Obama email flap: White House defends top officials' use of 'secret' accounts

Obama email policy came under fire Tuesday after a news report that some top political appointees use 'secret' government accounts in a bid to avoid unwanted messages. That prompted a spirited defense of the practice from White House spokesman Jay Carney.

Charles Dharapak/AP
White House spokesman Jay Carney listens to a question during the daily press briefing at the White House on May 29. On Tuesday he defended top officials' use of nonpublic e-mail accounts to conduct official business.

White House spokesman Jay Carney defended the Obama administration’s commitment to transparency after an Associated Press investigation showed that some of the president’s top political appointees are using “secret” government e-mail accounts in a bid to avoid unwanted messages.

Most of the agencies the AP contacted had not replied to its questions about secret e-mail accounts three months after the news agency requested the information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The accounts in question, which are not published on agency websites, provide an alternate way for top officials to communicate without having to sort through a mountain of spam.

The Labor Department’s initial response – later rescinded – was to ask the AP to pay more than $1 million to receive its e-mail addresses. The Health and Human Services Department initially turned over a list of 240 accounts that did not include Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’s alternate, unpublished e-mail address.

Agencies that had not turned over lists of e-mail addresses include the Environmental Protection Agency, the Pentagon, and the Transportation, Treasury, Justice, Homeland Security, Commerce, and Agriculture departments. So, the AP said, “the scope of using the secret accounts across the government remains a mystery.”

The issue is a sensitive one, given a memo President Obama issued on his first full day in the White House pledging that his administration was "committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government.” The document went on to say, "we will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration."

At Tuesday’s White House briefing, Mr. Carney offered a spirited defense of the practice of officials' use of nonpublic e-mail addresses. “This is a practice consistent with prior administrations of both parties,” he said. Having alternate e-mail accounts makes "eminent sense,” the press secretary said. He told of having his e-mail made public by his predecessor, Robert Gibbs, shortly before Carney assumed his current position. "I changed it so I wouldn’t be inundated with … tons of e-mails and spam and the like.... But that is a very reasonable thing to do.”

Carney disputed the AP’s use of the “secret label” for unpublished e-mail addresses. “The issue here is are these accounts – these work accounts – secret, and the answer is no, because they are subject to FOIA requests and they are subject to congressional inquiry, just like their public addresses,” he said.

He added, “This administration has made significant strides in improving FOIA practices, compared with all of our predecessors…. [We] have disclosed more information, invoked FOIA exemptions less frequently, and answered more requests.”

The AP offered several reasons that top officials' use of alternate – or secret – e-mail addresses is problematic. The practice makes it harder to ensure that agencies are meeting their duty to turn over relevant documents in response to congressional investigations or civil lawsuits, the AP said. “Secret accounts also drive perceptions that government officials are trying to hide actions or decisions,” the report stated.

Court decisions on federal privacy rules have set a high bar for withholding public officials’ records.

“An e-mail address given to an individual by the government to conduct official business is not private,” Aaron Mackey, a FOIA attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Arlington, Va., told the AP.

As if to emphasize that point, the AP decided to publish Secretary Sebelius's unpublished account address, despite requests not to do so, citing her oversight of Medicare, Medicaid, and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.   

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