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The 568-page report released Thursday by Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz may help explain why the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails and the probe of the Donald Trump campaign team’s possible ties to Russia appear to bleed into each other.
The IG report, titled “Review of Various Actions by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Justice in Advance of the 2016 Election,” details the FBI’s investigation and eventual closure of the case regarding Clinton’s use of a private, non-government email account, and her private server. The report devotes particular attention to former FBI director James Comey’s July 5, 2016 statement exonerating Hillary Clinton from criminal wrongdoing in her handling of classified intelligence.
The report, according to its executive summary, looked at the changes FBI leadership made in several drafts of Comey’s statement. In particular, it focused on “a paragraph summarizing the factors that led the FBI to assess that it was possible that hostile actors accessed Clinton’s server . . . and at one point referenced Clinton’s use of her private email for an exchange with then President Obama while in the territory of a foreign adversary.”
Horowitz’s report is referring to a draft of Comey’s speech dated June 30, 2016, at 9:50 a.m., which states:
[Clinton] also used her personal email extensively while outside the United States, including from the territory of sophisticated adversaries. That use included an email exchange with the President while Secretary Clinton was on the territory of such an adversary. Given that combination of factors, we assess it is possible that hostile actors gained access to Secretary Clinton’s personal email.
In the draft circulated at 4:24 p.m. the same day, the reference to the president, as the IG report remarks, “was changed to ‘another senior government official,’ and ultimately was omitted.”
Signs Point to Russia
Perhaps as significant as the FBI’s efforts to insulate Obama is its decision to conceal the identity of the foreign adversary. Documents that American Greatness has assembled working with an independent researcher, the pseudonymous Twitter user “Undercover Huber,” strongly suggest that the country in question is Russia. Further, it was the president, Barack Obama, who initiated contact with Clinton on her unsecure server while she was there.
According to a response to a Freedom of Information Act application from Judicial Watch, on June 28, 2012, Obama emailed Clinton. On the same date, Clinton replied to Obama. A third email Judicial Watch sought was a July 1, 2012 communication to Clinton from her State Department assistant Monica Hanley. It is that last email that the FBI asked Clinton about in her July 2, 2016 interview with the Bureau regarding her server.
The record of Clinton’s FBI interview, known as a 302 (declassified Sept 2, 2016) shows that the FBI interviewers were focused on a July 1 email that was forwarded to Clinton. The 302 states: “After reviewing an email dated July 1, 2012 with subject line ‘FW: Congratulations!,’ CLINTON stated she received no particular guidance as to how she should use the President’s email address REDACTED@who.eop.gov. Since the foregoing email was sent from Russia (emphasis added), CLINTON stated she must have sent it from the plane.”
It appears that the email Hanley forwarded to Clinton is the former Secretary of State’s June 28 email exchange with Obama. Perhaps Hanley sought further instructions or actions from her boss regarding the email. It’s unclear how the FBI obtained the email or if it was one of the emails Clinton deleted from her server. The chain of three emails—Obama-Clinton, Clinton-Obama, Hanley-Clinton—as the Judicial Watch document shows, are being withheld by the State Department “pursuant to the presidential communications privilege.”
The Compromised Server
At the time of the Obama-Clinton exchange, Clinton was still using a server in the basement of her house in Chappaqua, New York. According to the FBI’s July 2016 summary report of the Clinton email investigation, the bureau found that on January 5, 2013, the Clinton server was compromised, via the account of a staffer working for former President Bill Clinton. The FBI doesn’t know who did it, or how. The IG report does not explain if or how this episode may be related to the hostile actors who may have accessed Clinton’s server.
According to the July 2016 FBI report, “Clinton and her immediate staff were notified of foreign travel risks and were warned that digital threats begin immediately upon landing in a foreign country, since the connection of a mobile device to a local network provides opportunities for foreign adversaries to intercept voice and email transmissions.”
Shlomo Argamon, a professor of computer science at Illinois Institute of Technology, explained to American Greatness why Clinton’s emails would have been more vulnerable to Russian hacking inside of Russia.
“You want to send information securely,” Argamon said. “Sending an email works like sending a regular letter, which is sent first to a local post office and then along a sequence of postal stations until it reaches its destination. An email is sent electronically, and its first relay point is usually local. It’s certainly possible to intercept an unencrypted email sent from, say, Chappaqua, New York to Washington, D.C., but it would be easier for Russian intelligence to do so if she was sending an unencrypted email from Russia.”
“In that case,” he added, “the email’s first stop as it was routed to its destination might have been a Russian computer with software enabling it to read the packets of information contained in the email. If the email was unencrypted and sent from Russia, it would be trivially easy for Russian intelligence agencies to intercept that message.”
It is not hard to see why the FBI would exonerate Clinton. It was not the bureau’s decision to make, but rather, as Andrew McCarthy first explained, it was the president’s.
“If Clinton had been charged,” McCarthy wrote early this year, “Obama’s culpable involvement would have been patent. In any prosecution of Clinton, the Clinton–Obama emails would have been in the spotlight. For the prosecution, they would be more proof of willful (or, if you prefer, grossly negligent) mishandling of intelligence. More significantly, for Clinton’s defense, they would show that Obama was complicit in Clinton’s conduct yet faced no criminal charges.”
Obama said he learned of Clinton’s private server the “same time everybody else did,” and the same way, “through news reports.” The former president typically downplayed concerns over Clinton’s use of the private email account and server. “I don’t think it posed a national security problem,” Obama told CBS News’ “60 Minutes” in October 2015. “This is not a situation in which America’s national security was endangered.”
That may be inaccurate. Even though the information exchanged seems not to have been classified—Obama’s email to Clinton appears to have been a congratulatory note—a sophisticated adversary might have acquired information or even metadata from the exchange that could have been useful in a later cyberattack. Or the mere fact of the exchange, that the president carelessly emailed Clinton on her private email while she was visiting Russia, might have served as a platform for blackmail.
More Widespread Failures, Lingering Questions
While the recent IG report focused on the FBI’s investigation of Clinton emails, its title—“Review of Various Actions by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Justice in Advance of the 2016 Election”—suggests that the inspector general sees this case as part of larger spectrum of FBI and Justice Department failures, abuses and possible crimes that also mark the Russia probe. It is notable that FBI Deputy Assistant Director of Counterintelligence Peter Strzok led both investigations working out of the bureau’s Washington, D.C. headquarters.
There is not enough information yet to judge whether or to what extent the FBI’s investigation of the Trump team’s ties to Russia is a function or an extension of the Clinton investigation. However, the fact that the FBI has suppressed the identity of the “foreign adversary” from where Clinton exchanged emails with Obama is suggestive.
The fact that Clinton emails play such a large role in the Russia probe is also remarkable. The investigation of the Trump team that officially began July 31, 2016, was said to have been opened because of information regarding Clinton emails that Trump adviser George Papadopoulos had received from a “Kremlin-linked” Maltese professor and then relayed to an Australian diplomat.
Later news reports showed that FBI officials opened the investigation based on even less substantial rumors of Russian interference in the 2016 elections. Nonetheless, Papadopoulos was arrested in July 2017 for lying to the FBI about when he heard about Clinton emails.
There are many facts and details regarding both investigations that still need to come to light. In the meantime, it is becoming increasingly difficult not to conclude that the Russia probe was, at least in part, an operation designed to control the inevitable damage that would have afflicted the Clinton campaign had her emails surfaced. Of particular concern, it seems, was the email showing that she and Obama had communicated over an unsecured server while she was on Russian territory.
The identity of the foreign adversary that serves as the entire premise of the Trump investigation was suppressed in the Clinton probe. It seems important to know why.
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Photo credit: Angela Weiss, Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images