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Email row clouds Hillary Clinton’s presidential ambitions

Hillary Clinton’s use of a private, not a State Department email account, for official business could wreck her presumed presidential aspirations before they are even declared. Salvaging them requires a tight-rope act.

The revelation by the #link:http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/03/us/politics/hillary-clintons-use-of-private-email-at-state-department-raises-flags.html:New York Times# that former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used a private instead of an official email account to conduct government business during her tenure comes at a particularly bad time for Washington's former top diplomat.

The day before the Times published its story, the #link:http://www.wsj.com/articles/hillary-clinton-seen-launching-presidential-bid-in-april-1425254392:Wall Street Journal# ran a widely-circulated piece stating that Hillary Clinton might enter the presidential race already in April. The row over her exclusive use of a private instead of an official email account as Secretary of State probably means that any plans to declare a candidacy soon will likely be shelved for now.

That is because her reported use of clintonemail.com as her account ran over a server that apparently was located either in or close to her home in surburban New York City raises political and security issues.

Decision with consequences

While using a governmental email account was not legally mandated during her tenure as America's top diplomat, the State Department was required to keep her emails as part of the official government record. However, it only received the emails last year when Clinton sent some 55,000 mails from her private account to the State Department which is now conducting a review of the email trove. That probe could take months, an official told Reuters.

Clinton's use of a private email account had consequences. It meant that requests by media organizations like the Associated Press or Gawker for Clinton's email records under the Freedom of Information Act dating back to 2010 turned up empty because the State Department did not have them. That many of her emails were until recently not part of the official State Department record naturally provides ample fodder for Hillary Clinton's Republican detractors who view this as an effort to keep her emails secret.

While the exact set-up and security precautions of her private email account remain unclear, running a private email account as US Secretary of State is per se a risky endeavor, said Matthew Green, a cryptography and network security expert at Johns Hopkins University:

US-Außenministerium

Did Hillary not want her emails to be read?

"I don't know how well secured her outside mail provider account was. It may not be any less secure than the State Department account. But put it this way: if the State Department is hacked, you can lay that at the feet of the State IT department. If you use an outside provider, you have to bear responsibility for any bad thing that happens."

What's more, the "State Department is presumably monitoring their systems and keeping logs of all emails, including deleted emails and unauthorized login attempts," added Green. "It's hard to make the same guarantees with an outside provider."

Damage control

After the email story broke, the former Secretary of State switched from campaign to damage control-mode. Via Twitter she declared: "I want the public to see my email. I asked State to release them." But beyond that statement she has not come out yet and told her side of the story.

With good reason, said James Davis, director of the Institute of Political Science at University of St. Gallen, because whether this incident will cripple her presidential ambitions depends largely on how she reacts to the issue.

Does she come out defensive or does she "self-confidently stick to a plausible story line," asked Davis. "She can admit to having violated the rules, provide a credible explanation for why she did so, and then apologize. This seems to be the route she is taking. But if she starts to change her story, equivocate and turn defensive, she will lose credibility in the eyes of the electorate."

Unclear motivation

A second factor that might thwart her presidential hopes though is largely beyond her control. Will media outlets - which are all over the story now – find any damaging emails.

"If it turns out that her private emails contradict public statements, for example about the situation in Benghazi, she would be in for a long period of bad press, which would open up some space for potential rivals within the Democratic party and provide ammunition for the Republicans to use in the general election campaign," said Davis.

Hillary Clinton äußert sich zu September-Anschlägen in Benghazi

Republicans have subpoened her emails related to the Benghazi attack

With her political future up in the air due now to her decision to use a private email account as Secretary of State, begs the question why a savvy and experienced politician like Hillary Clinton ever made that call.

"It is hard to imagine why she chose to use private email, especially as she is on the record as an advocate for transparency," said Davis. "But it is an unfortunate feature of the Clintons' style of politics that they don't seem to think the rules they expect others to live by also apply to them."

"I can't help but think this was a case where convenience trumped security," said Green. "It's possible that the State Department email system wasn't as easy to use, or didn't support some mobile device she preferred. So her staff set up this account."

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