WASHINGTON Seven private email chains of former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be withheld from the public in their entirety because they contain top secret information, the U.S. State Department said on Friday.
The material, amounting to 37 printed pages, contained information U.S. intelligence agencies said was classified as top secret, State Department spokesman John Kirby said.
"These documents were not marked classified at the time that they were sent," Kirby said, adding that the department would investigate whether the information in them was classified at the time.
"We firmly oppose the complete blocking of the release of these emails," Clinton's presidential campaign said in a statement. Some information in previous email chains has been censored, but this is the first time that public release of entire chains have been blocked.
Congressional Republicans have criticized and investigated Clinton for her use of a private email server in her New York home for her work as a secretary of state from 2009 to 2013. Her campaign downplayed the latest announcement as "bureaucratic infighting" and "over-classification run amok."
The announcement came three days before the Iowa caucuses, when the first votes are cast for the Democratic and Republican nominees for the November presidential election. It was likely to reignite criticism by her Republican opponents that she made highly sensitive government secrets vulnerable to hackers.
The government forbids handling of classified information outside secure government-controlled channels, and sometimes prosecutes people who remove it from such channels. The government classifies information as top secret if it deems a leak could cause "exceptionally grave damage" to national security.
"Housing top-secret emails on an unsecure, personal server put our national security at grave risk," Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas who serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. "Did our enemies hack these emails? And were lives put at risk as a result?"
U.S. Representative Adam Schiff of California, the House Intelligence Committee's leading Democrat, defended Clinton in a statement, saying classification determinations are "often very complex" and she was "responding to world events in real time without the benefit of months of analysis after the fact."
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has taken Clinton's server and other computer equipment, but has declined to share details of its inquiries.
Clinton initially said she never sent or received classified information. In recent weeks she has more often said none of her emails were marked that way. The government warns those given access to classified information that it may come in both marked and unmarked forms.
In keeping with an order by a federal judge, the State Department has already released most of the roughly 30,000 work emails Clinton returned to the department.
More than 1,300 of those published emails have been partially censored because the State Department says the information is classified. This is the first time the department has said it is withholding entire email chains.
The department had been ordered to release all the emails by Friday, but last week asked the court for a one-month extension, saying it had forgotten to share thousands of emails with other departments for their review.
The State Department said it would agree with a request from the White House that Clinton's emails with President Barack Obama, 18 in all, also be withheld from public release for several years under the Presidential Records Act.
They are being withheld "to protect the president's ability to receive unvarnished advice and counsel," Kirby said, adding none of the information in those emails was determined to be classified.
(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Editing by Eric Beech, Lisa Shumaker and David Gregorio)
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