On Thursday, a federal judge ordered further investigation into officials' handling of Hillary Clinton's private email server during her four-year tenure as secretary of state. Her use of an unapproved, unsecured private email server, he said in the blistering ruling, is "one of the gravest modern offenses to government transparency."
The ruling revolves around a Freedom of Information Act suit brought by a conservative government watchdog. Judicial Watch, U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth ruled Thursday, should be given access to documents and be permitted to acquire additional testimony about Clinton's use of a private server and officials' failure to be transparent about information searches related to it.
Judge Lamberth's opinion, published by Politico, begins by quoting former President Barack Obama, who, on his first full day in office, waxed eloquent about the importance of transparency in government and declared his administration's commitment to FOIA: "In our democracy, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which encourages accountability through transparency, is the most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open government. ... All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open government. The presumption of disclosure should be applied to all decisions involving FOIA."
"But in this case, faced with one of the gravest modern offenses to government transparency, his State and Justice Departments fell far short," Lamberth wrote. "So far short that the Court questions, even now, whether they are acting in good faith. Did Hillary Clinton use her private email as Secretary of State to thwart this lofty goal? Was the State Department's attempt to settle this FOIA case in 2014 an effort to avoid searching--and disclosing the existence of--Clinton's missing emails? And has State ever adequately searched for records in this case?"
When Judicial Watch filed its FOIA suit in July 2014 over the State Department's false talking points on the Benghazi attack, the judge notes, officials knew that Clinton's private emails were missing from its records. "State played this card close to its chest," he wrote. "At best, State’s attempts to pass-off its deficient search as legally adequate during settlement negotiations was negligence born out of incompetence. At worst, career employees in the State and Justice Departments colluded to scuttle public scrutiny of Clinton, skirt FOIA and hoodwink this court."
Politico notes that Lamberth, a Ronald Reagan-appointee and a judge who "sparred" at times with the Clinton administration, is critical not only of the past administration but of the Trump administration for failing to adequately follow through on this crucial case.
"To preserve the Department’s integrity, and to reassure the American people their government remains committed to transparency and the rule of law, this suspicion cannot be allowed to fester," he said. To this end, he ordered that both sides discuss a discovery process and report back to him in 10 days to nail down a plan for further fact-finding.
At the heart of the issue is the suspicion that State and Justice Department officials were attempting to protect Clinton and the administration by deliberately resisting FOIA searches in her private server, thus attempting to conceal damning information, like Clinton's admission to Chelsea that she knew the Benghazi attack was a terrorist operation while the administration publicly described it as spontaneous riot in response to a YouTube video offensive to Muslims.
"The historic court ruling raises concerns about the Hillary Clinton email scandal and government corruption that millions of Americans share," said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton in a statement. "Judicial Watch looks forward to conducting careful discovery into the Clinton email issue and we hope the Justice Department and State Department recognize Judge Lamberth’s criticism and help, rather than obstruct, this court-ordered discovery."