By Jason Leopold
In a major victory for transparency, a federal judge on Thursday ordered the State Department to release former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails prior to the Democratic primary and caucus remaining this month.
The order was issued by US District Court Judge Rudolph Contreras in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by VICE News, which forced the release of all 52,455 pages of the Democratic presidential candidate’s electronic communications.
Related: A Judge Just Scolded the State Department for Blowing the Deadline on the Clinton Emails
The State Department was supposed to produce the final batch of Clinton’s emails last month, but a week before the January 29 deadline, government attorneys filed court papers requesting a one-month extension because State Department and intelligence community reviewers failed to scrutinize thousands of Clinton’s emails for sensitive and classified information. Moreover, the State Department said the blizzard that hit the east coast impeded their efforts to complete the final production.
That extension would have delayed the release until after several Democratic caucuses and primaries.
VICE News attorney Ryan James countered that if release of the emails were delayed it would cause “grave, incurable harm [to] a substantial portion of the electorate [who would] be forced to vote without the benefit of important information to which it is entitled about the performance of one of the candidates for US president while serving as secretary of State.”
At a court hearing in the case Tuesday, Contreras took the State Department to task for missing its January 29 production deadline, saying he agreed that there is a compelling public interest in Clinton’s emails. He ordered the State Department to provide “a detailed explanation of why this problem arose, what caused it and why it wasn’t noticed until recently” and to also come up with a new production schedule for releasing some of Clinton’s emails before the completion of the Democratic primaries. A government attorney representing the State Department had said it would be impossible to complete the task before February 29.
However, late Wednesday, a top State Department official said in a sworn declaration that the agency has made “significant progress” in its review of the remaining Clinton emails due to “changed circumstances” and could now begin releasing a portion of the remaining emails — about 7,500 — on Saturday, February 13. But the official, Eric Stein, the deputy assistant secretary for global information services, said the vast majority of the emails would not be released until the end of the month because of a lengthy review process.
“The time estimates in this declaration depend on several variables, but most importantly on the need to continue devoting sufficient resources to completing the remaining 86% of the project by February 29,” Stein said. “Posting documents on State’s FOIA website involves several steps, and State’s ability to efficiently carry out these steps is sometimes limited by the available technology and by the availability of personnel who are sufficiently familiar with the technology. The FOIA system where the documents reside, named FREEDOMS, can be extremely rigid and slow, making the necessary steps in the process more time-consuming than one might otherwise expect.”
Contreras rejected Stein’s argument, in part. He ordered State to make four interim productions — one on Saturday, which will consist of about 550 emails; one on February 19, a day before the Democratic Nevada caucus; another on February 26, a day before the South Carolina Democratic primary; and the rest on February 29, a day before Super Tuesday’s dozen Democratic primaries and caucuses.
“The court expects that defendant [State Department] will endeavor to avoid any additional delay. Therefore, it is further ordered that defendant shall promptly bring any unanticipated problems to the court’s attention,” Contreras wrote in the order.
Related: ‘A Standard That Lesser Mortals Can Only Dream of’: The Latest Hillary Clinton Emails
The final batch of emails are expected to contain some of the most important details about Clinton’s work during the waning days of her tenure as the nation’s top diplomat.
VICE News filed a FOIA request for all of Clinton’s emails in November 2014 and sued for the records in January 2015, two months before the New York Times revealed that she had exclusively used a private email account connected to a home server to conduct official business. Clinton’s rationale for using a private email account has changed numerous times over the past year. She ultimately said it was a matter of convenience and that in hindsight it was the wrong decision.
Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold – Vice News