The Cable

New Clinton Emails Show a Woman of the World Who Is Prisoner to the Beltway

Hillary Clinton's 2009 emails reveal a woman smarting from a presidential loss but compassionate to people around the world.


Newly released emails written by former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton make clear she was intimately engaged in a broad spectrum of world events while in office. They also show how acutely aware the now Democratic presidential front-runner was of the minutiae of insider politics and media in Washington.

Late Tuesday evening, the State Department released some 3,000 pages of emails by the former first lady and New York senator. They show she was an active participant in the debate about the conduct of U.S. contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. They reveal she was highly concerned with the day-to-day workings of Washington’s Fourth Estate and was well informed of her portrayal in the national media. Additionally, the messages lay bare Clinton’s almost painful awareness of losing her party’s presidential nomination in 2008 to Barack Obama.

The messages give insight into how the Clintons’ political machine works. Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, have been the dominating force in Democratic politics since he won the White House in 1992. Obama upset their reign when he won the presidency in 2008, in part by using Hillary’s Clinton’s Senate vote to invade Iraq in 2003 against her.

But the emails released Tuesday show how Clinton wielded her influence in Obama’s administration.

They reveal a woman, perhaps the most powerful in American politics, concerned with the plight of a young Yemeni girl, Nujood Ali, who defied an arranged marriage by divorcing her husband. But they also highlight a politician sensitive to the slightest of slights by the media and one whose staff worked tirelessly to arrange an interview with Oprah Winfrey.

The messages document Clinton’s initial unease with obscure aspects of international diplomacy. In an April 2009 exchange, Clinton asked advisor Jake Sullivan what is the difference between the P5+1 and E3+3 — two different names for the same world powers’ diplomatic grouping assembled to carry out negotiations with Iran. “What is the E3+3 vs the P5+1?” Clinton wrote. After a back-and-forth with Sullivan, who schooled his boss, Clinton replied, sardonically, “I already feel safer.” Sullivan replied: “And I feel ashamed that I had to subject you to this” — a commentary on U.S. irritation with European countries’ insistence that the term E3+3 be used in official government statements.

Her concern for Nujood was evident in an Aug. 28, 2009, email to Melanne Verveer, who served as the first U.S. ambassador at large for global women’s issues. Clinton wrote:

Do you recall Noori Ali(?), the ten year old Yemeni girl who got herself divorced? I met her at the Glamour awards last year. There was a CNN story last few days about how unhappy she is, still living at home, not attending school and quite angry that her life is not better. Is there any way we can help her? Could we get her to the US for counselling and education?

While Clinton settled in for her first year at Foggy Bottom, the emails portrayed how quickly world events shifted — and U.S. perceptions along with them.

As the White House grappled with whether to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, longtime Clinton political advisor Mark Penn complained to her in a Sept. 24, 2009, email about “the lack of clear Afghanistan policy [that] is unwinding the coalition and threatens to cause a massive deer in headlights problem for administration if not resolved soon.” In heated White House debates, Clinton had lobbied Obama to plus up U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan vexed Clinton in a variety of ways, but never as angrily as in September 2009, when, the emails show, she became aware of naked pool parties and sexually deviant acts performed under pressure among the security staff guarding the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

“This whole issue makes me sick,” Clinton wrote in a Sept. 2, 2009, email to her close friend and chief of staff, Cheryl Mills. “State is too passive and accepting.… I have some ideas about this to explore.”

Clinton also was called on repeatedly to soothe ruffled allies, from Haiti to Argentina, and agreed to send a condolence letter in December 2009 to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose brother had just died. Fewer than two years later, Assad would face a revolt from his country’s Sunni opposition and respond so harshly that Clinton ultimately advocated sending U.S. military assets to curb his assaults.

Meanwhile, Clinton showed herself susceptible to the daily workings of Washington’s media. In an Aug. 14, 2009, email with the subject line “damn this is good,” Clinton’s staff shared a flattering story about a trip to Liberia.

“We should figure out how to distribute this. Thx for a great trip!” Clinton wrote to staff members.

The emails shed more light on the influential yet unofficial role played by longtime advisor and Clinton confidant Sidney Blumenthal. The Obama administration had barred Clinton from hiring Blumenthal, a former journalist known for his fierce attacks on Bill and Hillary Clinton’s political opponents.

But he clearly enjoyed direct email access to Clinton, and the messages reflect his preoccupation with Obama’s political standing relative to Clinton’s. In his correspondence, Blumenthal sent Clinton a poll showing Obama’s approval numbers dropping in Ohio, and he urged her to order an overhaul of a major address to ensure she would not be compared unfavorably to the president.

“For most policy speeches a generic tone and workmanlike prose are acceptable. But for this one, it is not,” Blumenthal wrote in a July 9, 2009, email marked “CONFIDENTIAL.”

“This speech can’t afford to be lackluster. It will then be held up in invidious comparison to Obama’s glittering best efforts,” he wrote. The planned address at the Council on Foreign Relations “must have, amid the policies, a distinctive and authoritative voice,” Blumenthal urged.

Previously released emails from Blumenthal about Libya have sparked accusations that Clinton sought out her former aide’s advice despite her claims that his messages were “unsolicited.”

The newest tranche of emails was released at 9 p.m. EDT Tuesday, and the emails are part of an estimated 55,000 pages of documents that Clinton turned over to the State Department after acknowledging she used a personal Internet server at her home to send official messages while serving as secretary of state. State Department spokesman John Kirby said the emails are being released independently of a separate congressional inquiry into the September 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya.

Clinton served as secretary of state from 2009 to 2013. An earlier-released batch of emails, including about 300 pages of documents, showed she was aware of security problems at the Benghazi outpost before the attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Clinton has taken responsibility for the general security of U.S. diplomatic missions when they were under her watch, but the Benghazi attack remains a key weakness that her opponents continue to exploit in her 2016 presidential campaign.

In May, Clinton released a batch of emails from the server at her home in New York. The timing of that release was less than ideal; they were made public around noon on the Friday before the long Memorial Day weekend. On Tuesday, Kirby sought to downplay the late publication of the newest set of documents.

“I know that 9 o’clock is a fairly inconvenient time for many of you in the media, and I certainly apologize for the inconvenience that that’s going to cause, but I can assure you — and I want to make it very clear from the outset — that a 9 o’clock release date is not deliberately intended to make your life harder,” Kirby told reporters earlier in the day. “I know that’s going to be the going assumption, but it is absolutely not the case.”

Foreign Policy staff writer Lara Jakes contributed to this report. This story was updated early Wednesday morning with additional details from the email messages.

Photo credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Correction, July 1, 2015: An earlier version of this article inaccurately attributed quotes by State Department aide Thomas A. Shannon about Honduras’s 2009 election to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The quotes were part of an email chain that Clinton was on, and replied to, in discussing the vote. The quotes have been deleted from this article. 

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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