering?

To which Clinton replied:

Well first of all, you have to ask that question to every single federal employee, because the way the system works, the federal employee, the individual, whether they have one device, two devices, three devices, how many addresses, they make the decision.

So, even if you have a work-related device with a work-related .gov account, you choose what goes on that. That is the way our system works. And so we trust and count on the judgment of thousands, maybe millions of people to make those decisions.

It is a truthful response, but not a particularly satisfying one. On this, and all other behind-closed-doors communications featuring government figures, citizens must simply trust their elected officials.

Trust is at the core of any democracy—it’s what makes it possible for citizens to delegate power to someone else to exercise on their behalf. But in return for that trust, officials must offer accountability. At any given time, they should be prepared to answer to their constituents about how they are wielding the power they have been given.

Trust and accountability aren’t the same thing, and one can’t replace the other. Clinton violated both. She broke citizens’ trust by not following protocol and instead relying on a personal email run via a private server. And she didn’t offer accountability when, asked to reveal her correspondence, she made the selection herself of what was deemed to be of public interest.

And while accountability can be restored—the state department now uses a system that automatically archives the emails of senior officials, and there could yet be a way to access all the emails Clinton sent so that a disinterested observer can decide what’s private or not—trust is gone. It can be rebuilt, but the process is slow and painstaking. It is a commodity that is hard to gain but easy to lose.

For citizens, this is a wake-up call. Monitoring electronic communication is easier than ever, as overzealous intelligence agencies have shown. But transparency isn’t the same as accountability, and won’t generate trust on its own. It is not necessarily a good idea to publish every email publicly, but there should be confidence that this is at least an option.

If Clinton’s email system wasn’t so convoluted, and the sharing process not so shrouded in mystery, there would be much more faith that officials were making unimpeachable, objective decisions in the public interest. Then, people would never have lost their trust in Clinton, which was evidently misplaced.