Among the hundreds of emails released by the State Department from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s private account, there is a conspicuous two-month gap. So far, there are no emails between Clinton and her State Department staff during May and June 2012, a period of escalating violence in Libya leading up to the September 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that left four Americans dead.
A State Department spokesman told The Daily Beast that for the year 2012, only those emails related to the security of the consulate or to the U.S. diplomatic presence in Libya were made public and turned over to a House committee investigating the fatal Benghazi assault. But if that’s true, then neither Clinton nor her staff communicated via email about the escalating dangers in Libya during those two crucial months. There were three attacks during that two-month period, including one that targeted the consulate. (Of course, email isn’t the only or even the preferred way State Department officials communicate about sensitive issues—especially if one of those officials is using a private server ill equipped to handle classified information.)
Emails from that two-month period have also drawn outside interest for an entirely different reason. In the spring of 2012, a senior Clinton aide obtained a special exemption that allowed her to work both as a staff member to the secretary and in a private capacity for Clinton and her husband’s foundation.
Understandably, the State Department hasn't turned over any emails about the employment status of that aide, Huma Abedin, to the Benghazi Committee, which asked only for Libya-related material. Less understandable is Foggy Bottom's continued rebuffing of journalists' requests to obtain those messages under the Freedom of Information Act. The Associated Press has sued to obtain emails from Clinton’s account about Abedin.
But the Abdein messages may come out eventually. Over the next several months, the State Department is slowly publishing online tranche after tranche of Clinton’s emails. The tranche covering the spring and summer of 2012 is expected later this year.
The status of Clinton’s emails has become an explosive political issue ever since The New York Times revealed that the then-Secretary of State was using a private email server to handle her official correspondence. Cybersecurity experts believe the homebrew system opened Clinton and her colleagues to targeting from online spies. The State Department and Intelligence Community Inspector Generals have asked the Justice Department to look into the possible disclosure of classified information.
Regarding the security situation in Libya, there was plenty for Clinton and her team to discuss via email. On May 22, 2012, the International Red Cross’s Benghazi office was hit by rocket-propelled grenades.
“The attack on the International Red Cross was another attack that also involved us and threats to the compound there in Benghazi,” testified Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Wood, a senior State Department security chief in Libya, (PDF) before the House Oversight Committee in October 2012.
Then, on June 6, an improvised explosive device detonated outside of the U.S. consulate, ripping a 12-foot-wide hole in the compound’s wall and prompting officials to release a public warning on “the fluid security situation in Libya.”
Yet the State Department has not produced any emails to or from Clinton about the improvised bomb.
Republicans on the House committee investigating the Benghazi attack have called the absence of any email communication noting the explosive attack at the U.S. consulate “inexplicable.”
“There are gaps of months and months and months,” Republican Representative Trey Gowdy, chairman of the Select Committee on Benghazi, said in a March 8 interview.
“The State Department transferred 300 messages exclusively reviewed and released by her [Clinton’s] own lawyers,” Gowdy added in a May 22 statement noting gaps in the email records. “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.”
Since then, the Benghazi committee has recovered one email, largely about business interests in Libya, from June 2012 after subpoenaing Clinton confidant Sidney Blumenthal. The email from Blumenthal does not mention threats to the U.S. consulate, and there is no response from Clinton. The State Department subsequently gave the committee its copy.
U.S. interests weren’t the only ones being targeted in Benghazi. Five days after the improvised bomb damaged the consulate, an RPG hit a convoy carrying the British ambassador in Benghazi, wounding two bodyguards.
The United Kingdom and the Red Cross closed their facilities in Benghazi by the end of June 2012.
From there, the violence directed at the U.S. escalated. In a cable dated July 9, 2012, U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens asked that the State Department provide a minimum of 13 security personnel for the U.S. embassy in Tripoli and the consulate in Benghazi, noting a heightened security threat. The State Department did not fulfill Stevens’s request, a Senate Intelligence Committee report (PDF) later revealed.
A Clinton aide didn’t respond specifically to a request about the two-month email absence. But in a statement to reporters, Clinton spokesperson Nick Merrill noted, “More emails are slated to be released by the State Department next week, and we hope that release is as inclusive as possible.”
The two-month period wasn’t notable only for violence in Libya. It has been the subject of questions about Clinton’s email and State Department records for a different reason.
On June 3, Abedin, a longtime Clinton aide and personal friend of the Clinton family, was given the status of a “special government employee,” which allowed her to stay on the State Department payroll while simultaneously working for the Clinton Foundation, Teneo, a consulting firm founded by Clinton confidant Doug Band, and as a private adviser to Clinton regarding her post-State Department transition.
Conflict-of-interest laws ordinarily would prohibit that arrangement, but the special designation exempted Abedin from some ethics rules.
In 2013, the AP filed a Freedom of Information Act request for State Department records on how Abedin obtained the special employee status. The news organization asked for emails about the matter.
Last week, a federal judge gave the State Department one week to respond to the AP’s two-year-old request. At midnight Tuesday, just before the judge’s deadline, the department’s lawyers submitted a declaration identifying about 68 pages of “potentially responsive” documents.
That marked the first time that the department acknowledged, in its two-year dispute with the AP, the existence of any agency documents related to Abedin’s arrangement.
Michael Smallberg, an investigator at the Project on Government Oversight, told The Daily Beast that while special government employees are not uncommon, the lack of information about Abedin may be keeping alive questions about potential conflict of interest in her work for the secretary and the foundation’s fundraising.
“Unless you come across any evidence to the contrary, there’s no reason to believe she was abusing the special government position,” Smallberg said. But, “the State Department has allowed those concerns to fester by withholding basic information,” Smallberg added. “Even if she did nothing wrong, secrecy breeds mistrust.”
State Department lawyers have argued that once all of Clinton’s emails are released on the agency’s website, following a vetting process that will take months, the AP’s request for information about Abedin will have been satisfied.
However, since some of the emails on Abedin that the AP wants likely fall within the June 2012 time frame, that might not be the case.
About seven percent of Clinton’s emails have been released. All the emails are scheduled to be released on a rolling, monthly basis until the last set is released in January 2016, to comply with an order by a different federal judge. The next release is tentatively scheduled for this Friday.
UPDATE: This story has been modified to make clear that the State Department -- not the former Secretary of State herself -- is releasing Clinton’s emails. The number of emails has been changed from "approximately 2,000" to "hundreds," to more accurately reflect how many messages from 2012 have been released. The story now also notes that email is hardly the only way that State Department officials communicate. And the piece has been clarified to underscore that emails about Huma Abedin’s employment status would not necessarily be in the tranche of messages released to the Benghazi Committee.