A second federal judge in Washington ruled Tuesday that a conservative legal watchdog group may question the State Department and potentially several top aides to Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton about her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state.
In a three-page order, U.S. District Senior Judge Royce C. Lamberth granted a request from Judicial Watch, which has sought public records of talking points used by Susan E. Rice, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, in television appearances after the deadly Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya.
Appearing five days later on Sunday-morning talk shows, Rice, now President Obama’s national security adviser, said the assaults appeared to have stemmed from a spontaneous protest over an anti-Islam video. U.S. investigators later concluded that the attacks were carried out by terrorist groups.
“Where there is evidence of government wrong-doing and bad faith, as here, limited discovery is appropriate, even though it is exceedingly rare in FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] cases,” Lamberth wrote.
His decision came about five weeks after another federal judge in Washington, U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, ruled that current and former top State Department and Clinton aides could be questioned under oath about her email arrangement in a separate Judicial Watch FOIA case. The group has questioned whether officials intentionally thwarted federal open-records laws by using or allowing the use of a private email server during Clinton’s tenure at State from 2009 to 2013.
In both cases, the judges said sufficient doubt had been raised about whether department searches of public records were adequate.
The department faced dozens of FOIA lawsuits after disclosures that Clinton exclusively used a personal server for government business while at State and that several aides also used the server or personal email addresses. Clinton and others have since returned tens of thousands of pages that they or their attorneys have designated as work-related for government FOIA review and potential release.
However, Sullivan and Lamberth criticized what Lamberth called the “constantly shifting admissions by the government and former government officials” about the arrangement. Sullivan said the server arrangement allowed former federal employees to decide what government records to disclose, apparently without ensuring that State records were secured within the department’s own systems.
Calling Clinton’s personal server use “extraordinary,” Lamberth wrote, “An understanding of the facts and circumstances . . . is required before the Court can determine whether the search conducted here reasonably produced all responsive documents.”
Sullivan, in the earlier case, set an April 12 deadline for Judicial Watch and the government’s lawyers to lay out a plan for how they want to proceed, subject to court approval.
Lamberth said in his order that after Sullivan decides how to proceed in that case, Judicial Watch should submit a proposed discovery plan within 10 days to him in the Rice matter, and the government can respond in another 10 days.
The case before Sullivan concerns public records sought by Judicial Watch about the employment arrangement of Huma Abedin, a longtime confidante who served as Clinton’s deputy chief of staff.
Judicial Watch has proposed questioning seven current and former officials, including Cheryl D. Mills, who was Clinton’s chief of staff at State; Abedin, who now is vice chairman of Clinton’s presidential campaign; and Bryan Pagliano, a Clinton staff member during her 2008 presidential campaign who helped set up the private server.
Others designated for deposition are Undersecretary for Management Patrick F. Kennedy; Stephen D. Mull, executive secretary at State from June 2009 to October 2012; Lewis A. Lukens, executive director of the executive secretariat from 2008 to 2011; and Donald R. Reid, senior coordinator for security infrastructure in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security.
Judicial Watch said it intends to seek answers about department officials’ creation, maintenance, support or awareness of Clinton’s email system; any instructions given to department workers about communicating by email with Clinton and Abedin; and any inquiries into or discussions about disclosing Clinton’s use of the system.
Sullivan noted in his ruling that senior department officials appeared to know about Clinton’s set-up from her swearing-in at State in January 2009, citing an email chain among Kennedy, Lukens, Mills and others regarding setting up a computer in Clinton’s office so she could check her “off network” email.
Sullivan also noted email traffic among Abedin, Mull, Mills, Kennedy and others discussing communication problems, in which Mull suggested that Clinton be issued a State Department BlackBerry that would protect her identity but be subject to public-records requests.