WASHINGTON — A top official at the State Department repeatedly sought to have the FBI back down on classifying the contents of an email from Hillary Clinton’s private email server, documents released Monday revealed.
According to notes from interviews conducted during an FBI investigation into Clinton’s email practices, Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy personally tried to convince FBI officials that the email should be declassified. One interviewee described feeling “pressured” by another FBI official at Kennedy’s request.
The FBI is denying that any “quid pro quo” was offered in the fight between the bureau and State Department over the classification level of the email, though one interview described it as such.
At issue are somewhat contradictory interview notes contained in the crop of newly released FBI documents. In one, an FBI official recounted hearing second-hand that the State Department had offered a “quid pro quo” in exchange for declassifying an email. In another, a different FBI official said he told State Department he’d look into the email, if State Department looked into his request for personnel in Iraq.
An FBI records management official told the FBI in one interview that a member of the International Operations Division (IOD) told him that Kennedy had reached out to have an email unclassified in exchange for a “quid pro quo,” according to the records management official, documents revealed Monday show. The records management official said the IOD official “pressured” him to change the email’s classification.
In return for FBI declassifying one of the Clinton server emails, the interviewee said as relayed by the IOD official, the State Department official offered to help station FBI agents overseas in sensitive areas.
The anonymous individual said in a later meeting at State with several intelligence agencies, Kennedy responded to a question about whether any emails were classified by making eye contact and saying, “well, we’ll see.”
After the meeting, the individual said, “Kennedy spent the next 15 minutes debating the classification for he email and attempting to influence the FBI to change its markings.”
That records management official concluded State had an “agenda” related to “minimizing” the classification issues with Clinton’s emails.
The newly released documents contain a summary of interview notes related to the FBI’s investigation into whether classified information was improperly handled while Clinton was secretary of state.
But another interview contained in the same collection said that though Kennedy reached out to FBI about declassifying the email, it was the FBI that brought up getting agents stationed in Iraq.
That FBI employee said he personally spoke with Kennedy about the email, and that he suggested he would “look into the email matter” if Kennedy “would provide authority concerning the FBI’s request to increase its personnel in Iraq.”
In a follow-up, however, that FBI employee was told the email would remain classified, and relayed that to Kennedy. According to the interviews, Kennedy tried several times to get the FBI to declassify the email.
The dispute was over an email that State determined to be unclassified, but in inter-agency review, the FBI said contained classified information.
State said the email was released, with redactions, in May 2015 as part of its Freedom of Information Act disclosure. The email, from November 18, 2012, was about possible arrests related to the Benghazi attacks.
Later in the FBI documents was an interview with an employee of the State Department inspector general, who said Kennedy was “not positive” in his interactions with the inspector general.
“Some FOIA officials have seen events and behaviors they did not like or that made them uncomfortable, to include Kennedy’s attitude towards them and how they handled the FOIA process related to Clinton,” the interview notes said.
Both FBI and State on Monday denied any “quid pro quo.”
“The FBI determined that one such email was classified at the Secret level,” FBI said Monday in a statement. “A senior State Department official requested the FBI re-review that email to determine whether it was in fact classified or whether it might be protected from release under a different FOIA exemption. A now-retired FBI official, who was not part of the subsequent Clinton investigation, told the State Department official that they would look into the matter. Having been previously unsuccessful in attempts to speak with the senior State official, during the same conversation, the FBI official asked the State Department official if they would address a pending, unaddressed FBI request for space for additional FBI employees assigned abroad.”
The FBI maintained the email should remain classified.
State Department Deputy Spokesperson Mark Toner called allegations of a quid pro quo “inaccurate” and said Monday that Kennedy was trying to “understand” the FBI’s decision to withhold the information.
“Classification is an art, not a science, and individuals with classification authority sometimes have different views,” Toner said. “There can be applicable FOIA exemptions that are based on both classified and unclassified rules. … We have been committed to releasing as much information to the public as possible, and ensuring that documents are withheld due to classification only when necessary to prevent damage to national security — as the Executive Order on classification calls for.”
No increase in FBI Iraq slots resulted from this conversation, Toner said. He added in the daily press briefing that Kennedy would remain in his role and had the full confidence of Secretary of State John Kerry.
The FBI is releasing the documents after concluding its investigation into Clinton’s server. After its review, the FBI found there was not evidence for any criminal charges related to the probe.
Still, Republicans were seizing on the new interviews Monday, using them to attack Clinton and calling for Kennedy’s departure.
GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump tweeted simply, “unbelievable.”
His campaign released a statement from spokesman Jason Miller calling the documents “deeply disturbing.”
“The news that top Clinton aide Patrick Kennedy tried to engage in a blatant quid pro quo for changing the classification level of several of Clinton’s emails shows a cavalier attitude towards protecting our nation’s secrets,” Miller said.
“These documents further demonstrate Secretary Clinton’s complete disregard for properly handling classified information,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement. “This is exactly why I called on (Director of National Intelligence James) Clapper to deny her access to classified information. Moreover, a senior State Department official’s attempt to pressure the FBI to hide the extent of this mishandling bears all the signs of a cover-up. This is why our aggressive oversight work in the House is so important, and it will continue.”
The top Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee and House Oversight Committee, Reps. Devin Nunes and Jason Chaffetz, respectively, put out a joint statement calling the allegations “disturbing” and asked for Kennedy’s removal.
“We find Under Secretary Kennedy’s actions extremely disturbing,” Nunes and Chaffetz said. “Those who receive classified intelligence should not barter in it — that is reckless behavior with our nation’s secrets. Someone who would try to get classification markings doctored should not continue serving in the State Department or retain access to classified information. Therefore, President Obama and Secretary Kerry should immediately remove Undersecretary Kennedy pending a full investigation.”
And the Republican National Committee also seized on the exchange, saying the White House was trying to “shield” Clinton.
“It is deeply troubling that a top State Department official close to Hillary Clinton offered the FBI a ‘quid pro quo’ to hide the full extent to which she mishandled classified information,” Chairman Reince Priebus said. “The Obama administration’s blatant attempts to shield Hillary Clinton from accountability for her reckless conduct will only inflame the growing distrust Americans have for their own government.”