WASHINGTON — A House hearing Thursday on the State Department’s record-keeping became a pitched battle over Hillary Clinton’s private email server, with Democrats accusing Republicans of using the forum to advance a partisan agenda and undermine her candidacy for president.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, opened the hearing by condemning Clinton for intentionally making a “mess” of the system for archiving and retrieving documents at State that has frustrated legitimate requests for information from Congress, the media and the public.
“Since 2009, there have been thousands of congressional inquiries, thousands of FOIA requests, subpoenas, (and) media inquiries,” said Chaffetz, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “And if any of those required Secretary Clinton’s federal records, i.e. her emails, there was not a way for those requests to be fulfilled.”
Chaffetz noted, for example, that The Associated Press had to go to court to obtain all the detailed planning schedules from Clinton’s four-year tenure as the nation’s top diplomat.
Patrick Kennedy, undersecretary of state for management, told the committee the department is improving its records management but continues to struggle with the heavy volume of open-records requests it receives. To fulfill them, State must dig through an ever-increasing quantity of records. An estimated one billion emails flow through the department’s servers annually.
“We get very complex national security document requests,” he said.
Kennedy said the department is currently sorting through thousands of records it received from the FBI following its investigation of Clinton.
FBI Director James Comey in July announced the bureau’s recommendation against criminal charges for Clinton and her aides following a yearlong investigation into the potential mishandling of classified information on the private email server she used.
Republicans are focusing on Clinton with a series of hearings on her email practices in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 8 election. Last year, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., credited the House’s Benghazi, Libya, investigation with wounding Clinton’s public standing. That $7 million, two-year investigation into the deadly 2012 attacks found no wrongdoing by Clinton.
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the committee’s top Democrat, argued that Clinton’s actions were hardly unprecedented. Cummings underscored his argument by releasing a 2009 email exchange in which former Secretary of State Colin Powell advised Clinton on the use of personal email. The exchange occurred two days after Clinton was sworn in as secretary of state.
Powell wrote that he had “a personal computer that was hooked up to a private phone line … so I could communicate with a wide range of friends directly without it going through the State Department servers.”
He said he “even used it to do business with some foreign leaders.”
Powell also told Clinton “there is a real danger” if it becomes public the secretary of state is using a smartphone or mobile electronic device, because the information on the device could become an official record and subject to the law.
Cummings said the email exchange, which he released Wednesday night, showed Powell gave Clinton “a detailed blueprint on how to skirt security rules and bypass requirements to preserve federal records,” although he said Clinton has made clear that she did not rely on his advice.
Republicans rejected the comparison with Powell, saying Clinton told the FBI during its investigation that his advice had no bearing on her decision to use a private server.
“It was a very conscious choice,” Chaffetz said of Clinton’s decision to rely on her own server.
The State Department agreed last week to turn over all the detailed planning schedules from Clinton’s time as secretary of state to the AP by mid-October. The decision came more than a year after the AP sued the State Department in federal court to obtain the material. The AP filed Freedom of Information Act requests in 2010 and 2013 for the records, but the State Department did not release the material.
Chaffetz said he was stunned that it would be so difficult to obtain what seemed to be relatively benign records. He told Kennedy he also wanted to get copies of the documents.
Kennedy described the AP’s requests for the planning schedules as part of “a larger swath of six requests that we were engaged in” for the material, further stressing an already under-resourced system.
“That’s why we are being sued,” Kennedy said. “There are true resource and time and other issues that have to be dealt with here.”
But the original request for Clinton’s schedules filed by the AP in 2010 was not part of a larger batch of requests. In 2014, a year after the second open-records request had been submitted, the AP appealed to State to find out why there had been no response to its requests.
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