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About those 'secret' email accounts...

White House photo

With Scandal Mania 2013 struggling, the search is on for a new controversy. The Associated Press yesterday threw a new possibility into the mix:

Some of President Barack Obama's political appointees are using secret government email accounts to conduct official business, The Associated Press found, a practice that complicates agencies' legal responsibilities to find and turn over emails under public records requests and congressional inquiries.

The prospect of "secret government email accounts" certainly sounds problematic, and quickly offered Republican members of Congress something new to be excited about. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) appeared on Fox News yesterday morning, arguing, "Get it all out there; get it all out there now. If there's nothing to hide, and in fact what they're claiming is that this was incompetence, not that this was deliberate, then get all the information out there quickly and let's dispose of this once and for all."

Rubio was confused. The administration isn't claiming "this was incompetence"; they're claiming this is routine and uninteresting.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday that having two email accounts has been a routine practice during this and previous administrations.

He said administration officials have one address that they use for public email and another that they use for internal communication, but he said all are searched in response to Freedom of Information Act requests.

"Let's be clear: This is a practice consistent with prior administrations of both parties," Carney said, and added that the secondary accounts are not "secret" but rather "alternative work" accounts.

I'll concede that I'm not an expert on the nuances of FOIA and/or email transparency, but there doesn't seem to be much here.

Josh Israel had a good piece on this.

The AP story gives the impression that this is unprecedented, making no mention of the use of the multiple addresses by previous administrations.

U.S. Senators and Representatives also typically have non-published e-mail addresses, though Congress exempted itself from Freedom of Information laws. It seems obvious that political figures of both parties would need an unlisted e-mail address that cannot be easily guessed for communications with advisers and colleagues -- just as cabinet secretaries private cell phone numbers would not be publicly available, though their main office number would be.

This seems pretty obvious. Top officials in government could, I suppose, make their direct email accounts readily available to the public, but the inevitable spam and crank messages raise legitimate practical concerns. It's why the Clinton and Bush administrations used the same email practices as the Obama administration, to the concern of no one.

But, some of you with good memories might be thinking, wasn't there a problem with access to Bush/Cheney emails? Yes, there was, but it had nothing to with separate/ alternative email accounts and everything to do with a flawed system that failed to properly archive messages.