WASHINGTON – The State Department agreed Thursday to review thousands of messages from a private email account that former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton used for official government business, but it cautioned that the process will move slowly and perhaps take months.
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The department announced its action just after midnight, soon after Clinton spoke for the first time about the political firestorm over her use of private emails sent from a private computer server using an Internet address traced back to Clinton's family home in Chappaqua, New York.
Clinton urged the State Department late Wednesday on her Twitter account to release the documents publicly.
"I want the public to see my email. I asked State to release them. They said they will review them for release as soon as possible," Clinton said on Twitter.
Secretary of State John Kerry said in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia Thursday that the department "will undertake this task as rapidly as possible in order to make sure that we are dealing with the sheer volume in a responsible way." Officials have said that Clinton turned over more than 55,000 pages of emails to the department. But State spokeswoman Marie Harf warned that the review could "take time some time to complete" and officials indicated it could take months.
It was not immediately clear what procedure or protocols the State Department was using to review Clinton's emails, or what U.S. laws or rules might prohibit Clinton from releasing her own emails by herself immediately. Clinton's current spokesman and the State Department have said she never received or transmitted classified information on her private email account, so there should be no such concerns that disclosure of her messages could compromise national security.
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"She had other ways of communicating through classified email through her assistants or her staff, with people, when she needed to use a classified setting," Harf said.
Under the Freedom of Information Act, the government can censor of withhold emails and other records under nine categories intended to protect information that would hurt national security, violate personal privacy or expose business secrets or confidential decision-making in certain areas. But it wasn't clear whether the State Department would automatically apply those provisions to its review of Clinton's emails, or whether it would invoke its legally authorized discretion to release even emails that might be covered under those exemptions. Under the open records law, withholding emails merely because they might be embarrassing or expose government incompetence or malfeasance is not permitted.
"I understand the State Department will now redact personal phone numbers and other information, which may take some time, but I believe this decision is the right one," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., senior Democrat on the House Select Committee on Benghazi.
It also wasn't clear what resources the State Department intended to use to review Clinton's emails or how long the process will take. The agency has roughly 127 employees who review emails requested under the federal open records law, but they are already overwhelmed with nearly 11,000 other pending requests, which for complex cases can take an average of more than 18 months to review each one.
The possible release of Clinton's emails would come after more than 75 separate requests for her emails were filed with the State Department between 2009 and 2013 by media organizations and other parties. Associated Press requests for Clinton emails and other documents have been delayed for more than a year — and in one case, four years — without any results. The AP said this week it is considering legal action against the department to compel responses.
On Wednesday, the House committee investigating the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, issued subpoenas for emails from Clinton and others related to Libya. It also instructed technology companies it did not identify to preserve any relevant documents in their possession.
Separately, the conservative legal group Judicial Watch filed suit against the State Department to compel its response to an open records request for communications between Clinton and Nagla Mahmoud, wife of ousted Egyptian president Muhammad Morsi.
For a third day, Washington seemed preoccupied with Clinton's email practices, which gave Clinton — who is expected to run for president in 2016 — significant control over limiting access to her message archives. But those same practices also complicated the State Department's legal responsibilities in finding and turning over official emails in response to any investigations, lawsuits or public records requests. The department would be in the position of accepting Clinton's assurances she was surrendering everything required that was in her control.
The White House legal counsel's office was not aware of Clinton's use of a private email account and learned only after some of those emails were sought by a congressional committee investigating the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, according to a person familiar with the matter. Once apprised, the counsel's office asked the State Department to ensure that her emails were retained for proper archiving, said the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity without authorization to go on the record.
Presidential spokesman Josh Earnest acknowledged Wednesday that White House officials likely received emails from Clinton's private address and would have been aware of her use of the private account. But the person familiar with the counsel's office actions said White House officials were not aware that Clinton was using her private site for all unclassified email — a striking departure from former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who also had a private email site but used it in conjunction with a State Department account.
The revelation that Clinton relied exclusively on a private email account also raises questions about whether the agency or anyone else in government examined Clinton's private email server and network before it began operating and continued to regularly review it during her tenure. Federal regulations subject the computer systems of some federal contractors and other organizations to federal oversight when they interact with government systems to ensure they are protected.
Clinton's extensive use of her private account for at least 55,000 emails made it likely that in at least some exchanges, references were made to either classified or sensitive information, said J. William Leonard, who held high-ranking information security posts with the Defense Department and the National Archives.
"I would be exceedingly surprised if there were not situations where at the very least classified or sensitive information was inadvertently released just by the nature of her position and the nature of information that is routinely discussed," said Leonard, who under President George W. Bush was director of the Information Security Oversight Office, which oversees the government-wide security classification system.
Harf said that Clinton as Cabinet secretary never used a government email account on the agency's separate network for sharing classified information, which Clinton would have been prohibited from forwarding to her private email account.
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Riyadh and Brad Klapper, Nedra Pickler and Josh Lederman in Washington contributed to this report.