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Clinton: Top secret email issue 'very much like Benghazi'

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, accompanied by her daughter Chelsea Clinton, reacts to applause as she arrives for a rally at Abraham Lincoln High School in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Sunday, Jan. 31, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

As new developments surrounding former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's email practices continued to plague her in the final days before the Iowa caucus, the Democratic presidential candidate appears to have shifted her strategy in response to her critics.

The State Department confirmed Friday that 22 emails from Clinton's four years with the agency have been found to contain "top secret" information that cannot be released even in redacted form. Clinton's exclusive use of a personal email address on a private server for government business has drawn scrutiny since it was revealed to the public last year, and the FBI is investigating whether classified information was mishandled on her system.

Clinton has long insisted that no information marked as classified was ever sent or received, but at least 1,300 messages have been retroactively classified. The State Department told the Associated Press Friday that it is investigating whether any material was or should have been classified when it was sent.

Following the news about the top secret emails Friday, a Clinton campaign spokesman declared it a case of "over-classification run amok" and downplayed the significance of the revelation. Clinton has since started equating the issue to the heavily-politicized Benghazi attacks in 2012.

In an interview with CNN's "New Day" Monday, hours before Iowa voters head out to caucus, Clinton likened the controversy to Republican attempts to blame her for the deaths of four Americans in terrorist attacks at a diplomatic compound and CIA annex in Benghazi.

"There is nothing new and I think the facts are quite helpful here, it's a little bit like what the Republicans and others have tried to do with respect to Benghazi, just a lot of innuendo, a lot of attacks," Clinton told CNN, recalling the 11 hours she spent answering questions from the House Select Committee on Benghazi that many saw as a political victory for her.

She also suggested that some of the information made public about the case has been selectively leaked for political purposes. This echoes arguments her campaign has made before about anonymous leaks of damaging information from the intelligence community and congressional Republicans.

"I think most of the voters who have followed this know exactly what is going on here," Clinton said.

Clinton made a similar comparison on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday.

"This is very much like Benghazi," Clinton said. "Republicans are going to continue to use it, beat up on me. I understand that. That's the way they are."

The latest information about top secret emails does come directly from an Obama State Department spokesman, though, which undercuts the allegation of partisan motivations.

Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball newsletter, said the email questions could be a bigger political problem for Clinton than Benghazi, but it depends on whether Republicans overplay their hand.

"They should really seek to not turn this into another Benghazi," he said. Polls show most voters do believe Clinton did something wrong with her email setup and it should be easier to make a case that she was irresponsible, so it may be more effective to let the investigation play out than to pile on after every leak.

"Clearly, the average person is going to be like, 'What was she doing?'" Skelley said of Clinton's decision to use the private server.

"Republicans do run the risk of tiring out the subject to the point that it has less of an effect on the election."

He also noted that the email scandal resonates much more with Republicans and independents who already do not like Clinton anyway, and he predicted that it is unlikely to keep her from winning the Democratic nomination unless she actually does face an indictment.

"It's having a slow corrosive effect partly on her image but also partly on the enthusiasm that her supporters have," said John Carroll, assistant professor of mass communication at Boston University.

"This has got to be disheartening to them that there's just this drip, drip, drip of news that reinforces one of her biggest weaknesses in this campaign, which is that people don't find her trustworthy," he said.

Clinton has gotten some political cover on the issue from opponent Bernie Sanders, who has refrained from attacking her over her emails and famously said he was "tired" of hearing about them at the first Democratic debate.

Sanders has toughened his language on the issue in light of the latest revelations, though. He still refuses to directly criticize Clinton or "politicize" the matter, but he did say in interviews over the weekend that it is a serious issue.

"That is, I think, a very serious issue," Sanders told CNN Sunday. "There is a legal process taking place. I do not want to politicize that issue. It is not my style."

He also said that voters should not take his refusal to raise the issue as a sign that he thinks Clinton did nothing wrong.

Carroll suggested Sanders could continue to talk about the uncertainty or complications surrounding Clinton without explicitly bringing up the emails and voters will likely understand what he means.

"I think he can do this indirectly in a way that could be effective for him."

"The Sanders campaign should be talking about it," said Republican strategist Cheri Jacobus, but there is no indication at this point that they will start.

"If Sanders is really in it to win it, you have to use what attacks are available to you," Skelley said. Democrats dismiss Republican criticisms of Clinton as partisanship, but they may be more likely to listen if Sanders targets her over it.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney joined the Republican chorus of criticism of Clinton over her email practices in an interview with CNN that aired Sunday, saying it "raises very serious questions about judgment."

"There's unanswered questions there and it does raise doubts, I think, legitimate issues to be discussed, when you're evaluating somebody to be the commander-in-chief," Cheney said.

Republican presidential candidates, who often remind their supporters that nobody running in their party is facing an FBI investigation like Clinton, pounced on the State Department's confirmation of the top secret emails.

"The new e-mail release is a disaster for Hillary Clinton," Republican front-runner Donald Trump tweeted Friday. "At a minimum, how can someone with such bad judgement be our next president?"

"You can run attack ads all day long with this information," Republican strategist Ford O'Connell said, adding that the Clinton campaign's handling of the scandal indicates she has "been playing legal hopscotch from the beginning."

"It's clear even if you're a Clinton fan that she's been fudging the truth," he said.

A Republican opponent could use this information to strike against one of Clinton's strengths, which is her foreign policy experience, if her response is that she did not know the material in question was classified.

"She hangs her hat on her experience and years of service. How did she not know?" O'Connell said.

"It's hard for Clinton to play the victim here very effectively," Carroll said. "She created this mess by doing what the Clintons so often do, which is trying to end-run the rules."

The State Department had been ordered to make all of Clinton's work-related emails public by the end of January, but the government revealed in court filings that thousands of documents will be delayed at least until February while they are reviewed for classified material by various agencies.

"It's this cloud that's hanging over her that has intermittent downpours so that every time she explains one set of emails away, another one comes along and she's trying to explain that one away," Carroll said.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said at a press briefing earlier Friday that "based on what we know from the Department of Justice, it does not seem to be headed in that direction."

Jacobus found that statement "extremely disturbing" in light of the news that 22 emails contained top secret information, suggesting that the administration may be withholding the emails to protect Clinton.

"Nobody should be shutting the door to an indictment," she said.

Fox News reporter Catherine Herridge said Friday some within the FBI and Justice Department are "super pissed off" that the White House weighed in on the investigation without direct knowledge of its progress, potentially politicizing the case further.

FBI Director James Comey has said the investigation will not be influenced by politics and its timeline will not be affected by the schedule of the presidential campaign, but the ultimate decision on whether to prosecute anyone in the case would be made by a political appointee in the Justice Department.

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