The day after the Benghazi terror attack, a staffer for Arizona Sen. John McCain emailed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s office to convey praise for her remarks to State Department employees after the attack.
Her statement to employees about the tragedy was “wonderful, strong and moving,” said the McCain staffer, who asked Clinton’s office to convey the senator’s appreciation of the remarks.
Ultimately, McCain turned into a fierce critic of Clinton over the attack. And Clinton’s handling of Benghazi has been scrutinized and has cast a shadow over her tenure leading the State Department. But the friendly exchange between their two offices in the immediate aftermath of the 2012 attack is among a set of emails that could be publicly released by the State Department as early as this week.
CNN was not permitted to review the emails ahead of their release, but several government officials characterized them and offered detail on some of them on the condition of anonymity.
The emails show Clinton and her inner circle closely monitored the fallout of the incident and the administration’s evolving view of what occurred the night of the attack. They expressed concern with how it could impact the State Department and her own image.
The contents of the emails provide a more comprehensive picture of Clinton’s email use and her handling of the attack, two subjects that could challenge her fledgling presidential campaign. Clinton asked the State Department to publicly release the emails after it emerged that she used a private email server to do government business earlier this year.
The exchanges, as well as other State messages before and after the Benghazi crisis, are among a trove of more than 900 pages constituting 300 emails that were given by the department to a special House committee investigating the attack.
The emails relating to Benghazi are a fraction of all those Clinton has handed over to the State Department since leaving office. In December, she released 30,000 emails – about 55,000 pages – to the agency, which State Department officials say are still being reviewed. The State Department has the emails Clinton voluntarily handed over. But she kept private the server that housed them and has since wiped it clean.
A spokesman for McCain said the staffer’s immediate praise for Clinton’s words of condolence should not be conflated with the senator’s questions about how the Benghazi attack came about.
“Sen. McCain obviously appreciated expressions from anyone honoring the service and sacrifice of his friend Chris Stevens,” McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said. “As a general rule, if Sen. McCain had wanted to specifically thank Secretary Clinton for her remarks, he would have called her personally. Obviously that can’t be confused with Sen. McCain’s long efforts to get to the truth of the Benghazi attack.”
The Benghazi attack has persisted as an area of inquiry for Republicans for years and it promises to drag on for months. Clinton’s campaign and the committee are in a feud over how and when Clinton would testify as part of their inquiry. She wants to testify in public. Republicans on the committee want a private session first. In any event, a final report from the Congressional inquiry might not be released until early 2016.
Damage control in Benghazi’s aftermath
“Subsequent information that has since come to light, including about the State Department’s handling of security in Libya, have only deepened Sen. McCain’s concern about the role that Secretary Clinton and other Administration officials played in the lead-up to this terrible tragedy,” said Rogers
But the sources who described the emails said they offer no “smoking gun” on Clinton’s actions in the days and weeks leading up to the attack or while the siege on the U.S. facility was ongoing. They added that Contrary to charges by Republican lawmakers like McCain, there is no evidence that a “stand down” order was given to prevent American forces from responding to the violence in Benghazi and none of the emails suggest Clinton was involved in any sort of cover-up regarding its response to the attack.
Then-ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice’s appearances on Sunday morning talk shows became a lightning rod for Republicans, who criticized Clinton at the time for avoiding public statements on the controversy. Administration officials had said at the time that Clinton was exhausted after a grueling week.
On the talk shows, Rice described the attack as a protest over an anti-Muslim video, which erupted spontaneously into violence. Clinton never made that characterization, and after intense Republican charges of downplaying the attack, administration officials began to call it a “terrorist attack.”
Emails between Clinton and her aides in the days following Rice’s appearances and first reported by The New York Times expressed relief that she had not gone as far as Rice did in her language describing the attacks.
In an email to Clinton two weeks after the attack, Jake Sullivan, Clinton’s director of policy planning and chief foreign aide at the State Department, said he had reviewed her public remarks since the attack and found she never used the language Rice did.
“You never said ‘spontaneous’ or characterized their motivations,” he wrote to Clinton.
A month after the attack, Clinton emailed Sullivan after a grueling hearing in which House Republicans grilled a top State Department official about security lapses at the Benghazi facility.
“Did we survive the day?” she asked.
“Survive, yes,” Sullivan responded, promising to follow reaction the next day.
Clinton also forwarded a set of emails to her personal assistant, both from State Department employees and people outside the department, offering condolences for the tragedy, which she asked to be printed – apparently for archiving and for sending thank you notes.
“As we’ve said before, when the emails are released, which we hope to be soon, it will offer an unprecedented opportunity for the American people to see for themselves what’s in them, and that they are all there and then some,” said Clinton campaign spokesman Nick Merrill.
‘Short, colorless and to the point’
For all the controversy over Clinton’s email and her use of the private email server, she was not a verbose communicator over email. Several former Clinton staffers have told CNN she did the vast majority of work in person or on the phone, which is evident by her emails.
“Her emails were short, colorless and to the point,” said one source, describing some of Clinton’s that were given in February to the House committee investigating the Benghazi terror attack. “The only thing interesting about these emails is that they were to and from her. That’s it.”
The majority of the correspondence is between Clinton and a handful of close aides, as well as her executive assistant. But some are from other senior staff and close friends outside the State Department, including some from former Clinton White House aide Sidney Blumenthal, who offered Clinton advice after the attacks. Some of the Blumenthal emails were posted on the Internet in 2013 after a hacker named “Guccifer” hacked into his private account.
Leading up to the Benghazi attack, there was very little discussion about security in Benghazi or even Libya, although there is talk about the political climate in the Middle East nation and its upcoming election.
In fact, most of the emails are mundane, involving scheduling and logistics. In addition to the scheduling emails were a group of press clippings sent to her by Sullivan and other aides, which she asked to be printed. Clinton liked to read things on paper, aides said, as opposed to on a computer.
Clinton has acknowledged using a private account on her own server for State Department business. But her inner circle also occasionally corresponded with her about work on their personal email addresses, which raises questions about Clinton’s assertion she emailed aides on their government accounts in order to meet federal guidelines for record-keeping.
Nick Merrill, Clinton’s spokesman, told CNN that Clinton’s aides followed a practice “to primarily use their work email when conducting state business, with only the tiniest fraction of the more than one million emails they sent or received involving their personal accounts.”
Correction: This story has been updated to accurately reflect the number of emails Clinton turned over to the State Department in January.