Ashton Carter in helicopter

November 6 photo of Defense Secretary Ashton Carter aboard a
V-22 Osprey with the USS Roosevelt in the background

Ash Carter Used Private Email for Pentagon Business

| published December 17, 2015 |

By Keith H. Roberts, Thursday Review contributor

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter may have violated security protocol when he used a personal email account to send and receive government business after taking over the post at the Pentagon in February, according to reports in the New York Times.

According to the Times investigation, the White House first learned of the personal email account in early May, at which time it sought clarification as to why the new Defense chief was using an email address outside the security coverage of the U.S. Government, as required of most federal employees. The Times, after filing a Freedom of Information Act request, obtained more than 70 emails sent or received by Carter between March and early May.

Carter’s use of the personal email account for some Defense Department correspondence continued for about 11 weeks, well after controversy and scandal engulfed the presidential campaign of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—the front-runner who then faced months of criticism for her own use of a private email account during her tenure as top diplomat. One of the principal concerns of investigators looking into Clinton’s email troubles was whether she violated national security protocols, or exposed secret or classified documents and intelligence, through the use of her private email account.

Security and military analysis now say that some of these same questions may now be thrown at Carter, who was appointed to the job after the departure of previous Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

A U.S. Senate committee now wants not only answers, but also the ability to directly examine Carter’s emails and electronic correspondence. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), a ranking member of the Senate and the chair of the Armed Services Committee, demanded an explanation for what could prove to be the start of a fiasco.

“With all the public attention surrounding the improper use of personal email by other [Obama] administration officials,” McCain said, “it is hard to believe that Secretary Carter would exercise the same error in judgment. The committee has requested copies of the emails and will be conducting a review to ensure that sensitive information was not compromised.”

Carter recently acknowledged the use of the personal email account for sending and receiving military and government emails, but stressed that he did not use the account to send or receive classified or sensitive data. Carter said that he stopped using the account in the spring after the White House raised questions. A spokesman at the Pentagon has said Carter agrees it was a mistake to have used the account.

Neither White House nor Pentagon officials have said whether they agree that Carter’s use of the personal email account violates any federal regulations or laws, though according to legal analysts—and based on preliminary evidence—Carter clearly violated the federal guideline requiring government officials to use only an email account managed using secure government servers or platforms. The use of a private or personal email account for the transmission of government correspondence is also a violation of the Federal Records Act, which has been updated and amended in recent years to cover digital data, online activity and emails.

Pentagon officials also stressed that Carter primarily uses Defense Department secure forms of communication for almost all of his day-to-day management of the U.S. military. Classified or top secret reports, intelligence briefings and military memoranda are provided almost exclusively in hard copy form, the spokesperson said, or is provided in real-time in command centers where visual access is available on-screen or at display terminals.

Still, the New York Times report shows that Carter sent and received frequent routine emails through the personal emails account, and that much of that correspondence was with top aides or Pentagon employees. Hackers can often gain access to email accounts far easier than to other more carefully secured applications, and cyber terrorists and those engaged in espionage can sometimes use the information found in emails to gain access to more critical computerized data or material.

McCain and other members of the Senate committee will surely want an explanation of why the practice of using a personal email account continued, even months after the explosive charges against Hillary Clinton brought the problem of email security to the forefront.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Senate Passes Cyber Security Bill; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; October 28, 2015.

Email Account of CIA Director Breached by Hacker; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; October 20, 2015.