Are Obama appointees hiding their email addresses?

Are Obama appointees hiding their email addresses?

Summary: The AP is doing their job trolling for headlines, but they're actually making a fuss about government workers who are trying to get their job done.


The AP today is out with this story: Emails of top Obama appointees remain a mystery. It's also the "above the fold" main story on Drudge this morning.

The main premise of the story is that the AP filed Freedom of Information Act requests to a variety of agencies, asking for email addresses of all key political appointees. Presumably, this was a first step in the process of the AP later requesting email records associated with those email addresses.


The "shocker" was that the AP "discovered" that some government employees were using public-facing email addresses as well as (ooh!) secret email addresses, used for internal work. In the case of the secretaries of Labor and of HHS, the AP then helpfully "outed" those secret email addresses in today's report.

The always-willing-to-shoot-themselves-in-the-foot Labor Department decided to turn a molehill into a mountain by demanding the AP pay $1.03 million for the "research" necessary to find all the email addresses of all their appointees.

So rather than this being a basic IT issue, the Obama administration happily gave the AP a headline story and turned a daily work practice into a story of secrecy and unfulfilled transparency. Oh, joy.

What does this all mean?

Well, first, it means that HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius and acting Labor secretary Seth Harris won't be getting much work done today.

As for the email addresses themselves, there are a whole host of conflicting laws and regulations that make this a mess.

As I talked about in Where Have All The Emails Gone?, the 1939 Hatch Act has been interpreted to prevent certain tiers of government workers from using government-provided email addresses for anything related to political communication. So, here we get at least a second, non-gov email address.

Federal Records Act and Presidential Records Act regulations come into play as well. There's a very complex determination of what, exactly, is considered a record that must be preserved for the National Archives.

The key here is that neither the FRA or the PRA prevent political appointees from using secondary email addresses that aren't provided to the public. These regulations simply require that appropriate records from all forms of communication be preserved.

There is, thus far, no indication that secondary email addresses are being used to get around FRA or PRA regulations. Besides, the Hatch Act virtually demands that secondary, non-government email addresses be used by political appointees anyway, so this is no surprise.

Why use private email addresses?

The AP is doing their job trolling for headlines, but they're actually making a fuss about government workers who are trying to get their job done.

Think about Sebelius, who is the government's official face on ObamaCare. We have roughly 237 million adults in this country. Sebelius' public email address is plastered everywhere. Just how many emails do you think she gets from the general public, lobbyists, cranks, and the ever-present spammers?

As a simple necessity for getting any work done at all, there needs to be a public-facing email address and, most likely, a private email address used for getting work done.

Now, imagine it's Monday morning and she needs to get work done. How many hours do you think she has to sift through all of those messages to find the three that relate to a key crisis that needs attention? It's almost impossible.

So, as a way to get work done, she (and many public figures, including most corporate execs we talk about here on ZDNet, along with most of the columnists you read every day) maintain multiple email addresses. It's a necessity.

I, personally, get between 1,500 and 2,000 emails each day. I've gotten as high as 10,000 on a particularly intense day. Now, much of that is traditional spam, a lot are press releases and PR reach outs, some are incomprehensible email messages from readers, and some are absolutely fascinating email messages from readers.

Buried in there are also about 20 really important email messages related to projects I'm working on, the people I work with, or important issues that need to be dealt with in a timely fashion.

Can you imagine what a typical government official has coming into his or her public email box? As a simple necessity for getting any work done at all, there needs to be a public-facing email address and, most likely, a private email address used for getting work done.

This isn't the shocker AP maintains. It's just practical necessity.

Now, where this gets messy is FOIA. The Freedom of Information Act requires that agencies turn over non-classified information to investigators, even if those requests might get in the way of getting work done or cost a ton of tax dollars.

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This means that the AP is in its rights to ask for all email addresses, even the private ones. But if the AP decides to go and publish those email addresses, each of the government workers they expose will suddenly get a flood of email into those addresses.

As a mere necessity for getting work done, each of those government workers will need to get yet another private address, tell all their primary correspondents of the new address, and start all over.

FOIA is a wonderful tool for American transparency. But we in the media have to be careful we don't use it just as a way to generate headlines at the expense of our government actually getting what little work it does done.

Topics: Government, Government US


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • You're lost the point on this...

    This is about the secrecy of the email accounts and the then-inferred inability to either perform e-discovery or to file FOIA requests on them given that they have not been disclosed. It has nothing to do with the number of accounts, nor the reasons for them. Additionally, it opens them up to scrutiny to see if they are using off-site providers like Gmail, etc. for government business outside the scope of typical e-discovery or FOIA requests.
  • As a simple necessity for getting any work done at all ...

    OMG David, if the Bush administration were doing this you would be BS about it. Hiding official work behind private email is illegal but being done regularly by the current administration for exactly the purpose of nondisclosure.
    • Yep. The blog author loves

      big government and has no problem whatsoever with it operating secretively when it's his team doing the driving.

      No comment from him on the fact that this might be the AP hitting back from having its own private information snooped by government, or the Obama administration judge shopping to secure illegal warrants against Fox News reporters. Because, well, the government is just doing it's job, and Fox News should be shut down anyway.
      • You might recall...

        ...that David Gewirtz has consistently advocated allowing the President and his staff to send and receive political e-mail through official government accounts (for security reasons). If I remember rightly, he advocated that when George W. Bush was President as well (before he started writing for ZDNet).
        John L. Ries
      • This is what we get when See-BS buys a computer site...

        ...and slowly turns it into partisan talking points.
    • Private != private

      We are talking "private" as in not plastered on websites, used for internal correspondence within the agency and with contacts outside, for non-political communications, as opposed to "private" as in a non-work address.

      The problem is, these internal communications addresses are being made public by AP, thus making the accounts useless.

      That is the take-away I get from reading the article.

      I don't see it as much different to and, the sales address is plastered on the web site, in adverts etc. and generates a lot of spam, but the user also has a "private" address at the company, which is his name and with which he communicates internally and to partners outside the company.

      That way, hopefully, all the spam lands in sales and he can use "his" address for important communications and trawl through the sales account at leisure.
    • Umm, the Bush Administration did this, and more...

      they used private email accounts for government business, and then 'lost' the emails.
      • Wikipedia?

        One rule of thumb, never use "wikipedia" as a source, as it is neither verifiable, nor reliable. I recently took a course to update my skills, and te instructor said "wikipedia is not a useful, or usable source, because it allows for anonymous editing."
        Troll Hunter J
        • I don't disagree re: Wikipedia...

          but the facts are easily verified. The Bush Administration hid emails by using an RNC account.
        • te instructor

          So "wikipedia" in scare quotes isn't allowed, but unnamed instructors that may or may not exist in courses Troll Hunter J may or may not have taken is perfectly fine?

          I'll go with sourced & referenced wikipedia articles, thanks.
    • Not Quite

      Using a private email address, as in a non-government account, in order to hide what a government official is doing is illegal. Having a government account that isn't released to the general public is not illegal. They are two different issues when it comes to any administration.
    • Well done AP

      Are you going to publish the President's direct line now so he can get drunk dialled by Joe Schmoe from Tahoe?

      "This means that the AP is in its rights to ask for all email addresses, even the private ones. But if the AP decides to go and publish those email addresses, each of the government workers they expose will suddenly get a flood of email into those addresses."

      +1. In my line of work we've considered splitting the email person of our prinicipals by having an "office" email (the one that goes on the business card, LinkedIn, airlines and other possible spam vectors) which would be monitored by a secretary and a "direct" email for confidential correspondence. We haven't gone there yet but ensuring that the principals don't miss something critical in the flood of unrelated crap (cloud antispam services notwithstanding) is very tricky.
  • Not so transparent administration.

    These email addresses where used to keep conversations between agencies (EPA) and their advocates at NGOs secret. With all the issues going on at the IRS, ATF, EPA. HHS, and Labor I think their trying to hide behind these addresses, one of which was treated as a real person with ethics awards given it should be looked into and those found violating the law, prosecuted. I'm sure, being who is involved, this won't be popular with the leftists out there.
    • Proof?

      You claim "These email addresses where used to keep conversations between agencies (EPA) and their advocates at NGOs secret.". Really? Do you have any proof of this claim?
      • Proof

        It has been reported that Lisa Jackson used her alias to communicate with NGOs. I'm not making it up. Why don't you do a little research on it?
      • Richard Windsor

        EPA's Lisa Jackson used Richard Windsor. There's a smoking gun there but it'll never see the light of day under this administration.
  • As well they should

    It's not like private sector bigwigs do things any differently if they have brains.

    And yes, I would expect George W. Bush's appointees to have done the same to keep e-mail traffic down to a dull roar. In such cases, reading e-mail from the general public can and should delegated to assistants, just as reading and answering Congressional mail is normally delegated to staffers.
    John L. Ries
    • Absolutely WRONG!!!!

      Unless the e-mails or any communications were related to national security, then, NO!!!, government workers, including the highest officials, should have to conduct business with standard issue e-mail and communications means. They are employees of the people, and as such, they have to be accountable to the people, and keeping secrets from the people should be punishable by law. Any record of communications by government officials, should be easily subpoenaed and made available to investigating authorities, and to the free press, and a freedom of information act would require. Hiding information from the people could be indicative of corrupt dealings within a government agency.

      On the other hand, a private sector business, is not answerable to the general public, or the citizenry, and therefore, secrecy is not a problem which non-employees should be concerned about. The ownership and management should have access to whatever communications occurs within a corporation, but it's not any business of the public at large. That is, unless there is deception and corruption which is harmful to consumers and to shareholders. Otherwise,not any of my business or of yours.
  • What about text messages and Twitter?

    Email is so last decade....
    • email

      I have one agency I deal with that still likes everything faxed to them. How bad is that?