E-mail vs. FOI
Lots of people use more than one email address, for very good reasons. People who use email at work usually maintain separate personal accounts, for example.
And some people use more than one email address in their jobs. It can be helpful, even critical, to be able to differentiate between very important messages and run-of-the-mill communications.
It should come as no surprise, then, that some high-ranking federal officials have secret email accounts for official business. The Associated Press found several, including Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, maintain such addresses. Again, that is perfectly understandable.
But using secret email accounts to evade Freedom of Information Act requests for government documents is an entirely different matter. Clearly, to judge by the AP’s experience in seeking even normally used email addresses for government officials and employees, that is a concern.
When the AP asked for a list of Labor Department email addresses, it was told the information would cost $1 million. Though the agency later backed down, it clearly was trying to discourage the news organization from getting the information it sought.
But use of secret email accounts is even more worrisome. It could allow officials to withhold certain communications entirely.
Government officials insist that when requests for communications are received, the secret email accounts are searched in an effort to comply. But we have to take their word for that. And if history, including that of recent years, is any guide, taking government officials’ word is never a good idea.