"Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones."
Donald Rumsfeld, U.S. Secretary of Defense
I always wished that I knew more about my great-grandfather. I have an inlaid wooden table in my office that he made. We have a nursing chair at home that he made. These are beautiful examples of what he apparently did --- woodworking and furniture making.
I have only a little family information. He was William Young and he was born in 1841. His family came to America from Scotland. I could go to websites like Ancestry.com and look for more records, but these amount to a rough sketch of the man. They would not give any detail of what he was really like. Too little actual personal information has been passed down through the family.
Thus, I have a "known unknown" - in Rumsfeld's equation "we know there are some things we do not know." What is missing is any information that would lead to knowing more.
Keeping information, large and small, is important when we try to understand the past and apply that understanding to the future. Information provides context. New information may shift interpretation of prior judgments. As lawyers, we might substitute the term "evidence" and consider the elaborate set of rules that the legal system employs to allow or disallow evidence at trial. Without information or evidence, we are in the kind of darkness, Rumsfeld's unknown unknown.
We are said to live in the "Information Age." Computers and the Internet have us awash in information. We have at our finger tips access to massive amounts of information that once required extensive physical searches of libraries, museums, and public records. That immediacy and accessibility, however, does not help us at all with the information that is missing, lost or never retained.
I have written about privacy of our information in the digital age. I want to focus here on the need to know, to preserve information, so that history may assess it and make conclusions from a more complete record.
Let's start by looking back to 16th and 17th century England at someone that we may think that we know well. Bill Bryson has written a slender biography of William Shakespeare. Intentionally so, because Bryson limited himself to those elements of Shakespeare's life as to which there is some hard evidence or record. The surprising thing is that we have relatively little documentation about a man that many consider the world's greatest playwright. He surfaces in public records (birth, marriage, court, death) infrequently and often at long intervals. There are only a handful of sketches that are purported to be of Shakespeare, but even these are doubtful. Speculation abounds, over the spelling of his name (not an uncommon problem in his time), his marriage (leaving his wife his second best bed), even his authorship of the works that bear his name.
What we have is a very rough sketch and much broad speculation about who Shakespeare, speculation not supported by the historic record. We really do not know Shakespeare that well at all. In fact, if it were not for technology, we likely would not have much interest in Shakespeare at all. He might have been a tiny footnote or small paragraph in the history of theater in the Elizabethan age. The technology involved was the printing press. Shakespeare had the good fortune to have had his plays published both during his lifetime in the folios and, more importantly, because of the additional number of plays collected, in the quartos published posthumously by his friends and theatrical colleagues John Heminge and Henry Condell. To have been published at all was a haphazard thing in Shakespeare's time, but extremely important to our analysis now. Because plays performed in London's robust theatrical world had to be licensed, the records of the time preserved much information as to the names of playwrights and plays, but very few texts of the plays survive.
Artists like Shakespeare and Ben Johnson are known and revered today because their poems and plays were published. We can read and evaluate their art. And, of course, the printed plays had to be preserved to survive, so future generations long after could appreciate and debate the merit of them. Again, fortunately for Shakespeare, an abundance of his published work was preserved. Without these printed examples, Shakespeare likely would be one of those "known unknowns," someone with a name and a place in history, but no context or evidence of his work, of his greatness.
What historical analysis needs is contemporaneous documentation of some kind. Even with documentation, things can be confusing. Hopefully, many of us might say that we know Lincoln's Gettysburg Address (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gettysburg_Address), one of the most famous speeches in American history. This is so because of the historical record. There were contemporary newspaper stories and ample written recollections. The record is not without some ambiguities. Lincoln followed a two hour oration by Edward Everett. His speech of just ten sentences and lasted only a few minutes, so the majority of the crowd apparently was unaware of that the President had spoken at all. Although we think that we know the words of the Gettysburg address, perhaps by memory, there are actually five known copies, differing in some respects, as well as printed transcripts in the newspaper reports.
But we have some record of these events that has been preserved and can be analyzed. Lincoln provides another famous example of history's dependence on preservation of a record. In November of 1864, Lincoln wrote a short, but moving letter to Mrs. Bixby in Boston, Massachusetts to console her on the loss of her five sons who died fighting in the Civil War. That letter survives and has made its way in to contemporary culture.
Preservation of an archive is essential to understanding the past. That archive may not be without contradictions or omissions, but it is better than pure fabrication. It allows historians some insight from contemporaneous evidence, which then can be weighed and from which conclusions can be drawn. It gives us our "sense of the past."
We now have a National Archive for the precise purpose of preserving a record of government activities, communications, and deliberations. One of the reasons to be thankful that contemporary U.S. Presidents raise money and build presidential libraries is that they donate their personal papers to such libraries, so that we have them to assist in accessing history.
With modern technology, the preservation of a record of government deliberations has entered a new era. Let's look at two separate examples.
If you may remember "Watergate" during Richard Nixon's presidency. Watergate involved hired persons breaking into the office of the Democratic National Committee. In addition to much other information gathered during his presidency, Richard Nixon had tape recording equipment installed in the White House, from which much was learned of his personal interaction and involvement in the Watergate break-in. Much mystery arose, however, from the famous "18 minute gap" in those tapes. The gap allegedly resulted when Nixon's secretary, Rosemary Woods, mistakenly erasing part of a tape she was transcribing. This mysterious omission aside, the Nixon tapes proved rather revealing about the general workings of the Nixon White House.
Now we have revelations that, while serving as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton did not use the government network servers for email communication. Instead, she used a private server installed in her home in Chappaqua, New York. While the government security services protected this computer, the computer and its files remained with Clinton after she left office. She did not turn over any of her emails to the State Department or the National Archives.
When the existence of the governmental email held by Clinton on her private server surfaced recently, there was immediate interest and demand in knowing what those email contained. Not only was Clinton a high profile Secretary of State and at the center of controversy (notably over events at the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi), but politically she appears to be a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. The Clinton email revelations also were followed by revelations that hackers gained access to President Obama's email, including his schedule. These problems with Clinton's and Obama's email only highlight continuing concerns over security of electronic information.
Hillary Clinton and former President Bill Clinton are quite familiar with these kinds of controversies. The Clinton ability to slide out of tight spots is well known. The political question here is whether it will work this time.
There is, however, a more fundamental question of accountability that may not be so easily dodged. First, let's look at the way in which Hillary Clinton has dealt with this controversy so far. She did turn over to the government a significant number of email that she (or someone working for her) determined to be related to State Department or other governmental activities. Clinton declared what was left on the server was private, personal communication not related to governmental activities. How this was determined may yet be satisfactorily explained, but there does not appear to have been any independent governmental involvement in this determination. Clinton then inched toward treating the matter finished. Congressional critics continued to seek everything on the private server (or at least some independent verification that the server did not contain other governmental communications). Then, Clinton seemly closed the door by announcing that the contents of the private server had been wiped clean. Everything is gone!
With the Clintons, distinctions and finer delineations are often employed to dance away from trouble. Let's keep in mind that, as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton had obligations to preserve the record as the head of a cabinet agency and a key participant in our nation's foreign policy. Whatever selection process was employed to determine which emails she turned over was entirely of her choosing. There has to be suspicion in this approach that something could have been left out, intentionally or unintentionally. At best, the preservation of email was handled poorly, without transparency, leaving a lingering cloud over the completeness of the record and underlying facts.
So, the government, Congress and history are left with what Hillary Clinton determined it should have. Concurrently, this whole situation revealed that the government generally has been doing a very poor job at turning over the records required by law to be sent to the National Archives. As part of its coverage of Hillary Clinton's email, in March The New York Times reported:
"But the State Department disclosed on Friday that until last month it had no way of routinely preserving senior officials’ emails. Instead, the department relied on individual employees to decide if certain emails should be considered public records, and if so, to move them onto a special record-keeping server, or print them out and manually file them for preservation."
Slate has a further commentary on this more dismaying revelation in its post "The Real Scandal Behind Hillary Clinton’s Email." Fred Kaplan's piece makes Hillary Clinton's situation truly secondary to the more pervasive loss of information:
"The Times story then returns to the saga of Clinton’s private email account, but the big, truly gasp-worthy story for the ages lies in those two sentences. The State Department is doing nothing to retain public records. Neither, others tell me, are the other federal bureaucracies. As a result, our history is vanishing into the ether. Major decisions—cataclysmic events—are happening all around us, but their causes may never be known."
Certainly email can be as deceiving or ambiguous in interpretation as any other communication --- often only a partial narrative without a fuller context. And certainly Hillary Clinton is entitled to privacy with respect to personal email. In choosing to use her private server for both governmental and personal communication, however, Hillary Clinton created a difficult situation with respect to knowing what was contained in her governmental communication.
The process of history, however, should not and does not operate like Fox News. Proper historic analysis is not "spin" in a 24 to 48 hour news cycle. It takes pieces of the puzzle and tries to put them together in a coherent, cogent analysis of what happened. So every piece counts in that analysis. Without them the puzzle has empty spots, like the gaps in Shakespeare's life, which if filled, would perhaps prove critical to understanding the entire picture.
At worst, what has happened is destruction of the record of history. At best, what happened is a careless disregard for history in favor of temporary expediency, an appropriation of independent judgment about what is important and what is not. Either way, history may have been robbed of information that might have resulted in fuller understanding of what happened during Hillary Clinton's tenure as Secretary of State. In effect, Hillary Clinton has created at least a "known unknown," something similar to Nixon's "eighteen minute gap." A result could be that we repeat the mistakes of the past.