Saturday, November 05, 2016

Why I Care About Email Server Management

Please see my election disclaimer post.

A regular feature of Matthew Ygelsias's Twitter feed has been referring to the controversy around Hillary Clinton's email server as "email server management," e.g. suggesting that the only people who would be concerned about that are "single-issue email server management voters".

This morning, Yglesias took this snark to article form: "The real Clinton email scandal is that a bullshit story has dominated the campaign"

OK, well let's see how this starts out...
Some time ago, Hillary Clinton and her advisers decided that the best course of action was to apologize for having used a personal email address to conduct government business while serving as secretary of state.
Emphasis added.

Ok, we have a problem right off the bat.

One of the patterns of Clinton defenses is to conflate what Clinton did with what a lot of professionals have done. We've all probably mixed our personal and professional IT resources in ways our employers would not approve of, so we're invited to see what Clinton did as not much different, and identify with her. We wouldn't want to have our career prospects limited by this, why should Clinton?

A few problems with this gambit:


  1. Clinton didn't just mix her personal and professional email. She had her own server for this email set up at her home on Long Island. This wasn't a matter of forwarding an email to your personal account so you could look at it at home without lugging your laptop home. This was a systemized circumvention of standard protocols.
  2. Hillary Clinton was not some standard cog in a machine. She was Secretary of State with ambitions of becoming president. I might scoff at IT policies around the emails I'm privy to as a mid-level software developer as being a tad paranoid.  Oooh, maybe a competitor will find out that we're increasing our focus on quality this quarter! When you are Secretary of State of the most powerful nation in the world, those restrictions are a bit more meaningful.
  3. I'd like to think those who would be our leaders have stronger ethical fiber than I do. I might be tempted to ignore policies that I find inconvenient, but, in general, I don't, and neither do most people. That I can understand the temptation does not mean that I excuse succumbing to it, in particular from those who ask me to vote for them for president.

So why did she do it?  Here's Yglesias's explanation:

Like most people who started a federal job in 2009, she was also disheartened to learn that the then-current state of federal IT departments was such that she could not connect her personal smartphone to a State Department email address. If she wanted ready access to both her email accounts, she would need to carry two smartphones.
As any reporter in Washington knows, this indignity was in fact visited upon a huge number of DC denizens for many years. Everyone working in government felt that this was kinda bullshit, but nobody could really do anything about it. (Meanwhile, Chief Justice John Roberts has opined that carrying two phones could be reasonable grounds to suspect someone is a drug dealer.)
Clinton decided to do something about it. Namely, she told her top aides to just email her at her personal address so she could keep using whichever devices she wanted. This violated an internal State Department policy directive, known as a Foreign Affairs Manual, which stated that while it was okay to use personal digital devices to do work occasionally, “normal day-to-day operations” should be conducted on standard State Department equipment. Clinton chose to ignore this guideline and because she was the boss nobody could stop her. 

So, according to Yglesias, the reason for the use of the personal email address was convenience. Who wants to lug around two devices?  The image this brings up is of a poor working mom dragging her kids to day-care and soccer practice and the grocery store and having to stand on the Metro to get to work, and you're asking her to carry one more thing around with her every damn day? Who could blame her for saying, "The Hell with that!"

Except Hillary Clinton wasn't a poor working mother riding public transportation to work everyday. She was Secretary of State and former First Lady, with a full staff and Secret Service protection. She hadn't touched the steering wheel of a car, let alone a post on a Metro train, in 30 years. The idea that it was just too darn onerous for her to carry two devices, while thousands of other people do the exact same thing with considerably less priviilege is risible.

So, why the email server? Yglesias goes on:

Clinton, as you may have heard, is married to former president Bill Clinton, who stepped down from office in January of 2001. Clinton was in the White House throughout the 1990s when the rest of us were being bombarded with AOL signup CD-ROMs, so he didn’t have a personal email when he left. Gmail didn’t exist back then, and his new job was, in effect, running a Bill Clinton startup. He launched a charitable foundation, he established his presidential library, and he made big bucks on speaking tours. He had a staff and he needed IT infrastructure and support. So he paid a guy to set up an email server that he could use.
Hillary Clinton — who is, again, his wife — also set herself up with an account on the same server. This is a bit unusual, but a lot about being married to a former president is unusual. What it’s not is suspicious.

I'll accept this, but note that Yglesias is asking us to grant Clinton slack based on her unusual position as a former first lady, while at the same time presenting her as poor working schlub like the rest of us who couldn't possibly be expected to manage two devices.

From there, Ygleisias goes on into the specifics of the Espionage Act, which I'm not inclined to dispute. My problem with this is not the specifics of the Espionage Act. It is the attitude of being above the law, both in this decision and the "how dare you!" response to it.

All of us encounter rules and regulations that make it harder to do the things we want to do. Our choices are:

  1. Go along with it and accept the slow-down
  2. Ignore the regulation.
  3. Work to change the regulation if it truly doesn't make sense.
Most of us are expected to choose Option #1, particularly if we lack the skill or initiative to challenge the status quo. And our lives are more difficult because of it. We lug two devices to the soccer field.

Occasionally, me might get away with Option #2. We drive 26 in a 25. We skip a few steps. We send a personal email from our work computer. We forward an email to our personal address. But if we get caught, we know we'll have to apologize or our livelihoods will be threatened.

I expect our leaders to choose Option #1 or #3. Yes, #1 makes life harder, and #3 requires courage. Tough. You want to be president.

This isn't about "email server management." This is about character. This is about how one regards oneself in relation to those one is asking to rule. The Clinton Team's response to this has not demonstrated they understand this.


This is why this story won't go away. Because people like Yglesias keep trying to shame us for caring about it, and we smell a rat.

We should expect more from our leaders than they expect of us.

Please see my election disclaimer post.
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