Can Government Function Without Privacy?
For all the attention paid to Hillary Clinton’s emails this year, little has focused on the larger implications the events could have for America’s rapidly changing standards of privacy.
Publicly releasing the private correspondence of a freshly departed secretary of state represents a clear historical break from the privacy protections traditionally afforded cabinet members. Since the Cold War, such documents have typically been released after a 30-year delay (what historians affectionately call the “30-year wall”) in the interest of giving government officials space to express controversial ideas without fear that political enemies might later use snippets of those discussions against them. The irony here is that by keeping her correspondence on a private server, Clinton set in motion a chain of events that ultimately weakened these well-established protections. Perhaps this new transparency is a positive development in the post-Snowden era, perhaps not.
The way historians go about writing foreign-policy history provides important context for the privacy implications of the Clinton email scandal. Every year, scholars and nonfiction writers gather in Washington, D.C., eagerly awaiting the release of newly declassified documents from the State Department archives. These gigantic volumes, each thousands of pages long, make up the Office of the Historian’s Foreign Relations of the United States—or FRUS—and cast new light on historical moments that were previously under-sourced or, sometimes, entirely misunderstood. This is why historians are able to produce groundbreaking books about topics that people have written about for generations.
The earliest FRUS volumes date back to the Civil War, when in 1861 President Lincoln ordered that a collection of his administration’s diplomatic correspondence be published and delivered to Congress in the interest of transparency. But Lincoln was also clear in an accompanying message to Congress that he purposefully withheld a number of documents. He referred to them as “the usual reservations,” a nod to the well-established history of the executive branch exercising a prerogative to keep State Department correspondence private from Congress and the American people.
Among the more commonly known early episodes are President Washington’s refusal to hand over records relating to the controversial “Jay Treaty” with England, John Adams’s decision to withhold letters concerning the inflammatory “XYZ Affair” with France, and the secrecy of Jefferson’s negotiations for the Louisiana Purchase. ...