WASHINGTON — A former FBI official at the center of the latest controversy over Hillary Clinton's private emails acknowledged Tuesday that an offer to swap favors with a State Department counterpart on an email classification issue had originated with him — until he realized the deal involved Clinton and the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya.
"When I found that out, all bets were off; it wasn't even negotiable," the former FBI official, Brian McCauley, said in a telephone interview.
Republicans have seized on the episode to accuse the State Department of trying to protect Clinton, but McCauley's account could undercut those attempts because he said he, not the State Department, had suggested the "quid pro quo."
McCauley recounted in the interview that Patrick F. Kennedy, a senior State Department official, called him in spring 2015 looking for help in getting the FBI to agree not to classify the disputed email. McCauley said he had agreed to try to help him if Kennedy would help him get the State Department to restore two spots that the FBI had lost recently in the Baghdad embassy.
"I'm the one that threw that out there," McCauley said of the offer. He said that he was concerned the two vacant posts posed a security risk at the embassy, and that the offer was typical of how federal agencies "help each other and work with each other."
In that initial conversation, McCauley said, "it was a quid pro quo; I don't deny it."
McCauley said he had quickly reversed himself, however, after calling another FBI official and learning that the email in question involved the Benghazi attack — a political weapon for Republicans against Clinton.
At that point, McCauley said, he abandoned any thought of exchanging favors and called Kennedy immediately to tell him that he could not help.
"It was off the table; the quid pro quo was not even close to being considered," McCauley said.
His account was largely consistent with that of Kennedy, who made his first public comment on the controversy in a written statement put out Tuesday by the State Department, a day after the email episode emerged in new documents released by the FBI.
The FBI documents did not identify McCauley; The Washington Post first identified him and interviewed him about his account Tuesday.
Kennedy, who also did not identify McCauley in his statement, said he called the FBI official for help last year because he "wanted to better understand" why the bureau wanted to classify a portion of the Benghazi email before its release to the public.
Like McCauley, he said the issue of the FBI's positions in Baghdad had come up in the conversation, but he said that there had never been an implicit or explicit offer to exchange favors.
"At no point in our conversation was I under the impression we were bargaining," he said, adding that in nearly four decades in the Foreign Service, he served Democratic and Republican administrations. "My motivations were never political," Kennedy said.
He said he did not believe the information should be classified as "secret," but should instead be redacted, or blacked out, on the grounds that it contained information related to a continuing investigation.
"We take very seriously our responsibility to decide whether our documents are classified or not classified," Kennedy said. "We can't simply cede that responsibility to another agency."
McCauley said he remembered Kennedy's telling him in their initial phone conversation that he wanted to redact part of the email on different grounds so it could be "buried in the basement" of the State Department.
But State Department officials denied any intention to bury the email. In the end, the State Department accepted the bureau's argument and released the email with a sentence redacted as secret because it related to the FBI's Clinton email investigation.
Even so, Republicans continued to focus on Kennedy's handling of the emails. Donald Trump, for a second day, said Tuesday that Clinton's email server was a scandal "worse than Watergate." Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, asked the Justice Department on Tuesday to open a criminal investigation into Kennedy and his role in the purported quid pro quo.
"Undersecretary Kennedy's attempt to barter away American national security interests for plainly political purposes is appalling and may rise to the level of a federal crime," Goodlatte wrote in the letter.
President Barack Obama, appearing with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy at the White House, dismissed the controversy over the FBI documents when asked if it disturbed him.
"Based on what we have seen, heard, learned, some of the more sensational implications or appearances, as you stated them, aren't based on actual events and based on what actually happened," he said, "and I think derive from sort of overly broad characterizations of interactions between the State Department and the FBI that happen a lot and happen between agencies."
McCauley saw the episode in much the same way.
Trump and other Republicans, he said, "are grasping at straws."
"There was no political motivation in this at all," he added.
McCauley retired from the FBI last summer after 35 years because of a medical issue. He said his retirement was unrelated to the email episode.
FBI officials said that while they had referred the quid pro quo accusation to their inspections branch for an ethics review as a matter of policy, the issue had become moot because McCauley left the bureau. State Department officials said they had not conducted an internal review because they had seen no basis for one.