A federal judge urged the State Department to get more people on the case reviewing and releasing the emails of former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and her top aides, saying Tuesday that all sides should be eager to get the matter behind them.
Judge Emmet G. Sullivan also rejected the State Department’s timeline for searching the aides’ emails and insisted the government have them all put in an electronic system by the end of this week, and do an initial search to see which ones are related to the 2012 Benghazi terrorist attacks next week.
“There has to be some reallocation of resources because these are atypical cases,” the judge told Obama administration lawyers.
Elizabeth Shapiro, a senior Justice Department lawyer handling many of the more than 30 cases seeking Clinton-related emails, said the administration is doing what it can, but said its employees are already stretched, working “really demoralizing, crushing hours.”
“The State Department is being crushed with obligations,” she said.
Judge Sullivan is overseeing several cases seeking Clinton emails under the Freedom of Information Act, and was searching for reasonable deadlines — but pressed the administration to better explain why it’s taken months to get and begin to process messages turned over by top Clinton aides Huma Abedin and Cheryl Mills.
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Matthew McGill, a lawyer representing Citizens United, a conservative group that sued to get some of those emails, said the State Department’s delays were “tactical” decisions meant to gum up the process.
Ms. Shapiro rejected that, saying they were caught unaware by the new emails Ms. Mills and Ms. Abedin turned over more than two years after they left the State Department.
The State Department says it has the equivalent of about 63 full-time employees working on the thousands of open records requests the department gets each year, and those staffers are being pushed to meet tight deadlines, including those imposed by more than a dozen judges now involved in some Clinton email-related cases.
Ms. Shapiro said the department is also concerned that they are giving too much time and attention to cases where someone has sued, saying that ends up stiffing the other requesters who don’t have the resources to go to court.
Judge Sullivan said the obvious answer was to get more people: “It strikes me, we have to find the resources.”
In the case of Citizens United, the State Department had asked for at least until December to search the files of Ms. Abedin and Ms. Mills, but Judge Sullivan rejected that.
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Instead he gave the department until the end of this week to have all of their emails put in a searchable database within the department, and gave them until next week to perform an initial search by keyword to determine the universe of documents that might be responsive to Citizens United’s request for information.
The judge also speeded up a similar case brought by Judicial Watch seeking emails from Mrs. Clinton’s aides, issuing an order requiring the State Department to meet the same expedited schedule in that matter too.
“The court isn’t buying what the State Department is selling, and their protestation they’ve got too much work to do doesn’t seem to be flying,” said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch.
Mr. Fitton said he doesn’t accept that Mrs. Clinton and her top aides have turned over all of their documents, and Judicial Watch is pushing the courts to try to find out more about other emails that they kept, defining them as personal documents rather than government business.
“All of this is a distraction from the real question out there, which is what about the emails that have yet to be turned over to the State Department? What’s being done to recover them, have them preserved and searched under the Freedom of Information Act?” Mr. Fitton said.
Mrs. Clinton now says she regrets her decision to set up an email server herself and exclusively use an account tied to that server for her government business as secretary, in what both a federal judge and State Department officials said was a breach of policy.
The Democratic presidential front-runner says, however, that she didn’t break any laws with the arrangement, which kept official records out of the hands of the government for nearly two years after she left office. She returned about 32,000 emails to the State Department in December, saying they were all the messages that her lawyers deemed to be official records.
David E. Kendall, Mrs. Clinton’s personal lawyer, also kept a flash drive with a .pst file containing the emails, and that drive is also under scrutiny now that Mrs. Clinton’s emails have been deemed to have held classified information.
In a letter Tuesday, Sen. Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, asked Mr. Kendall to detail who exactly was involved in the review team, who decided which messages to put on the flash drive and when Mrs. Clinton turned her emails over to the lawyers for review.
Mr. Grassley, Iowa Republican, also said it didn’t appear Mr. Kendall’s law partner, Katherine Turner, who had access to the flash drive, had a high enough security clearance to be handling the kind of information in Mrs. Clinton’s emails.