DNC holds our data hostage - Sanders campaign on suspension over data breach

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. © Mark Kauzlarich
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has filed a lawsuit after his presidential campaign was barred from accessing the Democrats’ national voter database. The ban followed a software glitch that enabled all campaigns to access their rivals’ data.

Sanders' campaign is suing the Democratic National Committee for "breach of contract" in a federal court, arguing that the DNC improperly suspended its access without a 10-day written notice, as required by the rules. Sanders is also requesting a court order restoring access to the database immediately.

While NGP VAN, the contractor that manages the DNC’s voter database, was applying a software patch on Wednesday, the firewall keeping the campaigns’ proprietary information private was briefly disabled. All users were “inadvertently able to access some data belonging to other campaigns for a brief window,” said the DNC communications director, Luis Miranda.

During the lapse, Sanders staff accessed the data belonging to the Hillary Clinton campaign. On Thursday evening, the DNC reacted by cutting Sanders off until his staff could prove they had deleted or destroyed any information they might have obtained.

The DNC is overtly supporting Clinton by denying the Sanders campaign access to its own data, campaign manager Jeff Weaver told reporters on Friday.

“This is unacceptable,” said Weaver. “If DNC continues to hold our data hostage… we’ll be in federal court this afternoon, seeking immediate relief.”

“We are running a clean campaign," Weaver said. “We don't need dirty tricks.”

DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, a US Congresswoman from Florida, defended the ban, repeatedly comparing the Sanders campaign to someone who found the front door of a house open and stealing the things inside. She also dismissed allegations that the DNC was showing favoritism towards the campaign of Hillary Clinton. Wasserman Schultz was Clinton’s campaign co-chair during the 2008 presidential bid.

The Sanders staffers downloaded some Clinton data, and had to be blocked so they could not “manipulate that information,” Wasserman-Schultz told CNN.

Josh Uretsky, the Sanders campaign’s national data director who was fired over the incident, said he looked at some of the Clinton data while trying to figure out the extent of the breach. He said he may have overreacted, as this was not the first time there had been an issue with the database.

“In retrospect, I got a little panicky because our data was totally exposed, too,” Uretsky told CNN in a phone interview. “We had to have an assessment and understanding of how broad the exposure was, and I had to document it so that I could try to calm down and think about what actually happened so that I could figure out how to protect our stuff.”

To his knowledge, nobody took anything that would have given the Sanders campaign any benefit, Uretsky added.

The Sanders campaign acknowledged that one of their staff had looked at some the Clinton campaign’s modeling data straight away, but maintained that the fault was with the vendor, and that their own data had been compromised as well.

“On more than one occasion, the vendor has dropped the firewall between the data of different Democratic campaigns,” Michael Briggs, Sanders’ campaign spokesman, said in a statement. “Our campaign months ago alerted the DNC to the fact that campaign data was being made available to other campaigns. At that time our campaign did not run to the media, relying instead on assurances from the vendor.”

Briggs added that the staffer who accessed the Clinton data had engaged in “unacceptable” behavior and was immediately fired.

An Independent Senator from Vermont, Sanders came out of left field to challenge Clinton, who lost the nomination to Barack Obama in 2008.

The suspension is a major blow to the Sanders campaign, coming on the eve of the DNC presidential debate scheduled for Saturday, and just weeks before the first state primaries. Hours before the ban was announced, Sanders had picked up endorsements from the liberal group Democracy for America and the labor union Communications Workers of America.

WATCH: Bernie nabs two more major endorsements

In addition to the suspicious timing, critics of the ban have pointed out that the Sanders campaign cannot prove that it has destroyed files that it says it never had. Furthermore, there are questions about why the campaign is being penalized for what appears to be a vendor error.

“Based on what I know, this ‘breach’ wasn’t a breach at all,” Ian Patrick Hines, founder of the Beag digital agency, wrote on Friday. “It was a data leak, caused wholly and entirely by NGP VAN’s negligence, and Sanders’ campaign is being thrown under the bus for it.”

Both Briggs and Uretsky have said that NGP VAN experienced a similar problem in October, and promised to patch it after receiving a notice from Sanders’ staff.

While acknowledging that the vendor had a similar software failure before, Wasserman-Schultz said that no data was accessed in that instance.

However, NGP VAN described the Wednesday glitch as an “isolated incident.”

"We’re conducting a full audit to ensure the integrity of the system and reporting the findings to the DNC,” said Stu Trevelyan, NGP VAN’s chief executive, according to the New York Times.