FLASHBACK--Top Aide’s Pre-Benghazi Email: Hillary Clinton Had ‘Leadership/Ownership/Stewardship of This Country’s Libya Policy From Start to Finish’

Terence P. Jeffrey | May 21, 2015 | 5:40pm EDT
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State Department Director of Policy and Planning Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama at the U.S.-ASEAN meeting in Cambodia on Nov. 20, 2012. (White House Photo/Pete Souza)

(CNSNews.com) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had “leadership/ownership/stewardship of this country’s Libya policy from start to finish,” says an email written by one of Clinton’s top aides--and forwarded to Clinton herself--as the Libyan rebellion that sought the overthrow of Muammar Qadhafi appeared to be nearing a triumphant moment.

The email is one of those the State Department has thus far given to the House Select Committee on Benghazi. It is among 349 pages of those emails that were obtained by the New York Times and that the Times has posted online in a PDF.

This email about Clinton’s “ownership” of U.S. Libya policy was sent—on the East Coast of the United States--at 7:40 p.m. on Sunday, August 21, 2011. By then, in Tripoli, Libya, it was already 1:40 a.m. on the morning of Monday, August 22.

Rebel forces had surrounded the Libyan capital and were preparing to seize it that day and declare victory in their war against Qaddafi. A headline on a New York Times story on August 21, 2011 said: “Libyan Capital is Circled as Rebels Push Forward.” A New York Times headline on August 22 said: “Rebels Pour Into Central Tripoli Square, Declaring Victory.”

The Sunday night email from Jake Sullivan explained how Hillary Clinton deserved credit as the American official most responsible for what was happening in Libya.

Sullivan—a 2003 Yale Law School grad—had worked on Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. In that campaign, according to his biography in Marquis’s Who’s Who, Sullivan had been the deputy policy director. In the State Department, Sullivan first worked as Clinton’s deputy chief of staff then as director of policy planning.

Sullivan sent his Aug. 21, 2011 email to Clinton Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills and State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland. Mills forwarded it directly to Clinton—or “H” as the email says--the next day at 12:37 p.m. Mills’s explanation of Sullivan’s email was very brief. “Here is Draft,” she told Clinton.

This Sullivan email that Mills forwarded to Clinton started with an explanation. “[T]his is basically off the top of my head, with a few consultations of my notes,” Sullivan wrote. “[B]ut it shows S’ leadership/ownership/stewardship of this country’s Libya policy from start to finish. Let me know what you think. [T]oria, who else might be able to add to this?”

The next line in Sullivan’s email was a header: “Secretary Clinton’s leadership on Libya.”

This was followed by a timeline with an introductory paragraph. That paragraph said:

“HRC has been critical voice on Libya in administration deliberations, at NATO, and in contact group meetings—as well as the public face of the U.S. effort in Libya. She was instrumental in securing the authorization, building the coalition, and tightening the noose around Qadhafi and his regime.”  

The rest of the two-page email consists of a timeline, running from February 25 of that year to early August.

On February 28, for example, the timeline says: “HRC travels to Geneva, Switzerland for consultations with European partners on Libya. She gives a major address in which she says: ‘…And the people of Libya have made themselves clear: It is time for Qadhafi to go—now, without further violence or delay.’”

Then-Special Envoy Chris Stevens in Benghazi, Libya, in April 2011. (State Department photo)

In early March, the timeline says: “HRC appoints Special Envoy Chris Stevens to be the U.S. representative in Benghazi.”

On March 19, it says: “HRC travels to Paris to meet with Europeans and Arab leaders to prepare for military action to protect civilians. That night, the first U.S. air strikes halt the advance of Gadhafi’s forces on Benghazi and target Libya’s air defenses.”

In late June, it says: “HRC meets with House Democrats and House Republicans to persuade them not to de-fund the Libya operation.”

In early August, it says: “HRC secures written pledges from the TNC [Libya’s Transitional National Council] to an inclusive, pluralistic democratic transition.”

Eight months later, on April 4, 2012, Sullivan sent directly to Secretary Clinton--or to "H"--another copy of his timeline. This copy did not include the preface he had included when he first sent it to Mills, and in which he stated “it shows S’ leadership/ownership/stewardship of this country’s Libya policy from start to finish.” But it was again headed: “Secretary Clinton's leadership on Libya.”

Between Sullivan’s first emailed timeline in August 2011 and his second in April 2012, Clinton and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, had visited Tripoli on Oct. 18, 2011. As CNSNews.com has reported, the Defense Department needed to post assets off the coast of Libya during Clinton’s brief visit in case she needed to be rescued.

While she was in Tripoli that day, Secretary Clinton had a “Town Hall Meeting With Youth and Civil Society” that was held at Tripoli University and also included students and faculty from the university. She also addressed State Department staff and families at the U.S. embassy.


At the beginning of her talk at the embassy, she recalled the apprehension she had experienced that the Qadhafi regime was going to murder then-Ambassador to Libya Gene Cretz. According to the official State Department transcript of her talk, Clinton’s recollection of this was something that elicited laughter:

Secretary Clinton: “As Gene and Assistant Secretary Feltman and I were walking through here, they were talking about how the last time Jeff was here was when we were very worried that Qadhafi and Sanussi were going to kill you.”

Ambassador Cretz: “Yeah. (Laughter.)”

Secretary Clinton: “And we were debating and just pulling our hair out about what to do and how to respond to it, and then the threats got worse and the intimidation got worse, and so we had to bring Gene home for consultations, as they say. But here you are, you’re back and Qadhafi’s gone. (Laughter.) So it somehow seems to be all’s right with the world. (Applause.) I am very pleased to have this chance to thank each and every one of you, and to return as Secretary of State to a free Libya. And what an amazing experience.”

At Tripoli University, the time allotted for Clinton’s question-and-answer session expired before everyone there who wanted to ask a question had done so. Clinton--who had military assets waiting offshore to rescue her if needed--asked Amb. Cretz to stand up and the embassy personnel present to raise their hands so the Libyans could see who they were and provide them with the questions they wanted to ask her.

“If you will do this, Ambassador Cretz, will you stand up and will people who work with you at our Embassy, will you raise your hand?” Clinton said in front of this crowd in Tripoli. “Any of our people from the Embassy, if you give your question to any of these men and women who work at our Embassy, I will answer your question and they will get the answer back to you, but--and I know there are about a hundred left, so I will do that to all of you. Thank you.”

On Oct. 17, 2011, as Clinton’s plane had been flying to Malta as a stopover to Libya, two senior State Department officials briefed reporters on the purpose of her trip. One explained that Clinton had been the lead person in the U.S. government in pursing the Libyan policy.

“The Secretary has been the lead in the U.S. Government on Libya since the time that the president made the decision that we would join the NATO-led coalition, that we would help set the theater for the protection of the civilian mission that the NATO-led coalition carried out,” said the official.

While at the airport in Tripoli, Secretary Clinton posed for pictures with Libyan militiamen.

Three days later, on Oct. 21, 2011, Ambassador Gretz sent an email to Clinton Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills. It is also among the emails in the PDF posted by the Times.

Secretary of State Clinton at the airport in Tripoli, Libya on Oct. 18, 2011. (AP Photo/Kevin Lamarque)

“I think the secretary’s visit here was picture perfect given the chaos we labor under in Libya,” said Cretz. “The secretary was great and her efforts will I think help us move forward on our project to help the war-wounded.

“On a lighter note,” Cretz said, “I will never be lonely after secretary was kind enough to give my personal contact information to all 120,000 students at the university during her dialogue with them, It has been quite a week; I don’t think I can take anymore excitement.”

Eleven months later, terrorists in Benghazi, Libya, would murder Amb. Chris Stevens, State Department officer Sean Smith, and CIA security personnel Sean Woods and Glen Doherty.

This February, Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, director of Defense Intelligence Agency, presented his agency's 2015 Worldwide Threat Assessment to Congress.

“In Libya, political instability and ongoing militia violence have worsened over the year, exacerbating conditions that have already made Libya an attractive terrorist safe haven,” said the DIA assessment. “ISIL has increased its presence and influence in Libya, particularly in Darnah, where it has begun establishing Islamic institutions. Without a unified government and capable military, there is limited possibility of stability in the near-term.”

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