A newly released Wikileaks trove of emails sent to or sent by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, some as old as 2009, reveals a wide range of topics related to the United Nations over the years, from the drama unfolding in Egypt after the Arab Spring revolt, to the bloody spectacle of the uprising in Libya, to the slog in pushing for global women’s rights, including the founding of UN Women.
A self-congratulatory tone pervades many of the emails, as they were written or sent mostly by people working in Clinton’s tight orbit as secretary of state of the United States. The emails, many of which were unclassified by the State Department, provide tantalizing glimpses of how power works as Clinton and her entourage at the State Department approached the UN — with respect if not trepidation at times — on geopolitical and social issues.
The emails also reveal a sense of Clinton’s circle scrambling to respond to one international upheaval after another, particularly in the Middle East, indicating that government experts, contrary to an image that they may aim to project of supercompetence, do not possess all the answers to the world’s biggest problems.
Interestingly, some senders or recipients or people copied among the hundreds of Clinton emails now work for the UN or in its environs, including Jeffrey Feltman, head of the UN Department of Political Affairs, and Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN.
Susan Rice, now the US national security adviser, is also copied on emails or is a direct recipient as the former US ambassador to the UN. One poignant message from her to Clinton thanks her for supporting her efforts to become the next secretary of state, a plan that quickly collapsed. Other people in the emails currently work for Clinton on her presidential election campaign.
Rarely, light matters sneak into the correspondence, as when Diane von Furstenberg, the fashion designer, was putting on her annual award ceremony at the UN in New York and asked Clinton to participate. (She ended up receiving the lifetime achievement award in 2011.)
Addressed “Dearest Madame Secretary,” von Furstenberg wrote on Nov. 12, 2010 in an email: “I am in Abu Dhabi, watching you on television with Prime Minister Natanyaou [sic]. You are looking so well! You are more and more impressive . . . I am so proud of you!”
She asked Clinton in the message if she would accept an award for women who show “courage and leadership” as part of von Furstenberg’s “2nd DVF Award” event. “More than anything,” she wrote, “I would love if you would be willing to accept that award. YOU are such an example of strength. leadership and spirit to all of us women. Am I dreaming or would you be willing to accept it? Lots of love Diane von Furstenberg.”
The message, forwarded by Melanne Verveer, at the time the US ambassador at large for global women’s issues, contains information on the previous year’s event, when it was held, as Verveer wrote, “in one of the big delegates’ lounges at the UN” and von Furstenberg “redid all the chairs, etc in her patterns.”
Other highlights of emails from Verveer to Clinton:
To: Melanne Verveer [US ambassador at large for women’s global issues]
Date: 2009-09-19 08:22
Subject: FOLLOW UP
“As you heard from our friends at lunch, there is no strong women’s voice at the UN. In fact, I was told by that there is no voice for women at the top level of the UN. That’s why the effort we have been making for a new gender architecture for the UN is so important. UNIFEM and a few tiny scattered offices are basically not up to the job, have been under financed and marginalized. Last week, we were able to get the votes in the General Assembly to create a new UN entity for women (comparable to UNICEF). There is still a road to go on this because we have to make sure the SG names an excellent leader and a good list of names from around the world (that Charlotte Bunch and others have worked on) is circulating. We also need to make sure the resources are there. The Scandinavian countries, UK, et al have stepped up to the plate and are happy to have us back to be counted on again.
Our USUN mission has been terrific on this. Last weekend, we were worried that the Egyptians (they have a lousy delegation) were going to scuttle this and given their influence with the G77, it would have been in trouble. I got in touch with [no name] and everything worked out. We are on the road now, but there will be a series of upcoming decisions that have yet to be made. You may hear about this issue next week. The US has been getting thanks for our leadership.”
• Verveer wrote soon after to Clinton, on Sept. 30, 2009, regarding a “UN Vote on Protecting Women and Children,” saying: “Lots of accolades for you in SFRC today” — Senate Foreign Relations Committee — “Kerry was really engaged in the hearing and described VAW [violence against women] as a serious matter of national security. He was pleased about your taking the issue to the Security Council and clearly would like us to do more with DOD, etc. [Department of Defense].
Will work on that. Asked how we were doing in addressing this in our Iraq and afghanistan strategy. There were many powerful statements about how no peace process or counterinsurgency strategy can work without women being part of the strategy. We also have to push the UN to name more women as negotiators and mediators.”
• In a 2010 email from Verveer to Clinton, Michelle Bachelet, now the Chilean president, is mentioned as possibly heading UN Women, a job she ended up taking in 2010 and left in 2013:
From: Verveer, Melanne S <VerveerMS@state.gov >
Sent: Monday, March 1, 2010 11:17 PM
“Your fans are here by the hundreds and eagerly awaiting your speech on the 12th! As you know the US has been a strong supporter of a new women’s agency at the UN that would provide for an Under Secretary General for women’s issues, better coordination and effectiveness and — consolidation of a group of smaller entities. In bilats today, I learned that some G77 countries are wondering what’s in it for them. They’re not developing countries and they’re not the UK or US. Brazil may be second guessing the creation of the new agency yet this is an agency that will benefit women everywhere. I don’t know if you’ll have an opportunity to say to Brazil’s leader that we hope the UN women’s agency will continue to have their support. In fact Tom Shannon told me that they’re really interested in women’s issues and wanted to sign a MOU with us. Sometimes there’s a disconnect between NY perm reps and their capitals 2nd, I don’t know if you’re still going to Chile. If you talk to Bachelet about her future, you can tell that so many govt reps at the UN would like to see her head up the new women’s agency. It’s not clear if she’s even interested. Thx”
• In 2011, this email chain, originated by Verveer, is focused on the launching ceremony of UN Women at the UN. Note the private email account of Clinton.
Sent:Saturday, February 26, 2011 11:52 AM
And you, my dear friend, have been my partner from the beginning of this journey. Thank you for all you do for so many- -including me! Lots of love, H
From: Verveer, Melanne S [mailto:VerveerMS@state.gov]
Sent: Thursday, February 24, 2011 06:53 PM
“I know there are more challenges right now than anyone can track, let alone try to influence. BUT, I just wanted you to know I’m sitting in the General Assembly for the official launch of UN Women and the screen just lit up with ER [Eleanor Roosevelt] and the Universal Declaration and then you in Beijing saying ‘WR are HR.’
The place erupted in sustained applause. You are here in spirit! What you have sparked is so significant. Needless to say, Tina Brown is here!”
In 2011, Libya seized the world’s attention as the country imploded from an Arab Spring revolt, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi began attacking civilians in retaliation and Western forces intervened through a no-fly zone authorized by the UN Security Council and NATO bombings. Qaddafi was killed on Oct. 20, 2011. At one point, in August 2011, the UN “should lead all international efforts aimed at helping Libya in the post-conflict period,” one email concluded.
• An email headed “Thoughts on post-Qadhafi assistance and governance” was sent by Jacob J. Sullivan to Clinton on Feb. 27, 2011. Sullivan was deputy chief of staff to the secretary of state and is now a senior policy adviser to her presidential election campaign. The long email chain was sent days after Qaddafi urged loyalists in his country to fight “greasy rats” in the pay of supposed enemies like the US amid the violent outbreak in his country in a fight for democracy, when hundreds of protesters had already been killed in Libyan cities.
The email forwarded the “thoughts” — an extensive analysis by John Godfrey, identified as a Libya expert who works “for us,” according to Sullivan — on post-Qaddafi international assistance, including provision of humanitarian and military needs. Historically, events took a far different turn in the country, a situation this analysis did not predict.
• Excerpts from the Godfrey analysis:
“Humanitarian assistance: We should begin flowing humanitarian assistance (medicine first, food second, everything else is less important right now) to eastern Libya and plan to do so in western Libya as soon as Qadhafi falls. The symbolism is critically important and it’s important that we not allow Turkey, Italy and others to steal a march on this. Best done multilaterally, but the US should move unilaterally if multilateral efforts are taking too long to orchestrate. Stationing the USN hospital ship ‘U.S.S. Mercy’ off the eastern Libya coast to provide medical care to those injured in the Benghazi uprising would be a powerful, high visibility step.”
“Military assistance: Libyan contacts have consistently said they do not want overt foreign military assistance in toppling Qadhafi. ‘This is something we must do for ourselves,’ is the message. Depending on how events in/around Tripoli play out going forward, there is space for covert military assistance to the opposition (including arms shipments); the fighting should be done by the Libyans themselves, who are clear in emphasizing their willingness to do so.”
• Additional excerpts from the analysis on the UN’s role in Libya:
“UN: The United Nations, largely by dint of the key role it played in birthing the modern Libyan state, enjoys a high degree of legitimacy among ordinary Libyans. A UN ‘hat’ for multinational/international assistance efforts could be effective. Libyans are so far wary of the idea of a PKO; however, that could change depending on how long Qadhafi holds on and how bloody and chaotic things get in/around Tripoli before he goes. If/if a PKO is warranted, important to minimize its presence and role in the east, where the opposition has things better in hand and the culture is more inimical to the presence of foreign forces.”
• Regarding a Reconciliation Commission in the country, post-Qaddafi:
“In its bones, Libya remains a Bedouin/Berber culture, with an abiding belief in ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ Initial feelings of comity and disinclination to pursue vendettas will quickly abate unless a formal mechanism for addressing such grievances is established. Recommend approaching the interim government early to advocate establishment of a Reconciliation Commission akin to South Africa’s, and to urge that it be announced ASAP to help forestall purges (even if it isn’t expected to begin its work until later).”
Meanwhile, also in 2011, Egypt was roiling from its own Arab Spring revolt, with Hosni Mubarak, the country’s dictator, agreeing to hand power on Feb. 10 to his vice president but leaving himself in place as president. The next day, the government announced that the military would run the country.
• In one of dozens of emails sent to Clinton by Sidney Blumenthal, a former government policy analyst and “Svengali-like confidant,” as a Washington Post columnist said of him, he wrote in a Nov. 23, 2011 message about a “secret offer” of a government alliance to Mohamed ElBaradei, a former Egyptian diplomat and ex-head of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s army. ElBaradei ultimately backed away from running for president of Egypt, deciding that under a new constitution, he would be a figurehead.
• Yet another message in March 2011, in a chain Blumenthal sent to Clinton, the subject of the International Criminal Court came up: During “the afternoon of 3 March, an associate of Saif al-Islam Qaddafi” [second son of Qaddafi, sentenced to death in absentia in 2015 by a Libyan court but possibly still alive], said that Qaddafi family members “were concerned over the announcement of Jose Luis Moreno-Ocampo, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court” that he was investigating Qaddafi and some of his sons. But Saif al-Islam had said that Qaddafi himself found the announcement “amusing.”
Other emails to Clinton addressed US personnel appointments to UN agencies. In November 2011, Cheryl Mills, chief of staff to Clinton, wrote about progress promoting Ertharin Cousin, a US ambassador who headed UN agencies in Rome, as executive director of the World Food Program. Cousin has been leading that program since April 2012.
• The email begins: “In Beijing today, Ambassador Sherman [Wendy Sherman, at the time US under secretary of state for political affairs] urged Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Wu Hailong to support Ambassador Cousin’s nomination to the WFP. In response, AFM Wu said China would ‘consider positively’ Ambassador Cousin’s nomination and later noted that the United States ‘should consider the issue resolved.’ “
Susan Rice’s effort to be nominated as Clinton’s successor as secretary of state failed miserably in its early stages. But Clinton supported her initial steps, as evidenced in an email forwarded to Rice on Dec. 6, 2012, by Cheryl Mills, Clinton’s chief of staff. The email contained statements made by Clinton at a press conference to the Irish parliament.
• Clinton says in her statement to the Irish parliament, among other aspects: “Susan Rice has done a great job as our UN Ambassador. She has been a stalwart colleague in a lot of the tough decisions that we’ve had to make, and certainly with respect to defending our national interests and national security at the United Nations. And she’s played an important role in what we’ve been able to accomplish in the last four years. I worked very closely with her in shaping the sanctions on North Korea and Iran, and she has been on the go for us in every way that was required.”
To which Rice wrote in the email chain: “Very, very generous and helpful. I am most appreciative. Thanks much for forwarding.”
Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.