Hillary Clinton's emails: A tangled mix of conflicts?

Story highlights

  • Hillary Clinton has faced controversy over keeping her State Department emails on a personal server
  • Errol Louis: More damaging may be the potential conflicts revealed in the emails that are being released

Errol Louis is the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)The mere fact that Hillary Clinton's official emails were kept on her personal computer system is turning out to be one of the least important things about them. What matters most about this first batch of messages released by the State Department is that they reveal Clinton, as secretary of state, at the center of a tangled web of connections and conflicts of interest between public and private actors.

The emails demonstrate that one of Clinton's main assets as a presidential candidate -- the alliances and personal connections she has painstakingly built over decades spent at the highest levels of government service -- can also be her greatest weakness.
Errol Louis
At least a dozen of the 296 emails made public are detailed missives from Sidney Blumenthal, a talented writer and ferocious partisan warrior who has been a defender of the Clinton family since Blumenthal, as a journalist, began writing one favorable analysis after another about then-Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas as he emerged on the national stage.
    Blumenthal eventually traded in his press card for a White House pass, becoming a high-ranking adviser and speechwriter for the President though his impeachment and beyond, and authoring a book, "The Clinton Wars," detailing his days battling in the political trenches for Bill and Hillary.
    As an adviser to Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign, Blumenthal did enough damage during the bruising primary against Barack Obama that the administration later reportedly barred him from working for Clinton at the State Department.
    Fast forward to 2012: the recently released emails show Blumenthal was back on Clinton duty at the height of the crisis that engulfed Libya in the chaotic months following the 2011 overthrow and death of ex-dictator Moammar Gadhafi, sending a stream of detailed memos to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the ins and outs of the power struggle among Libyan leaders seeking to replace Gadhafi.
    Blumenthal's missives featured information on what he called private statements and thoughts of Yussef el Magariaf, a well-known leader of the opposition to Gadhafi who eventually became president of Libya's General National Congress and served as de facto leader of the country for about a year.
    Clinton forwarded many of Blumenthal's emails for circulation to Jake Sullivan, her deputy chief of staff, who in some cases copied and pasted the information before sending it to top State Department officials as coming from "HRC friend," according to the New York Times.
    Clinton made time to act on Blumenthal's information even in periods of emergency; Blumenthal even sent (and she circulated) emails on September 12, 2012, the day after a mob destroyed the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and killed American personnel, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.
    The cozy arrangement raises big red flags. For starters, why was a non-government official -- one apparently barred from working for the State Department -- sending sensitive information to Clinton that hadn't been vetted by government officials?
    And how did Blumenthal get to be an expert on Libyan politics? That's where the emails go from interesting to infuriating.
    "From time to time, as a private citizen and friend, I provided Secretary Clinton with material on a variety of topics that I thought she might find interesting or helpful," he recently said through an attorney, according to Politico. "The reports I sent her came from sources I considered reliable. I have informed the House Select Committee on Benghazi that I will cooperate with its inquiry and look forward to answering the Committee's questions."
    That's not quite accurate. In addition to being "a private citizen and friend," Blumenthal, it turns out, was on the payroll of the Clinton Foundation, according to the New York Times, with duties including research, "message guidance" and the planning of commemorative events.
    The Foundation has been vague about exactly when Blumenthal left; he has rebuffed press questions about the exact timeline. Blumenthal may also have received Libya information from Tyler Drumheller, an ex-CIA official who formerly ran the agency's undercover operations in Europe, according to the investigative news organization Pro Publica.
    It also turns out that Blumenthal was working with -- and likely getting his Libya information from -- a pair of companies, the Constellations Group and Osprey Global, that were trying to land contracts to do business in post-Gadhafi Libya.
    The exact nature of Blumenthal's work with the businessmen trying to get work remains unclear; he isn't answering press inquiries about it, although it's likely that the Congressional panel looking into the Benghazi debacle will soon call him in for a grilling.
    Was Blumenthal trying to personally profit from his relationship with Clinton? We don't know. Did the secretary of state know about his business interests, and whether or not they overlapped and/or conflicted with his work at the Clinton Foundation? Once again, more questions than answers.
    Clinton hasn't answered any of these questions, although she recently made a point of defending Blumenthal. "I have many, many old friends, and I always think that it's important when you get into politics to have friends you had before you were in politics, and to understand what's on their minds," she said. "He's been a friend of mine for a long time."
    That doesn't sound like a candidate concerned about the obvious conflicts of interest and possible improprieties surrounding her. And Clinton's seeming nonchalance could come back to haunt her: a recent national poll of registered voters showed that 54% don't consider her honest and trustworthy, and that number goes up to 61% among independents not registered as Democrat or Republican.
    There's only one cure for being seen as less than honest: Clinton should come clean with the public, and inform even her most loyal political soldiers that the days of triangulation, ethical conflicts and constant spin are over. If Team Clinton wants to present its candidate as fresh and untainted, they should realize that persuading her to walk the straight and narrow -- something she has resisted doing -- might turn out to be the most direct path to the White House.