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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Clinton’s Email Narrative, Interrupted

Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the State Department have provided incomplete and misleading accounts of when and why the department requested copies of work-related emails that she maintained on a private server.

Marie Harf, a former department spokeswoman, was asked at a press briefing on March 3 if there was a connection between the department’s request for Clinton’s emails and the House Select Committee on Benghazi’s request for documents related to the deadly Sept. 11, 2012, attacks in Libya. Harf said the department in October 2014 sent letters to Clinton and three other secretaries “as part of our records maintenance upgrading.”

Harf noted the department’s October letter preceded the committee’s request in November. “So the letter actually went before we got the request from the select committee,” she said.

Clinton and her campaign have stuck to that timeline and narrative. Clinton repeatedly has said she was “asked to help the State Department” with “their record-keeping.” She stressed that it was “not just me” but four other secretaries of state who received the October letter asking for copies of work-related emails. She did so most recently on Sept. 20 during an appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Clinton, Sept. 20: 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, OK, great, I’ll go through them again. And we provided all of them.

We now learn, however, from the Washington Post that the State Department in the summer of 2014 contacted Clinton’s representatives to discuss her emails and her personal computer server, and that those conversations were prompted by the House committee on Benghazi and resulted in the letters that went out in October 2014.

State Department spokesman John Kirby essentially confirmed what unnamed sources told the New York Times in a story on March 5. (A day after that article appeared, Harf acknowledged the committee requests were “a factor,” but did not go as far as Kirby did in his email to the Post.)

Washington Post, Sept. 22: “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.”

It makes sense that the State Department would have contacted Clinton’s representatives in the summer of 2014, because the State Department has said that on Aug. 11, 2014, it gave the House Benghazi committee 15,000 pages of documents related to the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi that resulted in the deaths of four Americans. But those documents included only about eight emails from Clinton, according to the committee’s interim report, and some of them showed Clinton “used a private email account to communicate about official government business.”

The Des Moines Register asked Clinton about the Post story and the discrepancy between her account and the revised department version offered by Kirby. “I don’t know that. I can’t answer that,” Clinton told the Register. “All I know is that they sent the same letter to everybody. That’s my understanding.”

We leave it to readers to decide the importance of this discrepancy.

The fact is, though, Clinton and her campaign — with the initial help of the State Department — provided an incomplete and misleading account when asked a fundamental question about the email controversy. Clinton described the request for her emails as a routine record-keeping request that was made to several former secretaries, just as she has inaccurately described her unusual email arrangement as common because previous “secretaries of state” did the “same thing.” In fact only one, Colin Powell, used personal emails for government business, and he didn’t have a personal server.

Below are some of the statements made by Clinton, her office and her campaign about when and why the State Department requested her emails, beginning with the press conference she held on March 10, when she first addressed the New York Times story that said she exclusively used a personal email account to conduct official government business.

Clinton, March 10: 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.

Her office that day provided a Q&A on her emails that made no reference to the discussions about Clinton’s emails in the summer of 2014 or the fact that those conversations were prompted by the House Benghazi committee.

Clinton office Q&A, March 10: Why did the Department ask for assistance? Why did the Department need assistance in further meeting its requirements under the Federal Records Act?

The Department formally requested the assistance of the four previous former Secretaries in a letter to their representatives dated October 28, 2014 to help in furtherance of 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.

After Clinton formally entered the race, her campaign posted a second, undated Q&A called “Updated: The Facts About Hillary Clinton’s Emails” that repeated the question and answer about why the department asked for her emails. That Q&A also addressed why Clinton did not turn over her emails until December 2014 — 21 months after she left office in February 2013.

Clinton campaign Q&A, undated: 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 State Department’s obligations under the Federal Records Act.

Likewise, Clinton told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell that she turned over her emails to help the department “with their record-keeping,” and mentioned that the October letter went out to “previous secretaries of state” but not what prompted the letter or the conversations that preceded it.

Clinton, Sept. 4: Well, let me tell you the process here, because I’m glad you asked that, Andrea, because I think it is one of the questions that people have.

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.

Most recently, there was Clinton’s appearance on “Face the Nation” that we mentioned above.

— Eugene Kiely