In 2014, in the wake of a series of cyber attacks against Department of Homeland Security (DHS) emails, Secretary Jeh Johnson banned the use of private e-mail on DHS computers. The practice of using private emails to discuss official state business was considered a national security risk, and secure servers were established that would allow DHS employees to send emails without the risk of theft.
However, Secretary Johnson and 28 of his senior staffers have been discovered using private web based e-mail from their work computers, in direct violation of his own policy. Furthermore, if any of these messages are revealed to be work related, Johnson and his staff may be in violation of the laws and regulations in regards to the preservation of federal records.
Over the past year, Johnson and his staff sought out and received informal waivers that allowed them to violate the private email policy. For former director of litigation at the National Archives and Records Administration Jason R. Baron, these waivers seem circumspect.
“I suppose it is remotely conceivable that in seeking a waiver, 20 or more government officials could all be wishing to talk to each other through a web-based e-mail service about such matters as baseball games or retirement luncheons they might be attending,” said Baron. “But it is simply not reasonable to assume that in seeking a waiver that the officials involved were only contemplating using a commercial network for personal communications.”
While the issue of security is important, Baron’s complain lies in the preservation of those messages. By obtaining waivers, Johnson and his staff’s emails are left out of the public record and kept out of reach of the Freedom of Information Act.
In the future, all access to private email accounts has been suspended, regardless of waivers. It is unclear what the contents of the private emails were, and the DHS has not confirmed or denied the existence of any open investigations into the matter.