Why State Dept. won't release Hillary Clinton e-mails until 2016

The US State Department says that the public won't see any of Hillary Rodham Clinton's e-mails until January 2016, at the very earliest. What's behind the delay?

Charlie Neibergall/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks during a gathering at the home of Dean Genth and Gary Swenson, Monday in Mason City, Iowa.

The way the State Department tells it, we'll be fortunate if we see a single page of Hillary Rodham Clinton's emails before the presidential race is underway.

The Department said late Monday that the soonest it can review and release some of Mrs. Clinton's 30,000 emails is January 15, 2016.

Even then, the agency said delays are possible, due to "unanticipated circumstances, or circumstances beyond the Department's control."

What's more, it warned any other requests for Clinton e-mails would make the process even slower.

“The Department understands the considerable public’s interest in these records and is endeavoring to complete the review and production of them as expeditiously as possible," said John Hackett, State’s acting director of Information Programs and Services, in a declaration filed in U.S. District Court in Washington in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that Vice News filed in January seeking all of Clinton’s emails.

"The collection is, however, voluminous and, due to the breadth of topics, the nature of the communications, and the interests of several agencies, presents several challenges," Mr. Hackett's declaration continued. 

And so Clinton's epic e-mail saga continues. It began, of course, on March 2 of this year, when The New York Times broke the story that the former secretary of state exclusively used a personal e-mail account to conduct government business while at the State Department, possibly violating federal requirements.

Perhaps anticipating the reaction, in December 2014 Clinton had turned over 30,000 e-mails, comprising some 55,000 pages, to the State Department. (She also said she had deleted almost as many emails that her lawyers deemed private.)

When the Times' story landed, Clinton was ready, tweeting supporters that she wanted the e-mails public and asking State to release them as soon as possible.

Nonetheless, Clinton's e-mail controversy left its mark on the presumed Democratic frontrunner's campaign: She endured an embarrassing press conference on the issue and her presidential campaign launch was arguably overshadowed by the e-mail hubbub.

And now, it appears more than 12 months will pass between the time Clinton turned over her emails, in December 2014, in and the time the State Department said it will release them to the public, in January 2016.

In politics, that is an eternity. Why will it take so long?

Welcome to the State Department, where its record on Freedom of Information Act requests is so poor that in 2014 the nonpartisan Committee for Effective Government rated it last among major agencies, including the Defense Department and the Department of Homeland Security, according to the Washington Post.

In its declaration, the State Department also said the delay is due in part to the form in which Clinton submitted her emails: 55,000 pages of paper, rather than digital, files, provided to State in 12 file boxes. That's enough volume that 12 State staffers have been assigned full-time to reviewing the emails, which took a month simply to scan.

Like many things at State, the review process is also laborious. First, State staffers will review the e-mails, followed next by "subject matter experts" in other departments as far-flung as the National Archives who will determine which of the e-mails are official and which are personal. After all appropriate government agencies review the e-mails, the FOIA office will apply recommended changes and redactions.

Finally, the e-mails will be sent to Office of the Legal Adviser for another review and any conflicting recommendations will "be resolved through discussions," according to reports. 

The good news for Clinton: her e-mail controversy may be ancient history by next January.

The bad news: The January 15 release of the emails may reignite the ruckus – just two weeks before the Iowa caucuses are due to be held Feb. 1, 2016.

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