Clin­ton’s timeline of e-mail con­tro­versy ob­scures its roots in Beng­hazi probe

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - The Fact Checker GLENN KESSLER glenn.kessler@wash­post.com

“We have done ev­ery­thing we could, in re­sponse to the State Depart­ment ask­ing us to do this re­view be­cause they asked all the for­mer sec­re­taries. And the rea­son they asked, Chuck, is they found gaps in the record­keep­ing.”

— For­mer sec­re­tary of state Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton, in an in­ter­view with Chuck Todd on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Sept. 27

A num­ber of read­ers have asked the Fact Checker to ex­plore Clin­ton’s stated timeline about her deal­ings with the State Depart­ment about her pri­vate e-mail sys­tem. New ques­tions have arisen in light of The Washington Post’s re­port that the State Depart­ment con­firmed the trig­ger­ing event to seek Clin­ton’s e-mails was the con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the 2012 at­tack on the U.S. mis­sion in Beng­hazi, Libya, that left four Amer­i­cans dead.

Pre­vi­ously, the State Depart­ment had danced around this fact, de­spite a re­port in the New York Times on March 5 that quoted un­named “cur­rent and for­mer of­fi­cials” as say­ing “it was the re­viewof 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.”

The Times said that start­ing in Au­gust 2014, State Depart­ment of­fi­cials held talks with Clin­ton’s at­tor­neys and aides to ob­tain the e-mails. Then, start­ing in Oc­to­ber 2014, for­mal letters were sent to Clin­ton, as well as three other for­mer sec­re­taries of state, ask­ing for copies of any e-mails that might have been sent from a per­sonal ac­count and might not have been cap­tured in the State Depart­ment sys­tem.

Now, more than six months af­ter the Times’ anony­mously sourced re­port, the State Depart­ment of­fi­cially ac­knowl­edged the timeline in an ar­ti­cle writ­ten by our col­leagues Carol D. Leonnig and Ros­alind S. Hel­der­man: “In the process of re­spond­ing to con­gres­sional doc­u­ment re­quests per­tain­ing to Beng­hazi, State Depart­ment of­fi­cials rec­og­nized that it had ac­cess to rel­a­tively few email records from for­mer Sec­re­tary Clin­ton,” State Depart­ment spokesman John Kirby said in an e-mail. “State Depart­ment of­fi­cials con­tacted her rep­re­sen­ta­tives dur­ing the sum­mer of 2014 to learn more about her email use and the sta­tus of emails in that ac­count.”

Pre­vi­ously, the State Depart­ment had sug­gested the trig­ger­ing event was the letters sent to the sec­re­taries. That’s also how Clin­ton and her cam­paign have re­peat­edly framed it when speak­ing to re­porters.

Let’s ex­am­ine how Clin­ton and her cam­paign dis­cussed the timeline.

The Facts

In a news con­fer­ence on March 10, just five days af­ter the Times ar­ti­cle, Clin­ton high­lighted the al­ter­na­tive timeline in her open­ing state­ment. Then she ex­panded on the ac­count while an­swer­ing ques­tions. She em­pha­sized the let­ter was sent “not just to me,” and she said she di­rected her coun­sel to con­duct a thor­ough in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

But, as noted above, Clin­ton’s at­tor­neys months ear­lier had been dis­cussing this mat­ter with the State Depart­ment. The Washington Post re­ported that Platte River Net­works, the com­pany that main­tained the server, started pulling e-mails in July to send to Clin­ton ad­viser Ch­eryl Mills.

Nev­er­the­less, even though one of Clin­ton’s top ad­vis­ers had started the process in July, the Clin­ton cam­paign stuck to a timeline that be­gan three months later— with the letters to the for­mer sec­re­taries of state.

A Q&A on the cam­paign Web site, posted on July 13, asked this ques­tion: Why didn’t Clin­ton pro­vide her e-mails to the State Depart­ment un­til De­cem­ber 2014? The an­swer: “Af­ter rec­og­niz­ing po­ten­tial gaps in its over­all record­keep­ing sys­tem, the State Depart­ment asked for the help of the four pre­vi­ous for­mer Sec­re­taries.”

Clin­ton stuck to this ver­sion of events in in­ter­views on Sept. 4, Sept. 20, Sept. 22 and Sept. 27. As she put it on CBS’s “Face the Na­tion:” “When we were asked to help the State Depart­ment make sure they had ev­ery­thing from other sec­re­taries of state, not just me, I’m the one who said, ‘Okay, great, I will go through them again.’ ”

In each of these in­stances, Clin­ton sug­gested that the first sign that these e-mails were needed was the let­ter sent to the for­mer sec­re­taries re­gard­ing “gaps in the record-keep­ing.” More­over, she posits her­self as an ea­ger helper— when in fact the let­ter was sent only af­ter her at­tor­neys and the State Depart­ment had had weeks of dis­cus­sions about the e-mails.

Over a pe­riod of days, the Fact Checker and the Clin­ton cam­paign en­gaged in a lengthy back-and-forth over the al­ter­nate timeline.

The cam­paign’s po­si­tion ap­pears to be that the ex­is­tence of her pri­vate e-mail ac­count should not have been a sur­prise to the State Depart­ment be­cause it was first re­ported in 2013, when the email ac­count of one of her out­side ad­vis­ers, Sid­ney Blu­men­thal, was hacked. The dis­clo­sure showed Clin­ton had been com­mu­ni­cat­ing with Blu­men­thal via a per­sonal email ac­count. “Clearly, that is not what prompted the re­quest more than a year later,” a Clin­ton aide said, speak­ing on the con­di­tion of anonymity.

More­over, aides say that there was an ac­tual tech­ni­cal glitch that pre­vented the State Depart­ment from cap­tur­ing all of the e-mails that Clin­ton sent to peo­ple with state.gov ad­dresses, so that prob­lem needed to be ad­dressed.

“Hun­dreds of peo­ple knew she had that ac­count,” the Clin­ton aide said. “A year ear­lier, a full year, the en­tire world knew. So State did not ask be­cause they re­al­ized she had a per­sonal ac­count, they asked be­cause they re­al­ized they didn’t have the e-mails in their sys­tem. They didn’t have the e-mails in their sys­tem be­cause of some sort of tech­ni­cal dis­crep­an­cies on their end, un­re­lated to what kind of ac­count she had.”

From the cam­paign’s point of view, the sum­mer dis­cus­sions were merely out­reach and in­for­mal, so it makes sense to date the timeline from the for­mal re­quest.

But what was sur­pris­ing to the State Depart­ment was not that Clin­ton had a per­sonal e-mail ac­count but that she used it ex­clu­sively for all of her busi­ness cor­re­spon­dence. Look back at the State Depart­ment’s state­ment to The Post: “State Depart­ment of­fi­cials rec­og­nized that it had ac­cess to rel­a­tively few e-mail records from for­mer Sec­re­tary Clin­ton.”

The Pinocchio Test

It re­mains amys­tery to the Fact Checker why Clin­ton per­sists in say­ing the timeline be­gan with the letters to all of the for­mer sec­re­taries. (To be fair, Clin­ton aides seemed my sti­fied by our ques­tions and why this was even an is­sue.)

The letters to the for­mer sec­re­taries all asked for copies of busi­ness-re­lated e-mails that might have been sent from a per­sonal ac­count. There was cer­tainly some his­tor­i­cal value in that. But there was a press­ing need for the State Depart­ment to seek Clin­ton’s e-mails be­cause of the Beng­hazi in­quiry— and the State Depart­ment had made clear its in­ter­est in the Clin­ton e-mails months be­fore an of­fi­cial let­ter was sent.

Clin­ton ap­pears to be stick­ing to her timeline be­cause it ob­scures the fact that she ex­clu­sively used a pri­vate e-mail for gov­ern­ment busi­ness. If she had used a State Depart­ment email, just as many other Cab­i­net of­fi­cials in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion used “.gov” ad­dresses, it’s likely the State Depart­ment would not have had trou­ble re­spond­ing to con­gres­sional re­quests. That’s why there are “gaps in the record­keep­ing.”

As part of Clin­ton’s ef­fort to clear up ques­tions about her e-mail setup, Clin­ton should be­gin us­ing a more com­plete timeline re­gard­ing her staff mem­ber’s deal­ings with the State Depart­ment on this mat­ter. The cur­rent timeline is in­com­plete.

JOSHUA ROBERTS/REUTERS

Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton has said the is­sue of her e-mail server sur­faced when the State Depart­ment looked into “gaps in the record-keep­ing.” But a con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tion prod­ded the depart­ment.

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