Hillary Clinton’s e-mails

The candidate to beat in the next American presidential election is Hillary Rodham Clinton, who will most certainly get the Democratic Party nomination on her second try to be the first woman president of the United States. Former first lady, former senator, and former secretary of state, Hillary brings to her campaign possibly the broadest background in public affairs ever possessed by any presidential aspirant. Still, the Republicans are doing everything to portray her as a dangerously unfit candidate for the world’s most powerful position.

These past few days, public attention has focused on her e-mails when she was secretary of state during President Barack Obama’s first term from 2009 to 2013. A Republican-dominated special House committee has been looking into the attacks on US diplomatic outposts in Benghazi Libya in September 2012, which led to the killing of the US ambassador and three other Americans. The committee has subpoenaed her e-mails in order to establish how she handled this crisis.

The investigation took an unexpected twist after it was revealed that Hillary had exclusively used a personal e-mail account to conduct work-related communication while she was head of the State Department. This is being depicted as an inexcusable breach of protocol. Hillary argues that while some of the e-mails she sent out from and received at hdr22@clintonemail.com might have dealt with “sensitive” and “confidential” information, they never included “classified” matters.

The committee counters that it would be the judge of that. Its members, mostly Republicans who had begun to smell blood, have asked to see the e-mails pertaining to the Benghazi attacks. To show she has nothing to hide, Hillary responded by asking the State Department to release all the 55,000 pages of e-mails she had previously turned over when she ended her stint as secretary of state. She said these e-mails represent the entirety of her digital communications during her term, minus the strictly personal ones that she had excluded.

Removing private e-mails from office-related communication by the act of deletion is probably understandable. But it is a great pity from the perspective of archival history. In the past, the personal letters and notes of statesmen that were put aside eventually found their way into the archives or papers kept in their name. The advent of e-mail changes all that. First, as the Hillary digital correspondence amply shows, e-mail makes it nearly impossible to separate personal communication from the official. Second, e-mail has made it easy to erase, delete and destroy correspondence. Hillary said, matter-of-factly, that it was her prerogative to exclude her personal e-mails from those that dealt with matters of state. But how easy is it to do that?

Consider this excerpt from one of the e-mails submitted to the House committee, copies of which the New York Times was able to obtain. The NYT observes: “The emails show that even those at the highest levels of government engage in occasional flattering of those above them. In March 2011, Mrs. Clinton received an email from Ann-Marie Slaughter, the director of policy planning for the State Department, who was leaving her position. ‘Gorgeous pic on the front page of the NYT!’ Ms. Slaughter said, referring to a photo of Mrs. Clinton. ‘One for the wall…’ Ms. Slaughter then moved on to more serious matters, including her opposition to arming the rebels in Libya.”

Ms Slaughter might probably have thought twice about engaging in personal flattery like this if she were writing to a superior at a state.gov address. It is this kind of seamless stitching of the personal into the official that the Republicans are interested in as they search Hillary’s e-mails for damaging leads they can use against her.

The e-mails sent by Sydney Blumenthal to Hillary’s private account, for example, have been singled out for close scrutiny. Blumenthal wrote speeches for the Clintons when Bill Clinton was president. He wielded enormous influence in Washington circles as the Clintons’ “resident intellectual,” and continued to work for the power couple as a “messaging” consultant at their foundation after they left the White House. President Obama did not appoint Blumenthal to any position despite his formidable connections. The latter, however, remained a close confidant to Hillary when she was head of the State Department. The e-mails suggest Blumenthal was in Libya around the time Gadhafi was deposed. He sent Hillary regular analyses on the Libyan crisis, while operating as adviser to some US business interests looking for opportunities in a post-Gadhafi era.

Sooner or later, the Republicans are going to stumble upon e-mails that suggest improper conduct (whether personal or official), which they can use against Hillary. At the same time, it is not farfetched that a legal suit could be brought against her for destroying personal e-mails that might have had a bearing on her official work.

In this regard, what I find truly fascinating are the institutional consequences of this complex interweaving of the personal and the official in e-mail communication. Twenty years ago, the philosopher Jacques Derrida, in an essay dealing with archives and memory, foresaw this: “[E]lectronic mail today, even more than the fax, is on the way to transforming the entire public and private space of humanity….[A]t an unprecedented rhythm, in quasi-instantaneous fashion, this instrumental possibility of production, of printing, of conservation, and of destruction of the archive must inevitably be accompanied by juridical and thus political transformations.”

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