Grassley questions Defense secretary’s personal email use

Photo courtesy Sen. Chuck Grassley

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) is concerned that use of personal email for official business by Defense Secretary Ash Carter poses security risks.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) has sent a letter to Defense Secretary Ash Carter asking if the Pentagon has reviewed whether classified information was involved in Carter's use of a personal email account last year. Carter has said previously that no classified information was involved.

"[T]he use of private email in this context exposes the information to possible hacks and intrusions by foreign intelligence agencies," Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote in a letter dated Feb. 1.  "As the secretary of Defense, you are inevitably a prime target for foreign hackers. As such, the threat is real and compliance with the law is essential."

In December Carter acknowledged he had used his personal email account for some official business, calling it a "mistake," but stating that no classified information had been handled.

"I have to hold myself to absolutely strict standards in terms of cybersecurity and doing things that are appropriate," Carter told CBS News. "I didn't in this case."

Grassley's letter posed a series of questions to Carter, including whether his use of an iPhone had revealed his location. Grassley asked Carter to explain his understanding of federal regulations on email use and to clarify when he began and ceased using a personal account. The Iowa Republican also asked point-blank: Why did you do it?

Lt. Col. Tom Crosson, a spokesman in Carter's office, said, "We are aware of Senator Grassley's letter and will respond as appropriate."

The New York Times was the first to report on Carter's use of the personal email account for official business. Carter did so for at least two months after the public revelation of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's extensive use of a private email account during her tenure, according to the Times report.

Some observers were flummoxed as to how Carter could repeat the same mistake, especially considering his past experience in other DOD leadership roles. "The fact that Hillary had so many issues around doing the same thing should have given [Carter] pause," Justin Harvey, chief security officer at Fidelis Cybersecurity, told FCW in December. Personal email accounts tend to lack the level of security provided by enterprise email accounts, Harvey said.

A National Archives and Records Administration directive discourages government employees from using personal email accounts for official business, with exceptions for emergencies. In a statement in December, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said Carter was "confident that his work-related email has been and will continue to be preserved within the federal records system."

About the Author

Sean Lyngaas is an FCW staff writer covering defense, cybersecurity and intelligence issues. Prior to joining FCW, he was a reporter and editor at Smart Grid Today, where he covered everything from cyber vulnerabilities in the U.S. electric grid to the national energy policies of Britain and Mexico. His reporting on a range of global issues has appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Economist, The Washington Diplomat and The Washington Post.

Lyngaas is an active member of the National Press Club, where he served as chairman of the Young Members Committee. He earned his M.A. in international affairs from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and his B.A. in public policy from Duke University.

Click here for previous articles by Lyngaas, or connect with him on Twitter: @snlyngaas.


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