National Security

Clinton IT aide pleads Fifth, skips hearing

Three IT specialists involved with Hillary Clinton’s private email server on Tuesday refused to testify before the House Oversight Committee on deletions of some of Clinton’s emails.
One of these three, Bryan Pagliano — the former State Department employee who set up the server — defied a subpoena and failed to appear at the hearing altogether. 
{mosads}The other two, engineers at the outside firm that managed Clinton’s server, appeared under subpoena but invoked their Fifth Amendment rights in response to every question. 
Outraged Republicans quickly threatened reprisal against Pagliano, who has long been a flashpoint in various investigations into the server. 
The former State technician famously exercised his right not to testify against himself before the House Select Committee on Benghazi in 2015. He was also reportedly awarded an immunity deal during the FBI’s now-closed investigation into Clinton’s use of the server while secretary of State.
“I will consult with counsel and my colleagues to consider a full range of options available to address Mr. Pagliano’s failure to appear,” Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said. “When you are served a subpoena by the United States Congress, that is not optional.”
Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) suggested that the committee could declare Pagliano in contempt of Congress. 
Democrats pushed back fiercely, arguing that the committee is unfairly asking Pagliano to open himself up to criminal liability, pointing to an outstanding criminal referral from Chaffetz that asked the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia to investigate deletions from the server.
“What we have done is put him under threat of criminal prosecution,” argued Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.). “It puts him in jeopardy coming before this committee while that criminal referral is in existence. He’s an American citizen; I know the Constitution gets in the way of this committee sometimes.”
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) fired back, citing the immunity deal. Lynch replied that the immunity deal was “limited,” according to Pagliano’s counsel.
“I want to read the agreement between the Department of Justice and this witness and whether that agreement requires this witness to cooperate with other entities of government — that is commonplace!” Gowdy shouted. “For them to say you can tell us the truth and not tell Congress makes no sense!”
Lawmakers had no more luck with Bill Thornton and Paul Combetta, the two specialists from the Colorado-based Platte River Networks. 
Chaffetz pressed Combetta on the security of the server and deletions of certain emails from it but ultimately excused him “out of respect for your constitutional rights.”
“You’re an IT guy who’s paid by the Clintons. Who told you to delete the emails?” Chaffetz asked.
“On advice of counsel, I respectfully decline to answer and exert my Fifth Amendment right,” Combetta replied to each question.
Chaffetz also pressed Thornton on the security of Clinton’s server.
“Are you aware of any hacks of [Platte River Networks’] systems?” he asked.
“I’d like to just ask you one other question that I can’t imagine has any implications on any criminal culpability. Were you interviewed by the FBI?” he also asked.
But Chaffetz was ultimately forced to excuse Thornton as well.
Democrats tried to provide some cover for the two engineers, calling the hearing “a contrived campaign photo-op” designed to damage Clinton’s campaign by promoting “baseless Republican accusations that Secretary Clinton ordered the destruction of emails to conceal them from investigators.”
“Here is the playbook Republicans are using,” ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said in his opening statement. 
“Step One: Publicly accuse the witnesses of criminal activity and then refer them to the U.S. Attorney’s office for criminal investigation. Step Two: The next day, invite these same witnesses to an emergency hearing, then rush to issue a flurry of unilateral subpoenas demanding that they testify.
“Step Three: Express false outrage when these witnesses take advice from their counsel to assert their Fifth Amendment right not to testify.”
The only witness who ultimately responded to questions was Justin Cooper, a former senior adviser to President Bill Clinton who set up the email address and registered the domain. 
Lawmakers pressed him on cyberattacks on Clinton’s server as well as how it was protected from hackers.
The Oversight Committee has moved quickly since the FBI earlier this month released its 58-page report detailing its investigation into Clinton’s server.
Tuesday’s hearing — nominally on the preservation of State Department records — was the third in five days that was centered around Clinton’s server.
According to the FBI’s report, an unnamed Platte River Networks technician deleted an archive of emails from the server in March 2015 — after the House Select Committee on Benghazi had issued a subpoena for records relating to the 2012 attack on the Libyan outpost.
According to the FBI’s notes, longtime Clinton aide Cheryl Mills instructed Platte River Networks to delete a set of archived emails in December 2014. Mills told investigators Clinton had decided she no longer needed access to emails older than 60 days.
But the technician apparently forgot the request and didn’t immediately comply. According to the FBI report, between March 25 and March 31 of 2015, the technician “believed he had an ‘oh shit’ moment and … deleted the Clinton archive mailbox from the [Platte River Networks] server.”
Reporting from The New York Times has since identified Combetta as that technician, citing an anonymous law enforcement official and others familiar with the FBI probe. 
Clinton and Mills told the FBI that they had no knowledge of the technician’s deletion of the emails. The technician, according to the report, “was aware of the existence of the [Benghazi Committee] preservation request and the fact that it meant he should not disturb Clinton’s email data on the [Platte River Networks] server.”
According to a timeline of events pulled from the FBI report, Clinton’s lawyers and the engineer who maintained the server had a conference call less than a week prior to the deletion of the email archive. The engineer refused to answer questions about the contents of that call, according to the FBI.
Lawmakers repeatedly pressed both Thornton and Combetta on Tuesday about an internal email exchange from August 2015 that was originally revealed last fall through a Senate investigation.
“Wondering how we can sneak an email now after the fact asking them when they told us to cut the backups and have them confirm it for our records. Starting to think this whole thing is really covering up some shaddy [sic] shit,” the exchange read.
“I just think if we have it in writing that they told us to cut the backups, and we can go public saying we have had backups since day one, then we were told to trim to 30 days, it would make us look a WHOLE LOT better.”
The deleted archive is separate from the 30,000 emails Clinton’s legal team deemed personal and erased prior to turning over an additional 30,000 work-related emails to the State Department in 2014.
Updated at 3:04 p.m.
Tags Bill Clinton Hillary Clinton Jason Chaffetz Trey Gowdy
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