>The hacker who broke into Sarah Palin's email account has, of course, been roundly condemned for his actions, but he has for the moment succeeded in reviving the unanswered question of why the Alaska governor had two quasi-official email addresses, email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. So central were the private accounts to Palin's state office that her secretary admonished a government aide who accidentally used a government email address instead. This use of the accounts is a naked affront to public records laws in Alaska. But it's not exceptional: It's one battle in a 30-years war between conservatives and civil libertarians over government openness, during which the current presidential administration itself blurred the linese between public and private email. Is there any way to finally stop these hijinks?
The thing is, though, Palin's staff haven't even bothered to deny there's been some official business flowing through Yahoo Mail. Though Palin recently pledged to govern with "a servant's heart," her press secretary this week said, when asked about the private accounts, that Alaskans don't need a transparent government because "the final decisions will be public."
"I don't hear any public clamor for access to internal communications of the governor's office," he told the Anchorage Daily News for an article about the Yahoo accounts and how they made it hard to enforce state freedom of information laws.
In other words, the executive branch has the right to deliberate and keep a wide array of secrets, regardless of some ill-considered public access rules. That assertion is basically what Dick Cheney has been saying for the past eight years to justify the Bush Administration's culture of secrecy.
And in fact it's what Cheney was whispering in President Gerald Ford's ear 30 years ago to get him to veto a strengthening of the Freedom Of Information Act, which even then had been neutered by a succession of Republican executive branches. The National Security Archive has a great summary of the Ford Administration's thinking at the time (spoiler: despite the efforts of Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Antonin Scalia, Ford's veto was overridden by Congress).
The difference now is that email technology makes this old battle more complicated to fight. There are basically two ways forward.
One is to retreat at least somewhat from the open access laws enacted in the 1960s and 1970s. Allow, perhaps, government email to remain secret for a year or two, after which point a wider-than-ever array of communications must be made public.
The other is for reformist liberals to take a cue from Gerald Ford's Congress and enact laws and penalties tough enough to ensure the government can't thumb its nose at access laws already on the books — thus making slightly less laughable the idea of government officials acting as "servants" to taxpayers.
The presidential election will likely help determine which path wins out — though it may yet be settled by computer hackers and other distractions.