- 19 октября 2016, 01:15
- POLITICO. Top Stories
A recently retired FBI agent confirmed Tuesday that he and a top State Department official spoke in the same telephone conversation about the classification of one of Hillary Clinton's emails and about a longstanding FBI request for additional staffing in U.S. embassies abroad, but denied any deal linking the two issues was ever proposed or agreed to.
In an interview, former FBI International Operations Division chief Brian McCauley said he was the only one who made any comment that could be seen as connecting the matters and that he did so before even knowing why Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy called him in May 2015.
"The trade-off came from me, but I had no idea what the task was, what [Kennedy] was seeking," McCauley said. "I didn't even know what he was asking for."
McCauley said that Kennedy was often helpful in handling interagency requests, but told POLITICO: "I do question his motivations in this case. I don't know what his motivation was. It certainly wasn't national security, which was my motivation."
At the time of the phone call, McCauley said, he'd been trying to reach Kennedy for almost 10 weeks to discuss requests to return FBI personnel to various high-risk posts overseas when the State official suddenly called.
"He said, 'Brian, this is Pat Kennedy. I need a favor.' I said, 'Hold on, I need a favor. I need our people back in Iraq and Baghdad and I need our footprint in Afghanistan to remain the same," the ex-FBI official told POLITICO.
McCauley said Kennedy instead raised an issue McCauley was entirely unaware of: a dispute about the classification of one of the emails in the set Hillary Clinton turned over to State in late 2014.
"He said, 'Brian. I have an email and they're classifying it and there's nothing to this email.' He said he would 'bury it in a B9 folder in the basement of the State Department," McCauley said, while adding that he could be misremembering the number or code Kennedy used — an apparent reference to an exemption under the Freedom of Information Act.
McCauley said he agreed to look into the classification issue and the two men also discussed the question of FBI personnel overseas, but no exchange or deal linking the matters was ever proposed. It was only when the FBI official checked in with a colleague in the law enforcement agency's records division that he was told the classification issue involved Benghazi, which prompted the 30-year FBI veteran to quickly drop the matter.
"I called Pat back and I said, 'What is this about? What's the subject?' He said, 'Benghazi.' And I said, 'Pat, I can't help you. And that was the end of the conversation. I never heard from him again," McCauley recalled. "I may have dropped an F-bomb on him."
An FBI report made public Monday said the records official claimed that McCauley pressured him to change the classification, but McCauley denied that.
"No pressure was put on that guy," McCauley said.
However, McCauley said he could see how his description of the call with Kennedy and the pending issues might have led his FBI colleague to see a proposed or potential deal.
"He very well could have had that impression," said the retired agent, who wasn't named in the public FBI release but was identified by the Washington Post. "It wouldn't be crazy to think that, since I was trying to help out Kennedy in order to help the FBI out."
The email-related quid pro quo claims became white-hot in the past couple of days, with GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump calling for Kennedy's firing and prosecution on felony charges and President Barack Obama saying Tuesday that there was nothing to the allegation.
The State Department pushed back against the "quid pro quo" claims again Tuesday, with Kennedy issuing a public statement and State sending a letter to House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, who has called for Kennedy's suspension.
"I can't speak to why the individual I spoke to [at the FBI] may have a certain impression or recollection of our conversation — but it simply does not align with facts," Kennedy said. "I can say, the FBI official I spoke to raised the topic of FBI Iraq slots as an entirely separate matter. The two matters were not linked. There was no quid pro quo, nor was there any bargaining."
Kennedy rejected the idea he was looking to "bury" the email in question and noted that it was eventually released, with the information the FBI deemed classified deleted.
"We thought a B7 law enforcement exemption would be more appropriate" than classifying the information, Kennedy said. "It is the State Department which must prepare the legal justification if we are challenged in court."
In the letter to Chaffetz, State legislative liaison Julia Frifield denied there was ever "any discussion of using the 'B9' FOIA exemption" for wells and geophysical data relating to oil drilling and similar projects.
"There was never any discussion of withholding the document from the public for any reason, the plan was always to redact it appropriately and release it online," she wrote.
Frifield also addressed allegations raised in the internal FBI records that State set up a "shadow government" that bypassed the usual process for handling FOIA requests.
"There is no 'shadow government' operation regarding Secretary Clinton's emails," she wrote. "To the contrary: a group of senior officials meets regularly to address a broad array of issues concerning the Department's significant FOIA and congressional obligations to ensure efforts are adequately resourced and that internal and agency bottlenecks are resolved."
Asked if the fact that Kennedy chose to call McCauley rather than someone else at FBI may have meant that Kennedy was implicitly linking the two issues, the ex-FBI official said he wouldn't assume that because he was a logical point of contact for Kennedy.
"I was a conduit between the FBI and the State Department. When we had to send people overseas [in emergencies,] the guy helped me out," McCauley explained. "On stuff like that, Pat was very good."
Some Republican lawmakers and other observers have suggested that Kennedy was trying to minimize the appearance of classified information in Clinton's account, to avoid political embarrassment for her and the State Department. However, Kennedy — who is presently a political appointee — insisted Tuesday that politics didn't enter into it.
"My motivations were never political," he said. "My motivations were never political. I have served as a member of the Foreign Service for some 40 years—serving both Democratic and Republican administrations. My sole aim was to ensure that we were responsive to our legal obligations under FOIA."