Days after the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, a top advisor to then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton offered regular assessments of how U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice was performing during a series of network interviews.
“She did make clear our view that this started spontaneously and then evolved,” Deputy Chief of Staff Jake Sullivan wrote to Clinton, referring to the Obama administration’s early theory, since discredited, that the attacks were unplanned.
The comment, revealed among 850 pages of Clinton’s emails released Friday, show the extent to which Clinton’s closest advisors carefully monitored the reaction to the 2012 attack that would spur multiple investigations, including the one by a special congressional panel that threatens to dog her just-launched presidential campaign into 2016.
The documents are a small fraction of the tens of thousands that Clinton turned over for federal review in connection with the investigation. They shed some new light on how Clinton and her team managed the situation and otherwise conducted business during her four years as secretary, a key credential she offers in her White House bid.
But though Republicans suggested that Clinton ignored signs a dangerous situation was brewing in Libya, the documents they cited as evidence largely covered dispatches from American staff members raising security concerns during Libya’s bloody civil war, which ended a full year before the attack.
Aspects of the committee’s investigation that have attracted the most attention in recent months — most notably Clinton’s reliance on a personal email account to discuss official business — have on the surface little to do with the stated purpose of its inquiry. The content of the emails has come to consume the panel’s work, which has been underway for more than a year.
“These email messages are just one piece of information that cannot be completely evaluated or fully understood without the total record,” said a statement from Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), chairman of the Benghazi committee.
The most revealing messages were not between Clinton and her staff, but between her and a longtime confidant. The records revealed that Sidney Blumenthal, an aide to President Clinton who was barred by the Obama administration from working for the State Department, repeatedly sent Clinton unsolicited, detailed advice on Libya. She often forwarded it to key staff members. The email chains seemed to suggest that some experts at the State Department were asked to weigh in on Blumenthal’s advice without being told it had come from him.
In the messages, Blumenthal offers a detailed account of what happened in the Benghazi attacks from the point of view of sources in Libya. He later warns Clinton of the political vulnerability created for the Obama administration.
Clinton occasionally offers brief thoughts as she passes on the information, sometimes skeptical, sometimes intrigued. Based on one Blumenthal memo from early 2011, she offers that the idea of using private security experts to arm the Libyan opposition “should be considered.”
Blumenthal also warned Clinton that Republicans might be planning to use the Benghazi deaths to attack Obama in the months before the 2012 election.
“Be sure Ben knows they need to be ready for this line of attack,” Clinton wrote to a top advisor, referring to Ben Rhodes, a White House aide in President Obama’s inner circle.
The State Department continues to analyze more than 55,000 pages of emails that Clinton turned over to identify other records that could be relevant to the Benghazi issue. The department is planning to vet and release all of the emails in batches over the coming months.
Republicans leading the House committee have been pushing for swift release of the emails and want to focus negative attention on Clinton’s four years as secretary of State under Obama as she mounts her presidential campaign.
Clinton has insisted that she wants the emails released as soon as possible, though some Democratic political strategists warn that the plan for releasing them in batches would put her under pressure to answer questions again and again as she campaigns for president.
“I am glad the emails are starting to come out,” Clinton said Friday at a campaign stop at a New Hampshire brewery. “This is something I have asked, as you know, to be done for a long time. ... I want people to be able to see all of them.”
Repeated congressional inquiries since 2012 have failed to support claims that Clinton ignored warnings that the Benghazi mission was at risk. The State Department insisted that continues to be the case.
“The emails we release today do not change the essential facts or our understanding of the events before, during, or after the attacks,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a statement.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), a senior member of the committee, predicted “more selective leaks, more insinuations and more delay tactics designed to make this as much of a part of the presidential campaign as possible.
“That’s a terrible abuse of a taxpayer-funded investigative committee,” he said in an interview.
The emails also provide some insight on the day of the Benghazi attack and the next day.
That morning, Clinton was up early in Washington. At 5:50 a.m. she wrote a short email to close aide Huma Abedin under the subject heading “Request,” asking Abedin to get a copy of a 2012 documentary about the fall of Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi that was distributed in the U.S. by her friend Harvey Weinstein’s company. “I think Harvey made it and showed it at Cannes last spring,” Clinton wrote.
By late afternoon, Clinton’s day was consumed by the attack. She was on the phone with CIA Director David Petraeus and other officials to coordinate the evacuation of American personnel from the city.
She continued to work late into the night, emails show, and spoke publicly the next morning about the attacks.
Shortly afterward, an aide sent Clinton a link to an article that described her remarks as “her most eloquent” news conference as secretary of State.
She even got a congratulatory message passed along by an aide from her former Senate colleague on the other side of the aisle, Republican John McCain of Arizona.
Times staff writer Brian Bennett contributed to this report.