US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter acknowledged Thursday making a “mistake” when he used his personal email for government business in the early part of his tenure, triggering concerns hackers could access sensitive information.
The revelation comes in the wake of the uproar over Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal email account while serving as secretary of state. That case became a Republican talking point as the former chief US diplomat seeks the Democratic nomination for president in the 2016 election.
Speaking to CBS News while on a visit to Iraq, Carter said he had used his iPhone to send administrative messages, none of which contained classified information, to his immediate staff.
“Even that, I shouldn’t have been doing and when I realized that, I stopped,” he said.
“I have to hold myself to absolutely strict standards in terms of cyber security and doing things that are appropriate. I didn’t in this case. It’s a mistake and it’s entirely my own.”
The flap was first reported Wednesday by The New York Times, which quoted an administration official as saying White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough had had the Pentagon explain why Carter was relying on his personal email account.
Carter — reputed in the Pentagon to have an unwavering attention to detail and by-the-book approach — has been in the post since February and is President Barack Obama’s fourth defense chief.
His use of private email likely violated a 2012 Defense Department ban on employees using non-government accounts for government business.
‘Hard to believe’
Republican Senator John McCain, who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee and is a frequent critic of defense policy, said the group would scrutinize Carter’s emails.
“With all the public attention surrounding the improper use of personal email by other administration officials, it is hard to believe that Secretary Carter would exercise the same error in judgment,” McCain said.
“The Senate Armed Services Committee has requested copies of the emails and will be conducting a review to ensure that sensitive information was not compromised.”
In a statement, Carter spokesman Peter Cook acknowledged the use of a private email account was wrong.
“As a result, he stopped such use of his personal email and further limited his use of email altogether.”
Although nearly all senior administration officials occasionally use a personal email account to communicate about work, officials told the Times that Carter had emailed close aides about speeches, meetings, interviews on the news and other matters.
But Cook minimized Carter’s use of his personal email.
“Secretary Carter strongly prefers to conduct communications on the phone or in person, and like many of his predecessors rarely uses email for official government business,” he said.
“The secretary does not directly email anyone within the department or the US government except a very small group of senior advisers, usually his chief of staff.”
Cook also stressed that “any email related to work received on this personal account, such as an invitation to speak at an event or an administrative issue, is copied or forwarded to his official account so it can be preserved as a federal record as appropriate.”
However, a former aide to Carter told the Times that the Pentagon chief used his personal account extensively, triggering fears among his staff that he would be hacked or was not following Defense Department email policies.
The Times, which obtained some of Carter’s emails on his personal account with his chief of staff, said it showed Carter discussing legislation, television appearances and hotel bills with aides.