State Department officials engaged in a coordinated effort to manage the political fallout from the discovery of emails related to Benghazi among Hillary Clinton's records in 2015, according to a 189-page summary of interviews conducted by the FBI in its investigation of Clinton's email practices.
The 296 Benghazi-related emails released by the House Select Committee on Benghazi in May 2015 served as the first test for the State Department officials who would ultimately screen all 30,000 of Clinton's emails.
But at least one witness described to the FBI the particular "pressure" placed on those officials to avoid classifying anything in the documents, even though some of the information was actually classified.
Patrick Kennedy, State's undersecretary for management, at one point "pointedly asked" the FBI "to change [its] classification determination" in a Benghazi-related email that contained intelligence, the FBI said.
A witness whose identity was redacted told investigators that the normal record review practices were circumvented in spring 2015 amid the fierce politicization of the Benghazi emails.
After the public learned of Clinton's private email use in March of last year, Congress and watchdog groups began demanding the release of emails. The Benghazi panel had already requested records related to the 2012 terror attack, and Freedom of Information Act cases that had been closed improperly began to come back to life.
But one witness told the FBI he "believed there was interference with the formal FOIA review process."
That witness pointed to the collection of 296 Benghazi emails that were among the first records to emerge publicly from Clinton's email trove. The unnamed individual told the FBI that State Department officials had "included redactions done for Clinton's privacy but unrelated to national security."
According to the witness, State Department officials at one point attempted to classify information in order to have an excuse to redact it even though the agency's own Office of Legal Counsel thought the email was not worthy of classification.
The witness said he and other career officers, who were typically involved in the FOIA process and in responding to congressional inquiries, were "cut out of the loop" when Clinton's emails needed processing. Instead, new staffers were "placed" by "top State officials" to take over the job of screening Clinton's emails; the witness said the officials — whose identities were redacted — had "a very narrow focus on all Clinton-related items and were put in positions that were not advertised."
FOIA reviews are supposed to be performed by career officials to prevent politics from affecting the government's response, particularly in a case as politically fraught as the Clinton email situation.
In fact, Clinton herself has cited the impartiality of the career FOIA officers as proof that her case was handled fairly.
John Kirby, State Department spokesman, said in a statement to the Washington Examiner that the agency "strongly disputes" the allegations of interference in the FOIA process.
"Claims actions were taken for political reasons are false. As has been reported, there have been discussions within the interagency on issues of classification," Kirby said, noting the claims are "old" and were dismissed by the inspector general.
"As we have noted previously, classification is an art, not a science, and individuals with classification authority sometimes have different views. We have an obligation to ensure determinations as they relate to classification are made appropriately," Kirby said. "Throughout the FOIA release process, we have been committed to releasing as much information to the public as possible, and ensuring that documents are withheld due to classification only when necessary to prevent damage to national security — as the Executive Order on classification calls for."