The State Department on Friday released the first batch of emails 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 emails depict senior Clinton aides and loyalists swapping news articles, passing along morsels of intelligence, crafting strategy and occasionally kissing up to power.
The emails 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 emails, 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 on Oct. 19 when she wrote her chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, asking about a news report she’d 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 email.
The emails’ 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 emails still remain under review.
Gowdy again voiced suspicion that key documents are missing because Clinton used a private email server to conduct her official business and privately selected which emails 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 emails’ 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 email accounts.
The 296 documents made public Friday had been turned over to Gowdy’s committee in February. The emails 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 emails released suggesting that concerns about security at the Benghazi facility had reached Clinton before the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks.
Indeed, one email 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 emails 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 email involved Rice’s interview on ABC’s “This Week.” Within 90 minutes of her appearance, Clinton adviser Jacob Sullivan sent Clinton an email 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 email writer, William Burns, then a deputy secretary of state, assured Clinton on Dec. 20, 2012.
Another email 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 email’s author, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, is now deputy secretary of energy.
A top CIA official showered praise on Clinton for “working so incredibly hard to make such a difficult ceremony so dignified for everyone involved,” while Wendy Sherman, then undersecretary of state for political affairs and now the department’s No. 2, took time to write Clinton “to tell you that speech yesterday was terrific.”
In other cases, redactions render the messages meaningless. On Oct. 15, 2012, for instance, a paragraph-long email with the subject line “Tripoli personnel” was whited out.
Still, in bits and pieces, the email traffic sheds at least a little light on Benghazi’s aftermath.
An Oct. 3, 2012, email 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’d “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.”
The 2012 presidential race intruded into a number of emails, including one in which Jake Sullivan, then the director of the State Department’s Office of Policy Planning, reprinted a Wall Street Journal column by GOP nominee Mitt Romney criticizing Obama’s policies on the Middle East.
“This is it,” Sullivan wrote. “Pretty uncompelling piece if you ask me, but of course I’m biased.”
Anita Kumar and Mark Seibel of the Washington Bureau contributed.