Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, December 3, 2014
Washington (AFP) - Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign has not officially begun but suggestions she may have violated federal records laws are the latest kink in her nascent White House bid.
Reports that Clinton used only personal email accounts during her four years as secretary of state have left her exposed to legal challenges and potentially more damaging allegations of evasiveness and political plotting.
Clinton may have breached the Federal Records Act, which calls for official correspondence to be retained.
The White House said it had given Obama administration employees "very specific guidance" to "use their official email accounts when they're conducting official government business," according to spokesman Josh Earnest.
But Earnest said Clinton did not necessarily break the rules. "When there are situations where personal email accounts are used, it is important for those records to be preserved."
Republican opponents were quick to characterize Clinton's use of private email as evidence that she will do anything to safeguard her political ambitions.
As the early frontrunner to win the Democratic nomination for the race to replace President Barack Obama, Clinton is already attracting opponents' brickbats.
Latest polls show she has a nearly 40 point lead over rivals in her party.
Clinton's potential Republican rival Jeb Bush pointed to his own decision to selectively release thousands of emails from his time as Florida governor.
"Hillary Clinton should release her emails. Hopefully she hasn't already destroyed them," said Bush spokeswoman Kristy Campbell.
"Governor Bush believes transparency is a critical part of public service and of governing."
At the same time, a political group allied with Bush served the State Department with a freedom of information request to release emails from staff to Clinton's private address.
"America Rising" director Colin Reed accused Clinton of an "intentional and unlawful effort" to hide correspondence.
Clinton's foes also raised the possibility that her actions could have made the hacking of sensitive, classified exchanges easier for snooping foreign governments.
"The Chinese government probably has it now," said Reed.
- Rearguard action -
Republicans hope that the potentially damaging revelations, first reported by The New York Times, could weaken Clinton's support among women, neutralizing a major electoral advantage.
"One of the things that women tend to like about women candidates is that they don't seem like a typical politician," said Katie Packer Gage, a consultant who was Republican Mitt Romney's deputy campaign manager in the 2012 presidential race.
"When Hillary is viewed in that light she is very strong with women," she told AFP. "But when you start to demonstrate times when she has behaved very much like a typical politician, where she has lacked transparency... it really diminishes her with women."
Clinton allies fought a rearguard action.
"Like secretaries of state before her, she used her own email account when engaging with any department officials," said Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill.
"Both the letter and spirit of the rules permitted State Department officials to use non-government email, as long as appropriate records were preserved."
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the department "has long had access to a wide array of secretary Clinton's records -- including emails."
The email revelations are also likely to fuel the Republican campaign to hold Clinton's feet to the fire over the death of US Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens.
Clinton's emails have figured in a Congressional Select Committee's investigation into the incident, which was blamed on Islamic militants.
Clinton was accused of not doing enough to protect the diplomatic facility.
A Democrat on that panel, Elijah Cummings, said it had been known for "several years" that Clinton used private email.
He called on Republicans to allow the release of some of her correspondence supplied to the committee, lifting the veil of secrecy.
The panel should "make them available to the American public so they can read their contents for themselves."