Most Transparent Administration in History Has Secret E-mail Addresses

If you've got a million dollars, maybe they'll tell you about them


"Spam for thee, but not for me"
Credit: US Mission Geneva / / CC BY-ND

Former Environmental Protection Agency Head Lisa Jackson drew some controversy to her department by creating a fake employee named Richard Windsor, whose e-mail address she used to conduct official business. She went so far as to earn various agency certifications for computer training and – Ha! Ha! – ethics for her alias.

While other agency heads may not go so far as to develop an alter ego the way Jackson did, the Associated Press has discovered that she's not the only Obama Administration appointee who has arranged for secret e-mail accounts to conduct business:

Some of President Obama's political appointees, including the Cabinet secretary for the Health and Human Services Department, are using secret government email accounts they say are necessary to prevent their inboxes from being overwhelmed with unwanted messages, according to a review by The Associated Press. 

The scope of using the secret accounts across government remains a mystery: Most U.S. agencies have failed to turn over lists of political appointees' email addresses, which the AP sought under the Freedom of Information Act more than three months ago. The Labor Department initially asked the AP to pay more than $1 million for its email addresses. 

The Labor Department backed off its demand, but here's what they claimed they had to do to provide a list of appointees' e-mail addresses:

The Labor Department initially asked the AP to pay just over $1.03 million when the AP asked for email addresses of political appointees there. It said it needed pull 2,236 computer backup tapes from its archives and pay 50 people to pore over old records. Those costs included three weeks to identify tapes and ship them to a vendor, and pay each person $2,500 for nearly a month's work. But under the department's own FOIA rules—which it cited in its letter to the AP—it is prohibited from charging news organizations any costs except for photocopies after the first 100 pages. The department said it would take 14 weeks to find the emails if the AP had paid the money. 

The potential transparency dangers of federal agency employees having undisclosed email addresses are obvious and I won't belabor them. Agency representatives told the Associated Press that these non-public e-mail accounts are always searched in response to records requests, but the AP was unable to independently verify such a claim:

"What happens when that person doesn't work there anymore? He leaves and someone makes a request (to review emails) in two years," said Kel McClanahan, executive director of National Security Counselors, an open government group. "Who's going to know to search the other accounts? You would hope that agencies doing this would keep a list of aliases in a desk drawer, but you know that isn't happening." 

The Health and Human Services Department initially didn't hand over any e-mail addresses at all for Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. After the AP complained, they complied. The agency asked the AP not to publish her secret e-mail address, but they did anyway:

NEXT: Gene Healy on Obama's Flight from Responsibility

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  1. Some of President Obama’s political appointees, including the Cabinet secretary for the Health and Human Services Department, are using secret government email accounts they say are necessary to prevent their inboxes from being overwhelmed with unwanted messages,

    That is the most ridiculous lie ever foisted on the public. Cabinet secretaries have huge staffs that do nothing but prepare and digest information for them. Every meeting they go to is accompanied by a briefing book that is carefully prepared and explains what they need to know. No cabinet secretary conducts business by personally writing emails. That is not how decisions are made. If a cabinet secretary started personally answering emails and making decisions like that the whole place would go insane. Decisions are staffed. None of their deputies just call them up and say “hey we need X”. They can’t do that because saying “go ahead with X” affects hundreds of people and any number of divergent interests. Decisions have to be made collectively because there are so many people with equities.

    So there is no danger of their email boxes being full and they have huge staffs that do nothing but ensure they have just the information they need. They did this because they needed to do things that they didn’t want anyone to find out via FOIA or or Congressional request. They are crooks and those emails contain information about wrong doing, plain and simple.

    1. I don’t know about HHS, but I know from personal experience that high level officials (including political appointees as high as USD and DepSefDef) in DoD use their own email. However, the email boxes are set up so that only authorized senders can get messages through.

    2. No cabinet secretary conducts business by personally writing emails.

      Ah, but I think they are: they are using unofficial email addresses to coordinate with lobbyists. That’s what the EPA does. “Hey, greenies, we want to make a new regulation, so make a public stink about it and sue us, and we’ll ‘cave’ and do what we wanted to in the first place. LOL”

  2. “The agency asked the AP not to publish her secret e-mail address, but they did anyway. . . .”

    Good for the AP. This sort of thing should be the default position of the media: “No, fuck you, reporting stuff is our job.”

    1. I said it the day we found out the Administration went after the AP. They royally fucked themselves. They went from having the media in their pocket for eternity to being in the crosshairs on EVERYTHING.

      Honeymoon over.

  3. It’s a good thing the AP is reporting this. How else would Obama learn of it and gallantly put an end to it?

    1. Put an end to it if true

      1. Eventually. Someday. Right after he closes Guantanamo.

  4. Some of President Obama’s political appointees, including the Cabinet secretary for the Health and Human Services Department, are using secret government email accounts they say are necessary to prevent their inboxes from being overwhelmed with unwanted messages, according to a review by The Associated Press.

    The rationale is bullshit; you can decide what shows up on the desktop using a whitelist. For example, the email from Barack Obama goes into Jackson’s inbox since his email is in the whitelist, while the email from Barry Jones goes into the folder appropriate to the great unwashed masses because his email does not appear on the whitelist.

    This was a blatant attempt to evade FOIA using obscurity. And the fact that an insider alerted Chris Horner at the CIA that this was going on suggests that the insider was apalled at what the email was being used for – including communications with environmental groups.

    It is possible that the IT staff administering the various federal email systems are fourth raters who can’t handle this simple tasks. So maybe the use of Richard Windsor was a hamfisted way to solve a problem that they lacked the competence to handle properly, but I think that it’s highly unlikely.

    1. er Chris Horner at the CIA CEI.

    2. That’s exactly what they’re doing–evading FOIA. And, incidentally, they may be trying to hide illegal or unethical activities as well.

      1. As I said on the AM links, in the 70s we had tapes. In 2013, we will have emails.

        1. Apparently they have to pull the emails off of tapes…

    3. Not unlikely, impossible. And even if it were true, you just create an email address that only a limited and specified number of other addresses can send email too. And whatever you do, you don’t call it by a fake name and never inform your FOIA or Congressional liaison staff about it.

      1. I know I have different standards for ethics–as I mentioned earlier, I am merely an amateur and not a trained ethicist–but the mere act of doing this should be grounds for immediate termination.

        1. In this country, it should be grounds for tar and feathers. We really need to get medieval on their asses.

          1. Medieval?

            Tar and Feathers is an age of reason tactic.

            Which says lots about the superiority of thought in that era over today.

            1. Age of Reason:

              Angry Mob: What did you say Secretary Sibelius (or any of the others)

              Government Official: What is the reason that I’m tarred and feathered and hanging from this rail.

              Angry Mob: Fuck You, That is the Reason.

        2. Yes. And it would be even in the federal bureaucracy for anyone other than a political hack. Congress should impeach any cabinet member who did this.

          Think for a moment how stupid people are about emails. People write things in emails they would never say out loud and send really stupid emails without thinking. Considering that, what sorts of things might there be in an email account these people thought was secret and would never see the light of day?

          1. No doubt. Discovery in corporate litigation, with entities that can’t redact things for national security purposes, is always scary. Because people say dumb things, even when they are totally innocent of whatever’s been alleged.

  5. When politicians tell us something, we should always assume it’s a lie. When Obama promised the most transparent administration in history it was logical to believe he’d produce the exact opposite.

    1. Correct position to take – when you protest your honesty and transparency and such, that should be the first warning.

      Reminds me of the part of King Lear where the three daughters are supposed to tell dear old Dad how much they love him, to get a chunk of the Kingdom – the more obsequies and flowery they got, the nastier and evil they turned out to be.

      1. It’s amazing how many things we learn from Shakespeare that apply to our non-fiction lives.

  6. Again, run the thought experiment. If Monsanto’s C-level officers were doing business via accounts not subject to SEC or stockholder scrutiny would this be okay?

    1. No. We tolerate a great deal of improper behavior from politicians. Consider Bill Clinton–if a CEO of a public company were caught diddling an intern on company time and on company property and later got nailed for perjury, would he still have a job? Not just no, hell no.

  7. They should have just used Yahoo email accounts, like that one Alaska governor did.

    1. The political pendulum tends to swing back and forth. And I think we all know what happens when the opposing party is in power.

      The “someone else did it first” isn’t much of an excuse.

  8. Having 2 email addresses, 1 public that general junk goes to and a secretary reads all day and dispatches as necessary and a second that only a restricted set of people have and goes directly to the VIP makes sense. It is likely that most corporate higher ups have similar set ups. However these second addresses would not in any way be “secret” hidden under alternate names or obscured from reporting systems.

    What would be even more interesting to find out is if any of them have been setting up secret e-mail addresses on non government systems to conduct government business fully out of view of scrutiny or reporting

    1. This administration is so obviously unclean that I’m surprised the health department hasn’t shut it down.

      1. Is it possible we’ve all become desensitized to the underhanded, and often criminal, behavior of our politicians? Or are we all just a bunch of sheep who will only respond if our shepherds controlling the media alert us to the fact that the wolves who are eating us are wolves engaged in eating us?

        1. I’ve said this more times than I can count, but we should hold these people to much higher standards than we hold anyone else. Because of the power they wield, even in a system more in line with original constitutional limits.

          Politicians should be like Caesar’s wife–above suspicion.

          1. Certain crimes in society are held in great contempt, and carry stiff penalties, because they cause harm and often to numerous persons. There’s no excuse for why politicians are treated as if they are immune from justice when their actions cause just as much harm, and often to many millions of people.

            1. It’s absolutely impossible to avoid government abuse and growth towards tyranny without holding politicians accountable for their actions.

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