A federal judge has breathed new life into questions surrounding former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server and the 2012 attack that killed U.S. officials in Benghazi, Libya.
Judge Royce Lamberth ruled Tuesday that Obama administration officials, including national security adviser Susan Rice and deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, must answer written questions as part of a conservative judicial advocacy group’s Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the State Department over Clinton’s emails.
The lawsuit by Judicial Watch – now with the U.S. Court of Appeals District of Columbia Circuit – was first filed in 2014 in an effort to obtain records related to Clinton and her staff’s response to the Benghazi attack. Specifically, the group sought documents about Rice’s explanation immediately after the attack on the U.S. compound that characterized it as a protest turned violent instead of a deliberate terrorist assault. At the time of the attack, Rice was serving as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
“But the case has since expanded to question the motives behind Clinton’s private email use while Secretary and behind the government’s conduct in this litigation,” Lamberth wrote in his Tuesday order.
Judicial Watch claims that Clinton intentionally used her private email server in an attempt to shield her communications from FOIA requests and that the State Department acted deceptively and did not really try to complete the request.
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Lamberth, who was appointed to his seat by former President Ronald Reagan, ruled that Judicial Watch can depose the State Department on the development of Rice’s “talking points” for her media appearances, the “advance dissemination or discussion of those talking points,” the “aftermath of Rice’s appearances” and State Department officials’ “evolving understanding of the Benghazi attack.”
“Rice’s talking points and State’s understanding of the attack play an unavoidably central role in this case,” he argued. Lamberth said questions about those issues could uncover “unsearched, relevant records” and “shed light on Clinton’s motives for shielding her emails from FOIA requesters.”
The judge approved the submission of written questions to Rice and Rhodes, who “helped develop” Rice’s talking points.” But he rejected Judicial Watch’s request to depose the two former Obama officials in person.
Lamberth agreed with government lawyer’s objection that Judicial Watch can’t “appoint itself as a freelance Inspector General” and conduct its own investigation into the Benghazi affair.
“But that’s not what Judicial Watch does here,” he wrote. “Though Judicial Watch cannot helm a fishing expedition trawling anything and everything concerning the Benghazi attack,” he ruled it can depose the State Department on subjects related to its FOIA request.
Four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, were killed in the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi.
During appearances on Sunday morning talk shows that weekend, Rice said that based on the information available at the time, the attack appeared to be a “spontaneous reaction” and a “copycat” of a protest against the U.S. embassy in Cairo. The Cairo protest and others in Islamic nations were sparked in response to a video Muslims considered offensive that was published online by an American.
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Critics said Rice, Clinton and other government officials intentionally deceived the public about the nature of the attack because they feared the perception that the administration failed to prevent a terrorist attack less than two months before voters went to the polls in the closely fought 2012 election. Obama administration officials attributed the confusion to the “fog of war.”
Numerous congressional investigations were conducted into the lack of preparation for the attack and the administration’s responses, including a House Select Committee that spent two years looking into the affair.
Lamberth’s order follows his ruling last month that approved Judicial Watch’s desire to dig deeper into Clinton’s use of a private server. In that ruling, he said the case involved “one of the gravest modern offenses to government transparency” and that he had doubts the State Department was acting in “good faith” to grant Judicial Watch’s FOIA request.
Although Clinton’s use of a private server did not become public until six months after the FOIA request was filed, Lamberth said State Department “officials already knew Clinton’s emails were missing from its records.”
“State played this card close to its chest,” he wrote. “At best, State’s attempt to pass-off its deficient search as legally adequate during settlement negotiations was negligence born out of incompetence. At worst career employees in the State and Justice Departments colluded to scuttle public scrutiny of Clinton, skirt FOIA, and hoodwink this Court.”
He said Trump’s Justice Department “made things worse” and that its claims that the officials who first responded to the FOIA request didn’t know the emails were missing “strain credulity.”
“Did the Department merely fear what might be found? Or was State’s bungling just the unfortunate result of bureaucratic red tape and a failure to communicate?” Lamberth wondered. “To preserve the Department’s integrity, and to reassure the American people their government remains committed to transparency and the rule of law, this suspicion cannot be allowed to fester.”
Lamberth approved the group’s request to depose another eight officials who worked at the State Department under Clinton, as well as the Clinton Foundation employee who set up Clinton’s private server and officials from the Office of Information Program & Services who worked on the case. He also said the group could submit written questions to former Clinton staffers Monica Hanley and Lauren Jiloty, and E.W. Priestap – an FBI official who supervised the investigation into Clinton’s emails.
The judge gave the parties 120 days to complete the discovery phase of the case. After that, he will hold a hearing to determine “the adequacy of State’s searches” and if Judicial Watch needs to depose more witnesses “including Hillary Clinton.”