Three witnesses plead the fifth at hearing on State Department email vulnerabilities.
House Republicans’ continuing investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server on Tuesday prompted new subpoenas, three witnesses taking the Fifth Amendment and one Clinton family information technology aide explaining his use of a hammer to destroy his boss’ obsolete mobile devices.
Justin Cooper, a 15-year all-purpose employee of the Clinton family, was the only IT specialist among four invited by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to testify rather than invoke his right not to incriminate himself.
The result was new detail on the origins of the private server in Clinton’s Chappaqua, N.Y., home following an FBI investigation that found “carelessness” by her but no grounds for prosecution. Republicans said they are just getting started in asking what they see as unanswered questions about the security and transparency of Clinton’s arrangement, while Democrats called the series of hearings a redundant, politically motivated election-year “photo op.”
Asked why, as the FBI reported this month, he took a hammer to one of Clinton’s mobile devices, Cooper said “it was not done in any way to destroy or hide information” but to avoid “putting it in the trash where someone could find it.” He stressed that whenever he switched Clinton to a new mobile device, he “felt it was good practice” to destroy the old one after all data had been transferred and backed up.
Cooper said the Clintons never discussed with him any issues about the Federal Records Act or the Freedom of Information Act. On the contrary, he said, he went to great lengths to fully transfer all data from the old device to the new.
On questioning by Republicans, however, Cooper acknowledged that he did not have security clearance, despite having access to many State Department emails in the course of helping both Bill and Hillary Clinton. When he found some official content on his own backup computer, he said, he turned it over to his attorneys who relayed them to the FBI.
Cooper, who now works as a consultant for a variety of clients but not the Clintons, also acknowledged that he was not an IT expert; he was the “interface” with the Clintons. The “engineering” and security of the private server were the province of Bryan Pagliano—whom Republicans had invited as the key witness. Pagliano declined to show up at the hearing.
It was after the Clinton presidential campaign of 2008 shut down, Cooper said, that Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin asked him to work with Pagliano, who had bought surplus computers from the campaign, on setting up Apple iMacs in the Clinton’s New York and Washington homes to relay emails to Clinton’s BlackBerry. “They had a desire to change her email address because a number of people had that address,” he said, calling it a “matter of convenience” to add her account to the existing, Secret Service-protected server being used by former President Clinton.
Later, “user problems” surfaced, and Pagliano thought they needed to expand to a “more robust” system that he helped physically install in March 2009. The only people with email accounts on the server, Cooper said, were Hillary Clinton, Abedin and Chelsea Clinton.
Cooper said he was not around when the server was moved to a secure room in the home after Hillary Clinton became secretary of State. “I’ve never been in a position to be technical expert on either the server or whether classified email was sent to secretary,” said Cooper. He did acknowledge, when asked by Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., about the risks of hacking attacks by Russia and China, that this “is something to be concerned about.”
In response to other lawmakers’ questions, he said he was paid by the Clinton family executive services contractor, and that he is paying his own attorney fees during the investigation.
Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, opened the hearing by saying, “Hillary Clinton as secretary of State for roughly four years helped create one of what is reported to be one of the biggest security breaches in the history of the State Department and it is an absolute mess.”
He said he wanted to hear from Pagliano and two officials from Platte River Networks—the private firm that later supervised Clinton’s server—to learn details on how the server would have been safeguarded against hacking when there was “no encryption, no dual authentication.” Chaffetz said Pagliano was hired at the State Department as a GS-15 but failed to report that he was also being paid by the Clintons.
And Chaffetz wanted Platte River Networks employees Bill Thornton and Paul Combetta to explain an email released by the FBI that appears to express the firm’s anxiety about being asked in March 2015 to delete past Clinton emails without a written agreement staying why—given the fact that a congressional committee would subpoena them.
Neither employee present would speak beyond invoking, on advice of counsel, the Fifth Amendment. Their silence and the absence of Pagliano prompted Chaffetz to decry the way Pagliano “thumbed his nose at the U.S. Congress. I will continue to explore all options,” Chaffetz added. “Anyone under the illusion that I’m going to let it go and sail off into the sunset is mistaken.”
Ranking member Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said, “Today is our third emergency hearing about Secretary Clinton’s emails in four business days. I believe this committee is abusing taxpayer dollars and the authority of Congress in an astonishing onslaught of political attacks to damage Secretary Clinton’s campaign for president.” Stressing that the FBI had already concluded a professional investigation that found no criminal liability, Cummings said, “The point of today’s hearing is to investigate baseless Republican accusations that Secretary Clinton or her aides ordered the destruction of emails to conceal them from investigators.” He argued for having Pagliano, whom the Justice Department granted immunity, testify in an executive session.
Republicans made it plain that the issue isn’t fading soon. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, the chairman of the Science, Space and Technology Committee who was permitted to attend and pose questions, said he had just issued three more subpoenas to private IT firms working on the Clinton server. Their responses, he said, suggest “obstruction of justice” and “continues a Clinton habit of secrecy, not transparency.”
In gaveling the hearing to a close, Chaffetz announced it was being recessed to a later date.