A new batch of Hillary Clinton’s emails made public by the State Department Monday night show her expressing interest in the presidential aspirations of Gen. David Petraeus, who ultimately took a job as CIA director in the Obama administration instead of running for president in 2012 and was then driven out of government by scandal.
Clinton–who’s now the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination next year–sounded intrigued when her longtime friend Sidney Blumenthal reported to her on a Saturday morning in February 2010 that prominent Washington foreign policy blogger Steve Clemons said Petraeus was talking frankly about the possibility of running for the White House.
“Clemons had dinner this week with Petraeus, who freely talked about running for president,” Blumenthal wrote to Clinton.
“Will he write about Petraeus?” Clinton wrote back five minutes later.
Moments later, Blumenthal sent Clinton Clemons’ post mentioning the off-the-record dinner and discussing the relative political merits of Petraeus, Vice President Joe Biden and Clinton herself.
“Clemons… told me more detail about [Petraeus’] attitude and interest,” Blumenthal said, adding a couple of nuggets.
Four months later, Petraeus was abruptly named the U.S. commander in Afghanistan after President Barack Obama essentially fired Gen. Stanley McCrystal over disrespectful comments his aides made about Biden. Clinton’s top communications adviser, Philippe Reines, opined that the new assignment would be seen as a way to take Petraeus, said to describe himself as a Rockefeller Republican, out of contention as a potential presidential candidate in 2012.
“My bet on the direction this now takes is two fronts 1) does Petreaus make any big changes; can he do in Afghanistan what he did in Iraq; his health; political benefits of locking him up like Huntsman,” Reines wrote to top Clinton advisers, referring to perceptions that Huntsman was out of the running for 2012 because he accepted an appointment from Obama to be U.S. Ambassador to China. The email was later forwarded to Clinton by her chief of staff, Cheryl Mills.
Huntsman did run for the GOP nomination in 2012 but did poorly and dropped out. Petraeus was named CIA director in 2011 but resigned after the 2012 elections when a federal investigation of alleged cyberstalking exposed an extramarital affair he had with his biographer.
In addition to keeping tabs on Petraeus, Clinton also expressed interest in reports that former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta was expressing criticism of Obama White House management. “Send me the next article about Podesta,” she asked Blumenthal. Previously released emails show Clinton chafing at perceived snubs from Obama’s national security team and her team in some apparent friction with then National Security Adviser Jim Jones.
In the same month as the exchanges about Petraeus, Clinton also sent Mills an article by Les Gelb arguing for a shake-up of Obama’s White House team, including the removal of Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. In the email forwarding the column, Clinton doesn’t say if she agrees or disagrees with the diagnosis or the prescription. She simply writes:”FYI.”
The new insights into Clinton’s political intelligence-gathering come from messages that are among a batch of more than 7,000 pages of emails the State Department put online Monday night, complying with a judge’s order to make monthly releases in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. The order followed the revelation in March that Clinton exclusively used a private email account and server during her four years as secretary of state, jeopardizing earlier responses to FOIA requests and triggering Republican claims that she endangered national security by allowing sensitive messages to be stored on an unofficial system.
While dozens of senior officials and Clinton friends were in the loop about her email setup, the newly-disclosed messages show some on State’s tech support team were clearly in the dark.
“I work as a Help Desk Analyst and it has come to my attention that one of our customers has been receiving permanent fatal errors from this address, can you please confirm if you receive this message,” State Department IT specialist Christopher Butzgy wrote in a message that Clinton forwarded to top aide Huma Abedin inquiring about its contents.
“What happened is judith sent.you an email. It bounced back. She called the email help desk at state (I guess assuming u had state email) and told them that. They had no idea it was YOU, just some random address so they emailed. Sorry about that. But regardless, means ur email must be back! R u getting other messages?” Abedin emailed Clinton.
The debate over the wisdom of Clinton’s use of the private account got new fodder Monday when State declared another 125 of the former secretary’s emails classified on national security grounds. The new classifications roughly triple the number of messages on Clinton’s account now considered classified, bringing the total to 188 from 63.
However, State Department spokesman Mark Toner stressed that the information was not marked classified at the time it was sent several years ago. He also said the decision to classify the information did not represent a determination that it should have been marked or handled that way back then.
“That certainly does not speak to whether it was classified at the time it was sent, or forwarded, or received,” Toner said during the daily State Department briefing Monday afternoon, before the release. “We stand by our contention that the information we’ve upgraded was not marked classified at the time it was sent.”
At the briefing, Toner had said he expected the number of classified messages in the lastest set to be “somewhere around 150.” Asked about the final tally for this batch being about 25 fewer, State officials said Toner’s number was simply a rough estimate. They also said some of the information classified in Monday’s release was identical to information withheld in earlier batches.
The Republican National Committee called the latest release another reason to doubt Clinton can be trusted with the presidency.
“These new emails show Hillary Clinton exposed even more classified information on her secret server than previously known,” said RNC Chairman Reince Priebus in a statement. “On hundreds of occasions, Hillary Clinton’s reckless attempt to skirt transparency laws put sensitive information and our national security at risk. With the FBI continuing to investigate, Hillary Clinton’s growing email scandal shows she cannot be trusted with the White House.”
After first saying there was no classified information in her account, Clinton has said more recently that nothing was marked classified. She has said she used the private account for convenience, but that in retrospect it was a bad choice. Clinton has also described the classification system as arcane, while her aides have described it as dysfunctional.
As Clinton faces questions about whether she mishandled classified information, the emails released Monday show how she and her staff responded in late 2010 to the largest breach of classified information in U.S. history: WikiLeaks’ disclosure of 250,000 diplomatic cables. An Army intelligence analyst, Pvt. Chelsea Manning, was eventually court martialed for the leaks and sentenced to 35 years in prison.
The emails about the response to WikiLeaks–some of them classified–show U.S. officials reaching out to foreign governments to assuage them after the publication of U.S. cables calling foreign leaders corrupt.
One message forwarded to Clinton reports that Near East Affairs chief Jeffrey Feltman reached out to leaders in Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to try to mitigate the damage done by the WikiLeaks disclosures. Much of the message was withheld from Monday’s release after being classified “CONFIDENTIAL,” although it was originally marked as “sensitive but unclassified.”
Another email forwarded to Clinton said the president of Kenya had called in the U.S. ambassador to dress him down after WikiLeaks disclosed cables saying the government was steeped in corruption.
After State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley forwarded Clinton a Swedish cartoon showing Clinton using a wrench trying to shut down the flow of information to WikiLeaks, she wrote back: “It certainly hits the mark. Can you hand me a wrench?”
“I can think of several folks for you to toss that wrench at!” Crowley replied.
While Clinton took a hard line against the WikiLeaks disclosures, the messages show that during her time as secretary she was sometimes frustrated by the mechanics of the State Department’s systems for dealing with classified and unclassified information.
When Deputy Chief of Staff Jake Sullivan told her in February 2010 he couldn’t send her a Mideast peace-related statement former British Prime Minister Tony Blair had issued, Clinton seemed irritated. “It’s a public statement! Just email it,” she wrote. Sullivan replied that it was impossible to do that because the only information was in State’s classified system. “Trust me, I share your exasperation. But until ops converts it to the unclassified email system, there is no physical way for me to email it. I can’t even access it,” Sullivan wrote.
Nearly all the information officially classified by the State Department in prior and the latest email releases involved diplomatic strategy or information provided by foreign governments. All the new classifications were at the “CONFIDENTIAL” level, the lowest tier in the U.S. classification system. So far only one message has been officially classified at a higher level, “SECRET,” although intelligence agency officials say some of the messages from Clinton’s account contain even more highly classified information.
Toner batted away questions Monday about whether State Department policy dictated that Clinton and other agency employees treat as classified information obtained in confidence from foreign officials or diplomats.
“Classification — we’ve said this many times — is not an exact science. It’s not, often, a black-and-white process,” Toner said. “There’s many strong opinions. … It’s not up to me to litigate these kinds of questions from the State Department podium.”
When releasing the messages, the State Department deletes any content deemed classified, notes the reason for the deletion, the classification level and who made the decision to classify. The agency then releases the remainder of the message unless it is subject to another Freedom of Information Act exemption.
The State Department posted the 7,121 additional pages of Clinton’s emails on the agency’s website at about 9 p.m. Monday, revealing more details from Clinton’s time as secretary of state from 2009 to 2010.
Toner did not elaborate on the nighttime posting but stressed that the volume of messages being made public Monday exceeded the approximately 6,000 pages released thus far.
“We’re producing more documents this month than we have in the previous three releases in May, June and July combined,” he told reporters. “Meeting this goal is really a testament to our commitment to releasing these emails to the public as expeditiously as possible.”
The last nighttime release of Clinton’s emails, in June, prompted questions of whether the State Department was trying to minimize the impact of bad news. State spokesman John Kirby on Monday denied that, saying that the timing was the product of the volume of emails to be processed and posted, and a monthly deadline set by a federal judge. However, Kirby apologized for the inconvenience the nighttime posting caused for journalists and said his agency would seek to avoid such off-hours activity in the future.
The Intelligence Community inspector general has said at least two emails on Clinton’s account contained “top secret” information subject to special protection because it was derived from electronic or aerial surveillance. The State Department has disputed that conclusion. The FBI is also conducting an investigation of how the arguably classified material made it onto Clinton’s server.
Clinton has portrayed the furor over classification of her emails as unrelated to her decision to use a private email account, since classified information is not supposed to be sent on any system not approved for that purpose, whether private or government-owned.
“If I had had a separate government account … we would be going through the same process,” Clinton told reporters earlier this month at a news conference in Las Vegas. “It has nothing to do with me and it has nothing to do with the fact that my account was personal.”
While Clinton has repeatedly described the email controversy as one dwelled upon by journalists and her political opponents, she changed her tone somewhat last week, allowing that some members of the public do have legitimate questions about the issue. “I know people have raised questions about my email use as secretary of state, and I understand why,” she said at a campaign stop in Iowa. “My use of personal email was allowed by the State Department. It clearly wasn’t the best choice. … I take responsibility for that decision.”
The emails come from a set of about 54,000 pages of messages Clinton turned over to her former agency in December after a request from a top official there.
In May, the State Department released 847 pages from the emails relating to Benghazi and Libya more broadly that had been provided to the House Select Committee on Benghazi earlier in the year.
State initially proposed holding back the rest of Clinton’s emails until next January and releasing them in one large batch in response to pending Freedom of Information Act requests. However, U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph Contreras rejected that approach and ordered monthly releases from June through early next year.
In June, State released 3,095 pages, many of which highlighted the influence of outside Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal. but the pace of disclosures slowed with a July release of just 2,206 pages. State officials said the slowdown, which caused the agency to fall short of a goal set by Contreras, was the result of new procedures to make sure intelligence agencies were fully consulted about the content of emails planned for release.
Officials had said in court filings that they planned to make up some of the deficit this month and to be back on track by next month. However, the new release of more than 7,000 pages put the agency back in line with the judge’s order.
Clinton and her aides have suggested that as more of her emails are released, people will get a better sense of how she’s doing her job and the controversy will diminish. That may turn out to be true as the monthly releases continue into next year. However, for now, each round of disclosures provides new fodder for Republicans and other critics questioning the wisdom, propriety and even the legality of the arrangement.