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Feds still use secret email, but messages must be saved

Sep. 11, 2013 at 10:56 AM ET

A man types on a computer keyboard in Warsaw in this February 28, 2013 illustration file picture. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Files
© Kacper Pempel / Reuters
A man types on a computer keyboard.

Administration officials and other federal workers may continue to use secret government email accounts to conduct official business as long as the messages are safely preserved and turned over when they are sought under the Freedom of Information Act, the nation's record-keeping agency said Tuesday.

New rules from the National Archives and Records Administration follow an Associated Press investigation earlier this year that found that some Obama administration political appointees used government email accounts that were not disclosed to the public or to congressional officials.

Lawmakers on oversight committees told the AP they were unfamiliar with the email addresses the AP identified in its investigation, including one for Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

On Tuesday, U.S. Archivist David Ferriero told a House oversight hearing that he doesn't care how many email addresses government officials use. But Republican lawmakers said multiple email accounts, while could be useful for organizing large numbers of emails, may complicate efforts to pinpoint which accounts belong to whom.

Having separate accounts can put an agency in a difficult spot when it is compelled to search for and release emails as part of congressional or internal investigations, civil lawsuits and public records requests, in part because employees assigned to compile such responses would need to know what accounts even to search. Secret accounts also drive perceptions that government officials try to hide actions or decisions.

The Freedom of Information Act allows anyone to compel the government to turn over copies of federal agency records. Exceptions include records that if made public would damage national security, violate personal privacy or expose business secrets or confidential decision-making in certain areas.

NARA's guidance, released Monday, states that the agency recognizes the use of multiple email addresses when there's an official "business need," such as having separate accounts for public and internal correspondence. Regardless of how many federal email accounts someone may use, it said, the accounts must be "managed, accessible and identifiable" under federal record-keeping requirements.

Former U.S. officials, including the Energy Department's Jonathan Silver and the Environment Protection Agency's Lisa Jackson, told Tuesday's oversight hearing that they didn't intend to violate federal record-keeping rules when they used personal email addresses to contact those with whom they've done official business.

The AP's review found hundreds of pages of government emails released under the federal open-records law but couldn't independently find instances when material from any of the secret accounts it identified was turned over. The AP asked for those addresses following last year's disclosures that former EPA administrators used separate email accounts. Jackson said Tuesday she used her "Richard Windsor" account to communicate with Obama administration officials.

Jackson, in response to questions from the AP, said it was the EPA's job to ensure that records it has are searched when citizens and journalists request copies of government emails. Jackson told committee members Tuesday her main EPA email address received roughly 1 million emails per year, or about one every 30 seconds. That kind of inbox volume, she said, "is more than one person can handle and still do their job effectively."

Jackson's statements follow an inquiry by House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., into how well the government produces documents requested under the federal open records law. Issa said email accounts should be identified by the actual name of each federal employee so that responsive emails can be turned over under the federal open records law.

"I think that's the bigger challenge," Issa said.

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