Hidden Benghazi Files “Recovered”
In spite of receiving a congressional subpoena last spring to release secretary of state Clinton’s records related to the Benghazi attack, State Department officials instead removed files from the secretary’s office and transferred them to another department thereby delaying their release for over a year.
Attorneys for the State Department said the electronic folders, which contain hundreds of documents related to the Benghazi attack and Libya, were belatedly “rediscovered” at the end of last year.
In the midst of one of the most public cases there has been for years, we are supposed to believe State Department officials when they tell us that the files had been “overlooked” because the executive secretary’s office transferred them to another department and flagged them for archiving last April, shortly after receiving a subpoena from the House Select Committee on Benghazi.
The new source of “rediscovered” documents includes electronic folders used by senior officials under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
They were originally kept in the executive secretary’s office, which handles communication and coordination between the secretary of state’s office and other departments.
The House Benghazi Committee requested documents from the secretary’s office in a subpoena filed in March 2015. Congressional investigators met with the head of the executive secretary’s office staff to discuss its records maintenance system and the scope of the subpoena last April. That same month, State Department officials sent the electronic folders to another bureau for archiving, and they were not searched in response to the request.
The blunder – assuming that it was a blunder and not deliberate stalling – could raise new questions about the State Department’s records process, which has come under scrutiny from members of Congress and government watchdogs. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, blasted the State Department’s Freedom of Information Act process as “broken” in January, citing “systematic failures at the agency.”
The inspector general for the State Department also released a report criticizing the agency’s public records process in January. The report highlighted failures in the executive secretary’s office, which responds to records requests for the Office of the Secretary.
Since last fall, the State Department has taken additional steps to increase transparency, and has hired a ‘transparency coordinator’.
In spite of that, the late discovery of the electronic folders has set back the release of information in a number of public records lawsuits filed against the State Department by watchdog groups.
The State Department first disclosed that staffers had discovered the unsearched folders in a January court filing. Attorneys for the department asked the court for additional time to process and release the documents in response to a 2014 lawsuit filed by the government ethics group Judicial Watch.
Around the same time, the State Department alerted the House Select Committee on Benghazi to the discovery. On April 8, the department turned over 1,100 pages of documents from the electronic folders to the House Benghazi Committee, over a year after the committee’s subpoena. The committee had received other documents from the production in February.
The delay has had consequences. The Benghazi Committee had already completed the majority of its interviews with diplomats and government officials regarding the Benghazi attack before it received the latest tranche of documents.
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R., S.C.), chairman of the Benghazi Committee, said in an April 8 statement it was “deplorable that it took over a year for these records to be produced to our committee.”
“This investigation is about a terrorist attack that killed four Americans, and it could have been completed a lot sooner if the administration had not delayed and delayed and delayed at every turn,” Gowdy said.
The decision by State Department officials to transfer the electronic folders to another bureau after receiving the subpoena could also raise questions.
The subpoena requested Benghazi-related documents and communications from ten of Hillary Clinton’s top aides for the years 2011 and 2012.
The requests included standard language that “Subpoenaed records, documents, data or information should not be destroyed, modified, removed, transferred or otherwise made inaccessible to the Committee.”
The State Department’s attorneys said the executive secretary’s office transferred the folders to the Office of Information Programs and Services for “retiring” in April 2015. Public records officials did not realize for almost eight months that the folders had been moved, and so they were not searched in response to FOIA requests or subpoenas.
However, according to congressional sources, officials on the House Benghazi Committee had a meeting with the executive secretary’s office to discuss the subpoena and the locations of potentially relevant records on April 10, 2015. Electronic folders of senior staff members were discussed during the briefing.
State Department officials at the meeting included the director of the executive secretary’s office staff, who was responsible for handling the office’s records maintenance, the assistant secretary for legislative affairs, and Catherine Duval, the attorney who oversaw the public release of Hillary Clinton’s official emails. The officials gave no indication that electronic folders had recently been transferred out of the office.
The State Department declined to comment on whether the folders were transferred after the meeting took place.
Duval left the State Department last September. She had previously overseen document production for the IRS during the targeting controversy. Republicans had criticized that process after agency emails were reportedly destroyed and a key IRS official’s hard drive was shredded months after they had been subpoenaed by Congress.
In recent months, the State Department has been working to increase transparency.
“The Department has worked closely with the Select Committee in a spirit of cooperation and responsiveness,” a State Department official said. “Since the Committee was formed, we have provided 48 witnesses for interviews and more than 95,000 pages of documents.”
“It’s curious the Department is suddenly able to be more productive after recent staff changes involving those responsible for document production,” committee spokesman Jamal Ware said in a Sept. 25, 2015 press release.
Still, it could be months before the public is able to see many of the Benghazi-related documents belatedly discovered by the State Department. The House Benghazi Committee is still completing its investigation and has not released them.
The department’s attorneys have also been granted extensions to produce the documents in response to several public records lawsuits. In one FOIA case, first filed by the watchdog group Citizens United in 2014, a judge has given the State Department until next August to turn over the new materials.
This whole episode stinks of a deliberate attempt by some in Clinton’s department to frustrate those who have been tasked with finding out the truth about the Benghazi incident. Clinton has already been caught out telling lie after lie about her conduct during this dreadful terrorist attack in which four Americans lost their lives.
Eventually the truth may come out. Unfortunately it will not be in time to have Clinton held accountable until after the election. However, when she is defeated by Donald Trump it will be a completely different story and one which neither Clinton or Obama will like.