WASHINGTON — A top official at the State Department repeatedly sought to have the FBI back down on classifying the contents of an email from Hillary Clinton’s private email server, documents released Monday revealed.
According to notes from interviews conducted during an FBI investigation into Clinton’s email practices, Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy personally tried to convince FBI officials that the email should be declassified.
One interviewee described feeling “pressured” by another FBI official at Kennedy’s request.
The FBI is denying any “quid pro quo” was offered in the fight between the bureau and State Department over the classification level of the email, though one interview described it as such.
“Not only is there no proof. It’s absolutely not true, a completely false allegation. It just didn’t happen that way,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said. “There was no bargain sought by the FBI. There was no bargain rendered. This was simply an inner agency conversation about the classification over one particular email. So there was no wrongdoing here.”
At issue are somewhat contradictory interview notes contained in the crop of newly released FBI documents.
In one, an FBI official recounted hearing second-hand that the State Department had offered a “quid pro quo” in exchange for declassifying an email. In another, a different FBI official said he told State Department he’d look into the email, if State Department looked into his request for personnel in Iraq.
An FBI records management official told the FBI in one interview that a member of the International Operations Division told him that Kennedy had reached out to have an email unclassified in exchange for a “quid pro quo,” according to the records management official, documents revealed Monday show.
The records management official said the IOD official “pressured” him to change the email’s classification.
In return for FBI declassifying one of the Clinton server emails, the interviewee said as relayed by the IOD official, the State Department official offered to help station FBI agents overseas in sensitive areas.
The anonymous individual said in a later meeting at State with several intelligence agencies, Kennedy responded to a question about whether any emails were classified by making eye contact and saying, “well, we’ll see.”
After the meeting, the individual said, “Kennedy spent the next 15 minutes debating the classification for he email and attempting to influence the FBI to change its markings.”
That records management official concluded State had an “agenda” related to “minimizing” the classification issues with Clinton’s emails.
The newly released documents contain a summary of interview notes related to the FBI’s investigation into whether classified information was improperly handled while Clinton was secretary of state.
But another interview contained in the same collection said that though Kennedy reached out to FBI about declassifying the email, it was the FBI that brought up getting agents stationed in Iraq.
That FBI employee said he personally spoke with Kennedy about the email, and that he suggested he would “look into the email matter” if Kennedy “would provide authority concerning the FBI’s request to increase its personnel in Iraq.”
In a follow-up, however, that FBI employee was told the email would remain classified, and relayed that to Kennedy. According to the interviews, Kennedy tried several times to get the FBI to declassify the email.
The dispute was over an email that State determined to be unclassified, but in inter-agency review, the FBI said contained classified information.
State said the email was released, with redactions, in May 2015 as part of its Freedom of Information Act disclosure. The email, from Nov. 18, 2012, was about possible arrests related to the Benghazi attacks.
Later in the FBI documents was an interview with an employee of the State Department inspector general, who said Kennedy was “not positive” in his interactions with the inspector general.
“Some FOIA officials have seen events and behaviors they did not like or that made them uncomfortable, to include Kennedy’s attitude towards them and how they handled the FOIA process related to Clinton,” the interview notes said.
Both FBI and State on Monday denied any “quid pro quo.”
“The FBI determined that one such email was classified at the Secret level,” FBI said Monday in a statement. “A senior State Department official requested the FBI re-review that email to determine whether it was in fact classified or whether it might be protected from release under a different FOIA exemption. A now-retired FBI official, who was not part of the subsequent Clinton investigation, told the State Department official that they would look into the matter.
“Having been previously unsuccessful in attempts to speak with the senior State official, during the same conversation, the FBI official asked the State Department official if they would address a pending, unaddressed FBI request for space for additional FBI employees assigned abroad.”
The FBI maintained the email should remain classified.