Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a rally at Ohio State University in Monday.
The Clinton campaign today tried to tamp down a mounting controversy over a newly disclosed, and potentially explosive, email in which the former secretary of state appeared to accuse the Saudi and Qatari governments of secretly funding the Islamic State.
On Aug. 17, 2014 — eight months before she declared her candidacy for president — Clinton sent a detailed strategy for combating the Islamic State, which she referred to as ISIL, in an email to John Podesta, then a White House counselor and now her campaign chairman.
Along with a military campaign to roll back the terror group in Iraq, the Clinton email talks about confronting the Saudis and the Qataris, both key U.S. allies, over what she refers to as governmental backing of ISIL.
The Clinton email states: “We need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.”
As a basis for the assertions, Clinton in the email cites “Western intelligence, U.S. intelligence and sources in the region.” The email was among thousands hacked from Podesta’s private Gmail account and released this week by WikiLeaks in what appears to be an attempt to embarrass the Clinton campaign. The campaign has struggled to respond to the contents of the emails, insisting it does not want to authenticate material that it and the U.S. government now believe came from a Russian state-sponsored cyberattack. The campaign would not say whether Clinton personally wrote the email, which reads like a position or policy paper, although it was sent from her private email account.
“These are hacked, stolen documents by the Russian government, which has weaponized WikiLeaks to help elect Donald Trump,” Glen Caplin, a senior Clinton campaign spokesman, told Yahoo News. “We’re not going to confirm the authenticity of any specific alleged communication.”
At the same time, a campaign aide also argued that the sentiment expressed in the email “isn’t new.” Clinton “has repeatedly called out the Saudis and Qataris for supporting terrorism,” said the aide, declining to be named. As evidence, the aide pointed to Clinton’s remarks in a speech last November. “And, once and for all, the Saudis, the Qataris, and others need to stop their citizens from directly funding extremist organizations, as well as schools and mosques around the world that have set too many young people on a path toward radicalization,” she said then.
In yet another instance cited by the aide, Clinton asserted in a September 2015 speech at the Brookings Institution that “nobody can deny that much of the extremism in the world today is a direct result of policies and funding undertaken by the Saudi government and individuals. We would be foolish not to recognize that. “
But in that and other remarks, Clinton appeared to be referring to general Saudi support for Islamic mosques that have been accused of spreading extremist ideology while calling out its government for not cracking down on private citizens sending money to terror organizations. In her email to Podesta, she goes beyond this, saying the Saudi and Qatari governments themselves are funding ISIS — a far more serious allegation with potentially more dramatic diplomatic implications. And one that has riled up critics of Saudi Arabia here in the U.S.
“Clearly, this Clinton email shows the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is continuing to covertly fund and logically support terrorist groups that kill Americans,” said Kristen Breitweiser, one of the leaders of the 9/11 family members who have been lobbying for recently enacted legislation — opposed by the Obama administration — that would allow them to sue the Saudis in federal court over their support for al-Qaeda. “Apparently, everybody in Washington knows that the Saudis are doing this, yet the White House and the State Department are against holding them accountable.”
Breitweiser added about the contents of the email: “This is a clear example of the difference between how people speak to each other privately compared to what they say publicly.”
Clinton broke with Obama over the legislation Breitweiser lobbied for; her campaign said she would have signed the bill allowing U.S. citizens to sue countries that sponsored terrorism into law.
The Saudi government, through Qorvis Communications, one of its lobbying and public relations firms, responded to questions about the email Tuesday, saying it would not comment on “leaked documents,” but adding that the allegations of government funding are “preposterous and simply defy logic.”
“Saudi Arabia is on the forefront of fighting terrorism in the region and around the world,” the Saudi statement said. “Daesh (an Arabic term for the Islamic State) is a sworn enemy of Saudi Arabia. It has called for the overthrow of the Saudi government and made the gulf kingdom its main target because it is the birthplace of Islam and home to the Two Holy Mosques.”
Noting the military and other actions the Saudi government has taken to fight the Islamic State — including “an aggressive public education and ideological campaign” to discredit the group, the Saudi statement added: “Saudi Arabia has long-maintained that it will thoroughly investigate any reports of funding of terrorist organizations by Saudi citizens or institutions.”
It’s unclear if Clinton actually wrote the email herself or was simply passing along a policy paper that was written by an aide or some other source. The lengthy document is in many respects unlike any of the mostly terse emails from her private email account that have been made public by the State Department. (Some former top U.S. national security experts last week warned that the Russians may seek to “doctor” leaked material, but the Clinton campaign has yet to offer evidence that any of the WikiLeaks emails were forged or tampered with.) And the rest of the positions outlined in the email — such as stepped-up air campaign and arming the Kurds — match closely with Clinton’s publicly stated positions on how to fight ISIS.
Still, the email goes much further than Clinton or President Barack Obama have before in publicly pointing a finger at U.S. allies for funding ISIS. But it does appear to reflect views that have been shared privately by some in the White House. A few months after Clinton sent this email, Vice President Joe Biden was forced to apologize for similar remarks. He told a group of students at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government that “our allies” contributed to the rise of ISIS.
“The Turks… the Saudis, the Emirates, etc., what were they doing? They were so determined to take down [Syrian President Bashar] Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war, what did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad,” Biden said then. (Asked about the content of the Clinton email, White House spokesman Edward Price said: “We’ll decline to comment on purportedly leaked emails.”)
Clinton sent the email to Podesta when he still worked for Obama as counselor. He became Clinton’s campaign chair in January of 2015. Adding to the potential awkwardness for her campaign, Podesta’s brother, Tony Podesta, runs one of Washington’s biggest lobbying firms, which in September 2015 signed a contract to lobby for the Saudi government.
A few weeks later, Tony Podesta held a Clinton campaign fundraiser, attended by John Podesta, and has since been listed as one of the campaign’s chief “bundlers” or premier fundraisers. The Clinton campaign did not return a request for comment about whether the candidate believes it is appropriate to accept campaign donations from someone who has lobbied for a government she believes is sponsoring terrorism. Podesta also did not respond to a request for comment.