AP sues for Hillary Clinton e-mails: Did she break the law?

Hillary Clinton insists that she adhered to all relevant federal laws and policies during her tenure in the Obama administration. But the revelations about her use of e-mail have raised questions about the transparency of her actions.

Seth Wenig/AP
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks to reporters at United Nations headquarters, March 10, 2015. The Associated Press filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the State Department to force the release of e-mail correspondence and government documents from Mrs. Clinton's tenure as secretary of State.

The Associated Press wants Hillary Rodham Clinton’s e-mails, and it’s suing the State Department to get them, the news agency announced Wednesday. 

"After careful deliberation and exhausting our other options, The Associated Press is taking the necessary legal steps to gain access to these important documents, which will shed light on actions by the State Department and former Secretary Clinton, a presumptive 2016 presidential candidate, during some of the most significant issues of our time," said Karen Kaiser, AP's general counsel, the agency reported.

The lawsuit has been filed at a critical moment for Mrs. Clinton, as she comes under fire for her use of a private e-mail account for official business while serving as secretary of State. While the likely presidential candidate insists that she adhered to all relevant federal laws and policies during her tenure in the Obama administration, the case has raised questions about the transparency of her actions while in office.

“Mrs. Clinton obviously cannot – and should not – be forced to reveal all of her personal e-mails for blood-crazed Republicans who still hope to finally tie her to the fatal attacks on an American consulate in Benghazi in 2012," writes D.K. in The Economist's "Democracy in America" blog. "But it is equally unacceptable that she in effect gets to decide which of her work-related e-mails gets stored by the government.”

A bill signed by President Obama this past November says that official government messages sent through personal e-mail accounts must be copied to an employee’s official account or forwarded to an official account within 20 days. The law, however, was not retroactive and thus would not affect Clinton, who stepped down from her post in 2013.

Also according to the law, employees who fail to archive records are not subject to criminal penalties, but are instead subject to disciplinary action.

But critics argue that even if Clinton did not break any laws, her actions were unacceptable. 

“It is very difficult to conceive of a scenario — short of nuclear winter — where an agency would be justified in allowing its cabinet-level head officer to solely use a private e-mail communications channel for the conduct of government business,” Jason Baron, a former lawyer for the National Archives and Records Administration, told The New York Times, which broke the story.

Moreover, because Clinton’s e-mails were not part of official State Department records until recently, many of them would not have been handed over in response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, subpoenas, or other document searches in recent years, transparency advocates say.

Wednesday's court filing argues that the State Department was responsible for including e-mails from Clinton's personal account in previous public records requests.

AP confirmed that it is suing the State Department because documents that should have been located in response to FOIA requests have not been handed over.

“The legal action comes after repeated requests filed under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act have gone unfulfilled. They include one request AP made five years ago and others pending since the summer of 2013,” AP said.

The FOIA requests and lawsuit seek materials related to Clinton’s public and private calendars, correspondence involving longtime aides likely to play key roles in her expected campaign for president, and Clinton-related e-mails about the Osama bin Laden raid and National Security Agency surveillance practices, AP said.

Clinton has stated that she's handed over all work-related e-mails, more than 30,490 messages, to the State Department for archiving purposes. She also noted that all e-mails sent to government addresses had been automatically preserved.

The State Department said it would take several months to review the material Clinton handed over and will post the e-mails online once the review is complete.

State Department spokesman Alec Gerlach declined to comment to AP regarding the legal action. However, AP said that he had previously referred to the department's heavy annual load of FOIA requests, 19,000 last year, when saying that it "does its best to meet its FOIA responsibilities."

According to AP, the State Department generally takes about 450 days to turn over records it considers to be part of “complex requests” under the Freedom of Information Act.

The lawsuit comes on the heels of a report by the Center for Effective Government on government agencies' FOIA compliance.

The report found the State Department to be the worst agency in terms of transparency during Clinton’s last two years as secretary of State, The Washington Post reported.

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