Democrats scramble to defend Hillary Clinton over e-mail flap

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the Sept 11, 2012 attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, in this Jan  23, 2013 file photo.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the Sept 11, 2012 attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, in this Jan  23, 2013 file photo. Clinton may have violated federal records laws by using her personal email account for all messages when she worked as US secretary of state,  -- PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Democrats scrambled on Tuesday to contain the fallout from revelations that their favoured 2016 presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, may have violated the spirit of federal records laws by using her personal e-mail for work while secretary of state.

Her bypassing of official communications at the State Department fed a political narrative that Republicans want to use to damage Clinton, that the wife of former President Bill Clinton is obsessed with secrecy and has something to hide.

The news appeared to catch the Clinton camp off guard as her inner circle discusses whether to accelerate the formation of a campaign organisation to April or May instead of this summer, which would allow her team to have a faster, more robust response to the various charges thrown her way.

Clinton was President Barack Obama's first-term secretary of state from 2009 to early 2013. During her tenure, she used a personal e-mail account, officials now acknowledge, in what at the least may have been a technical violation of laws requiring all official documents to be preserved.

"The State Department has long had access to a wide array of Secretary Clinton's records, including e-mails between her and Department officials with state.gov accounts," said State Department spokesman Marie Harf.

Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill acknowledged she used a personal account but said she followed both the "letter and spirit of the rules".

The State Department said Clinton last year turned over e-mails from the period after a records request and that 300 of these were sent to a congressional committee investigating the events surrounding the Sept 11, 2012, attack against a US diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, in which the US ambassador to Libya was killed.

Mr Jason Baron, a lawyer at Drinker Biddle & Reath who is a former director of litigation at the National Archives and Records Administration, said he believed that "the sole use of a private e-mail account by a high-level official to transact government business is plainly inconsistent with the Federal Records Act and longstanding policies of the National Archives".

"It is not per se illegal to use a private email account but the expectations that have been in place in Nara regulations, policies and guidance for many years going back before the Obama administration are that if you use a private e-mail account in rare instances or unusual circumstances you will take appropriate steps to transfer records to an official record-keeping system," he said.

Republicans, eager to blunt Mrs Clinton's expected attempt to become America's first woman president, leapt to attack.

Mr Jeb Bush, a front-runner for the Republican nomination who recently released a trove of e-mails from his time as Florida governor, demanded transparency.

"Hillary Clinton should release her e-mails. Hopefully she hasn't already destroyed them," said Bush spokesman Kristy Campbell.

The Republican group America Rising said it was filing a Freedom of Information Act request for Clinton's e-mails.

Democrats came to Mrs Clinton's defence, saying previous secretaries of state used personal accounts.

The left-leaning group American Bridge in a statement said the State Department had asked numerous past secretaries of state to turn over personal e-mail records from their times in office.

However, an aide to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Dr Rice, who served under Republican President George W. Bush, generally did not use e-mail during her tenure but when she did it was through the State Department system.

James Lewis, a technical expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said the reality is many senior officials use their own personal e-mail.

"The issue here was intent. Was she doing it deliberately to avoid having her e-mails tracked, and was there classified information?" he said.