The revelation Hillary Rodham Clinton used an off-the-books email account during her time as secretary of state reverberated across Washington on Tuesday, further eroding the Obama administration’s claims of transparency, giving new momentum to House Republicans investigating the Benghazi affair and raising fresh questions about Mrs. Clinton’s credibility heading into 2016.
While Mrs. Clinton now has turned over roughly 55,000 pages of emails — including about 300 messages related to the deadly September 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi given to House Republicans — it’s unclear whether more emails remain hidden and, if so, how many.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, South Carolina Republican and head of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, said the private account has helped Mrs. Clinton avoid answering questions about the terrorist attack that claimed four American lives, as well as the administration’s actions in the aftermath of that attack.
“We’ve been asking [the State Department] for months and months and months for certain emails, and we just now find out that those emails were never going to be produced because they don’t have custody of them,” Mr. Gowdy said. “Right now we are in a position of having to go to her or her attorneys to ask for work that was done on behalf of the American people. The records custodian should be at the State Department. The records custodian should not be in her private law firm.”
Experts say the case of Mrs. Clinton is perhaps the most egregious example to date of the administration failing to live up to its own lofty promises about transparency.
“It’s pretty stunning,” said John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for open government.
Mr. Wonderlich added the case of Mrs. Clinton may be worse than other instances, such as former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson using the alias “Richard Windsor” to mask her identity during email conversations, or former IRS official Lois Lerner using a private account for official business.
“Not only is it higher-profile, but if the claims made are right, then it is more pre-calculated and apparently applied to all of her emails,” he said. “That level, I think, is deeply unusual.
“As for motivation, you have to assume it is to avoid political and professional risk. She wants to control access to her information, and the people who manage access to it are her employees” at the State Department,” Mr. Wonderlich said.
The New York Times first reported Monday night that Mrs. Clinton, the clear front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, did not use a government email address during her four years running the State Department.
Instead, she conducted all official correspondence through a private account, leading to possible violations of federal record-retention requirements, creating possible security risks and fueling speculation that the former first lady has something to hide.
The Clinton camp has denied wrongdoing.
Mrs. Clinton’s spokesman, Nick Merrill, said the former secretary complied with the “letter and spirit” of the law and had “every expectation” that all of her emails related to State business would be retained by the department.
On the political front, the potentially damaging news comes just as Mrs. Clinton gears up for her expected 2016 presidential campaign. It also comes on the heels of unrelated revelations that the Clinton Foundation accepted millions of dollars in donations from foreign governments while Mrs. Clinton ran the State Department.
Republicans are putting pressure on Mrs. Clinton to release all of her emails in what they say would be a desperately needed display of openness, and are outraged by the fact that State Department employees, who reported to Mrs. Clinton, were in charge of cataloging all emails.
“Transparency matters,” 2016 GOP presidential contender and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush tweeted Tuesday, drawing attention to a website he’s established solely for housing years’ worth of his own emails.
“Unclassified @HillaryClinton emails should be released. You can see mine, here, jebbushemails.com,” he continued.
Outside groups already are taking steps to bring all of Mrs. Clinton’s emails to light. The America Rising PAC, which describes itself as dedicated to “exposing the truth about Democrats,” filed a Freedom of Information Act request Tuesday for all messages sent from State Department employees to Mrs. Clinton’s private address.
The group highlighted other concerns raised by critics and pundits: Private email is not as well protected and is more susceptible to hacking.
“It is the responsibility of the State Department to release these emails,” the PAC’s executive director, Colin Reed, wrote in a letter to the State Department. “We understand that any classified correspondence sent to her private email can be exempted by this request, though the Chinese government probably has it now.”
Legally, it appears Mrs. Clinton was operating in something of a gray area. Since the Presidential and Federal Records Act was amended last year, all government officials conducting any business on private accounts must forward the emails to their government inbox within 20 days.
Before those new rules went into effect, the National Archives and Records Administration recommended that official accounts be used but did not require it, provided the department or agency in question took steps to make sure all emails were preserved.
“We have reached out to the State Department to ensure that all federal records are properly identified and managed in accordance with the Federal Records Act and that controls and procedures are in place to manage records effectively in the future,” Paul M. Wester, the federal government’s chief records officer, said in a statement.
State Department officials say they formally requested Mrs. Clinton’s private emails as part of a larger records-gathering project stretching all the way back to Madeline Albright’s days as secretary of state under President Clinton. The Clinton camp says it was more than willing to help with that project.
“When the department asked former secretaries last year for help ensuring their emails were in fact retained, we immediately said ‘yes,’” Mr. Merrill said.
The State Department also says it has “long had access to a wide array” of Mrs. Clinton’s emails, including messages sent to department employees using a state.gov address. But it’s not yet clear whether the department has a full and complete record of all relevant emails sent by Mrs. Clinton.
The White House, while encouraging officials to use government accounts, said it does not believe Mrs. Clinton was trying to conceal anything.
“We think that if people choose to conduct government business on email, that they should do so using their official government account,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters.
“Based on what we know about what Secretary Clinton’s team did, they succeeded in that effort in making sure that those records were properly preserved and maintained, and we have some evidence to back that up, in that hundreds of those records we know have been turned over to Congress in response to legitimate oversight inquiries,” he said.
As for the Benghazi investigation, Mr. Gowdy said that the committee has received some emails from Mrs. Clinton that have aided the probe. But investigators have no way of knowing whether they have all the records that they have requested beyond assurances from Mrs. Clinton and her attorneys, he said.