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Sunday, October 23, 2016

In theory, the changeover from paper to email should make government more transparent. The cost of archiving documents should be lower, because data can be housed on relatively small hard drives rather than in spacious warehouses. Likewise, the time expense of retrieving that data should be reduced, because it can be obtained through a few keystrokes rather than a tedious search of file cabinets.

Consequently, open records requests should be far easier to fulfill, because electronic correspondence and memos are keyword searchable. Yet two New York politicos are showing that the era of Big Data does not necessarily mean the public gets a better view of its government.

The first is Hillary Clinton, the Empire State’s former senator. According to reports this week in The New York Times and Associated Press, Clinton avoided using a government email address as U.S. Secretary of State, instead conducting State Department business through a personal account on her own private server. The Times notes that “the practice protected a significant amount of her correspondence from the eyes of investigators and the public.”

According to one legal expert, Clinton’s move may have run afoul of the spirit — if not the letter — of rules governing federal records.

“It is very difficult to conceive of a scenario — short of nuclear winter — where an agency would be justified in allowing its cabinet-level head officer to solely use a private email communications channel for the conduct of government business,” a former lawyer for the National Archives and Records Administration told the Times.

At least Clinton’s emails may still exist somewhere, and could be made public if she and the State Department choose to release them. The same cannot necessarily be said for emails from the New York state government, thanks to Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo.

Last week, his administration began mass deleting state government emails that are more than 90 days old. It is a data purging policy he first instituted in 2007 as state attorney general, making it harder for the public to know if his office investigated bank fraud in the lead up to the financial crisis of 2008.

In the Cuomo administration’s announcement of the new policy for other branches of state government, the governor’s chief information officer said the objective is “making government work better.” While Cuomo officials have suggested that the purge policy is a technical necessity to consolidate email systems, an official at the Electronic Frontier Foundation said “there’s no technological reason that New York can’t maintain these records indefinitely.”

What’s particularly notable about Cuomo’s move is that it comes amid a sprawling federal probe of corruption in New York state government. Indeed, right now, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Manhattan has said that “we have a number of investigations going on” in Albany.

In light of that, a former Justice Department official in the Clinton administration, Melanie Sloan, told International Business Times: “This is potentially obstruction of justice. The only reason that the government destroys records is so no one can question what it is doing, and no one can unearth information about improper conduct. There’s no reason for New York not to preserve this information.”

The key lesson from both of these stories is that the age-old tricks of subterfuge are still available in the information age. The proponents of secrecy may not have to use clunky document shredders anymore; instead, they can shred more of those documents with a click of a button.

Preserving any kind of open government, therefore, requires continued vigilance and stronger freedom of information laws because new technology alone does not guarantee transparency. Too often it can foster the opposite.

David Sirota is a senior writer at the International Business Times and the best-selling author of the books Hostile Takeover, The Uprising and Back to Our Future.” Email him at [email protected], follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at

Photo: Governor Andrew Cuomo delivers remarks at the start of the Little Neck/Douglaston Memorial Day Parade on Monday, May 26, 2014. (Diana Robinson/Flickr)

  • Godzilla

    When people in the government have things to hide, the people are no longer in control of their government. While both Republicans and Democrats are guilty of such actions, it’s the current events, events that have shown that as long as it’s your guy/girl, it’s OK. This shows a serious character flaw, when people approve and defend wrongdoing, they themselves are complicit to the actions. When the actions are done by those who should be the MOST scrutinized of a society, then it is only a matter of time until that society turns on itself. Subjugation is imminent, then a societal breakdown. When this occurs, most of you who read this can look in the mirror to see the cause.

    • CPAinNewYork

      The people are never in control.

  • CPAinNewYork

    Mr. Sirota’s article proves once again that our politicians are a bunch of sleazebags.

    • SusieQ666

      And your solution to that is???? Anarchy? Martial law? Just curious.

  • Allan Richardson

    One quandary for government officials who go into office MEANING to be honest is that there actually ARE some pieces of information which need to be kept secret from the general public, because that general public includes potential enemies. The most obvious, of course, are military secrets, such as the design parameters of missiles, bombs, warplanes, subs, other ships, etc. On a more domestic basis, the advance itinerary of the President and other high officials, the exact nature and deployment of protective personnel, and even the exact nature of protective measures AVAILABLE must be kept secret. Otherwise, in today’s world, there would be very frequent assassination attempts, many of which would succeed, while others would cause significant harm to nearby individuals even if thwarted with regard to their intended target.

    The fact that procedures exist to protect LEGITIMATE secrets unfortunately gives any officials who are so tempted a tool to keep things secret which should NOT be kept secret as well. For example, one president kept secret the fact that he had hired some burglars to break in and steal documents from the opposing party’s campaign headquarters. And a presidential candidate, or at least his campaign staff, used his running mate’s connection with former CIA colleagues to contact the leaders of an unfriendly country, which was holding hundreds of Americans hostage in what had been our embassy to that country, and offer to sell them weapons in exchange for refusing to release the hostages to the incumbent president, but releasing them to the challenger once he won the election; a ruse which certainly helped him to win, and which they kept secret for more than four years, in fact until two weeks AFTER that new president was elected to a SECOND term. Would the voters have turned him out if they had learned about this secret lawbreaking BEFORE voting for him a second time? Who knows?

    I find it hard to think of a systemic fix to prevent the MISUSE of secrecy while also protecting its LEGITIMATE use, unless it is to have the highest ranking officials of BOTH parties authorized to KNOW all the secrets (except, of course, codes for launching weapons and such). The fact that a patriotic but politically opposed high official COULD reveal what he or she feels to be a politically motivated, as opposed to patriotically motivated, secret at any time should help to keep members of both major parties in line. Of course, such a revelation should be authorized ONLY by a minimum bipartisan quorum of such leaders, AFTER notifying the incumbent official that their lawful need for secrecy is questioned. Otherwise, a member of an extreme faction of the opposition party could expose information damaging to the country.

    Does anybody else have any concrete ideas how this could be handled? Obviously, we cannot simply make ALL government actions public ALL the time, but neither can we remain a government of the people if ANYTHING can be kept secret indefinitely, even when it only protects the incumbents, not the nation.