The FBI is denying the existence of an alleged quid pro quo scheme between it and the State Department in which a classified email about the Benghazi attack stored on Hillary Clinton's private server would have been reclassified and forever hidden from the public.
In return for reclassifying the email, the FBI would have allegedly had a request with the State Department to send more personnel to Iraq expedited.
The allegations are contained in FBI documents released Friday about the investigation into the former Secretary of State's private email usage.
In a statement Monday, the FBI refuted the claims, saying the two issues were brought up by two senior officials at the FBI and State Department in the same conversation, but that a quid pro quo did not exist.
But unnamed FBI employees quoted in FBI interview transcripts said there was pressure to change the classification of the email in exchange for a favor from the State Department.
According to one man who works at the FBI's records management division in Virginia, a senior FBI official, acting on a request from Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy, asked him to alter the classification.
"[REDACTED] believes STATE has an agenda which involves minimizing the classified nature of the Clinton emails in order to protect STATE interests and those of CLINTON," reads the FBI interview transcript, dated July 30, 2015.
The employee told FBI agents that about six weeks prior to the interview, he received an email from the State Department's freedom of information office. The email contained "5 email communications" from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's private account, "which STATE believed may contain 'FBI equities.’"
The freedom of information office wanted the FBI to review the classification of the emails, marked unclassified at the time, before releasing them to the public. The employee said at least one of the emails looked to be classified and sent it to the FBI's counterterrorism team for review.
It appears — though sections of the interview transcript are redacted — that the FBI changed the classification of the email from unclassified to "SECRET//NOFORN," meaning it was not to be viewed by foreign nationals.
The FBI employee said the State Department's legal office contacted him a week later "and questioned the FBI's SECRET//NOFORN determination," arguing that the FBI couldn't use that type of classification.
The caller further argued that the State Department, "not the FBI, are the judge of potential harm to foreign governments and therefore the FBI did not have the right to classify a document based on those conditions."
The email, however, remained classified at the level determined by the FBI. The employee told interviewers he "firmly believed, based on his position as an Original Classification Authority (OCA), that the email was classified properly and accurately."
"Shortly thereafter, [REDACTED] received a call from [REDACTED] of the International Operations Division (IOD) of the FBI, who 'pressured' him to change the classified email to unclassified," the transcript reads. "[REDACTED] indicated he had been contacted by PATRICK KENNEDY, Undersecretary of State, who had asked his assistance in altering the email's classification in exchange for a 'quid pro quo.’"
"[REDACTED] advised that, in exchange for marking the email unclassified, STATE would reciprocate by allowing the FBI to place more Agents in countries where they are presently forbidden."
But in a later interview with the FBI employee from the International Operations Division — the same person who allegedly pressured the FBI employee in records management — he admits that it was he, not Kennedy, who offered the quid pro quo in response to Kennedy's request to review the classification of the email.
“Not yet knowing the e-mail’s content, [REDACTED] told KENNEDY he would look into the e-mail matter if KENNEDY would provide authority concerning the FBI’s request to increase its personnel in Iraq,” reads the transcript dated Sept. 3, 2015.
Kennedy, according to the IOD employee, said in a phone call that "the FBI’s classification of the e-mail in question caused problems" for him. Kennedy wanted the email classified "B9." The IOD employee told interviewers he was unsure what B9 meant, but a note on the transcript says it could be a type of freedom of information exemption.
"KENNEDY further stated that the ‘B9’ classification would allow him to archive the document in the basement of DoS never to be seen again," the transcript says.
The records management employee told FBI interviewers that the reclassification request was followed by an all-agency meeting held by Kennedy at the State Department, where someone asked whether any of the Clinton emails were classified.
"Well, we'll see," Kennedy said, making eye contact with the FBI employee, according to the transcript.
"[REDACTED] believed this was reference to the FBI's categorization of the SECRET//NOFORN email which Kennedy was attempting to influence," the transcript says.
The transcript says that after his phone conversation with Kennedy, the IOD employee was told the email in question was classified by the FBI’s counterterrorism division “and was related to the attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi.”
The IOD employee said he then told Kennedy “there was no way” he could get the email declassified.
The FBI, in its statement released Monday, confirmed that the IOD official — who has since retired and was not involved in the Clinton investigation — agreed to look into the email classification after a request from a senior State Department official.
"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 said.
"Although there was never a quid pro quo, these allegations were nonetheless referred to the appropriate officials for review," the FBI added.
Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon said that it "is well known that there was strong disagreement among various government agencies about the decisions to retroactively classify certain material in emails sent to Secretary Clinton. Agencies that took issue with this overclassification did so based on their own beliefs, and we were not part of these disagreements that played out inside the government."
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump tweeted about the FBI documents, calling the alleged quid pro quo scheme "unbelievable."
Emma Loop is a politics reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Emma Loop at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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