I finally got around to watching the interrogation of FBI Director James Comey by Congressman Jim Jordan. It was an eye-opening epiphany, and it once and for all made clear to me that the cyber technologists within the FBI are either the most incompetent on this planet or corrupt in handling the Hillary Clinton email saga.
I was watching the interrogation with lukewarm interest up to the point that the congressman asked Comey if the FBI was aware of Paul Combetta's enquiry on Reddit about how to strip an email address from a server's email data base. Mr Combetta, by the way, is the technical expert who ultimately deleted 33,000 of Hillary Clinton's emails.
Two points stood out. Firstly, Comey was not sure that the FBI was aware of Combetta's post on Reddit. He knew Clinton's email address had been removed but he believed that the emails were still intact. Secondly, Combetta testified that Clinton was afraid that her email address would be given to the public. So he removed it from the emails.
Now, any competent software engineer can take the above two conditions and will come to the same conclusion that I reached: Clinton, or someone in her staff, came up with the bright idea of stripping all of the headers from her emails, rendering the remaining texts virtually useless. They would have no "from" or "to" fields, no date stamps, no time stamps, and no information on who may or may not have been copied on the emails – and, it could be done, seemingly in a legal fashion, by stating "we only removed Hillary's email address for privacy reasons".
The fact that the entire header also disappeared was an "unexpected" artefact of the process. "Oops... my bad" was all someone had to say. Brilliant, I admit, but due to extenuating circumstances it didn't work out the way it was planned, for reasons I will explain later. So the radical step of using BleachBit to wipe the emails was eventually taken.
Examining Combetta's testimony
Combetta's testimony that Clinton was afraid that her email address would be leaked to the public is the first sign of something being not quite right.
To my knowledge, and as common knowledge to most people, the FBI, nor any other investigative body of the Federal Government, has ever made public the email address of any target of an investigation, whether charges were filed or not. Clinton is smart enough to be running for president so this gem of information should be well known to her. As to the few members of Congress who might get access through an investigation, all of them already have her email address and she has emailed most of them multiple times.
Either Combetta's testimony is blatantly false or Clinton is completely in the dark about obvious policies and procedures within the Justice Department, which any presidential candidate should know. I cannot believe that Clinton is ignorant of the fact that her emails would absolutely not be released to the public. I doubt that anyone would believe this. Are we forced to believe then, that Combetta's testimony is untrue?
Let's now examine the technical side of this affair. Combetta is no slouch when it comes to information science. You would expect a person of the highest calibre and competence to be in charge of a server containing "Above Top Secret" national documents, and Combetta does not disappoint. So I have no problem with his talents. And that is the problem I'm having.
A Reddit user strongly believed to be Combetta called "Stonetear" posted the following on Reddit in 2014 one day after the House Select Committee on Benghazi had reached an agreement with the State Department on the production of all of her emails:
The strange thing about this is that any first-year computer science student could answer this question correctly even while drunk at a frat party. And the answer is simple: "No f***ng way." At least not without tens of thousands of hours of manual labour (33,000 emails) or a piece of software that you would have to write yourself – which would require more time to code and test than the subpoena for the emails allowed.
Here are a couple of the expected responses from Reddit:
Email systems are designed to make it difficult to modify the sender, receiver, date and time for obvious legal reasons. However, stripping the entire header is trivial. People frequently want just the body of text.
It is not believable that Combetta — a person charged with the technical responsibility for the secretary of state's personal server — would not be fully conversant with Information Science 101 regarding how email servers function. It is simply inconceivable.
Why then did he post that query on Reddit?
Even if I were high on a mix of acid, meth, and K and had swallowed a half bottle of scotch to take the edge off the meth, I believe I could still remember that simple fact.
The inescapable conclusion, to me at least, is that the post was carefully crafted to provide a record indicating that Combetta was merely attempting to save Clinton the potential embarrassment of having her email address released to the public.
If Combetta did indeed try to modify the header to change an email address, then the result would most assuredly have been the total destruction of the header. Email providers create safeguards against such modifications. A world-class hacker could do it, with a lot of work, and time, which Combetta did not have.
Again, Combetta should know all of this well. If not, then Clinton hired an idiot, which does not recommend her well.
As to why this process did not achieve its goal? Blame WikiLeaks. Even with no headers, the redacted emails would still be in sequence in the email database. It would not take much to write a forensics program to cross reference known email senders, receivers, dates and times, with the redacted emails. I suspect that 95% or more of the missing data could be recovered.
Has the FBI thought of this? That is the question at the heart of it all.