The State Department’s decision to press former Secretary Hillary Clinton for emails from her private account was set in motion because of a special House investigation into the Benghazi attack, The New York Times reports.
If true, that undermines claims made in recent days by Clinton’s handlers and State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf that the agency asked Clinton for her emails for the much more mundane reason of improving its record-keeping.
Clinton turned over 55,000 pages of emails to the State Department in December. Of those, 300 were given to the Benghazi committee.
It was while searching last summer through emails to provide to the Benghazi committee that State Department lawyers noticed Clinton’s emails were sent exclusively from her private account.
As one official briefed on the matter told The Times: “This all raised the question to us: What else are we missing, and what do we need to comply.”
While federal officials are not prohibited from using a private email account, they must make those records available to the agency. Clinton did not do that at all during her tenure, and it is still unclear whether she has turned over all business-related emails from her personal account. The use of the private account allowed her to eschew transparency by avoiding having her emails made available to numerous public records requests.
Clinton’s use of the private account — which was routed through a private server registered to her New York home — has also raised questions over whether she sent or received classified documents and also whether she left herself vulnerable to hackers.
Last August, according to The Times, State Department officials began negotiating with Clinton’s attorneys over the emails — at some point meeting face-to-face.
The decision to ask Clinton for the records reached as high as John Kerry’s chief of staff and other top officials, The Times reported. They all approved the decision.
As The Times’ Michael Schmidt wrote, “it was the review of Benghazi-related documents last summer that, within the State Department, set off the chain of events leading to the public disclosure this week of Mrs. Clinton’s use of a private email account, according to the current and former department officials.”
But that’s not how one Clinton spokesman characterized the matter.
“When the department asked former secretaries last year for help ensuring their emails were in fact retained, we immediately said yes,” Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill told The Times on Sunday.
The State Department has claimed it sent letters to Clinton and other past secretaries of state seeking records from during their time in office.
By characterizing the handover as part of a maintenance process, Clinton could avoid the appearance that she had turned the emails over under a cloud of suspicion or that her sole use of a private account somehow slowed down the Benghazi investigation.
The various congressional committees that have investigated into the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi have accused the Obama administration of stymieing its inquiry.
State’s Marie Harf denied the Benghazi-email link as well earlier this week.
“Was there any connection between those congressional document requests and the decision to send this missive to the former secretaries?” a reporter asked Harf at a daily press briefing on Tuesday.
She unequivocally dismissed the idea.
“The letter actually went before we got the request from the select committee,” Harf said. Like Merrill, she elided the negotiation between State Department officials and Clinton’s attorneys.
“[The letter] went in October of 2014 — that was before we had gotten a request from the committee — as part of our records-maintenance upgrading and the process we go through so that was what drove that.”