Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson Sait Serkan Gurbuz / AP

Top Homeland Security Officials Under Fire for Personal Email Use

Conservative legal group obtains documents on Secretary Johnson and 28 officials' past use of prohibited Web-based accounts.

Newly released Homeland Security Department documents detail how Secretary Jeh Johnson and 28 other officials defied a security precaution against using Web-based personal email accounts at the office, the conservative legal group Judicial Watch announced on Friday.

The fact that Homeland Security officials “bent rules” on private email use—first reported nearly a year ago by Bloomberg—represented a waiver given top executives that lasted a year despite a February 2014 departmental crackdown on such use for fear of cyber breaches of webmail accounts such as AOL, Hotmail, Comcast, Gmail and Yahoo.

Judicial Watch filed suit in October 2015 after an unsuccessful Freedom of Information Act request to DHS, and in February a U.S. district judge ordered the release of 693 pages.

The newly released records reveal that Johnson was given an exemption from the ban on the first day of its implementation simply because he liked to check his personal email from the office every day, Judicial Watch said in a statement. In an April 7, 2014, email, DHS Deputy Director for Scheduling and Protocol Mary Ellen Brown wrote to DHS Chief of Staff for the Under Secretary for Management Vincent Micone: “Hi Vince – I wanted to flag that S1 [Secretary Johnson] accesses his [redacted] account every day and I didn’t know if we could add his computer to the waiver list? Let us know at your convenience.”

Departmental memos had warned that webmail account use was traced to half the outside efforts to compromise DHS security, including 14 Trojan-Horse attacks in August 2013 and 25 attacks in December 2013.

The legal group also accused the department of misleading Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, in early 2014 by assuring him in response to queries that no official business was being conducted on private email accounts.

 “Jeh Johnson and top officials at Homeland Security put the nation’s security at risk by using personal email despite significant security issues,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. “And we know now security rules were bent and broken to allow many of these top Homeland officials to use ‘personal’ emails to conduct government business.” 

Asked for comment, a DHS spokesman said the story is old news and that the situation has been rectified. “As of a year ago, no one here has access to their personal email (or "webmail") over their DHS computers,” J. Todd Breasseale, assistant secretary for public affairs, told Government Executive. “It feels oddly political to suddenly attempt to revive this topic.”

Fitton claimed the story has legs. “If the waivers were appropriate,” he said on the Judicial Watch website, “then they wouldn’t have been dropped like a hot potato as soon as they were discovered by the media.”