A US federal judge rebuked the State Department Tuesday for delays in releasing Hillary Clinton's emails, saying that State "put me in a position I don't like to be in" when it missed the January 29 deadline the court had originally set to release all of the documents.
US District Court Judge Rudolph Contreras told lawyers in a Washington, DC courtroom that "the government put me between a rock and a hard place" by failing to meet the deadline and asking for more time. Contreras didn't want the emails released without being properly vetted for sensitive information — State says it needs more time for the vetting process — but postponing the release was also to the detriment of the American public.
"To state the obvious, these documents have a lot of public interest, and the timing is important," Contreras said.
He didn't set a hard deadline, but did tell lawyers for State that "the department should expect to produce something on the 18th, if not sooner." He also demanded a better explanation this week from State for why it missed the original deadline.
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Officials have now retroactively classified more than 1,200 messages that passed through the private server in Clinton's Chappaqua, New York home while she was serving as US secretary of state from 2009 to 2013. This has fueled criticism that she may have mishandled sensitive government information, and the FBI confirmed this week that the bureau is looking into Clinton's use of the private server.
Clinton has said that no email sent or received via her private account was marked classified at the time it was transmitted, adding that she's "100 percent confident" the FBI will find no evidence of wrongdoing.
'This is a big middle finger to folks in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina.'
State Department attorney Robert Prince said government officials are "working weekends" to prepare the files for release. He told Contreras that about 570 of 3,700 emails have been vetted, but that due to bottlenecks in the State Department's workflow, even those completed files couldn't be made available before February 18.
"Explain to me again why something that's gone through the legal reviews could not be posted until a week from Thursday," Contreras responded. "This seems like an unreasonably long period of time to post, or give access to, something that has already passed clearance."
The judge ordered State to provide "a very specific description" the following day of why the cleared files couldn't be released sooner. He also told State to consider alternative methods of disclosing the emails that might give VICE News access to them sooner, such as allowing the pages to be viewed on a screen without actually delivering them.
Clinton's emails have been released on a rolling basis by the State Department for months in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit filed by VICE News in January 2015 seeking all of Clinton's emails while she was secretary of state.
Last May, Contreras ordered the government to review 54,000 pages of Clinton's correspondence and release them in batches, with final delivery by January 29 of this year. But shortly before the final deadline, the State Department asked for an extra month to review and release the last of the emails, claiming about 7,000 messages hadn't been sent out for interagency review because of an "oversight," and that a massive January snowstorm in the nation's capital had slowed down their work.
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The State Department's deadline extension request is "a big middle finger in the air to folks in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina," Ryan James, an attorney representing VICE News in the Clinton FOIA case, said before the hearing Tuesday. "This request meant voters in those states were being asked to cast ballots in the Democratic primary before the information in these emails would be made public."
Granting the full extra month for which the State Department asked would mean withholding thousands of emails from public view until after votes are counted in the first four states of the Democratic primary contest. Clinton is currently locked in a tight battle with challenger Bernie Sanders.
The high level of scrutiny being applied to the last unreleased batch of emails "does suggest that they may be of particular importance to the public," James said. "These are government documents reflecting a senior official's last year in office. That makes them particularly relevant to this election cycle, and important for the public to have before they're asked to vote."
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