President Donald Trump, during a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin, questioned what happened to three servers that were key evidence in cases investigated by the FBI.
The three servers are those of the Democratic National Committee, the House Democratic Caucus, and Hillary Clinton—the private email server she used while serving as secretary of state.
While they are separate servers operated independently, they have in common that despite being key evidence for FBI investigations, they were inaccessible or only partially accessible to the agency. In two cases, key data is known to have been removed from the servers.
The DNC server, despite being key evidence in the FBI’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 elections, was never properly investigated.
Former FBI Director James Comey testified under oath before the Senate intelligence committee in June last year that the DNC had refused to give the FBI access to its server, despite multiple requests.
Instead, the FBI was forced to rely on information it was given by a private company, Crowdstrike, which had been hired by the DNC.
“We did not have access to the devices themselves. … We didn’t get direct access,” Comey said in his testimony.
Underscoring the importance of the DNC server in the investigation now headed by special counsel Robert Mueller is the fact that 12 Russian intelligence officials have been indicted on charges related to unauthorized access to the server.
For the case to be prosecuted in court, it will be crucial for the FBI to provide evidence there was indeed unauthorized access to the server. The fact that the FBI did not conduct its own forensic analysis could undermine this.
“Why was the FBI told to leave the office of the Democratic National Committee? I’ve been wondering that, I’ve been asking that for months and months,” Trump said during the press conference.
“Where is the server? I want to know,” he said.
It is unclear why the DNC has refused to grant access to the FBI and what information was contained on the server.
House Democratic Caucus Server
The Democratic Caucus server was physically stolen in early 2017 after it had been identified as key evidence in an investigation by the House Office of Inspector General and Capitol Hill Police.
A memo written by Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving along with Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Phil Kiko, which was obtained by the Daily Caller News Foundation, found that the server had been secretly replaced.
“While reviewing the inventory, the CAO discovered that the serial number of the server did not match that of the one imaged in September,” the memo dated Feb. 3, 2017, said.
It is unclear what happened to the original server.
According to a briefing provided by the House inspector general to House leadership in September 2016, a group of IT aides had used the server for suspicious activity.
The inspector general found that during a period of seven months, the IT aides, most of whom belonged to the Awan family, had logged in to the Democratic Caucus server 5,735 times.
“Excessive logons are an indication that the server is being used for nefarious purposes and elevated the risk that individuals could be reading and/or removing information,” the IG said in a presentation that was not publicly released.
The IG also said the server could have been used to “store documents taken from other offices or evidence of other illicit activity.”
Two of the Democratic Caucus computers used by the IT workers had Dropbox installed on them, against House policy.
“We have not been permitted to view content of the files on these workstations. However, based on the file names, some of the information is likely sensitive,” the IG wrote.
The IG also said that the use of file sharing sites like Dropbox is a “classic method for insiders to exfiltrate data from an organization.”
Imran Awan was first hired by House Democrats in 2004. After he hit the congressional pay cap, other family members, including his wife, two brothers, and sister-in-law were hired as IT aides. Despite having little to no IT experience, the Awans and their associates worked for the offices of 44 House Democrats. Each of the representatives had waived otherwise mandatory background checks on them.
Most of the representatives fired the Awans in February 2017 after they were banned by the House sergeant-at-arms from the House IT networks.
According to the inspector general, they had logged into the computer systems of 15 members of Congress who did not employ them.
Earlier this month, Imran Awan reached a plea deal with prosecutors by pleading guilty to one charge of bank fraud.
Prosecutors contradicted findings by the House inspector general and Capitol Hill Police, saying, “[The] Government has uncovered no evidence that your client violated federal law with respect to the House computer systems.”
The terms of the plea deal do not bind “any other state, local, or federal prosecutor,” meaning the case could still be prosecuted outside of Washington.
Clinton Private Email Server
Clinton’s use of a private email server while serving as secretary of state became the focus of a criminal probe by the FBI.
The FBI’s investigation has been criticized for multiple irregularities, including the drafting by then-FBI Director James Comey of his exoneration statement of Clinton well before the investigation was concluded. Comey had also testified under oath before Congress that he had been instructed by then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch to refer to the investigation as a “matter” rather than a “criminal investigation.”
The FBI’s probe, which focused on whether classified material was sent via the private email server, was complicated by the fact that at least 33,000 emails were deleted by Clinton’s team.
After her lawyers identified the emails to be deleted, Clinton staffer Paul Combetta used a program called BleachBit to permanently delete the emails from the server.
In announcing the findings of the FBI’s investigation of Clinton, Comey said at least 110 evaluated emails were deemed to contain classified information. Eight email chains were deemed “top secret” and 36 “secret.”
The FBI’s analysis, however, did not include the emails that had been deleted by Clinton’s staff.
“I think it’s a disgrace that we can’t get Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 emails,” Trump said.