The big Wednesday story in the Hillary Clinton email news cycle centered around a bombshell Associated Press story by Jack Gillum and Ted Bridis, titled “Clinton Ran Own Computer System for Her Official Emails.” The takeaway, as was reflected on dozens of news sites, was that Clinton had a so-called “homebrew” email server inside her Chappaqua, New York home. And of course that’d be the obviously takeaway by readers and other publications alike given the headline combined with this lede:
The computer server that transmitted and received Hillary Rodham Clinton’s emails — on a private account she used exclusively for official business when she was secretary of state — traced back to an Internet service registered to her family’s home in Chappaqua, New York, according to Internet records reviewed by The Associated Press.
It doesn’t explicitly say that the server was located in Clinton’s home, but the second line definitely does:
The highly unusual practice of a Cabinet-level official physically running her own email would have given Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, impressive control over limiting access to her message archives.
So, the lede described a “computer server” that was traced to “her family’s home.” The second sentence flatly stated that she’s “physically running her own email.” Naturally, anyone reading this would come away with the “homebrew” conclusion. And it’s the AP, so the information is delivered with the heft of the wire service’s reputation.
And then we reach the fourth paragraph where we see this:
In most cases, individuals who operate their own email servers are technical experts or users so concerned about issues of privacy and surveillance they take matters into their own hands. It was not immediately clear exactly where Clinton ran that computer system.
If it’s unclear, why was the article published at all? And where’s the evidence showing Clinton ran the system herself?
Revealingly, the version of the AP’s story that ran in the U.K.’s Daily Mail omitted that line:
There’s really only one motive for deleting the line: to perpetuate the as-of-now falsehood that Clinton’s email server was located in her house. The Daily Mail wasn’t the only publication to market in similar falsehoods on Wednesday. To name a few:
The Daily Beast: Hillary Clinton’s Homemade System May Have Put Her Email at Risk
We’ll circle back to the so-called “non-existent man.” Hint: he exists. Even NPR discussed Clinton’s alleged “personal private” server throughout the day.
Meanwhile, as we assembled this post, the original AP story was replaced with a newer version (here’s a screen-cap of the original), that superseded the homebrew lede with news of a congressional subpoena for Clinton’s email records. The dubious headline and lede we noted above were deleted and other details were bumped down to the third paragraph. The ambiguous line “It was not immediately clear exactly where Clinton’s computer server was run” was exiled all the way down to the tenth paragraph. In other words, you can no longer read the original story at AP.org. Rather than posting a separate article, the AP chose instead to obliterate it and replace it with a revised version that seemingly downplays the “homebrew” claim, even though “homebrew” still appears in the URL.
Why did the AP do this? Why would they downplay this major scoop, making it suddenly a second-fiddle story buried under the subpoena news? Reporter Jack Gillum said via Twitter that it’s standard operating procedure for the AP to update a story throughout the day. But this wasn’t an update to the “homebrew” story. It was a separate-but-related story about the Rep. Trey Gowdy’s (R-SC) inquest.
Meanwhile, there’s this matter of “Eric Hoteham,” as he was originally named in the first version of the story, and based on research into Clinton’s domain name. The initial mysteriousness of Hoteham as the “customer” named on the account, compounded by the AP’s supposition that Hoteham was Clinton’s “apparent pseudonym” in the original version of the story, touched off an internet manhunt as well as Twitter parody accounts. No one knew who “Hoteham” was, least of all the reporters who wrote the story naming him. Again, rather than waiting until they had all of the details ironed out, the AP rushed the story to press, making everything seem more sinister than it actually was. Is Hoteham a pseudonym for Clinton? Was it a clever anagram? What were those sneaky Clintons hiding?
It turns out the name was misspelled in the WHOIS lookup. It should’ve read “Eric Hothem.” The new version of the article describes Hothem like so:
He was a special assistant to Clinton as far back as 1997, and considered one of the family’s information technology experts.
The article still completely fails to describe why Hothem is named in the WHOIS record, other than the fact that he’s “a customer” on the account, which could indicate (this isn’t in the article) that he merely shares the server for his own work, or that he administers the server for Clinton.
But again, these are all details that distract from the bigger picture here: there’s no evidence whatsoever presented by the AP that proves in any way that the email server was located inside Clinton’s home.
It also appears as if the authors of the article misunderstood the WHOIS information. The Chappaqua address is probably just the address of the person, Clinton, who owns the account and not the location of the physical mail server.
Ultimately, what was Clinton’s actual email system?
As of this writing, the mail.clintonemail.com domain name doesn’t point us to Chappaqua, NY at all. However, its DNS history is connected to the IP address 22.214.171.124. If we look up the domains associated with that IP, we get a listing for the domain name wjcoffice.com, which is named in the AP article as being “linked to the same residential Internet account as Mrs. Clinton’s email server.” Obviously “wjc” is an acronym for “William Jefferson Clinton.” What name is listed on that domain? “Eric Hoteham,” aka Eric Hothem, in Chappaqua. But, and this is a big deal, if we do a separate IP locator search, the IP returns the following information:
ISP: Optimum Online
Organization: Optimum Online
AS Number: AS6128 Cablevision Systems Corp.
Even if she didn’t use Optimum, which of the following set-ups seems more practical for Clinton?
1) Invest in a “homebrew” server in the basement, with all of its accompanying hardware and software issues, not to mention maintenance and security measures?
2) Or set up a private account with the mail.clintonemail.com domain at Optimum — which, by the way, is based in Stamford, CT, a short 30 minute drive southeast from Chappaqua?
Common sense points us to #2. But it’s not nearly as sexy or click-worthy as imagining Bill and Hillary Clinton twirling their mustaches deep within their underground server lair — petting their hairless cats while affixing lasers to the heads of live sharks — laughing maniacally as Tesla coils spit plasma beams into the air. “Just let the stupid, stupid American people try to get their unwashed hands our emails! Bwa-hahahaha!”
This should all sound familiar, especially to those of us who lived through the 1990s. From a journalistic perspective, it feels eerily similar to the NSA reporting from 2013 when, following The Guardian‘s success, publication after publication attempted to climb aboard the Snowden gravy train and hastily published articles that totally disintegrated under scrutiny. That appears to be the case again. To be perfectly clear: circumstances could absolutely arise that might show serious guilt on behalf of Clinton, but little if any of that evidence exists today. And who knows? There might actually have been an email server in Clinton’s house, but none of the reporting this week has provided any evidence of its existence.
UPDATE: A Bloomberg story appeared today suggesting that Clinton’s private email had a security flaw. Well, so did her State Department email, apparently:
Hillary Clinton’s personal address couldn’t securely receive email. But… neither could her State Department address. pic.twitter.com/JNHkSutYlc
— Jonathan Mayer (@jonathanmayer) March 3, 2015
UPDATE 2: ZDNet’s David Gurwitz agrees that AP totally got the story wrong.