Nearly 900 pages of Libya-related e-mails from Hillary Rodham Clinton’s private account provide little apparent fuel for a Republican investigation of her actions preceding the September 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi and an alleged administration coverup in its aftermath.
Released Friday by the State Department, the e-mails contain nuggets indicating Clinton received a fairly steady flow of information about the political chaos inside Libya throughout 2011 and 2012. They also provide glimpses into her personal life — including weekends at home in Washington and New York — and into the grinding and sometimes tedious schedule of a secretary of state.
But the huge time gaps between a total of about 300 e-mails, many of which are repeated on page after page as the same messages are forwarded to and from Clinton and among her staffers, indicated that it may not have been her preferred form of communication.
Republicans on the House select committee that has been investigating the Benghazi attacks for the past year seemed to acknowledge the relative lack of new information.
Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) said that it was “important to remember these e-mail messages are just one piece of information that cannot be completely evaluated or fully understood without the total record.”
The e-mails were culled by the State Department from a larger trove of some 55,000 pages that Clinton turned over from the private account she used throughout her time as secretary.
The committee, which received the Libya-related e-mails in February, has asked for the entire collection.
“To assume that a self-selected 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,” Gowdy said in a statement.
The ranking minority member of the committee, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), who has been harshly critical of Gowdy, charged him with “dragging out this political charade to harm Secretary Clinton’s bid for president.”
Clinton said she was “glad that the e-mails are starting to come out.” Speaking at a news conference in New Hampshire, she said, “I want people to be able to see all of them as soon as possible.”
Clinton’s presidential campaign has played down the significance of the e-mail correspondence and her handling of it. The 55,000 pages she turned over to the State Department were chosen by her staff, which discarded messages deemed “personal” and not related to government business.
Clinton has said she wants to testify in public before the committee, but Gowdy has said her appearance is pointless until lawmakers have the information they need.
One controversy arose immediately after the release because of the last-minute FBI classification Friday of several lines in a November 18, 2012, e-mail from a mid-level State Department official that was forwarded to Clinton.
The message recounted a report of arrests in Libya of “several people today who may/may have some connection to the Benghazi attack.”
Although the e-mail was simply forwarded to Clinton by an aide and there was no indication of a response, the FBI notation was seized on by critics as contradicting Clinton’s assertion that she never used her personal e-mail for classified information. Marie Harf, the State Department’s deputy spokesman, said the “e-mail with two sentences redacted was not classified when it was sent in 2012 but it was upgraded today to secret at the request of FBI.”
Few of the e-mails deal directly with events leading up to the Benghazi attack, in which Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed. Many of messages are forwarded e-mails sent to Clinton by Jacob J. Sullivan, her principal foreign policy aide.
The last e-mail included from Stevens, sent to Sullivan on July 7, 2012, and forwarded as an “Fyi” to Clinton, reported on election day in Libya. “The atmosphere in Tripoli is very festive,” Stevens wrote.
About two dozen of the e-mails, sent directly to Clinton in 2011 and 2012, are from former political aide Sidney Blumenthal. Each is a lengthy analysis of the internal political situation in Libya, attributed to “sources with direct access to the Libyan National Government, as well as the highest levels of European governments, and Western Intelligence and security services.”
Blumenthal, who has been subpoenaed by the committee, worked on Clinton’s 2007-2008 campaign but was barred from employment by the Obama administration, which considered him untrustworthy.
Since then, he has worked for the Clinton family foundation and with entrepreneurs hoping to do business in Libya and Egypt.
The reports include conspiracies recounted by sources inside high-level meetings of the frequently changing Libyan government. One of them talks of Libyan contacts made behind Washington’s back by Britain and France — both of which participated closely with the United States in the 2011 bombing campaign that helped rebels drive Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi from power.
The most potentially significant among these reports arrived on Sept. 12, 2012, the day after the attacks, with a subject line reading, “Sending direct. Just in.” Quoting unnamed “security sources,” Blumenthal reported that “approximately twenty one (21) Ansar al Sharia fighters left their base in East Benghazi just after sundown [and] infiltrated the crowd of about 2,000 demonstrators at the U.S. Consulate.” After attacking the U.S. mission, the fighters “then withdrew to their camp.” The source also indicated that “the attacks had been planned for approximately one month.”
The e-mail comports with a number of versions that circulated in the immediate aftermath of the attacks — some of them part of the initial administration narrative — although it was later determined that there was no demonstration. It remains unknown whether the attacks were planned in advance.
Republican lawmakers have repeatedly suggested that Clinton was responsible for ignoring security lapses at the mission and that she knowingly helped foster an incorrect account of the attacks.
The e-mail appears to have been forwarded by Blumenthal from Tyler Drumheller, a former CIA official with whom he was known to have a close relationship.
Virtually all of the voluminous Blumental e-mails were sent by Clinton to Sullivan with a brief notation or instructions to send them down to officials most directly involved in Libya, including Stevens, for reaction. Some elicited no response from those officials or a terse comment; others drew skepticism.
A Sept. 24 e-mail from Sullivan to Clinton included a compilation of all the statements she had made about Benghazi to that point.
“You never said spontaneous or characterized the motives,” he wrote.
Among the most poignant exchanges occurred late on the day of the attacks, after a long wait to determine Stevens’s fate.
“Cheryl told me the Libyans confirmed his death. Should we announce tonight or wait until morning?” Clinton e-mailed her team at 11:38 p.m.
“We are awaiting formal confirmation from our team. We are drafting a statement while we wait,” Cheryl D. Mills. her chief of staff, replied.
At 11:40, Clinton replied: “Ok.”
Carol Morello and Julie Tate contributed to this report.