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Climate czar left no electronic trail
Question of the Day
Don’t bother looking for any electronic records of Carol Browner’s first stint as a federal government executive. The soon-to-be Obama administration climate czar intentionally didn’t keep many.
In sworn testimony obtained by The Washington Times, Ms. Browner disclosed that she refused to use e-mail when she served as President Clinton’s Environmental Protection Agency chief in the 1990s for fear of leaving a digital trail. She also ordered her government computer hard drive wiped clean of records just before leaving office.
“It was a conscious decision not to use a piece of equipment or to learn how to use a piece of equipment because I didn’t want to be in a situation similar to what I had been in Florida,” she testified about government computers. The testimony referred to her days as an environmental regulator in Florida, where an e-mail message sent to her surfaced in litigation.
“This is why I made this decision not to use my computer,” she said. “I was very careful.”
Ms. Browner’s sworn statements were gathered in a little-noticed civil case involving the government’s obligation to preserve its official records that transpired after Ms. Browner left office in January 2001. The lawsuit examined why EPA officials failed to save electronic records that chronicled the Clinton administration’s final actions in office and that were being sought by a conservative legal group under federal open-records laws.
The same day a judge ordered the agency to preserve such records, Ms. Browner asked a staff member that any files on her government computer be erased, prompting allegations of a possible cover-up.
The ensuing investigation ultimately cleared Ms. Browner of any wrongdoing, concluding she was unaware of the judge’s order. Her former agency, however, didn’t fare as well. It was found in contempt of court for failing to preserve government records at the heart of the case.
While exonerated, Ms. Browner’s testimony provided a rare insight into her distaste for keeping historical government records in electronic form. It’s an aversion that concerns some government watchdogs as she prepares to take the high-profile job of coordinating President-elect Barack Obama’s efforts against global warming.
“Obviously, it’s troubling that public officials would avoid doing things because they’re afraid the public might see it later,” said Mike Surrusco, senior researcher at Common Cause, a nonpartisan group that monitors government ethics and openness.
Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition at the University of Missouri, said avoiding computers and e-mail “seems a little drastic and over the top.”
“It’s regrettable,” Mr. Davis added. “It seems a rejection of the entire inertia of the marketplace to forswear digital communications.”
Obama aides declined to say whether Ms. Browner plans to use email or computers in her new job but said she worked to improve transparency during her years at the EPA, where she made decisions on written memos instead of e-mails.
She is hardly the only high-ranking government official to avoid e-mail.
Former Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and current Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff have opted not to use e-mail on the job, either, according to a 2006 House report. And President Bush has cited personal privacy issues for his decision to forgo e-mail.
In her deposition, Ms. Browner said she instructed her staff to remove her computer when she first took office at the EPA, though she later kept it when told the computer was assigned to her office.
Still, she said she hardly ever used it and relied on her staff to sort through e-mails and print out important messages. In Florida, she said she was overwhelmed by e-mail. She also said during her 2001 deposition that during her years as an environmental regulator in Florida, she once had to provide affidavits after an internal e-mail sent to her surfaced in litigation involving a permitting issue
“I thought, you know what? I don’t need this. I don’t need to go there again, I don’t need to deal with this. I will not use e-mail, and I did not use e-mail.”
Just before leaving office, Ms. Browner ordered that the hard drive of her computer be wiped clean, though a group had been seeking a court injunction to preserve her records. She said she wasn’t told to keep the computer records intact in connection with the FOIA lawsuit, but wanted to make sure that computer games her son installed on her work computer were removed.
Landmark Legal Foundation’s president, Mark R. Levin, who sued the EPA and was among the lawyers at Ms. Browner’s deposition, said her answers suggested a “culture of deniability” during her years at the agency.
“She was the most disconnected senior official I have ever come across in government,” Mr. Levin said.
Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the Obama transition team, disputed Mr. Levin’s criticism, calling Landmark “a partisan attack group that fought clean-air standards and efforts to get arsenic out of drinking water.”
“Carol Browner’s record at EPA is marked by her work to increase the public’s right to know about toxic chemicals in the air and water, and her efforts to improve the government’s responsiveness to environmental issues,” he said.
“Both a judge and inspector general report found that Ms. Browner did nothing wrong” by ordering her computer files deleted, Mr. Vietor said.
Meredith Fuchs, general counsel to the nonpartisan National Security Archive, which collects and publishes declassified government records, said government officials have to walk a fine line when it comes to e-mail.
“A lot of these officials look at the record laws as a limitation of what they can do,” she said. “But they’re doing things on behalf of the public, and there has to be some transparency about what they’re doing.”
On the other hand, Ms. Fuchs added, “We don’t want these people heading big agencies reading e-mail all day.”
About the Author
Jim McElhatton is an investigative reporter for The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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