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.

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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

About

In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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