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A former Clinton aide is taking the 5th in the email controversy. It's not as big a deal as it seems.

Rep. Trey Gowdy (L) (R-SC) speaks to members of the media prior to a closed-door deposition before the House Select Committee on Benghazi September 3, 2015, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
Rep. Trey Gowdy (L) (R-SC) speaks to members of the media prior to a closed-door deposition before the House Select Committee on Benghazi September 3, 2015, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Bryan Pagliano, the State Department aide who handled Hillary Clinton's private email server, is invoking his right to withhold documents and testimony under the Fifth Amendment, his lawyer wrote in an August 31 letter to the chairman of the House Select Committee on Benghazi.

That special House panel is investigating the attacks on September 11, 2012, that killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, a probe that has increasingly focused on issues surrounding Clinton's use of a private email server to conduct both work and personal business. At the same time, the FBI is reviewing whether classified information on Clinton's server was mishandled.

By definition, Pagliano's decision not to talk to Congress tells us absolutely nothing new about the Clinton email controversy, other than that a technical aide doesn't want to risk getting tangled up in a legal and partisan fight. But it will feed Republican attacks on Clinton and a media hungry for new twists and turns. After all, what adds to the drama of an investigation better than someone refusing to testify under oath?

The Benghazi panel had hoped to gather information from Pagliano, who was an information technology aide on Clinton's 2008 campaign before working for her as a "special adviser" at State. It served him with a subpoena requiring the production of documents by August 31 and his appearance before the panel on September 10.

But in a letter reported on by the Washington Post Wednesday, Pagliano's attorneys wrote that he would not turn over documents and that he would prefer not to have to appear before the committee next week to invoke his Fifth Amendment rights. The attorneys acknowledged that the decision might be "controversial in the current political climate."

Clinton camp encouraged Pagliano to testify, according to an official

Clinton is the frontrunner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, and the controversy over her email has become a significant issue on the campaign trail. And yet a campaign official said Pagliano's decision ran counter to what the Clinton operation wanted.

"We had hoped Bryan would also agree to answer any questions from the committee and had recently encouraged him to grant the committee's request for an interview," the official said, adding that his choice was "both understandable and yet also disappointing to us, because we believe he has every reason to be transparent about his IT assistance."

Clinton is expected to testify before the committee next month, and two of her top State Department aides — Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills and Deputy Chief of Staff Jake Sullivan — are scheduled to testify Thursday and Friday, respectively. Sullivan is currently the top policy aide on Clinton's campaign.

Pleading the Fifth is a time-honored tradition in Congress

Democrats say that not too much should be read into Pagliano's decision not to give documents or testimony to the Benghazi Committee, which they argue is conducting the investigation solely to hurt Clinton's chances of winning the presidency.

Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the panel, sent a memo to fellow committee members outlining the facts of Pagliano's case and ripping Republicans for accusing Clinton of criminal wrongdoing.

Cummings letter

A paragraph from the memo Rep. Elijah Cummings sent Democratic colleagues to explain why an aide to Hillary Clinton is invoking his Fifth Amendment rights.

The list of would-be witnesses who have invoked the Fifth Amendment rather than testifying before Congress is long, and it includes Enron CEO Kenneth Lay and many of the subjects of the Red Scare–era House Un-American Activities Committee hearings.