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Washington • Republican Sen. John McCain on Monday questioned President Barack Obama about his political appointees' use of secret government email accounts at work, saying that Congress cannot tell the American people what its government is doing if it creates a "secret alternate communications network."
The letter from McCain, the senior Republican on the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, comes in response to an Associated Press report earlier this month, which found that some top administration officials were using unpublished email accounts to conduct official business. McCain said the practice undermines congressional oversight and complicates access to records under the Freedom of Information Act.
"Four years ago, you pledged to usher in a new era of government transparency. Since then, however, your administration has habitually circumvented congressional oversight," McCain wrote to Obama, alluding to past dust-ups between congressional Republicans and the president over access to executive branch documents.
White House spokesman Jay Carney subsequently acknowledged the practice of having alternate accounts and said all emails public or otherwise were subject to congressional oversight. The White House did not immediately comment Monday on McCain's letter.
McCain asked Obama to answer several questions by July 1, including how many alternative email accounts are used in his administration and whether the practice comports with federal record-keeping standards.
The National Archives and Records Administration's chief records officer, Paul M. Wester Jr., told The Washington Post on Monday that his agency is revising its guidelines to make sure that emails in nonpublic government accounts are preserved as required under the Federal Records Act. Wester told the newspaper that he did not know how widely used the accounts are and said having secret accounts for government officials is "not a good practice to follow" because doing so makes it harder for agencies to find and turn over emails sought under FOIA requests or other inquiries.
Earlier this month, the AP found the scope of using secret accounts across the government was a mystery: Most agencies haven't turned over lists of political appointees' email addresses, which the AP sought under FOIA more than three months ago.
The Health and Human Services Department first declined to disclose Secretary Kathleen Sebelius' address in the name of personal privacy, but ultimately released it after the AP objected. The Labor Department asked the AP pay more than $1 million in processing fees, a stipulation it later apologized for and said was in error.
The AP asked for the addresses following last year's disclosures that the former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency used separate email accounts at work. The practice is separate from officials who use personal, non-government email accounts for work, which generally is discouraged but often happens anyway due to laws requiring that most federal records be preserved.
The AP also reviewed hundreds of pages of government emails released under the nation's open-records law and couldn't independently find instances when material from any of the secret accounts it identified was turned over. Congressional oversight committees told the AP they were unfamiliar with the few nonpublic government addresses that AP identified so far, including one for Sebelius.
Having separate accounts could put an agency in a difficult spot when it is compelled to search for and release emails as part of congressional or internal investigations, civil lawsuits and public records requests. That's because employees assigned to compile such responses would necessarily need to know about the accounts to search them. Secret accounts also drive perceptions that government officials try to hide actions or decisions.
Late last year, the EPA's critics including Republicans in Congress accused former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson of using an email account under the name "Richard Windsor" to sidestep disclosure rules. The EPA said emails Jackson sent using her Windsor alias were turned over under open records requests. The agency's inspector general is investigating the use of such accounts, after being asked to do so by Congress.
The White House has said the Executive Branch processes hundreds of thousands of records requests each year, has decreased request backlogs and has proactively disclosed information during Obama's presidency. It said those efforts met the president's commitment to openness since he took office in 2009.