Hillary Clinton's Audacity of Opacity Goes Back to Whitewater

Nearly 20 years later, has she learned that the appearance of secrecy is far more damaging than the secrets themselves?
Photographer: Stephen Jaffe/AFP via Getty Images

Potential Hillary Clinton supporters are unlikely to give two whits, or even one, about whether she used a personal rather than a government email as secretary of state.

That’s even if, as the New York Times has reported, she in the process “may have violated federal requirements that officials’ correspondence be retained as part of the agency’s record.”

Given her history, it’s no wonder she might wish to keep as much information private as possible; in fact, every public person would like that. But her lawyerly impulse to indulge that wish doesn’t inspire confidence that she has, as she and her allies assert, learned from her earlier mistakes.

Those mistakes certainly include the self-inflicted wounds caused by her all-occasion inclination to answer questions as narrowly as possible. When a revelation fits a pre-existing narrative, its impact is naturally multiplied. And as the Times story says, the “revelation about the private email account echoes longstanding criticisms directed at both the former secretary and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, for a lack of transparency and an inclination toward secrecy.”

Part of the rationale for her expected ’16 presidential campaign is that she knows well—indeed, all too well—how Washington works, and won’t be making any rookie mistakes.

Yet in light of all of her experience, her alleged failure to comply with the Federal Records Act looks even worse.

During Hillary Clinton’s first presidential run, there were reports that her husband had attempted to block the release of presidential papers revealing the first couple’s communications during the Clinton administration.

In a 2002 letter to the National Archives, Bill Clinton asked that those communications “should generally be considered for withholding”—subjected to review, in other words—until 2012.

The Clinton camp argued that the president had not asked that they be withheld indefinitely. According to the New York Times, in a 2007 article headlined, “Clinton Rebuts Accusations of Secrecy,” she told Radio Iowa that, “I think it’s like people think we have boxes of records in our basement and why don’t I just go and get them and hand them over. And you know my husband has never blocked a record ever. He has been the most forthcoming of all presidents."

Let’s hope that isn’t the case.

During the Hillarycare debate, it was the closed character of the work of her task force that gave the impression that she was trying to pull a fast one.

During the Whitewater investigation that dragged on for years—and led directly to the discovery of Bill Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky—there was intense debate within the Clinton White House over whether the Clintons shouldn’t just produce all of the available documents, prove there wasn’t a lot there, and be done with it.

Hillary Clinton, though, was adamant that officials should do no such thing, and should instead give up nothing without a fight.

The impression that she had something to hide—even when she may not have—was cemented when her Whitewater billing records from her old practice, the Rose Law Firm, mysteriously went missing for two years, then turned up in a reading room in the third-floor residence at the White House.

In a meticulous reconstruction of the Whitewater investigations in the Washington Post that ran in June of 1996, David Maraniss and Susan Schmidt wrote:

From the beginning of the Whitewater controversy, Hillary Clinton has maintained a public posture seemingly at odds with her actions. She was reluctant to release records during the 1992 campaign. She fought David Gergen's recommendation to turn over all the records in 1993. She led White House opposition to the appointment of a special counsel in early 1994.”

There appears to be a four-year pattern of Hillary Clinton avoiding full disclosure, occasionally forgetting places and events that might embarrass her, and revising her story as documents emerge and the knowledge of her questioners deepens. 

The Post story notes that during a Jan. 15, 1996, interview on Diane Rehm's WAMU-FM radio talk show, Rehm asked Hillary Clinton, “In the last few days, it's been reported a number of times that early on in the administration, David Gergen, adviser to President Clinton, advised you both to go to the Washington Post, lay out all the documents and just put it all out on the table. Number one, did he advise you that? And number two, do you now think maybe that would have been a good idea?”

“Yes, David did,’’ she answered, “and I certainly understand why he gave us that advice and I have a very high regard for him. David was not with us in the '92 campaign. We actually did that with the New York Times. We took every document we had, which again I have to say were not many. We laid them all out, but the New York Times was getting many documents; they were getting many stories. They were getting, you know, accusations from other people. So when they would ask us a follow-up question, we'd have to say, we don't know anything about that, and then they would say, well, then, maybe you can't answer our question.”

“But her answer to Rehm was inaccurate,’’ according to the Post:

The Clintons had not, as she had claimed, taken “every document” they had and “laid them all out” when questions first arose about Whitewater. Five days after the Rehm interview, the White House issued a clarification which said the first lady "mistakenly suggested that the New York Times was provided access to all of the Whitewater-related documents in the possession of the 1992 campaign. According to the statement, Hillary Clinton "believed that the campaign had turned over all the documents in its possession" but had since learned that some records were withheld.”

Nearly 20 years later, has she learned that David Gergen’s advice was worth following? The appearance of “we know better” secrecy is so much more damaging than anything we know the Clintons to have done in connection with Whitewater or any number of other controversies that that’s even more worrying than the security of her personal email account.

Another possibility is an outdated understanding of cyber hygiene; would it be better or worse if neither she nor anyone in a position to advise her fully understood that, as Thomas S. Blanton, an advocate for government transparency as the director of the National Security Archive, told the Times, “Personal emails are not secure. Senior officials should not be using them.”

And who is today’s David Gergen, the adviser who will tell her what she doesn’t want to hear? Did nobody on her State Department team, who would have received many official emails from her personal account, ever even think to raise the issue?