Feds probe hack of Palin's e-mail account

Wikileaks posts portions of what appear to be Republican VP nominee Sarah Palin's e-mail inbox, drawing a complaint from the McCain-Palin campaign and an inquiry from the Secret Service.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
2 min read
John McCain and Sarah Palin on the final evening of the Republican convention. Declan McCullagh/CNET News

Now we know the real reason why John McCain doesn't use e-mail.

Hackers have broken into the Yahoo e-mail account of Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin. And, as you might expect, some snippets have appeared on Wikileaks.org in a convenient ZIP file.

"This is a shocking invasion of the governor's privacy and a violation of law. The matter has been turned over to the appropriate authorities and we hope that anyone in possession of these e-mails will destroy them," the McCain campaign said in a statement on Wednesday.

It's still unclear exactly what happened, who was responsible, or how they obtained access to Palin's personal e-mail. Wikileaks attributed the break-in to the hacker group Anonymous, which has tangled with Scientology in the past.

In terms of embarrassing personal information, there wasn't much made public, save some silly family photographs. But there was some evidence that Gov. Palin conducted work business via personal e-mail--perhaps as a way to avoid divulging data in response to a subpoena or request made under Alaska's open government laws.

Though that wasn't exactly a revelation. The New York Times published an article on Sunday saying:

Her inner circle discussed the benefit of using private e-mail addresses. An assistant told her it appeared that such e-mail messages sent to a private address on a "personal device" like a BlackBerry "would be confidential and not subject to subpoena." Ms. Palin and aides use their private e-mail addresses for state business. A campaign spokesman said the governor copied e-mail messages to her state account "when there was significant state business."

On Feb. 7, Frank Bailey, a high-level aide, wrote to Ms. Palin's state e-mail address to discuss appointments. Another aide fired back: "Frank, this is not the governor's personal account." Mr. Bailey responded: "Whoops~!"

As of Wednesday morning, the gov.palin@yahoo.com was canceled and e-mail to it bounced (apparently Palin had another account, too, called gov.sarah@yahoo.com).

Probably the more interesting question is the legal fallout. The U.S. Secret Service is investigating the intrusion, which violated federal computer crime law.

Count on subpoenas already being sent to Yahoo for information about what Internet addresses were used to connect to the Palin account in the last few days. It may be a difficult legal task to force Wikileaks to delete the info, assuming the McCain-Palin camp even wanted to, but in legal terms would be a lot easier to try to get the site to divulge its source.

In the absence of a federal shield law, journalists enjoy scant protection when trying to protect the confidentiality of their sources. Ironically, perhaps, both Barack Obama (at least in the past) and John McCain (as of this spring) say they support enacting one.