We have been discussing the controversy surrounding the decision of the Justice Department to give immunity to former State Department staffer, Bryan Pagliano and tech specialist Paul Combetta — thereby removing much of the pressure that could have been brought to bear with the threat of criminal charges. That immunity deal became even more questionable when it was disclosed that Combetta used Bleachbit to destroy email records despite his knowledge that those records were being sought by Congress. Now, there is an allegation that Combetta sought advice on the website for how to hide a “VIP’s (VERY VIP) email address.” If true, that would show a conscious effort to conceal the identity of the VIP and illegally alter federal records. Either Combetta did not disclose this effort in violation of his immunity deal or the Justice Department effectively removed a serious threat of indictment though the agreement. Update: the House Committee has ordered Reddit to preserve all messages concerning “Stonetear.”
The new information was disclosed by Reddit users who found a series of questions from what they say is Combetta who worked under user name of “stonetear.” Here is one of the queries on July 24, 2014 during the period when the State Department first asked Clinton aide Cheryl Mills to turn over the former secretary of state’s work-related emails from her personal server:
“Hello all- I may be facing a very interesting situation where I need to strip out a VIP’s (VERY VIP) email address from a bunch of archived email… Does anyone have experience with something like this, and/or suggestions on how this might be accomplished?”
Various people told Stonetear that it was not possible and one warned “[If Microsoft Exchange] allowed this, it could result in major legal issues. There may be ways to hack a solution, but I am not aware of any.”
The response (if from Combetta) would show a clear effort to conceal evidence:
“The issue is that these emails involve the private email address of someone you’d recognize, and we’re trying to replace it with a placeholder address as to not expose it.”
It is such an amazing admission that I would like confirmation that this was not a set up. It is hard for me to believe that the FBI would give immunity to a guy who openly solicited advice on hiding information being sought as federal records — the same guy who would later destroy evidence being sought under congressional subpoena. Such a person would be at serious risk of indictment and many prosecutors would go ahead and charge while leaving open a plea bargain with cooperation. Instead, Combetta got immunity and has now refused to testify before Congress.
The profile “stonetear” was created in 2011 and registered to Paul Combetta. The email address firstname.lastname@example.org is also linked to Combetta’s name, and the domain name combetta.com is registered under that email.
Later, when the questions were found, Stonetear began deleting his comments and Reddit readers made videos and screen shots of the deletions as they were occurring.
The allegation could prove particularly embarrassing for FBI Director James Comey who has been criticized for opting not to seek charges despite conflicts in testimony, the deletions of email, and mishandling of classified information. If this is indeed Combetta, it is hard to believe that a contractor would come up unilaterally with the idea of changing federal records to remove the identifying information.
Immunity deals do include provisions for rescinding the agreements if a witness fails to disclose information or misrepresents facts or fails to cooperate. The Reddit material represents an extremely serious development, if true. Congress would have ample reason to investigate such an effort and enforce its subpoena authority.