How I got Clinton’s emails

Two years ago, a VICE News reporter helped set the Hillary Clinton email scandal in motion

How a 2-year-old VICE News records request fueled the Clinton email scandal

It started out innocently enough.

On Nov. 4, 2014, exactly two years ago, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the U.S. State Department seeking all of Hillary Clinton’s emails during her four-year stint as secretary of state. As I explained to my editor, I filed the FOIA request because it was clear that Clinton would mount a campaign to run for president, and I felt the best way to inform the public what a Clinton presidency would look like was by revealing inside information about how she performed as secretary of state.

At the time, I had no idea Clinton exclusively used a private, unsecured email server located in her Chappaqua, New York, home to conduct official business while she served as the nation’s top diplomat — that revelation wouldn’t come to light for another four months. So I had no idea my request would end up fueling a scandal that has relentlessly dogged the Clinton campaign for more than a year and a half.

State Department FOIA analysts responded to my request twice, first on Nov. 20, 2014, and then on Jan. 8, 2015. They informed me that it was “too broad,” “unmanageable,” and would take “years to complete.” They asked that I narrow my request and limit it to “a single subject of interest and a time frame appropriately narrowed to that subject.”

I declined.

* * *

When it became clear that there was no way in hell the State Department would give me Clinton’s emails without a fight, I sued the department in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. The complaint, written by my attorney, Ryan James, neatly summed up my motivation.

“How a cabinet Secretary performs his or her functions is always a matter of public interest,” James wrote. “This is particularly true in the case of Secretary Clinton due to the widespread speculation that she will run for President of the United States in 2016. Accordingly, how Secretary Clinton managed personnel, conducted foreign policy, prioritized goals, and negotiated competing interests both domestically and abroad during her tenure at the helm of the State Department is of great interest to the American public.”

About five weeks later, on March 2, 2015, the government responded to my FOIA lawsuit, though that response only amounted to an acknowledgement that it had received my original FOIA request. James said the next step would be to negotiate a timeline for a rolling release of the emails. I was glad things were progressing, even at the glacial pace of the U.S. government.

That night, I was driving along Santa Monica Blvd. in West Hollywood on my way to the Whisky a Go Go to see Barb Wire Dolls, a punk band from Greece, when I checked my phone while stopped at a red light (honest). On it, I saw a breaking news alert from the New York Times.

“Holy shit,” I muttered.

The Times was reporting that Clinton exclusively used a personal email account to conduct State Department business for the four years she served as secretary of state. Clinton’s attorneys had decided on their own over the previous months what emails they deemed to be work-related, turning those over to the State Department. They deleted everything else — about 30,000 emails — claiming they were personal messages.

The revelations kickstarted Clinton’s email scandal. But there was one obvious question the Times story wasn’t able to answer.

What was in the emails?

* * *

Three days after the Times story broke, Clinton tweeted, “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.”

The State Department agreed to release the emails and said it would use FOIA procedures to do so, meaning it would review the correspondence for any sensitive, confidential, and classified information, redact it, and then conduct the release.

I worried about how all of this would affect my lawsuit. After all, it appeared that Clinton’s use of private email was an attempt to thwart FOIA requests like mine. Under federal law, her work-related emails would be considered government records, meaning they had to be preserved on the State Department’s servers in accordance with the Federal Records Act. This was to allow journalists, historians, and the public to access them through FOIA.

At a hearing on March 27, government attorneys said my request was “remarkably burdensome” and “broad,” and they proposed an “alternative” solution. They wanted me to wait for them to finish reviewing all 52,000 pages of emails State planned to release on a dedicated website at a time of its own choosing. Then, once the emails were posted, I was to review them and see if they satisfied my request.

James, on my behalf, rejected that offer because it wouldn’t capture everything we’d asked for; in addition to the emails, I had also requested a wide range of other documents, such as records about meetings Clinton or any of her top aides attended. Moreover, it would mean that I wouldn’t get the opportunity to challenge the redactions or ask the State Department to explain what it withheld and why — and then, of course, try to get that information released anyway.

A few weeks later, Judge Rudolph Contreras admonished the State Department for failing to come up with an actual date by which its review of Clinton’s emails would be complete. He called State’s proposal “untenable.” I liked that.

Contreras ordered State to propose a deadline for releasing all of Clinton’s emails. And at a hearing on May 19, the State Department did: Jan. 15, 2016, two weeks before the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

In a 13-page declaration, John Hackett, the State Department’s FOIA chief, said the “intensive,” time-consuming task of reviewing Clinton’s emails would not be completed until the end of the year. And for the first time, the government disclosed that Clinton’s emails had been turned over to the State Department in “paper form in twelve bankers’ boxes” in December 2014, about a month after I filed my FOIA request.

Hackett said the review of the emails would require the Clinton project team to hand-process and scan all 52,000 pages “to ensure that all information is being captured in the scanning process.” This would involve steps “that are time consuming and labor intensive.”

“It took the Department five weeks to perform the scanning process, which was completed recently in May,” Hackett said. “There will be further work required to load these into a searchable database, which will be completed by mid-June.”

Hours later, Contreras rejected the government’s proposal. Instead, he gave the State Department a week to propose a new schedule for completing its review and release the emails on a rolling basis.

That was the moment when my FOIA request became the vehicle for the public disclosure of all of Hillary Clinton’s emails. Or, almost all of them — about two-dozen would be deemed top secret.

But I wanted everything, so I fought for those as well. The State Department, however, wouldn’t budge; they said those emails were so highly classified that national security would be at risk if any part of them were revealed.

So I made a deal. James told government lawyers I wouldn’t challenge the redactions in the 52,000 pages of emails if State would agree to turn over what’s known as a Vaughn index. It would describe, in general terms, the content of the classified emails — this email pertains to a covert drone program, this email pertains to troop movements, and so on. The deal would save State quite literally years of work.

We told State we wanted the full index before the Democratic National Convention. They said we’d get it on July 22, three days before.

When it arrived, however, it was immediately apparent how badly the State Department had fucked me.

Watch Jason Leopold open the Vaughn index for the first time:

The Vaughn index did not contain any of the information State had promised — not even the  dates the emails were sent. Although I was able to exclusively report that Clinton had exchanged classified emails with three of her top aides in 2011 and 2012, I couldn’t say anything about the content.

Minutes after State gave me the index, Clinton announced her vice presidential pick was Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine.

And shortly after that, James told government lawyers that I was backing out of the deal.

* * *

A week later, government lawyers said the State Department could start posting an undisclosed number of emails to its website by the end of June and continue to do so every other month until Jan. 31, 2016. (The State Department would subsequently ask for and receive a couple of extensions to finish releasing the emails; in one instance, a snowstorm was blamed for the delay.)

“I do not believe that rolling productions every 60 days is sufficiently frequent to enable the public to engage in fully informed discussion about Secretary Clinton’s leadership style and decisions while at the helm of the State Department,” was James’ official response.

My unofficial response was that the government’s offer sucked. So we asked for Clinton’s emails to be released every two weeks. Contreras met us in the middle and ordered the government to release the emails monthly.

At 9 p.m. ET on June 30, 2015, the first batch of emails, totaling about 3,000 pages, were released on the State Department’s website in a searchable format. Finally, more than six months of filings, hearings, and negotiations were paying off.

At 9:02 p.m. ET, the internet at VICE News’ L.A. office went out.

As we sped to my editor’s home, I cursed everyone from the State Department to the NSA — maybe they’d cut the internet! — to our IT department. But once we were up and running again, I got back to business: The cache covered 2009, Clinton’s first year as secretary of state, and touched on a number of hot-button issues Clinton confronted that year, such as the war in Afghanistan, human rights abuses in Iran, and the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.

For the next 10 months, the State Department released thousands more pages that contained unprecedented insight into the inner workings of State and revealed how a President Clinton might deal with foreign policy issues. And the emails were public, allowing not just VICE News but literally anyone to view them.

One email suggested that Clinton was on the fence about whether she should support a proposed troop surge in Afghanistan in late 2009, and that she backed the idea only when her former campaign adviser said it would be political suicide to vote against it. Others revealed that she was the recipient of hundreds of “intelligence” reports and unsolicited advice from longtime confidant Sidney Blumenthal, who told Clinton in one noteworthy email to “avoid ever being drawn into commenting on any aspect” of the CIA’s torture program.

Clinton was also shown to have staunchly supported the closure of Guantanamo and to have praised her colleagues for working to secure the release of a high-profile detainee named Omar Khadr.

Often, the quirkiness of her exchanges made news, such as one in which she asked an advisor how to make a smiley face on her BlackBerry, and another requesting instructions on how to use a fax machine.

Yet many of Clinton’s responses contained nothing more than a directive to her aides: “Pls print.”

* * *

VICE News’ attempt to arm the public with information about Clinton’s work was understandably drowned out by the noise surrounding her use of a private email server and her shifting explanations about why she used it: It was convenient, it eliminated the need for two phones, she was told she could do it, Colin Powell did it, it was a mistake.

Not long after the State Department released the first batch of emails, the Inspectors General for the Intelligence Community and State Department made a so-called “Section 811” to the FBI in determining that classified national security information in Clinton’s emails might have been “compromised” and shared with “a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power.” In notes the FBI recently released, the bureau said its Section 811 “investigation and forensic analysis did not find evidence confirming that Clinton’ s email accounts or mobile devices were compromised by cyber means.”

A couple of months ago, the FBI said it turned over to the State Department seven DVDs containing emails and other material retrieved from Clinton’s email servers that weren’t initially turned over to the State Department — the 30,000 emails deleted by her team after they decided they were of a personal nature. At least one of those DVDs contained communications that were deemed to be classified.

Those emails began to be released in October, but most of them have been duplicates of ones the State Department had previously released. This week, State is performing the last release before the Nov. 8 election, a cache of about 1,250 pages. Those, too, appear to be mostly duplicate chains, though there are notable individual emails, including the first ones in which Clinton’s personality came through.

The email saga is far from over. Whether or not Clinton becomes president, the government has a legal obligation to continue releasing her emails to VICE News for at least another year. And in all honesty, I’m not thrilled — my original goal, to provide voters with more information about what a Clinton president might look like, has been accomplished. Though I’ll absolutely continue to report on the story until its conclusion, I’d like to move on from the emails just as much as Clinton would.

Well. Almost.

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