A number of readers have asked the Fact Checker to explore Clinton’s stated timeline about her dealings with the State Department about her private e-mail system. New questions have arisen in light of The Washington Post’s report that the State Department confirmed that the triggering event to seek Clinton’s e-mails was the congressional investigation into the 2012 Benghazi attacks that left four Americans dead.
Previously, the State Department had danced around this fact, despite a report in the New York Times on March 5 that quoted unnamed “current and former officials” as saying “it was the review of Benghazi-related documents last summer that, within the State Department, set off the chain of events leading to the public disclosure this week of Mrs. Clinton’s use of a private email account.”
The Times said that starting in August, State Department officials held talks with Clinton’s lawyers and aides to obtain the e-mails. Then, starting in October, formal letters were sent to Clinton, as well as three other former secretaries of state, asking for copies of any e-mails that might have been sent from a personal account and might not have been captured in the State Department system.
Now, six months after that anonymously sourced report, the State Department officially acknowledged the timeline in an article written by our colleagues Carol D. Leonnig and Rosalind S. Helderman:
“In the process of responding to congressional document requests pertaining to Benghazi, State Department officials recognized that it had access to relatively few email records from former Secretary Clinton,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement e-mailed to The Washington Post. “State Department officials contacted her representatives during the summer of 2014 to learn more about her email use and the status of emails in that account.”
Kirby added that the agency then recognized “that we similarly did not have extensive email records from prior Secretaries of State and therefore included them when we requested their records in October 2014.”
The State Department also realized it was not automatically preserving internal communications, with some other senior officials’ e-mails missing.
Previously, the State Department had suggested the triggering event was the letters sent to the secretaries. “We ask that should your principal or his or her authorized representative be aware or become aware in the future of a federal record, such as an email sent or received on a personal email account while serving as Secretary of State, that a copy of this record be made available to the Department,” the letters said. (Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice said they did not use a personal e-mail account; Colin Powell said he did but did not retain records.)
That’s also how Clinton and her campaign have repeatedly framed it when speaking to reporters.
Why is this important? Under the campaign’s preferred timeline, Clinton is not being singled out. She is simply one of several recent secretaries, rather than the secretary who exclusively used a private e-mail account for government business — and maintained a server for it in her New York home.
Let’s examine how Clinton and her campaign discussed the timeline.
First in a news conference on March 10, just five days after the Times article, Clinton highlighted the alternative timeline in her opening statement.
“After I left office, the State Department asked former secretaries of state for our assistance in providing copies of work-related emails from our personal accounts. I responded right away and provided all my emails that could possibly be work-related, which totaled roughly 55,000 printed pages, even though I knew that the State Department already had the vast majority of them.”
Then she expanded on the account while answering questions. Note that she said that she emphasizes the letter was sent “not just to me” — and then she says directed her counsel to conduct a thorough investigation.
“I expected that then [e-mails] to be captured in the State Department or any other government agency that I was emailing to at a .gov account. What happened in — sorry, I guess late summer, early — early fall, is that the State Department sent a letter to former secretaries of state, not just to me, asking for some assistance in providing any work-related emails that might be on the personal email. And what I did was to direct, you know, my counsel to conduct a thorough investigation and to err on the side of providing anything that could be connected to work. They did that, and that was my obligation.”
But, as noted above, Clinton’s attorneys months earlier had been discussing this matter with the State Department. The Washington Post reported that Platte River Networks, the company that maintained the server, started pulling e-mails in July to send to Clinton adviser Cheryl Mills. Mills’s attorney Beth Wilkinson said, “As soon as the State Department said they needed help with the secretary’s e-mail, Cheryl Mills started the process.”
Nevertheless, even though one of Clinton’s top advisers (and chief of staff at the State Department under Clinton) had started the process in July, the Clinton campaign stuck to a timeline that began three months later—with the letters to the former secretaries of state. This is how a Q&A on the campaign Web site, “Updated: The Facts about Hillary Clinton’s Emails,” posted on July 13, framed it:
Why didn’t Clinton provide her emails to the State Department until December 2014?
In 2014, after recognizing potential gaps in its overall recordkeeping system, the State Department asked for the help of the four previous former Secretaries in meeting the State Department’s obligations under the Federal Records Act.
Clinton responded to this request by providing the State Department with over 55,000 pages of emails. As it was Clinton’s practice to email U.S. government officials on their .gov accounts, the overwhelming majority of these emails should have already been preserved in the State Department’s email system.
In providing these emails to the Department, Clinton included all she had that were even potentially work-related—including emails about using a fax machine or asking for iced tea during a meeting—erring on the side of over-inclusion, as confirmed by the Department and National Archives’ determination that over 1250 emails were “personal” records (which they have indicated will be returned to her).
After providing her work and potentially work-related emails, she chose not to keep her personal, non-work related emails, which by definition, are not federal records and were not requested by the Department or anyone else.
Why did the State Department ask for assistance in collecting records? Why did the State Department need assistance in further meeting its requirements under the Federal Records Act?
The State Department formally requested the assistance of the four previous former Secretaries in a letter to their representatives dated October 28, 2014, to help in further meeting the Department’s requirements under the Federal Records Act.
The letter stated that in September 2013, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) issued new guidance clarifying records management responsibilities regarding the use of personal email accounts for government business.
While this guidance was issued after all four former Secretaries had departed office, the Department decided to ensure its records were as complete as possible and sought copies of work emails sent or received by the Secretaries on their own accounts.
Clinton stuck to this version of the timeline in a recent series of interviews.
First, with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell on Sept. 4:
“In the fall, I think it was October of last year, the State Department sent a letter to previous secretaries of state asking for help with their record-keeping, in part because of the technical problems that they knew they had to deal with. And they asked that we, all of us, go through our e-mails to determine what was work-related and to provide that for them. The letter came to my lawyers. I asked my lawyers to please do that, and it took weeks, but they went through every single e-mail.”
Then, on Sept. 20, on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” speaking to John Dickerson:
“What I did was to send e-mails to people at their government accounts, which I had every reason to believe would be captured on the government systems. And when we were asked to help the State Department make sure they had everything from other secretaries of state, not just me, I’m the one who said, ‘Okay, great, I will go through them again.’ And we provided all of them. And more than 90 percent were already in the system.”
Clinton made a similar comment after The Post report appeared online, in an impromptu interview with the Des Moines Register on Sept. 22: “The same letter went to, as far as I know, my predecessors, and I’m the one who said, ‘Hey, I’ll be glad to help.’”
Finally, here’s what Clinton said on Sept. 27 on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” in an interview with Chuck Todd:
“We have done everything we could, in response to the State Department asking us to do this review because they asked all the former Secretaries. And the reason they asked, Chuck, is they found gaps in the record keeping. My assumption—because this system was there before I became Secretary, it was there when I left—my assumption was that anything I sent to a .gov account would be captured.”
In each of these instances, Clinton suggested that the first sign that these emails were needed was because of the letter sent to the former secretaries regarding “gaps in the record keeping.” Moreover, she posits herself as an eager helper — when in fact the letter was sent only after her lawyers and the State Department had had weeks of discussions about the return of the e-mails.
Over a period of days, the Fact Checker and the Clinton campaign engaged in a lengthy back-and-forth over the alternate timeline.
The campaign’s position appears to be that the existence of her private e-mail account should not have been a surprise to the State Department because it was first reported in 2013, when the e-mail account of one of her outside advisers, Sidney Blumenthal, was hacked. The disclosure showed Clinton had been communicating with Blumenthal via a personal e-mail account. “Clearly, that is not what prompted the request more than a year later,” a Clinton aide said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Moreover, aides say that there was an actual technical glitch that prevented the State Department from capturing all of the e-mails that Clinton sent to people with state.gov addresses, so that problem needed to be addressed. (This appears to refer to an Inspector General report on how State Department officials at lower levels were not properly saving e-mails for archives, but the report said the assessment did not apply to the system used by senior State Department officials, including the secretary of state and top aides.)
“Hundreds of people knew she had that account,” the Clinton aide said. “A year earlier, a full year, the entire world knew. So State did not ask because they realized she had a personal account, they asked because they realized they didn’t have the e-mails in their system. They didn’t have the e-mails in their system because of some sort of technical discrepancies on their end, unrelated to what kind of account she had.”
From the campaign’s point of view, the summer discussions were merely outreach and informal, so it makes sense to date the timeline from the formal request.
But what was surprising to the State Department was not that Clinton had a personal e-mail account — but that she used it exclusively for all of her business correspondence. Look back at the State Department’s statement to The Post: “State Department officials recognized that it had access to relatively few e-mail records from former Secretary Clinton.”
The Pinocchio Test
It remains a mystery to the Fact Checker why Clinton persists in saying the timeline began with the letters to all of the former secretaries. (To be fair, Clinton aides seemed mystified by our questions and why this was even an issue.)
The letters to the former secretaries all asked for copies of business-related e-mails that might have been sent from a personal account. There was certainly some historical value in that. But there was a pressing need for the State Department to seek Clinton’s e-mails because of the the Benghazi inquiry — and the State Department had made clear that its interest in the Clinton e-mails months before an official letter was sent.
Clinton appears to be sticking to her timeline because it obscures the fact that she exclusively used a private e-mail for company business. If she had used a State Department e-mail, just as many other cabinet officials in the Obama administration used “.gov” addresses, it’s likely the State Department would not have had trouble responding to congressional requests. That’s why there are “gaps in the record keeping.”
As part of Clinton’s effort to clear up questions about her e-mail set-up, Clinton should begin using a more complete timeline regarding her staff member’s dealings with the State Department on this matter. The current timeline is incomplete.
Send us facts to check by filling out this form