If Republicans were looking for a silver bullet to use against Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, the State Department’s Friday document dump about Benghazi wasn’t it.
There’s no illicit weapons Libyan program to be found in the emails, as some have speculated. No “stand-down” order. Just a hectic flow of information to and from Hillary Clinton—about danger, about death, and ultimately, about condolences.
The State Department released Friday 296 emails involving Hillary Clinton during her tenure as Secretary of State, from 2009 to 2013. The documents include some 300 emails related to Benghazi, which were turned over to the congressional committee investigating the 2012 attacks. The attacks left four Americans dead, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya.
The hundreds of emails released by the agency show a Secretary of State who was deeply engaged on Libyan issues—but usually just in a crisis. While Clinton was a key proponent of intervening in Libya to protect civilians under threat from then-Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, her emails show that she took a largely hands-off approach toward the country.
Of course, this document trove is an incomplete view, at best. It excludes any phone calls, briefings or memos. It doesn’t include the emails that were deleted by Clinton—and we know there were many. (Republicans noted “inexplicable gaps” in Secretary Clinton’s emails over several time periods, such as from Oct. 2011 to Jan. 2012, and from April 2012 to July 2012. ) And it was released by a State Department that was formerly helmed by Clinton and is still part of a Democratic administration.
But according to her Benghazi-related email traffic, Clinton appears to be only been involved at times of crisis and even then deferred to those on the ground, including Stevens and friends outside government.
Clinton’s emails show that the late Amb. Christopher Stevens had multiple brushes with danger in Benghazi in 2011—more than a year before the September 2012 attacks that would ultimately take his life.
Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton received an update about Stevens’ 2011 security situation: that there had been intelligence indicating a credible threat to his safety, and that officials were moving swiftly out of the hotel he was staying at in Benghazi.
“There is credible threat info against the hotel that our team is using—and the rest of the Intl community is using, for that matter… DS [Diplomatic Security] going to evacuate our people to alt locations. Info suggested attack in next 24-48 hours,” wrote top Clinton aide Jacob Sullivan in an email to Clinton on June 10, 2011, with the subject line, ‘Hotel in Benghazi.’
At the time Stevens was a special envoy to Libya, and the U.S. had joined a U.N. campaign to set up a no-fly zone to assist rebels in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.
In a separate incident, in April 2011, a State Department official wrote:
“The situation in Ajdabiyah has worsened to the point Stevens is considering departure from Benghazi. The envoy’s delegation is currently doing a phased checkout (paying the hotel bills, moving some comms to the boat, etc). He will monitor the situation to see if it deteriorates further, but no decision has been made on departure.”
The communications received by the Secretary of State illustrate the fast pace of security decisions made on the ground—but don’t show Clinton with a direct role in these decisions. For example, there’s no indication that Clinton intervened in the decision-making process when told about Stevens’ 2011 security scares.
Clinton was heavily criticized when it emerged in March that she had used a private email server to conduct business while she was Secretary of State. Her private email accounts prevented the normal process of archiving official government records. Clinton’s staff had turned over some 55,000 pages of email correspondence to the State Department in December 2014.
Democrats on the Select Benghazi Committee had urged the release of Benghazi-related emails for months. Clinton herself had urged the State Department to swiftly publish the emails, telling reporters earlier this week that she wanted them in the public domain as soon as possible.
“I am pleased that the State Department released the complete set of Secretary Clinton’s emails about Benghazi—as Democrats requested months ago,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the committee.
The American people can now read all of these emails and see for themselves that they contain no evidence to back up claims that Secretary Clinton ordered a stand-down, approved an illicit weapons program, or any other wild allegation Republicans have made for years.
In the time between the June 2011 security scare and the September 2012 terrorist attacks, the mood in Libya ebbed and flowed—Stevens left Libya in November 2011 before returning as U.S. ambassador in May 2012.
In July, Libya held national elections which went off well, leading to people heralding the country worldwide. Meanwhile, Islamist flags had emerged on buildings throughout Benghazi.
The correspondence in summer 2012 shows a somewhat positive situation in Libya: the last email from Stevens that Clinton receives paints a rosy picture: in July 2012 Sen. John McCain is in Tripoli, Libya, being lauded for his support of the rebels.
“The atmosphere in Tripoli is very festive,” Stevens wrote in one email on July 7, 2012. “The gov’t declared today a holiday and people are driving around honking and waving flags and making peace sign gestures… McCain was applauded and thanked for his support wherever we went.”
The world’s focus doesn’t dwell on Libya, and Clinton doesn’t receive additional emails about Benghazi again until the 2012 attacks on U.S. facilities.
By September 2012, the situation in Libya had deteriorated. In a diary entry on Sept. 6, Stevens wrote about a “security vacuum” and “dicey conditions,” even suggesting that he was on an “Islamist ‘hit list’ in Benghazi.”
On the fateful day of Sept. 11, 2012, at approximately 4 p.m. in Washington, D.C., the first attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound occurred. Clinton had previously testified (PDF) that she was at the State Department that day, which could explain why she did not send or receive a large volume of emails about Benghazi.
She becomes more active on emails that evening, and at 11:37 p.m., she receives word through her Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills that the Libyan government had confirmed Amb. Steven’s death.
“Cheryl told me the Libyans confirmed his death. Should we announce tonight or wait until morning?” Clinton wrote in an email to top aides.
Throughout the morning after the initial attacks she has a lot of activity: in particular she received a large number of messages expressing condolences to her and the State Department over the death of the ambassador.
“The Ambassador was a perfect role model of the kind of person we need representing us around the world, and the others had so much to give—and already had given so much,” said former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates.
“What a wonderful, strong and moving statement by your boss. please tell her how much Sen. McCain appreciated it. Me too,” wrote a top national security aide for Sen. John McCain.
That weekend, Clinton continued to exchange emails on the Benghazi issue. On Saturday Sept. 15, the day before Susan Rice appeared on cable shows to make the since-rescinded claim that the Benghazi attacks were the result of protests-turned-violent, Clinton was involved arranging calls from her home and the collection of an action memo via classified courier.
The emails give insight into how Clinton operated at the time: using classified couriers to move memos and getting on the phone with other world leaders, rather than using email.
None of the released emails show Clinton being involved with Rice’s appearance on the Sunday shows, or the discussion of what Rice should say. She does, however, receive a transcript of what Rice would eventually say.
Findings of the Republican-led Select committee on Benghazi may not be released until sometime in 2016, in the thick of campaign season.
If the Select Committee continues to operate through the end of the 2015, its estimated cost will rise to $6 million dollars. The House Select Committee on Benghazi was established in May 2014. If it continues through to the end of 2015, it will have been investigating for 19 months—longer than other major, comparable investigations.
(To compare, the joint inquiry into the intelligence community’s actions with regard to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks took less than a year. The Senate Watergate committee operated for about 17 months before presenting its findings. And the Warren Commission on the assassination of President Kennedy operated for under a year.)
The release of Friday’s Benghazi-related emails has itself been months in the waiting: the State Department had been going through an excruciating process of assessing the emails for any information that would show sensitive or personally identifiable information, and then removing it. The State Department will now turn its attention to performing the same task on thousands of Clinton emails that are not related to Benghazi.
In fact, Hillary Clinton’s email correspondence has the potential to generate headlines at least through the end of the year, acting as a disruptive force that distracts from her presidential campaign.
For Republican committee chairman Trey Gowdy, the release of these emails are just the first step in a long slog to “collect and evaluate all of the relevant and material information necessary.” Gowdy said that the emails released Friday had all been exclusively reviewed and released only after review by her own lawyers.
Earlier this week, a federal judge had dismissed a State Department plan to release her email archives, comprised of some 55,000 pages of emails, by January 2016. Instead, the judge asked the State Department to come up with a plan to gradually release the emails in stages.
In the nearer term, Hillary Clinton is expected to appear before the Select Committee on Benghazi, Gowdy said last week that he will not schedule the former Secretary of State’s testimony until the State Department turns over more documents.
“The Select Committee should schedule Secretary Clinton’s public testimony now and stop wasting taxpayer money dragging out this political charade to harm Secretary Clinton’s bid for president,” Cummings, a Democrat, said Friday.
The New York Times obtained and published about a third of the Clinton Benghazi emails earlier this week, revealing that longtime Clinton friend Sidney Blumenthal had frequently written to her about Libya, serving as a source of information about the country before and after the 2012 attacks.
While Blumenthal had originally blamed demonstrators in the American diplomatic facility in Benghazi, a subsequent memo fingered a Libyan terrorist group for the attacks, arguing that they had used the demonstrations as cover for the violence. This week, the Select Committee on Benghazi subpoenaed Blumenthal to appear before the panel.