The U.S. Government’s decision to classify the message was revealed Friday as the department released the first batch of Clinton’s emails — a set of nearly 900 pages of emails dealing with U.S. policy in Libya and the attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi on September 11, 2012 that killed the ambassador and three others.
A spokesman for Clinton, Brian Fallon, noted on Twitter that the information had been “classified only in recent days.” The document actually appears to have been formally classified Friday — the same day State posted the first set of highly anticipated emails online.
“It wasn’t classified at the time,” Harf said. “The occurrence of a subsequent upgrade doesn’t mean that anyone did anything wrong.”
Harf also noted that the information — a November 2012 email about arrests in Libya potentially related to the Benghazi attacks — was not deemed classified when it was sent three months ago to a House committee investigating Benghazi.
At a press conference in March to address the growing scandal over her exclusive use of personal email while serving as secretary of state, Clinton denied sending classified information on her email account and she appeared to deny receiving it as well.
”I did not email any classified material to anyone on my email. There is no classified material,” Clinton said. “So, I’m certainly well-aware of the classification requirements and did not send classified material.”
The emails also provide a raw look into the grave danger that US Ambassador Chris Stevens faced — and the extent to which top State Department officials knew of his precarious situation from the time he arrived in Benghazi in the spring, in the midst Libya’s civil war.
Indeed, in late March one of the emails reported he would have “stage off shore” on a ship and go into the rebel stronghold only for meetings with the forces seeking to overthrow Libyan dictator Muammar Qadhafi who were trying to coordinate with NATO air strikes aimed at preventing government forces from killing more civilians.
A few days later, Clinton was informed, “Chris Stevens & team are in the hotel, moving only for meetings as required.”
The day of the attack on the consulate began with Libya clearly on the secretary of state’s mind. Just before sunup, she asked an aide: “Can you get us a copy of Bernard Henri-Levi’s film about Libya?”
But soon she was receiving a blow-by-blow about the attack on the U.S. diplomatic post and then a nearby location where staff sought shelter.
It was at 11:38 pm in Washington that night that Clinton relayed matter-of-factly to another aide that she was informed that the Libyans had reported Stevens was killed.
”Cheryl told me the Libyans confirmed his death,” she wrote. “Should we announce tonight or wait until morning?
Three minutes later, she received another update on the grave situation on the ground that ultimately led to four American deaths: “Their current shelter location is now under attack by mortar fire. Three to four rounds have impacted on their location. There are new injuries to COM staff. Update to follow.”
In the days after the attack, the condition of the U.S. consulate was described as “shocking” by Jeffrey Feltman, an assistant secretary of state. “Photos doesn’t do it justice. Floors have collapsed, the ballistic glass and metal support beams have melted, and it has been totally trashed.”
The inside look at Clinton’s communications around the controversial event could raise more questions about whether Stevens or his superiors back in Washington had done enough to protect U.S. diplomatic personnel — especially in a war zone where there was little infrastructure and, as the emails, show, the State Department and military officials sought significant advice from the Turkish consulate.
But the emails also provide broader insight into the challenges the Obama administration faced in what to do about the Libyan civil war, which ultimately resulted in Qaddafi’s death by a raging mob and a years of instability and growing Islamic militancy.
In April 2011, Clinton asked Anne-Marie Slaughter, who was her director of policy planning, what she thought of arming the rebels.
“Why are you dubious? Clinton wrote.
“Sending more arms into a society generally — particularly when they are as disorganized and fragmented as they are — will result in more violence — against each other,” Slaughter wrote. “Boys like to play with guns (trust me as the mother of sons). I am all for saying we have no objection to French doing it to increase pressure on [Qadhafi], but in a tribal society where conflicts have been repressed for so long, adding even more weapons does not make sense….they are not awash in weapons now.”
One of the biggest questions on Friday, however, were once again why Clinton was using a private email account to conduct so much official business.
Clinton, the Democratic front runner in the presidential race, was at a campaign event in New Hampshire when the emails were released. She had turned over all the relevant emails from her personal account. She also said that she had been informed that authorities had deemed the one email exchange classified.
“We have released all of them that have any government relationship,”she told a large scrum of reporters after the campaign event. “I’m aware that the FBI has asked that a portion of one email be held back. That happens in the process … That doesn’t change the fact that all of the information in the emails was handled appropriately.”
The document State deemed classified was sent through unclassified State Department channels and forwarded to Clinton’s private account by Jake Sullivan, State’s Director of Policy Planning.
Some portions of the message were withheld on law enforcement grounds, but two passages were deleted as “SECRET” with an additional notation “NOFORN,” meaning they should not be shared with foreign governments.
In a letter sent to Clinton’s attorney in March, Undersecretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy said she could keep copies of her emails, but that if any of them were deemed classified “additional steps will be required to safeguard and protect the information.”
A State spokesman said Friday that the agency is moving to make sure the sensitive information doesn’t leak out. “We have reached out to her attorneys and asked that any copies of the now-classified document be destroyed or returned to the Department,” spokesman Alec Gerlach said.
A Clinton spokesman had no immediate comment on what her team has done with the document and any copies.
While officials said only one passage from the Libya-related documents was deemed classified, the bulk of the emails Clinton returned to the department last December have yet to be reviewed for release so it is possible more of the emails could be classified as the review of the much larger set goes forward.
Clinton’s early presidential campaign has been dogged by a series of scandals, including her use of a personal email address and server while she was secretary of state, and perceived conflicts of interest created by the heavy flow of foreign cash into the Clinton Foundation.
She’s also been dogged by the work of the U.S. House Select Committee on Benghazi, which continues to probe whether the Obama administration inappropriately evolved its talking points around the Sept. 11, 2012, attack and whether top officials, including Clinton, should have done more to protect Americans working in Libya.
Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy, the committee’s chairman, has subpoenaed the State Department for all documents on Libya from Clinton’s time at the State Department and is refusing to schedule the former secretary to testify until the Obama administration turns the emails over to congressional investigators.
Even before the Benghazi-related emails were made public on Friday, the State Department argued that the nearly 900 pages of documents do not fundamentally alter the findings of the State Department’s Accountability Review Board that probed the Benghazi terrorist attacks.
“The emails we release today do not change the essential facts or our understanding of the events before, during, or after the attacks, which have been known since the independent Accountability Review Board report on the Benghazi attacks was released almost two and a half years ago,” Harf said in a statement earlier on Friday.
The emails, however, are sure to raise more questions about the administration’s and Clinton’s response to what quickly became a political scandal. There is an email dated Sept. 15 with Clinton providing “talking points” for an upcoming closed-door hearing before the House Select Committee on Intelligence, but with the exception of Jake Sullivan the recipients are blacked out, along with the entire document.
It states only: “Per the discussion at Deputies, here are the revised TPs for HPSCI.”
Another document shows Sullivan reassuring Clinton on Sept. 30, 2012, that she did not attribute the attack to demonstrators. At that time, Republicans were heavily criticizing the administration because then-UN Ambassador Susan Rice initially said the attack was sparked by a popular protest against a U.S.-made video. The Obama administration later said it believed the deadly incident was a terrorist attack.
“Attached is full compilation,” Sullivan wrote to Clinton, attaching copies of all her public statements in the immediate aftermath. “You never said spontaneous or characterized the motives, in fact you were careful in your first statement to say we were assessing motive and method. The way you treated the video in the Libya context was to say that some sought to *justify* the attack on that basis.”
There was also clear worry within the Clinton State Department over how a series of talking points describing the attack was received. During a series of congressional hearings on the attacks, Matthew Olsen, then the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, wrote to Clinton’s chief of staff of the “outlandish behavior” at the hearings.
But there was also some Republican praise for Clinton. Sen. John McCain’s national security advisor, Christian Brose, sent an email to Sullivan on Sept. 12, 2011, with the subject line “Wow,” about Clinton’s speech honoring the victims. “What a wonderful, strong and moving statement by your boss. please tell her how much Sen. McCain appreciated it. Me too,” the email said. Sullivan forwarded the email to Clinton.
Gowdy said in a statement Friday that the committee will continue to seek all documents from Clinton’s tenure at the State Department on Libya and Benghazi and not the “self-selected” emails the former secretary made available.
“To assume a self-selected public 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.
The Benghazi Committee has had access to this first batch of email, which represents less than 2 percent of the 55,000 pages of emails Clinton returned to State, for months. Leaked portions of the emails contain extensive communications between Clinton and Sidney Blumenthal — a longtime family ally. Blumenthal would often send Clinton memos on the security in Libya before the 2012 attacks that left four Americans dead.
Blumenthal’s analyses of Libya was often met with skepticism from senior State Department officials, including Clinton. Gowdy asked the U.S. Marshals Service to serve Blumenthal with a subpoena on Tuesday.
The emails also give a personal look at Clinton’s style of communication.
Clinton made light of a concussion she had in 2012 the stopped her from appearing before congressional committees to answer questions on Benghazi. In a Dec. 20 email, she wrote that she was still “nursing my cracked head.”
The rest of the 55,000 emails will be released to the public in stages. State proposed releasing those records next January, but a judge rejected that plan and ordered the agency to come up with a rolling schedule, which is due to be filed with the court on Tuesday.
Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the Benghazi panel, said in a statement that the committee should now schedule Clinton to testify.
“Instead of the selective leaking that has happened so far, the American people can now read all of these emails and see for themselves that they contain no evidence to back up claims that Secretary Clinton ordered a stand-down, approved an illicit weapons program, or any other wild allegation Republicans have made for years,” Cummings said.
Annie Karni contributed to this report.