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