- State Department releases final e-mails from private server
- Conservatives' demands for disclosure are just getting started
The U.S. State Department released the final batch of e-mails Hillary Clinton kept on a private server while secretary of state, ending months of piecemeal disclosure that has frustrated the Democratic presidential candidate’s campaign and subjected it to criticism from both sides of the aisle.
The department published about 3,800 pages of messages from the @clintonemail.com server on Monday. The release is the 14th and last, bringing the total number of pages published to more than 52,000, fewer than the 55,000 originally estimated, department spokesman John Kirby said.
One message in the new tranche, dated July 3, 2009, is the second part of a two-part e-mail that -- while not marked as classified when sent -- was retroactively designated as top secret and has since been downgraded to merely “secret,” Kirby said. It involves North Korea, he said, without going into details.
The State Department turned over two messages concerning North Korea, both originating on that date. The first is a communique from Clinton aide Huma Abedin to her boss, relaying a report that North Korea had launched a pair of short-range missiles.
The second, and more heavily redacted message, appears to summarize a conference call about the event and also includes an English translation of a formal protest issued by Japan. Relayed through several hands, that e-mail strand also was eventually sent to Clinton by Abedin.
The release ends one probe into the Democratic front-runner’s time as the nation’s top diplomat as other efforts to uncover wrongdoing are just beginning. Republicans and conservative groups, who have spent months or even years investigating Clinton, as they did under her husband’s presidency, are now targeting her small circle of aides.
Using federal disclosure laws and the power of congressional inquiry, her critics are setting sights on aides like Abedin and onetime chief of staff Cheryl Mills, who have worked for Clinton for years and now serve in key roles, and even daughter Chelsea Clinton. The focus may lead to evidence becoming public as the presidential race heats up, potentially landing the parties in court or stoking congressional probes, the critics say.
Brian Fallon, a spokesman for Clinton, called the myriad investigations into former aides and campaign officials “nothing more than fishing expeditions by right-wing groups that have devoted themselves to attacking the Clintons for decades.”
Earlier this month, U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan in Washington ruled that Judicial Watch, the conservative government transparency group, was entitled to gather evidence in a lawsuit it filed seeking paperwork on Abedin’s authorization to do outside work while employed by the State Department.
Judicial Watch argued it was unclear whether the government had met its legal duty to comply with document requests filed under the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. The organization said it needed answers from those who used, maintained or communicated via the private server, a group that includes Abedin, now vice chair of Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Sullivan agreed and directed Judicial Watch to submit by March 15 a “narrowly tailored” plan to elicit that information. The judge also gave the government until April 5 to file its response.
Haggling over the evidence-gathering plan, known as discovery, might provide revelations during the tumult of the presidential campaign, Judicial Watch said.
“It’ll be over the next several months discovery will be taking place -- May, June, July,” Tom Fitton, the group’s president, said in a phone interview on Friday.
That timeline “isn’t good news if you’re Hillary Clinton, because it means that this is going to keep the issue alive, and it’s going to be a source of new information,” said Anne Weismann, executive director of nonprofit watchdog Campaign for Accountability and a former Justice Department lawyer who oversaw government information litigation.
She said the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which is probing the security of Clinton’s e-mail setup, could also intervene and ask the court not to release documents pertaining to the law enforcement inquiry. Those types of documents are generally exempt from disclosure under FOIA.
“That’s going to put Judge Sullivan in a difficult place,” she said. “I don’t think he will want to screw up an FBI investigation.”
The FBI declined to comment on its plans.
The issue may not stay inside the court as Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has been investigating the server setup and Abedin’s employment. A spokeswoman for Grassley didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Grassley’s inquiry comes after the House Benghazi committee’s investigation into Clinton, which led to almost 12 hours of testimony from the former secretary in October. That committee is said to be wrapping up its work.
Abedin draws the ire of conservatives in particular. Conservatives say inquiries into Abedin, often described as a surrogate daughter to Clinton and a frequent presence by her side on the campaign trail, may be the best way to find answers they believe must lie in the presidential candidate’s records. Abedin, they argue, is a fair target for any investigation.
“It is important to shed light on Huma Abedin’s ethical controversies, as so many of them directly involve Secretary Clinton,” said Jeff Bechdel, communications director at America Rising, a Republican-allied political action committee that conducts opposition research and has published a report on Abedin.
Given her influence with the candidate and her advisers, Abedin’s ethics are “extremely relevant” to understanding those of Clinton, Bechdel said.
Abedin’s lawyer, Miguel Rodriguez, declined to comment.
Another anti-Clinton group, Citizens United, best known for successfully challenging restrictions on spending by outside groups before the Supreme Court, has also filed a FOIA request seeking communications between Abedin and another assistant to Clinton in search of meetings that never made it onto official schedules.
“The Clinton machine has always been made up of Bill and Hillary and their closest aides,” said David N. Bossie, president of Citizens United. Abedin and Mills “have been in Hillary Clinton’s orbit for years upon years,” he said.
The group previously unearthed a set of e-mails that suggested Abedin’s outside work, both for the Clinton Foundation and for a consultancy founded by a Clinton ally that had international clients, had created conflicts of interest.
“We are now closing the loop by looking at the complete record,” Bossie said.
David Brock, the founder of several pro-Clinton groups, said “a lot of casualties” in the Whitewater investigations of the Clintons in the 1990s resulted from “staff aides getting harassed.”
“It’s part of the strategy of legal terrorism that they’ve engaged in with the Clintons for as long as I remember,” Brock said.