Could Romanian hacker ‘Guccifer’ assist FBI’s probe of Clinton?

Could Romanian hacker ‘Guccifer’ assist FBI’s probe of Clinton?
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A Romanian hacker’s plea deal to cooperate with the government is raising questions about whether he might be called upon to assist in the FBI’s investigation of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonForget the spin: Five unrefuted Mueller Report revelations Former senators launching effort to help Dems win rural votes Biden's announcement was a general election message, says political analyst MORE.

The hacker “Guccifer,” whose real name is Marcel Lehel Lazar, has not been able to prove his claims that he broke into the private server Clinton used when she was secretary of State, and the government has never publicly linked him with the case.

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But Lazar first exposed Clinton's unorthodox private email account by hacking an email account of one of her longtime confidants, Sidney Blumenthal, and questions have swirled for months about whether he would be able to assist the FBI probe. 

“We’ll find out pretty soon if there’s a 'there' there with him,” said Morgan Wright, a cybersecurity consultant who has worked with law enforcement officials.

“Now we’re going to find out if the rubber really meets the road.”

On Wednesday, Lazar, 44, agreed to plead guilty to hacking and identity theft, which carry possible maximum sentences of seven years in prison.

He is accused of exposing messages from former Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, as well as Blumenthal and ex-Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Through his access to Blumenthal’s inbox, the former taxi driver exposed Clinton’s use of a personal email address in 2013. Two years passed before reports revealed that she used the personal account exclusively throughout her tenure as secretary of State and that it was connected to a private server at her New York home. 

In a pair of interviews published since his extradition to the U.S. from Romania earlier this year, Lazar also claimed to have sneaked into Clinton’s private server.

“By running a scan, I found that server ... was completely unsecured,” he told NBC News.

“For me, it was easy,” he added, to Fox News.

Clinton’s presidential campaign quickly dismissed the claim, and the State Department has said it has no reason to take Lazar seriously. Among other pieces of evidence, critics note, he has never released any messages of Clinton’s unrelated to Blumenthal.

But the methods he discussed would be the “textbook” way to access a system, according to Wright, and Clinton has repeatedly declined to outline the security methods she used to protect her data.

Earlier this week, the State Department's inspector general published a scathing rebuke of her email setup that identified a moment in January 2011 when the machine was targeted by a hacker at least twice.

Department officials told the watchdog that they would not have approved Clinton’s server had she approached them about it, partly out of security concerns.

“This wasn’t set up by cybersecurity experts. This was set up for convenience,” Wright said. “Any time you set something up for convenience, you always trade security for that convenience, and that’s what they did.”

The FBI is believed to be nearing the end of its months-long investigation into the server and the possibility that classified information was mishandled.

Whether or not that investigation played a role in Lazar's plea deal, he will likely be asked about his claims, according to Robert Ray, a former federal prosecutor who investigated the Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonDemocrats are playing voters on their fantasies for impeachment George Conway backs up Clinton on Mueller report: 'If she's with the Constitution, I'm with her' Top Dem: Supreme Court has 'no role' in impeachment MORE White House over the Whitewater real estate scandal.

“It would really be, frankly, a dereliction of their own duties not to” ask him about it, Ray told The Hill.

“And they probably already have,” he added. 

“It would be surprising to me that they would’ve allowed this person to plead guilty ... unless they had already asked him about what he knew about that,” said Ray, a partner at Fox Rothschild. “Just from past practice, it’s virtually inconceivable to me that they would not have already talked to him about the email server.”

Conditions in the plea agreement would likely require Lazar to tell the truth to federal prosecutors, making it difficult for him to boast about hacking into Clinton’s machine without being able to back it up.

“Really, it’s the only way to reduce his sentence is to cooperate,” said Matthew Whitaker, a former U.S. attorney who leads the conservative watchdog group the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust.

The terms of Lazar’s plea deal appeared standard, former federal prosecutors who reviewed the document told The Hill.

Clinton is not mentioned in the document, and it’s impossible to tell whether the plea was crafted with her investigation in mind.

The hacker might also have reams of valuable information to assist other hacking investigations unrelated to Clinton’s server. Romania is a hotbed of illegal cyber activity, and a city in the Transylvania foothills has been called “the most dangerous town on the internet.”

A spokesman with the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Virginia, where Lazar was prosecuted, declined to comment.

The interest in Lazar’s possible connection to the Clinton’s case extends to Capitol Hill, where the Senate Judiciary and Homeland Security committees have both sought to interview him. Through a lawyer, he declined the lawmakers’ request.

And in a letter last month, Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyCongress can retire the retirement crisis On The Money: Inside the Mueller report | Cain undeterred in push for Fed seat | Analysis finds modest boost to economy from new NAFTA | White House says deal will give auto sector B boost The 7 most interesting nuggets from the Mueller report MORE (R-Iowa) brought the matter to Clinton herself, noting that the Justice Department would have an obligation to notify her if he had accessed her data. 

“Has the Department of Justice or any other government agency informed you that you were a victim of hacking, other unlawful computer access, or any other crime, whether attempted or realized, by Mr. Lazar or any other person or entity?” Grassley asked.

Clinton has not responded, a committee spokeswoman confirmed.