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The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

Why You Actually Should Care About Hillary Clinton's Damn Emails

Bernie Sanders thinks Americans should stop talking about his opponents emails. VICE News investigative reporter Jason Leopold told us why that's wrong.

More on Hillary Clinton's emails from VICE News:

What Hillary Clinton and the State Department Didn't Say About Her Emails

Hillary Clinton's 'Bleak Week' Emails Show Response to WikiLeaks Revelations

Emails Show How Far Clinton Was Willing to Go to Promote Old Pal's Interests

A Top Hillary Clinton Adviser Called John Boehner 'Louche, Alcoholic, Lazy'

On Tuesday night, at the first Democratic debate of the 2016 election, Bernie Sanders was asked about the secrecy surrounding Hillary Clinton's emails. By way of an answer, he turned to Clinton and informed her—forcefully—that "the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails."


According to moderator Anderson Cooper, Sanders was employing a rhetorical gambit used by politicians and comedians alike known as "playing to the room"—in other words, it was a good shortcut to a big applause. His campaign capitalized on the surge, and with almost suspicious timing, sent out a fundraising email referencing Sanders' crowd-pleasing remark. Evidently, 44,000 people were #FeelingTheBern, sending Sanders a total of $1.4 million by the end of the night.

Were the comments endearing? Obviously. But true? Not so much. At least according to one American, who happens to sit a few desks away from me, and who probably cares about Hillary Clinton's emails more than maybe anyone else in the world. His name is Jason Leopold, and he's the VICE News investigative reporter sometimes known as a "FOIA Terrorist."

Jason is the guy who sued the State Department for access to Clinton's emails earlier this year, and continues to be one of the best people to turn to for up-to-the-minute coverage of the scandal. He has a whole community of avid readers who care about what he abbreviates the "HRC emails." So when Sanders implored American voters—and journalists—to just drop the email subject altogether, I thought I'd ask Jason for his take.

Now that I've had this conversation, I care a whole hell of a lot about the damn emails. Read what he had to say, and maybe you will too.

VICE: Hey Jason. Why do you give a shit about Hillary Clinton's emails?
Jason Leopold: I filed a request for all of her emails because I wanted to gain insight into how she conducted herself as secretary of state, and how that would inform the public as to how she may be as president. That would go for any candidate who is running for office.


Do you have a political agenda?
I personally hate everyone in both parties. There's nothing partisan about what I'm doing. I'm doing this as a journalist who believes that the public has a right to know what their elected officials are up to. I know we're focusing on [Bernie Sanders] to say what the public doesn't care about—well, he doesn't speak for the public! He doesn't represent every single person out there. This is about him trying to gain political points.

What's in the emails?
What really turned this into a scandal is not the content.

What is the content though?
It's mostly "please print!" or "I don't know how to work my fax machine!" So it's not necessarily the content of her emails [that's significant].

"Mostly," but not all, right? Hasn't some of the content been interesting?
We've seen what her position [was] on Afghanistan, and on issues related to Pakistan's role in combatting al Qaeda. She was sort of on the fence about this big troop surge, which was a key moment in Obama's presidency in late 2009.

So how does an email about that translate into news?
The emails are insightful because she really didn't know what to do. She looked to all these outside advisors. She wanted to know how [then-Senator] Carl Levin voted on the Iraq surge. What the email shows is that this is a person who was very concerned at the time about how her decision—her important, important policy decision—would reflect upon her personally, and how it would impact her standing with the public. That's important.


Has anything else been a big deal?
We should know that when issues about the CIA's torture program came up in 2009 and 2010, she was advised by Sydney Blumenthal to never ever discuss [the program] publicly. And for the most part she hasn't. These are things that you get from actually sitting down, and fucking reading every goddamn motherfucking email.

What about that smoking gun on Benghazi? Is that going to be in there?
There will not be a smoking gun. If you're looking for a smoking gun, you will not find it. But there are important takeaways from these emails about certain issues—Guantanamo, Afghanistan, the fight against al Qaeda, the rise of Boko Haram, human rights issues, and many domestic issues revolving around the environment—that we otherwise would not have known without gaining insight into these emails.

Exclusive: VICE News Interviews the Architect of the CIA's Enhanced Interrogation Program

How do we know there won't be a big bombshell?
If you worked at the State Department, and you left, and I asked for your documents, they would review it, and maybe discuss some of it with you. What happened here is that Hillary and her staff reviewed all of it before turning it over to the State Department, deciding what was personal, and deciding what was not for public consumption and destroying it. That was hugely troubling. That's not how these issues related to preservation of records work.


That was the original issue with secrecy, right? Can you remind us what the problem was in a nutshell?
When you file a request to any government agency for emails on an individual that works outside of the White House—which is not subject to [Freedom of Information Act] requests—usually they say "We're gonna process your request," or "We can't find records." For years, they didn't say that [about Clinton's records]. We just didn't know what the issue was.

So you might say the scandal is that it's now impossible for there to be a scandal?
I believe that it's a scandal for different reasons than politicians believe it's a scandal. It's an absolutely legitimate scandal, for reasons that have to do with preservation of records, and the thwarting of the Freedom of Information Act, and bypassing the Federal Records Act. It's a rightful scandal.

In your past experience uncovering government secrets, do exciting revelations show up in FOIA-ed materials when officials least expect it?
Oh yeah! That happened a couple months ago with the CIA. They gave me a letter addressed to Senators Diane Feinstein and her Republican counterpart in the Senate Intelligence Committee, essentially apologizing over the alleged hack of Senate computers while the Senate was working on its torture report. I read the letter, and I thought, OK, it's a letter that [CIA Director John Brennan] wrote apologizing.

But it turned out to be a bigger story?
It was only after I did some reporting around that letter that I found out that the letter was never sent. Brennan apologized, but he didn't make admissions about how the CIA did spy on the Senate, which he articulated in the letter, and the letter itself was never ever sent.

Crazy! But if something like that never comes out, is it still worth caring about?
The most important aspect of her emails that anyone should be paying attention to is the fact that we don't have answers as to why she was using a private email account, and avoiding the Federal Records Act—which is a law—and why the State Department failed to respond to legitimate requests from journalists under the Freedom of Information Act for her emails years before this scandal was ever revealed.

Do we really know nothing about that?
She changes her story time and time and time again. These are things that anyone should care about when it comes to an elected official. My takeaway is that the rules, for some reason, did not apply to Hillary Clinton, as they would have applied to anyone in the federal government. It's also a failure on the part of the State Department, which did not reign her in.

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter. Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter too.