The Romanian hacker who first exposed Hillary Clinton's use of personal email for government business was sentenced by a federal judge Thursday to 52 months in prison -- and in a surprising development, Romanian authorities now want the 44-year-old “Guccifer,” who continues to cooperate with U.S. investigators, sent home "right away."
The hacker, whose real name is Marcel Lehel Lazar, breached the AOL account of longtime Clinton confidant Sidney Blumenthal in 2013, and posted online the Clintonemail.com address. It was this revelation that ultimately led to the identification of Clinton’s personal account and multiple servers, where sensitive government records were transmitted along with personal communications and Clinton Foundation business.
Lazar, looking alert and with neatly trimmed hair, appeared in the Alexandria, Va., courtroom for the 35-minute hearing before U.S. District Judge James C. Cacheris. Prosecutors said the hacker took responsibility for his actions but showed no remorse for accessing the private online accounts of at least 100 Americans, and causing the public release of their information.
His high-profile victims include Dorothy Bush Koch, the sister of former President George W. Bush; former Secretary of State Colin Powell; and Blumenthal, among others. After breaching Powell's account, Lazar said he identified Blumenthal in the contact list and successfully targeted him. Court documents filed Monday by the government say by "the defendant's own estimate, his quote 'success rate' at gaining entry into private accounts was only 8-10 percent of his attempts."
Lazar said he used a color-coded system to show which accounts were successfully breached. “From what I remember I was using red for accounts I hacked, orange for the ones I could hack, and green for the ones I tried to hack and was not able to,” he said, according to a heavily redacted FBI interview released by the court on Monday.
Lazar is not a programmer, but appears to have a strong understanding of social networks and did extensive research on his targets, using publicly available biographical information, a cell phone and an old computer to successfully guess security questions to reset the account passwords.
In May, he pleaded guilty to two counts of a nine-count indictment – one involving the breach of Powell’s personal account; the other involving the account of a former member of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs. The Blumenthal hack is not connected to either charge.
His public defender, Shannon Quill, asked for a more lenient sentence of 36 months, arguing he did not profit from the crimes. Quill said the separation from his family, including a young daughter, has been hard.
Further, she indicated the Romanians now want him back to finish his seven-year sentence there, which he’d been serving in his home country before his extradition to the U.S. That sentence is connected to the same series of hacks.
His attorney indicated he could be sent back in the coming weeks, though a timeframe was not clear. Together with the sentence in the U.S., Quill said this would amount to "a total global sentence of 10 years."
Cacheris, though, pressed both sides on how a transfer to Romania might work. The judge and lawyers for both sides all noted that Lazar continues to cooperate with U.S. investigators, though court filings did not provide detail beyond the hacker's efforts to recover the personal information of his victims and close security loopholes connected to their accounts.
The heavily redacted 2014 FBI interview also said Lazar claimed “since June the CIA knew where I lived, a fact I found out from the press, when the CIA chief paid visits to Romania and Russia, where he obtained my IP addresses.”
Lazar was extradited to the U.S. in late March after considerable time, effort and expense by the U.S. government.
There was no mention in court of Guccifer's claims earlier this year to NBC and Fox News that he had successfully breached Clinton's server on a handful of occasions.
"For me, it was easy ... easy for me, for everybody," Lazar told Fox News from his Alexandria jail in May, claiming he used Blumenthal's account as a stepping stone to the Clinton server.
In July, when asked by Congress about this claim, FBI Director James Comey said Guccifer lied about the breach. When Comey recommended against criminal charges for Clinton and her aides, over the use of multiple personal servers for government business, he emphasized that members of Clinton's inner circle were hacked, suggesting the personal server was vulnerable.
"We do assess that hostile actors gained access to the private commercial email accounts of people with whom Secretary Clinton was in regular contact from her personal account," he said.
Fox News met with Guccifer at the Alexandria detention center earlier this year, and conducted interviews by phone. Fox News has pending requests to interview Guccifer as part of its ongoing reporting of the Clinton email case and recent breaches of political committees by Russian-backed cyber militias. The targeting of the U.S. electoral process was noted by Cacheris in court.
Guccifer told Fox News he always used Russian proxy servers for his attacks. Fox News also has an outstanding FOIA request with the U.S. Marshals for Lazar's mug shot. At the close of the hearing, Lazar was remanded to the Marshals' custody.
Catherine Herridge is an award-winning Chief Intelligence correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC) based in Washington, D.C. She covers intelligence, the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security. Herridge joined FNC in 1996 as a London-based correspondent.
Pamela K. Browne is Senior Executive Producer at the FOX News Channel (FNC) and is Director of Long-Form Series and Specials. Her journalism has been recognized with several awards. Browne first joined FOX in 1997 to launch the news magazine “Fox Files” and later, “War Stories.”