For all the attention paid to Hillary Clinton’s emails this year, little has focused on the larger implications the events could have for America’s rapidly changing standards of privacy.
Publicly releasing the private correspondence of a freshly departed secretary of state represents a clear historical break from the privacy protections traditionally afforded cabinet members. Since the Cold War, such documents have typically been released after a 30-year delay (what historians affectionately call the “30-year wall”) in the interest of giving government officials space to express controversial ideas without fear that political enemies might later use snippets of those discussions against them. The irony here is that by keeping her correspondence on a private server, Clinton set in motion a chain of events that ultimately weakened these well-established protections. Perhaps this new transparency is a positive development in the post-Snowden era, perhaps not.
The way historians go about writing foreign-policy history provides important context for the privacy implications of the Clinton email scandal. Every year, scholars and nonfiction writers gather in Washington, D.C., eagerly awaiting the release of newly declassified documents from the State Department archives. These gigantic volumes, each thousands of pages long, make up the Office of the Historian’s Foreign Relations of the United States—or FRUS—and cast new light on historical moments that were previously under-sourced or, sometimes, entirely misunderstood. This is why historians are able to produce groundbreaking books about topics that people have written about for generations.