The State Department on Friday released the first batch of e-mails from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s private server, shedding light on how political bureaucracies work but revealing nothing new about the deaths of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans in a terrorist attack in Benghazi.
The 296 e-mails depict senior Clinton aides and loyalists swapping news articles, passing along morsels of intelligence, crafting strategy and occasionally kissing up to power.
The e-mails did not, however, contain new revelations about the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans or the degree to which the State Department was prepared for the attack.
One of the most intriguing of the released e-mails, however, suggests that Clinton and the State Department might not have been kept fully informed on what was known to other government agencies, particularly the CIA, about the Sept. 11, 2012, attack, when armed men stormed the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi and set the main building on fire. Stevens and State Department communications officer Sean Smith died there of smoke inhalation. Former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods were later killed in an attack on a nearby CIA annex.
The initial description of the events as a demonstration that had turned violent had been widely discredited within two weeks. But Clinton still seemed surprised Oct. 19 when she wrote her chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, asking about a news report she had heard that morning on National Public Radio.
“I just heard on npr a report about the CIA station chief in Tripoli sending a cable on 9/12 saying there was no demo, etc. Do you know about this?” Clinton wrote at 6:57 a.m. Mills also seemed surprised. “Have not seen – will see if we can get,” she responded 28 minutes later.
A CIA spokesman said Friday he was unable to comment on whether Clinton had been informed of the station chief’s e-mail.
The e-mails’ release prompted sharply different reactions from lawmakers, none of whom showed any sign that their minds had been changed.
“Americans can now see for themselves that there is no evidence to support the conspiracy theories advanced about the Benghazi attacks,” said Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the senior Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
But Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., the chairman of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, said he was unimpressed with the partial release. More than 54,000 additional pages of Clinton’s e-mails still remain under review.
Gowdy again voiced suspicion that key documents are missing because Clinton used a private e-mail server to conduct her official business and privately selected which e-mails would be turned over to the State Department.
“To assume a self-selected public record is complete, when no one with a duty or responsibility to the public had the ability to take part in the selection, requires a leap in logic no impartial reviewer should be required to make and strains credibility,” Gowdy said.
The Republicans created the 12-member committee in May 2014, contending they needed to delve more deeply into the attacks, which took place 11 months after the toppling of Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi. Democrats and others, however, accused the Republicans of using the panel to keep the heat on Clinton as she campaigns for president, pointing out that seven other congressional inquiries found no negligence or incompetence on the part of senior administration officials.
Campaigning in New Hampshire, Clinton welcomed the e-mails’ release.
“I want people to be able to see all of them,” she said. “It is the fact that we have released all of them that have any government relationship whatsoever. The State Department had the vast majority of those anyway” because they went to government e-mail accounts.
Panel had e-mails earlier
The 296 documents made public Friday had been turned over to Gowdy’s committee in February. The e-mails show that Clinton was briefed in the months before the deadly attack of ongoing tumult in Libya, including a helicopter shoot-down and a July attack on Benghazi’s election headquarters, in which ballot boxes were burned.
But there were no e-mails released suggesting that concerns about security at the Benghazi facility had reached Clinton before the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks.
Indeed, one e-mail from Stevens that was forwarded to Clinton two months before the attacks described the mood in Tripoli during parliamentary elections as “very festive” and said that visiting Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., “was applauded and thanked for his support wherever we went.”
The e-mails show that after the attacks State Department officials closely followed how the Benghazi story was being told.
At 11:38 p.m. on the night of the 2012 attacks, Clinton wrote her top advisers that Stevens’ death had been “confirmed by the Libyans,” leading her to ask, “Should we announce tonight or wait until morning?”
“We need to (check) family’s druthers,” then-State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland responded, six minutes later. “If they are OK, we should put out something from you tonight.”
Five days later, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice’s appearance on Sunday television talk shows ignited the controversy because she said – relying on talking points originating with the CIA – that the attacks grew out of a spontaneous protest outside the U.S. diplomatic facility over an anti-Islamic video posted on the Internet. The administration later changed its account, acknowledging that it was a planned terrorist attack.
One e-mail involved Rice’s interview on ABC’s “This Week.” Within 90 minutes of her appearance, Clinton adviser Jacob Sullivan sent Clinton an e-mail that made clear the former secretary and her staff were watching where the fingers of blame might point next.
Sullivan asserted that “the only troubling sentence” was Rice’s comment that the investigation may show whether “what transpired in Benghazi might have unfolded differently in different circumstances.”
“But she got pushed there,” Sullivan added.
Prior to the 2012 attack, the documents released Friday show, former Clinton administration adviser and longtime friend Sidney Blumenthal barraged Clinton with a number of policy memos, which he marked “confidential,” in which he cited “sensitive sources” for his information about what was supposedly going on in Libya.
In other cases, the documents capture the social grease that lubricates bureaucracies and political institutions.
“I’m very lucky to serve in your State Department,” one e-mail writer, William Burns, then a deputy secretary of state, assured Clinton on Dec. 20, 2012.
Another e-mail correspondent, writing at 10:26 p.m. on Sept. 12, 2012, enthused that Clinton was “empathetic and unflinching and inspiring” as well as “wise and steady and strong” in a public appearance that day. The e-mail’s author, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, is now deputy secretary of energy.
Still, in bits and pieces, the e-mail traffic sheds at least a little light on Benghazi’s aftermath.
An Oct. 3, 2012, e-mail from Beth Jones, the acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, described talks with Libyan government officials during a visit to Tripoli.
Jones noted that she had “placed heavy emphasis on the importance of Libyan cooperation and transparency in the investigation” into the attacks and stressed that the government’s performance would “no doubt color American views on Libya at a time that Libya will want to burnish its reputation.”