Bernie Sanders‘ presidential campaign angrily accused the Democratic Party of “taking our campaign hostage” on Friday after it was temporarily barred from accessing a trove of information about potential voters as punishment for improperly accessing data compiled by the campaign of rival Hillary Clinton.
The reaction of the Democratic National Committee to the data breach, the depth of which was debated by all involved, thrust into the open long-standing suspicions among Sanders and his supporters that the national party is unfairly working to support the candidacy of its front-runner.
“Clearly, in this case, they are trying to help the Clinton campaign,” said Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver, who threatened to file a lawsuit against the DNC as soon as Friday afternoon, unless the party backs down.
DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz responded that “the Sanders campaign had inappropriately and systematically accessed Clinton campaign data,” rejecting Weaver’s effort to portray the breach as the fault of a software glitch and a small group of rogue staffers.
Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon said the campaign was “informed that our proprietary data was breached by Sanders campaign staff in 25 searches by four different accounts and that this data was saved into the Sanders’ campaign account.”
“We are asking that the Sanders campaign and the DNC work expeditiously to ensure that our data is not in the Sanders campaign’s account and that the Sanders campaign only have access to their own data,” he added.
The back-and-forth on the eve of the party’s final presidential debate of the year underscored Sanders’ attempt to cast himself as an anti-establishment upstart willing to take on Clinton, the unquestioned front-runner for the party’s nomination who is not beloved among some of the party’s most liberal voters.
But by firing his top data staffer, and acknowledging that members of his staff looked at information that belonged to the Clinton campaign, Sanders also threatened to undercut his image as an honest broker seeking to foster a “political revolution” to help the nation’s poor and beleaguered middle class.
The incident interrupted a period in which Democrats were sailing toward a peaceful primary season, with Clinton comfortably ahead of Sanders nationally in a campaign that harbors little of the discord and discontent roiling the Republican Party.
The DNC maintains an extensive database of voter information that it rents to campaigns. The campaigns then update that database with their own information about voters. The data is used to target likely voters and anticipate what issues might motivate them to support a candidate.
The information is of particular importance in the first states to votes in the presidential nominating process, where a campaign’s ability to organize its supporters and make sure they cast a ballot can make the difference between winning and losing.
Firewalls are put in place to prevent campaigns from looking at data maintained by their rivals. But officials said the vendor that runs the system, NGP VAN, ran a software patch on Wednesday that allowed all users on the system to access data belonging to other campaigns.
The breach did not involve any hacking or enable any voting information to enter the public domain, officials said.
The Sanders campaign accused NGP VAN of making “serious errors.” Weaver said four members of the Sanders campaign had accessed the information, but only the actions of one, the campaign’s data director, had risen to the level of a firing offense.
Weaver argued that the firewall used by the vendor had previously failed and he railed against the party for not taking the steps required to keep the information secure.
“While that information was made available to our campaign because of the incompetence of the vendor, it should not have been looked at,” Weaver said.
Josh Uretsky, the data director fired from Sanders’ campaign, said his team was merely investigating the security problem and trying to figure out how exposed their own data was by the software patch.
“We wanted to document and understand the scope of the problem so we could report it accurately,” he said, in an interview with MSNBC. “We didn’t actually use it for anything valuable and we didn’t take custodianship of it.”
While Uretsky took responsibility for the incident, he didn’t believe the DNC would think he violated any rules.
“I didn’t believe at the time that I did it that they would believe what I was doing was wrong,” he said in the interview. “I did it with full knowledge that they could see what I was doing.”
Wasserman Schultz said the DNC had asked the Sanders campaign for a “full accounting of whether or not this information was used and the way in which it was disposed.” Only then will the party make a decision on restoring Sanders’ access to the database.
That decision infuriated Weaver, who said the party had cut Sanders and his team off from “lifeblood of any campaign.”
“This is information that we have worked hard to obtain,” he said. “It is our information, not the DNC’s.”
News of the data breach was first reported by The Washington Post on Friday.
DNC spokesman Luis Miranda said Friday the party had instructed NGP VAN to conduct an analysis of any users who accessed the data and report back its findings.
Stu Trevelyan, NGP VAN’s chief executive and president, said in a statement that his firm was “confident at this point that no campaigns have access to or have retained any voter file data of any other clients; with one possible exception, one of the presidential campaigns.”
“NGP VAN is providing a thorough report to the DNC on what happened and conducting a review to ensure the integrity of the system,” he said.
Republished with permission of the Associated Press.