By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A federal judge on Tuesday ordered the U.S. State Department to produce a plan to release batches of Hillary Clinton's emails from her time there, raising the prospect of months of drip-by-drip disclosures that could plague her presidential campaign.
U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras ordered the State Department to come up with a timetable by next week for the rolling release of the 55,000 pages of emails, according to a
lawyer in the case, Jeffrey Light.
It was a rebuke to the State Department which said on Monday it might need until January, 2016 to produce the emails.
Republicans want the emails to be made public soon to cast more light on Clinton's term as secretary of state from 2009 to 2013, a time when the United States struggled to reset relations with Russia and develop a strategy for Syria's civil war.
The judge also told the State Department to present a schedule in the coming days for releasing 300 Clinton emails related to U.S. operations in Benghazi, Libya where four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador, were killed in a 2012 attack, Light said.
He represents a reporter who sued to get access to the emails.
While Clinton's critics are particularly interested in Benghazi emails, several congressional probes have found no "smoking gun" linking her to any failure to protect the Americans who were killed.
Clinton, the front-runner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, called for the State Department to release the emails as soon as possible.
"Anything that they might do to expedite that process I
heartily support," the former first lady told reporters at a campaign event in Cedar Falls, Iowa. "I want them out as soon as they can get out."
Clinton has come under criticism for using a personal email server instead of a government account for messages she sent and received as secretary of state. She has turned over the emails to the State Department in boxes of printouts.
Making public the emails in batches, as requested by the judge, could give Clinton's opponents on the campaign trail multiple chances to attack her as the first nominating contests in the presidential campaign loom next February.
"I would call it a rolling headache because she’s going to have to respond to these each time they come out," said Democratic strategist Bud Jackson.
The State Department had said on Monday it might need until January to finish a review and release the emails, but a spokesman for the department said on Tuesday it would comply with the judge's order.
Clinton, a former U.S. senator, has said she used a private email account because it was more convenient for her. She has also said that while she should have used a separate government email account, she violated no rules.
She campaigned on Tuesday in the early voting state of Iowa. At a bicycle shop in the town of Cedar Falls, she spoke about her support for small businesses and community banks.
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Washington and Amanda Becker in Cedar Falls, Iowa; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Andrew Hay)