Messages contained no smoking guns on Benghazi, but critics pounced when the FBI deemed a sentence and a half too sensitive to release.
It wasn’t the 296 e-mails released Friday that caused the most trouble for Hillary Clinton. It was the sentence and a half in one that was redacted.
After months of review, the administration published messages Clinton exchanged about the deadly attacks in Benghazi, Libya, with her colleagues and friends while she was secretary of state. Those memos contained none of the evidence to bolster critics who say she withheld security for the U.S. outpost there or deliberately misled the public about the ties between the attackers and al-Qaeda terrorists.
Still, on the day of its scheduled release, the State Department, at the request of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, labeled a part of a November 2012 e-mail to her about arrests in the Benghazi killings as classified, and kept it secret. That’s a problem for Clinton because she said the private e-mail address she chose to use while secretary was never the vehicle for classified information.
While the information wasn’t classified when she received it, the subsequent categorization gave ammunition to critics.
It’s “troubling that highly sensitive information, now deemed classified, was put at risk on her off-the-books server,” Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, said in a statement. “Until she hands over the secret sever to an independent investigator, the American people will never get the truth.”
The e-mail, from aide Jacob Sullivan on Nov. 18, 2012, relayed information on the arrest of suspects in the fatal attack two months earlier on the U.S. outpost in Libya. Sullivan’s e-mail was deemed classified 2 1/2 years after it was sent, according to a note attached to the e-mail. No reason was given for the reclassification.
Clinton, as secretary of state from 2009 until February 2013, used a private e-mail account that was routed through a server at her suburban New York home. Now a Democratic presidential candidate, Clinton has defended using the private address, and said Friday that all the messages had been handled properly.
“I’m aware that the FBI has asked that a portion of one e-mail be held back,” Clinton told reporters after a campaign stop in New Hampshire for her president bid. “That happens in the process of Freedom of Information Act responses, but that doesn’t change the fact that all of the information in the e-mails was handled appropriately.”
The State Department said the former secretary didn’t violate any law by using the private e-mail or handling the message from her aide.
“This information was not classified at the time” the e-mail was written, Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, told reporters. While the FBI has now upgraded information in that e-mail to classified,“the occurrence of a subsequent upgrade does not mean anyone did anything wrong,” she said.
Clinton’s e-mails about the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi had been shared with the congressional committee investigating those events months ago. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in an assault on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi and a separate attack on a nearby Central Intelligence Agency outpost.
“The e-mails we release today do not change the essential facts or our understanding of the events before, during, or after the attacks,” Harf said in an e-mail.
The 296 e-mails posted on a department website are a fraction of more than 30,000 work-related messages Clinton turned over from her private e-mail server.
The e-mails released show the initial outpouring of support for how Clinton handled the events from friends, former officials and, even, sometimes foes such as Arizona Senator John McCain, a Republican. They also show Clinton closely watching how the deaths were covered and discussed in the media, and attuned to whether they could provide political fodder to Republicans.
Many of the e-mails were sent from long-time Clinton friend and adviser Sidney Blumenthal, who was also helping American businessmen looking for government contracts in Libya. Citing what he called secret sources in the country, Blumenthal initially said the attacks were spontaneous, but two days later sent a detailed memo that said terrorists had been planning the assault for a month, and then took advantage of the demonstrations as a cover.
Clinton forwarded to her State Department colleagues many of the e-mails from Blumenthal.
As media reports began to criticize the protection afforded the U.S. complex, and Republicans said that the Obama administration was deliberately downplaying the links between terrorists and the attacks, the e-mails show that Clinton’s staff prepared a detailed list of all of her statements about Benghazi, and reviewed the disputed comments from then United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice on television news shows the week after the assault.
“You never said spontaneous or characterized the motives, in fact you were careful in your first statement to say we were assessing motive and method,” Sullivan wrote in an e-mail on Sept. 24.
One month after Sullivan sent Clinton Rice’s television transcript, she forwarded the note to an aide with a short request: “Pls print.”