WASHINGTON -- The campaign of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) threatened to sue the Democratic National Committee on Friday if the committee did not restore access to its national voter database.
The DNC has alleged that staffers from Sanders' campaign viewed, downloaded and exported confidential data from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's voter file after they discovered a breach in the database, which is maintained by the committee and rented out to the campaigns. The breach, which on Wednesday made Clinton's proprietary voter data visible to others through a bug in code, originated with the technology company NGP VAN.
In the aftermath of the discovery of the breach, the DNC suspended Sanders' campaign from accessing the database, and the Sanders campaign fired one of the staffers, national data director Josh Uretsky. The DNC said the campaign wouldn't have access to its voter data until it provides an explanation of the episode and proves that Clinton's data had been discarded.
Uretsky told CNN Friday morning that the campaign was probing the system to discover the extent of the breach on Wednesday.
“We investigated it for a short period of time to see the scope of the Sanders campaign’s exposure and then the breach was shut down, presumably by the vendor,” he said. “We did not gain any material benefit.”
Though Sanders' campaign has insisted that it did not retain the data it viewed, Time magazine reported Friday that it appears “to have obtained files with lists of voters that the Clinton campaign had cultivated in 10 early states including Iowa and New Hampshire” and that the staffers “created from scratch no fewer than 24 lists -- consisting entirely of data pulled down from the Clinton campaign’s database -- and saved them to their personal folders.”
In a press conference Friday outside Sanders headquarters near the Capitol, Sanders' campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, called the suspension of the file an "inappropriate overreaction." He said the campaign would seek an injunction in federal court against the DNC later on Friday if it "continues to hold our data hostage." He also called for an independent audit of the DNC's handling of the data.
"The leadership of the DNC has used this incident to shut down our ability to access our own information, information which is the lifeblood of any campaign," he said. "It is our information, not the DNC's."
Weaver argued that the DNC "is now actively attempting to undermine our campaign."
"Individual leaders of the DNC can support Hillary Clinton in any way they want, but they are not going to sabotage our campaign -- one of the strongest grassroots campaigns in modern history," he added.
Weaver said the campaign was speaking to other staffers who might have been involved, and may take further disciplinary action.
"Clearly, while that information was made available to our campaign because of the incompetence of the vendor, it should not have been looked at," he said.
At the press conference, Weaver said that the Sanders campaign had brought a previous data breach with another vendor to the DNC's attention two months ago, but that no public stink about the issue was made, in a suggestion that the DNC was using this incident to help Clinton and smear Sanders' campaign. He said the campaign was "very confident that at that time, some of our data was lost to one of the other campaigns."
"We contacted the DNC and told them about the failure. We were concerned that our data could be compromised and we were assured at the time the firewall would be restored," he said. "At that time our campaign did not run to the media, relying instead on assurances from the vendor that the problem would be resolved."
Earlier on Friday, DNC Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) defended the suspension, arguing that it was in line with the agreement the campaigns had with the committee to not access another campaign's proprietary information. "Staff on the Sanders campaign not only viewed the Clinton campaign's proprietary data, but from what we're being told, exported it and downloaded it," she told MSNBC.
Schultz said in a statement that the DNC has directed the vendor to to review its internal procedures to identify how the breach occurred and to prevent future mistakes.
“In addition to this full and complete internal audit which we have instructed NGP VAN to conduct, we are also beginning the process of securing an independent audit by a data security firm of the company’s procedures,” she said.
“We were 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," Brian Fallon, Clinton's national press secretary, said in a statement Friday afternoon. "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.”
The Washington Post first reported on the news of the data breach.
The Sanders campaign handed reporters at the press conference printed statements from two progress advocacy groups — MoveOn.org and Democracy For America — that both called on the DNC to reverse its decision to suspend the campaign's access to its data.
The relationship between the DNC and Sanders’ campaign was already tense because of the Democratic primary debate lineup. Both Sanders’ campaign and that of former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley have repeatedly criticized the DNC for scheduling debates on Saturday and Sunday evenings, at times unlikely to draw the record viewership of their Republican counterparts. The next debate will be held in 8 p.m. EST on Saturday in New Hampshire.
UPDATE: 5:30 p.m. -- The Sanders campaign filed the lawsuit Friday afternoon to regain access to their voter file.
This post has been updated with a statement from Clinton's campaign and details from a Time magazine report about the data.