Server May Yield More Problems for Clinton

Photo composition by Thursday Review/Clinton image courtesy of Hillary Clinton for President

Photo composition by Thursday Review/Clinton image courtesy of Hillary Clinton for President

Server May Yield More Problems for Clinton
| published August 19, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton Thursday Review editor

Hillary Clinton would like for the issue of her emails—deleted or saved—to go away. Some political observers suggest that the former Secretary of State, former U.S. Senator, and former first lady might just get that wish, as the investigations into her personal server turn from questions about emails and Blackberries, and turn instead to what, if anything, was done to properly and adequately protect the server from outside intrusion or the prying eyes of hackers.

Computer security experts are now saying that Clinton’s privately constructed server—what is known among networking geeks as a homebrew server—may have been the instrument of a wider dissemination of classified and sensitive emails than has been previously thought.

A deeper forensic investigation and analysis of the server will be required to determine if tens of thousands of sensitive emails and documents may have come under scrutiny by foreign eyes, or if the server itself was ever the target of hackers or cyber-thieves. An analysis of the server will also determine the level of anti-virus protection and firewall protection employed by the server used to manage some 65,000 emails sent and received during Clinton’s tenure as U.S. Secretary of State.

Under pressure from several parallel investigations into her use of a privately-crafted email account, Clinton and her staff turned over the server in question to the FBI last week. In early 2013 Clinton’s staff scrubbed the server clean of all files and materials, and later—possibly in June of 2013, after Clinton left her post at the State Department—it was again “wiped” clean by an internet and computer firm in New Jersey. But computer forensic experts can often reconstruct the majority of such material from residual code and other data which still remains on a computer’s hard-drive or in a server’s files.

The controversy has taken a toll on the Clinton campaign, and has begun to chip away at the front-runner's once solid and commanding lead over her opponents. New polls show that her closest Democratic opponent, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, is closing a gap once though to be insurmountable by any other Democrat. Sanders has already taken lead in New Hampshire, and now trails Clinton in Iowa by only about 10 points. Vice-president Joe Biden's stock has also risen among Democrats, some 15% of which say he is their preference for the nomination. Polls show that even GOP front-runner Donald Trump is closing fast, pulling alongside Clinton nationally in several new polls. The email and server issue has become a topic unpleasant to Clinton and her top political aides, who would prefer to dismiss the fracas as a partisan attack. The problem for the Clinton campaign, however, is that one of the driving factors in the investigation is now the FBI, the Associated Press, and several watchdog groups.

At issue is Clinton’s contention—made repeatedly to reporters as recently as this week—that she neither sent nor received classified emails or classified documents while using her private email account. But according to the Associated Press, some emails identified in a recent batch of materials released by the State Department show that correspondence was pre-scrubbed or redacted by the State Department before those emails were released to the public. This would contradict statements by both Clinton and some at State that no classified correspondence took place using the private email account and the homebrew server.

Two top Clinton aides have admitted to deleting emails and helping to scrub the server of data, though at the time they did not think that Clinton was doing anything other than purging old correspondence and removing personal information from the server. Last week a Federal judge requested that Huma Abedin and Cheryl Mills cease and desist from deleting any additional emails relating to Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State, and to take no further action in extracting materials from Clinton’s correspondence. Abedin and Mills each voluntarily agreed to the request from the judge.

Around the same time that Clinton agreed to turn over the server to the FBI for analysis, Clinton family attorney David Kendall agreed to turn over one or more flash-drives which may contain still more correspondence by Clinton.

Both moves came after a watchdog group filed suit in Federal court under the Freedom of Information Act. In a separate legal action, the Associated Press also requested additional access to Clinton’s correspondence.

The server was turned over to the FBI last week by a company called Platte River Networks, a small tech firm which had handled the set-up of the server as well as the management of the private email accounts. The email account which Clinton used was a private email ending in the suffix, created in January of 2009, only days before Barack Obama was sworn-in a President, and only a few weeks before Clinton became Secretary of State. This was the same extension used at the time for several email accounts of the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation. The server, according to officials involved with the ongoing probe into Clinton’s emails, was purchased in late 2008, and installed in her Chappaqua, New York home in either late December 2008 or very early January 2009.

Journalists investigating Platte River Networks and its connections to the Clinton’s have uncovered several seemingly strange and potentially troubling facts. The small firm was described by one ex-employee who spoke to The Daily Mail (UK) as a “mom and pop” operation—enjoyable, family-owned, informal—but with scant security understanding and even less experience managing accounts which contain potentially important and sensitive government information. The firm was, at the time that it was selected by Clinton and/or her staff to manage the Clinton’s email accounts, operating in a small loft apartment in a downtown building—a, 1858-square-foot space so small that some of the equipment used to maintain support for customers was located in a bathroom, according to Tom Welch, one of the company’s founders. A couple of employees lived in the same building.

At the time, Platte River employees were asked to maintain secrecy regarding their most prominent client. Most employees say that at the time they were shocked to learn that the tiny firm had been selected to handle Clinton’s email accounts. A few of Platte River Network’s owners or investors had connections to prominent Democrats in Colorado, including Governor John Hickenlooper, for whom the firm did work—whether paid or unpaid is not clear. The firm is much larger now, and relocated to a bigger space earlier this year. Some analysts suggest that Hickenlooper—who supported Clinton in 2008, and has seen Clinton campaign at his side on numerous occasions in his recent reelection campaign in Colorado—might have been the decisive factor in recommending Platte River to Clinton.

Though there would be nothing unethical or illegal in the Hickenlooper-Clinton connection regarding the selection of Platte River Networks, or the small firm’s deep interest in supporting Democratic candidates, security experts are now voicing concerns that the small Denver operation was properly vetted or screened for the purposes of the serious task it was handed. Much of the daily conversation regarding Clinton’s email activities has shifted this week from the so-called private email account—which was used by Clinton despite federal guidelines regarding email protocol for government employees and officials—to the server and its day-to-day management.

Though Clinton has repeatedly told reporters that she did not use the private email account to send or receive classified information or documents, an analysis of her emails by several independent groups—as well as the Inspector General for the government intelligence community—has revealed two-to-four emails clearly marked “top secret” in their headers or subject lines, though exactly how or why those classified pieces of correspondence ended up in Clinton’s emails is a subject of dispute.

Last week, and again this week, top Clinton campaign officials have sent emails to supporters and donors stressing that Clinton has violated no laws, nor has she run afoul of Federal rules and guidelines regarding official correspondence. On August 4, Clinton campaign spokesman Nick Merrill sent out an email and media release stressing that as Secretary of State Clinton “did not send nor receive any emails that were marked classified at the time.”

The Clinton campaign has been in damage control mode for months now after the questions about her email account first surfaced last fall. Unrelated requests by the committee investigating the Benghazi terror attacks and the Associated Press (along with several watchdog groups) produced the revelation that the State Department did not have access to all the relevant emails because Clinton managed the email account independent of the department, and because Clinton has already deleted roughly 30,000 emails; when the committee requested additional emails, the State Department said it had only those emails which Clinton had provided voluntarily. Clinton told reporters that the deleted emails were of a personal nature.

In February, the link between the email account and the private server became widely known to reporters. In March, the Associated Press and other news organizations sued the U.S. Department of State for the release of additional emails, a process which spurred a Federal judge to request that that the State Department speed up its handling of how the emails were being collated and released. Investigators still have numerous questions about the server, including whether the server was backed-up, or if files were copies or extracted by others. A server by its nature is designed to allow easy access to multiple parties, and to facilitate accessing files and emails from a variety of devices and computers—often from other locations. The FBI will conduct extensive forensic examinations of the server to determine of outside parties gained access to some of the classified information which may have passed through its files, and whether the server was in fact secure from cyber-attack.

Clinton, who has been campaigning like many candidates in Iowa this week to take advantage of the massive crowds attending the Iowa State Fair, has told reporters that the controversies over her emails and server are being fueled by partisan politics. “This will burn itself out,” Clinton told Telemundo on Tuesday.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Hillary Clinton’s Email Woes; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; August 14, 2015.

Clinton Hands Over Sever to FBI; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; August 12, 2015.