Cheryl Mills, the former chief of staff at the State Department, partly blamed the Benghazi terrorist attack for former Secretary Hillary Clinton failing to turn over her emails as she left office in 2013, saying there was “a lot going on” that distracted them from fulfilling their obligations under open records laws.
Ms. Mills, in sworn testimony ordered by a federal judge taken last week and released Tuesday, said Mrs. Clinton and her team were occupied with too many other things to think about going through their official records and making sure they remained with the department — a requirement of multiple federal laws and agency policies.
Among those were Mrs. Clinton’s upcoming departure from office and the September 2012 attack that cost the life of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
“The secretary was not only transitioning, there had been a — we had lost our first ambassador in quite some time, and we were stepping through the sets of issues associated with that. And she, too, had fallen ill, and there — and there had been a period of time where we were obviously navigating a whole set of issues in that space,” Ms. Mills said. “So I don’t know that this was something that I focused on, and certainly I wish I had.”
Blaming the Benghazi attack is a striking explanation, given that it was the 2012 attack — and the congressional probe into it — that first exposed Mrs. Clinton’s use of a secret email account tied to a server kept at her home in New York.
Ms. Mills said she can’t even remember if she and Mrs. Clinton talked about how to secure and store her emails as they left office together.
Instead, Ms. Mills said she assumed the messages Mrs. Clinton sent to other State Department employees were being captured in those underlings’ accounts.
“Obviously, I’ve come to learn that that’s not the case,” Ms. Mills said under questioning by Judicial Watch, a conservative law firm that won the right to depose Ms. Mills and other top Clinton aides.
Ms. Mills at some points refused to answer questions about the email server, saying she learned the details after she and Mrs. Clinton left the State Department. Ms. Mills said, as a lawyer, she was tapped by Mrs. Clinton to represent her in reviewing the emails, so she cannot be made to testify about those decisions under attorney-client privilege.
A number of other questions were also deemed out of bounds by the Obama administration’s lawyers and by Ms. Mills’ own lawyer, Beth A. Wilkinson.
Ms. Mills has been a longtime confidante of Mrs. Clinton’s, and was her chief of staff during four years at the State Department. But Ms. Mills portrayed herself as disconnected from Mrs. Clinton’s decision-making about her email use.
The department’s inspector general concluded in a report sent to Congress last week that Mrs. Clinton broke department policies on both storage of her official records and on failing to report potential hacking into her email server. Mrs. Clinton had insisted what she did was allowed under department rules, but the investigation flatly rejected that — going so far as to determine that she didn’t ever get approval for the odd arrangement.
While other former secretaries helped out with the investigation, neither Mrs. Clinton nor her top aides, including Ms. Mills, cooperated.
But Ms. Mills and other top aides are testifying at depositions from Judicial Watch, which won an unusual order of discovery from a federal judge troubled by how the Clinton emails were handled.
In her testimony Friday, which lasted nearly seven hours, Ms. Mills admitted she emailed Mrs. Clinton from her own personal address at times — messages that would likely not have been stored in the State Department’s system — but repeatedly said she couldn’t remember any conversations with Mrs. Clinton about their obligations under the law.
“I don’t think I reflected on were there occasions where there might still be something with respect to a personal email where someone had either emailed me, or I had responded back, or the system had been down and we ultimately needed to use it — that there was information that hadn’t been captured. And I wish it had,” Ms. Mills said.