Defense

GOP brushes off personal emails at Pentagon

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Congressional Republicans are largely brushing off the news that Defense Secretary Ashton Carter used his personal email to conduct business at the Pentagon, with most giving him the benefit of the doubt.

“This more or less results in a simple slap on the wrist for him and a scolding,” said Joe Kasper, chief of staff for House Armed Services Committee member Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.). “I think that’s as far as this goes.”

{mosads}Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said Carter’s email use is a cautionary tale, but that it “pales in comparison” to her concerns about the nation’s cyber defenses.

“What worries me far more about cyber security is an attack on our critical infrastructure,” said Collins, who added the caveat that she was unfamiliar with how long Carter was using his personal email. “It’s probably a cautionary lesson for all of us who have access to classified information to be extraordinarily careful about our use of email accounts.”

The muted criticism of Carter stands in stark contrast to the scrutiny that has fallen on Hillary Clinton since it was revealed earlier this year that she exclusively used a personal email account while serving as secretary of State. 

That email arrangement has become one of the focal points of the House’s Benghazi investigation, and is the subject of an FBI investigation that is apparently looking at whether any classified information was improperly handled. 

Carter appeared to be facing a similar controversy when The New York Times reported last week that he relied on a personal email account for some of his official duties during his first months as secretary of Defense. 

The Pentagon chief said he made a mistake and insists he never sent classified information on the account, which he says he stopped using a few months ago. 

“I didn’t do the right thing,” he told reporters in Iraq last week. “This is entirely on me.”

But the Republican reaction to Carter has been mild so far. Many Republicans are fans of the Defense secretary, a Rhodes Scholar who previously served in several high-ranking jobs at the Pentagon. 

Still, Carter isn’t out of the woods yet.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has promised that his committee will review the emails to make sure no sensitive information was compromised.

McCain said it was “hard to believe that Secretary Carter would exercise the same error in judgment” as Clinton by using a personal account.

Meanwhile, McCain’s counterpart on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), has proposed a review by Pentagon’s inspector general and not his own committee. Congress should be briefed afterward, he added. 

The ranking Democrat on the House committee, Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.) declined to comment on Carter’s use of a personal email account. Aides for the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.) did not respond to requests for comment.

Emails from the account that have been released thus far show messages sent from Carter’s iPhone or iPad, mostly with quick questions on logistics or scheduling for his then-chief of staff Eric Fanning. For example, one email sent April 29 with the subject, “Paying for dinner,” has only one word in its body: “How?”

“In this new age of communication, is this so unrelatable to so many Americans?” asked Kasper, Hunter’s chief of staff. “I don’t think so. This type of thing, we can see how it happens, more or less.”

Kasper listed a number of differences he saw between Clinton’s situation and Carter’s. First, Carter owned up to his mistake the day after the story broke, while Clinton waited months to confirm her use of a personal account, he said. 

Second, Carter isn’t running for president and isn’t likely to ever run for any office, Kasper said.

Third, Carter’s record shows he has “always been a person who’s demonstrated good judgment.” He cited Carter’s desire for acquisition reform and outreach to Silicon Valley.

Still, Kasper said there should be a review to verify that no classified information was compromised. He backed Thornberry’s recommendation that the inspector general take the lead and then brief the Armed Services Committee, but cautioned against going on a “fishing expedition” to “prove a point.”

“As Mr. Hunter is concerned, at least right now, he takes the secretary at his word that this was a simple mistake and won’t happen again,” Kasper said. “He also takes him at his word that there was no secure information that was transmitted.

“And I’ll say too that in Mr. Hunter’s perspective, Secretary Carter’s got a very tough job to do. It’s an enormous bureaucracy with a lot of moving parts with a lot of people. Forget about there’s still a ground war going on in Afghanistan. So there’s a lot happening every day for the secretary, so there are bound to be slips every now and then.”

The White House, for its part, has emphasized that the Defense Secretary broke administration policy with his use of the personal account.

“Based on what has been described thus far, it clearly is a mistake because it runs counter to our policy,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters last week. “The consequences of that mistake at this point, however, do not seem significant.” 

Earnest also differentiated between Carter and Clinton. 

“I think he is legitimately held to a different standard because we’re talking about fewer emails,” he said, “and we’re talking about somebody who continues to serve in the government, and we’re not talking about somebody who is running for elective office.”

Tags Adam Smith Hillary Clinton Jack Reed John McCain Susan Collins

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