This e-mail flap isn't over.

Photographer: Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

FBI Scours Clinton Server for Evidence of Spying

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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The FBI has begun a probe into whether foreign intelligence services compromised Hillary Clinton's e-mail server during and after her tenure as secretary of state, according to U.S. intelligence and Congressional officials.

The damage assessment, which is part of the bureau's investigation into whether the former secretary and her staff mishandled classified information, will hunt for digital traces of cyber-espionage by foreign governments. Even mundane and unclassified Clinton e-mails could provide important insights into the inner workings of the U.S. government and the actions of its top officials.

Clinton herself has dismissed the prospect that her e-mails were hacked. Speaking in March, she said the system used for the private e-mail "was set up for President Clinton's office. And it had numerous safeguards. It was on property guarded by the Secret Service. And there were no security breaches."

U.S. officials familiar with the probe tell us the FBI is not so sure. These sources say the damage assessment will be conducted by the FBI's own spy hunters and cyber security experts. The FBI will not hand off the task to the National Counterintelligence & Security Center, the office inside the intelligence community that coordinates counter-intelligence activities. It is conducting the damage assessment of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden's 2013 leak to journalists.

The FBI declined to comment for this column. Other officials told us the damage assessment of Clinton's e-mail server would focus on how the data on the server was protected, whether traces of code that would suggest hacking programs show up in the forensic analysis of the physical server, and whether it is possible to reconstruct the logs of what machines accessed the server when Clinton was secretary of state.

"We want to make sure the counter-espionage team at the FBI has adequate time to put together an initial review of any classified information that was in the e-mails," Representative Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told us. "I would fully expect the FBI to investigate whether or not any foreign adversaries had access to the server and or any classified e-mails stored on it."

Outside experts assume Clinton's server was hacked. Private servers typically have fewer protections than government systems, which in recent years have been penetrated by foreign intelligence services as well. Indeed, Clinton's successor at the State Department, John Kerry, acknowledged last month that it was very likely his government e-mail had been hacked by Russia and China.

But the difference between assuming and knowing for sure that the secretary's private e-mail server was hacked is important. By the time the FBI received the physical server from a contractor known as Platte River Networks, data had been wiped from the machine. (Clinton said only personal e-mails, that would not pertain to official business like the House Benghazi probe, were wiped.)

"There are ways the FBI can recover data from servers that have been wiped clean," Bob Gourley, a former chief technology officer for the Defense Intelligence Agency, told us. Gourley, who is now a partner at the cyber-security firm Cognitio, added that these techniques don't always work.

Michael Hayden, a former CIA and NSA director who served under President George W. Bush, agreed. He told us, "We were able in the past to recover things where the target thought the machine had been erased."

Clinton's campaign declined to comment on the security precautions taken.

When the State Department released the latest batch of e-mails from Clinton’s server that were not deleted, officials acknowledged that over 150 of the e-mails contained what the government now deems classified information. At least six of the e-mails classified after the fact were written or sent by Clinton herself. The intelligence community’s inspector general concluded that at least two e-mails found on the server contained “top secret” information. Several reports stated these two e-mails contained discussion of classified intelligence gleaned from spy satellites, some of the most sensitive information held by the government.

The amount of classified material found on her server is the least of Clinton's worries. Senior officials are almost never prosecuted for failing to secure state secrets (the plea deal for David Petraeus being a recent exception). 

But presidential candidates are judged by their choices. Clinton chose to conduct government business on a private e-mail server. The FBI is now figuring out whether that choice damaged national security. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the authors of this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net