By Josh Gerstein     •     Politico

Islamic cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki (pictured in 2008) was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011. | AP Photo

The State Department has belatedly discovered about 1,300 emails relating to deceased Islamic cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki in official accounts belonging to top aides to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, more than four years after a conservative group requested all such records, a new court filing reports.

At a federal court hearing in Washington last month, Justice Department attorneys assigned to the case brought by Judicial Watch told a federal judge that State‘s “executive secretariat” — the repository of records for the secretary’s office — was searched in response to the initial Freedom of Information Act request from Judicial Watch.

In the new filing Thursday evening, the lawyers representing the State Department said the records of Clinton’s former office were searched initially. The filing (posted here) is vague about whether any responsive records were found at that time. However, it says a batch of emails about Al-Awlaki — who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011 — turned up only during the follow-up search.

“Upon review of the initial search of S/ES, State determined to conduct targeted supplemental searches,” Justice Department attorney Stephen Elliott wrote. “Accordingly, State conducted searches of the email accounts of six individuals, including Ms. [Huma] Abedin, Ms. [Cheryl] Mills, and Mr. [Jake] Sullivan. In total, State’s searches of the email accounts for the six individuals identified 1,317 potentially responsive records, many of which are multiple-page documents.”

At the Nov. 20 hearing, Elliott said State had located a modest total of 127 Al-Awlaki-related emails in messages that former State officials Abedin, Mills and Sullivan had turned over to the agency from their private accounts at State’s request earlier this year. The new filing makes clear the 1,317 messages are from official accounts, not the trove of messages State received in recent months.

State’s recent discovery of the Al-Awlaki-related emails appears to be similar to the belated discovery of roughly 81,000 emails former Clinton aide Philippe Reines exchanged with journalists on his official account during his tenure at State. Gawker requested those messages under FOIA and was initially told that “no responsive records” could be located. The 81,000 messages appear to have turned up only after the website filed suit in March of this year, following the disclosure that Clinton exclusively used a private email account and server for official business while secretary.

At a hearing Thursday in the Gawker case, Elliott declined to concede that the initial search which discovered no records was inadequate.

A State spokesman had no comment beyond confirming the statements in the court filing. However, former State officials have said it is possible initial FOIA searches found no messages because the employees in question had left the agency several months before the searches began. If so, their accounts would likely have been empty. However, a more diligent effort could have retrieved the messages in some instances because some employees regularly moved their entire mailboxes to shared servers because of limits on State’s email boxes, the former officials said.

Those archived mailboxes would likely survive an employee’s departure, although current staff might not immediately know where to look. In addition, disaster recovery backup systems might contain some records, though those systems aren’t routinely searched for FOIA requests. Subpoenas from the House Benghazi Committee and a flurry of FOIA lawsuits that followed Clinton’s revelation in March may have prompted State to conduct more aggressive searches, the ex-officials said.

Born in New Mexico and serving as imam at a Falls Church, Virginia, mosque at the time of the Septe. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Al-Awlaki became the focus of intense FBI surveillance and eventually left the U.S. for England and, later, Yemen. There, he became a fiery preacher of anti-American sermons on the Internet. Fingered by U.S. officials as a leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Al-Awlaki was killed by an unmanned U.S. drone in September 2011. The move was controversial and raised novel legal questions because Al-Awlaki was a U.S. citizen and was not on a conventional military battlefield when he was targeted.

Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said Friday that his group does not think State ever searched Clinton’s office for records when the request was filed. “To put it directly, we don’t believe they searched Secretary Clinton’s office in 2012” he said. His group filed requests with State and the FBI on the same day Al-Awlaki was killed in 2011 and filed suit in June 2012 after not receiving any records. A large trove of FBI records on its surveillance was later made public as were a smaller number of State records.

It’s unclear how many of the newly discovered Al-Awlaki-related messages are substantive and how many are news reports forwarded by State officials. The new filing says “a number” of the messages in the new batch consist of “news clipping[s,] but is not more specific.

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