A flurry of significant stories broke on Friday, including the Obama administration's belated capitulation on executive privilege assertions pertaining to the Fast and Furious gunrunning scandal, as well as the release of a large document dump to the House Select Committee on Benghazi. Another potentially-meaningful revelation came via Fox News' Catherine Herridge and Pamela Browne, who reported that the timing and context of US officials' extradition of a Romanian hacker is "not a coincidence" vis-a-vis the FBI's ongoing criminal investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's national security-compromising email scheme. Let's follow the breadcrumbs:
The extradition of Romanian hacker “Guccifer” to the U.S. at a critical point in the FBI’s criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email use is “not a coincidence,” according to an intelligence source close to the case. One of the notches on Guccifer’s cyber-crime belt was allegedly accessing the email account of Clinton confidant Sidney Blumenthal, one of Clinton’s most prolific advice-givers when she was secretary of state. It was through that hack that Clinton's use of a personal account -- clintonemail.com -- first came to light. Former law enforcement and cyber security experts said the hacker, whose real name is Marcel Lehel Lazar, could – now that he’s in the U.S. – help the FBI make the case that Clinton’s email server was compromised by a third party, one that did not have the formal backing and resources of a foreign intelligence service such as that of Russia, China or Iran. “Because of the proximity to Sidney Blumenthal and the activity involving Hillary’s emails, [the timing] seems to be something beyond curious,” said Ron Hosko, former assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division from 2012-2014.
Quick side note: The piece accurately frames Blumenthal as "one of Clinton's most prolific advice-givers" during her tenure at State. This is evident from the volume and content of emails they exchanged, many of which she forwarded to other officials after stripping away identifying sourcing (Blumenthal was banned from government work by the Obama administration). She has inaccurately stated that she never solicited intelligence or advice from Blumenthal, and falsely testified under oath that he served as neither an official nor unofficial adviser to her. Anyway, there are several reasons why people are buzzing about the context of the extradition:
On or about March 31, Lazar was extradited 3,700 miles to Alexandria from a prison in Arad, Romania, where he has been serving a seven-year sentence for hacking crimes committed in his native country. His targets in Romania were prominent government officials and political figures whom he often taunted under the name of Micul Fum or “Little Smoke.” Following his 2014 conviction, Lazar was effectively neutralized in prison and no longer a threat, which makes his transfer to the U.S. all the more noteworthy. According to the 15-page federal indictment, Lazar "specialized in gaining unauthorized access to the online accounts of high-profile individuals" including Clinton ally Blumenthal, who appears to be identified as “Victim 5 … a journalist and former presidential advisor who was the true owner of an AOL account with subaccounts known to the grand jury.”...The Romanian government told Fox News that the request to extradite Lazar came from the FBI, but when Fox News asked when the process began, a government spokesperson said they were not authorized to comment further. Romanian media have reported the request came on or about Dec. 29, 2015. That would have been shortly after the intelligence community’s identification of emails beyond “top secret” on Clinton’s personal server, which became public in mid-January.
The cyber threat posed by "Guccifer" had been cut off at the knees, given that he was sitting in an Eastern European prison cell. Why would the US government bother going through the ordeal and expense of dragging him to America now? Key officials aren't commenting, but we know that the request came from the FBI right around the time that the nonpartisan Inspector General for the intelligence community charged that Mrs. Clinton's unsecure email server contained exceptionally secret material. Ed Morrissey notes that if Guccifer "cracked Hillary’s server rather than Blumenthal’s (or both), then it makes prosecution under 18 USC 793 easier under subsection (f)" of the federal Espionage Act. That's the bit that deals with "gross negligence" in the handling of classified information. I've argued on several occasions that Clinton may be vulnerable under that provision of the statute, particularly in light of her decisions to ignore explicit warnings about the risks associated with her conduct. If it can be proven that Guccifer -- an amateur -- penetrated Clinton's emails, it would follow that hostile foreign powers with far more sophisticated resources and methods could also have gained access to the large cache of secret information, as several high-ranking officials have stated is a near certainty. That goes far beyond mere "carelessness," as President Obama characterized it yesterday. Which brings us to this quote from the Fox News story:
In a 2015 prison interview from Romania with reporter Matei Rosca for Pando.com, Lazar told Rosca that, "I used to read [Clinton's] memos for six or seven hours ... and then do the gardening." ... Clinton’s deliberate choice to use a private, unsecure server based in her home and a private email address for her government business as secretary of state remains under federal investigation by the FBI while she campaigns for president. It has been widely reported in the last month that the FBI is setting up interviews with Clinton and her associates, what is believed to be a final phase in the process. Hosko noted that commitment of resources by the FBI to extradite Guccifer to the U.S. with the cooperation of Romania is significant. A review of recent federal cases by Fox News found that Guccifer’s extradition appears to be an outlier. Hackers typically are extradited in the event of major financial theft, such as a 2013 case where three Romanian men stole in excess of $2 million in a cyber-fraud ring – and not in cases involving a breach of personal privacy.
Unless he was blowing smoke (one might imagine that the FBI would have some handle on whether or not that is the case), it sounds like Guccifer had access to a large quantity of Clinton's correspondence, much of which was classified. The second bolded sentence is also worth a mention: If triggering the extradition process were standard procedure in hacking cases like this, it might be a stretch to read too far into the timing of this move. But if it's an "outlier," that only renders the "why now?" questions more urgent, and seems to bolster the statement from Herridge's "close to the case" intelligence source, who says the sequence of events is no accident. For her part, Mrs. Clinton -- who is still wrongly referring to the criminal probe as a "security review" -- remains publicly defiant, taunting Republicans with smug predictions that there's no chance she'll face any repercussions:
She knows full well that this is less about the hopes of Republican partisans, and more about actions taken by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and multiple independent IG offices. Given the Obama administration's infamously politicized Justice Department, there is ample reason to believe that she may escape an indictment -- but between the extension of immunity to Bryan Pagliano, the string of interviews being scheduled, and the extradition of 'Guccifer,' Ed is right that, "the FBI and the DoJ are going to an awful lot of trouble to end this with a shrug."
UPDATE - On the other side of this equation, here's a Politico analysis that suggests a Hillary indictment is "highly unlikely, but not impossible," based on recent cases.