This article has been updated.
Throughout the controversy over her use of a private e-mail system while she was secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton has described her decision last year to turn over thousands of work-related e-mails as a response to a routine-sounding records request.
“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,’ ” Clinton said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “And we provided all of them.”
But State Department officials provided new information Tuesday that undercuts Clinton’s characterization. They said the request was not simply about general record-keeping but was prompted entirely by the discovery that Clinton had exclusively used a private e-mail system. They also said they first contacted her in the summer of 2014, at least three months before the agency asked Clinton and three of her predecessors to provide their e-mails.
“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.
The discrepancy between Clinton’s timetable and the new information from the State Department prompted a terse letter Tuesday from Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, who has been investigating whether Clinton’s e-mail practices compromised national security.
In the letter, he pointed to documents suggesting that Clinton’s staff moved quickly that summer after she was first contacted about her private account.
He cited a July 23, 2014, e-mail in which employees at Platte River Networks, the private company that was then maintaining her server, discussed sending copies of Clinton’s e-mails overnight to Cheryl Mills, a longtime Clinton adviser. A spokesman for the company confirmed Tuesday that its workers started pulling Clinton’s e-mails to submit to Mills in July 2014.
Mills’s attorney, Beth Wilkinson, said in an interview that Mills was properly responding to the State Department’s concerns. “As soon as the State Department said they needed help with the secretary’s e-mail, Cheryl Mills started the process,” Wilkinson said.
Clinton and her campaign on Tuesday continued to point to the State Department’s request for multiple former secretaries’ e-mails, even after The Post first reported online that the agency was providing a new account.
Asked about The Post’s report during a Des Moines Register interview, Clinton said: “You’re telling me something I don’t know. All I know is what I have said. . . . 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.’ ”
Campaign spokesman Nick Merrill told The Post in an e-mail statement late Tuesday that “Clinton responded to a request of her and other prior Secretaries of State to assist with the Department’s record keeping. Due to her practice of emailing her colleagues on their state.gov email addresses, 90% of her work-related correspondence occurred on the Department’s email system, and she provided her copies as well, about 55,000 pages total. Everything she has said in answering questions has been consistent with this.”
Clinton’s description of her interactions with the State Department over her use of the private system as secretary has emerged as an issue in her presidential campaign.
By casting her actions as part of a routine agency review, Clinton, the Democratic front-runner for the White House, has sought to play down any suggestion that her decision to use a private e-mail system was unusual or problematic. She has said repeatedly that it was “permitted” by the State Department and widely known in the Obama administration.
But the early call from the State Department is a sign that, at the least, officials in the agency she led from 2009 to 2013 were concerned by the practice — and that they had been caught off guard upon discovering her exclusive use of a private account.
There was a lot going on behind the scenes before the State Department sent a formal request for work records to Clinton and former secretaries Colin L. Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine K. Albright in a Nov. 12, 2014, letter, according to documents and interviews with senior officials.
In the spring and summer of 2014, while it was in the process of trying to find records sought by the newly formed House Select Committee on Benghazi, the State Department’s congressional affairs office found Clinton’s personal e-mail address listed on a few records in a batch of Benghazi documents but no government e-mail account for her.
“We realized there was a problem,” said a State Department official who until that moment had not been aware of Clinton’s private e-mail setup. The official, like some others interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the case.
The department knew that the Republican-led committee would ask about the private e-mail domain — clintonemail.com — listed on some of the documents. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who was also learning about her exclusive use of the e-mail account for the first time, was eager to “rip off the Band-Aid,” as two key aides described it, and to make sure the agency provided the Benghazi panel with any records it properly requested.
State Department staffers were trying to figure out where her work e-mails were stored and how they might try to assemble them, one official said. Clinton turned over copies of about 30,000 work-related e-mails to the department in December.
For months she has pointed to this moment as an example of her desire to cooperate with what she has characterized as a bureaucratic procedure. In a news conference at the United Nations in March, she said: “After I left office, the State Department asked former secretaries of state for our assistance in providing copies of work-related e-mails from our personal accounts. I responded right away and provided all my e-mails 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.”
The agency is releasing those e-mails in batches, in accordance with a court order stemming from a public-records lawsuit.
The issue has led to frustrations within the State Department in recent months, as some officials have grown tired of having to answer for a political controversy not of their making, according to three senior officials.
Meanwhile, Kerry has told officials to prioritize fixing long-standing problems in the agency’s outdated archive system.
While some of Clinton’s predecessors used private e-mail addresses, none took the additional step of conducting all of their business over a personal account housed on a private server. Clinton used a server that was kept for a time in her New York home. After she left office in 2013, the server was managed by Platte River.
The FBI has been investigating the security of Clinton’s e-mail setup. Officials have said Clinton is not a target of the inquiry.
Tom Hamburger and Alice Crites contributed to this report.