Marcel Lehel Lazar walked out of Federal Correctional Institute Schuylkill, a Pennsylvania prison, in August 2021. The 51-year-old formerly known only as Guccifer had spent over four years incarcerated for an email hacking spree against America’s elite. Though these inbox disclosures arguably changed the course of the nation’s recent history, Lazar himself remains an obscure figure. This month, in a series of phone interviews with The Intercept, Lazar opened up for the first time about his new life and strange legacy.
Lazar is not a household name by unauthorized access standards — no Edward Snowden nor Chelsea Manning — but people will be familiar with his work. Throughout 2013, Lazar stole the private correspondence of everyone from a former member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to “Sex and the City” author Candace Bushnell.
There’s an irony to his present obscurity: Guccifer’s prolific career often seemed motivated as much by an appetite for global media fame than any ideology or principle. He acted as an agent of chaos, not a whistleblower, and his exploits provided as much entertainment as anything else. It’s thanks to Guccifer’s infiltration of Dorothy Bush Koch’s AOL account that the world knows that her brother — George W. Bush — is fond of fine bathroom self-portraiture.
“Right now, having this time on my hands, I’m just trying to understand what this other me was making 10 years ago.”
“I knew all the time what these guys are talking about,” Lazar told me with a degree of satisfaction. “I used to know more than they knew about each other.”
Ten years after his email rampage, Lazar said that, back then, he’d hoped not for celebrity but to find some hidden explanation for America’s 21st century slump — a skeleton key buried within the emails of the rich and famous, something that might expose those causing our national rot and reverse it. Instead, he might have inadvertently put Donald Trump in the White House.
When Guccifer — a portmanteau of Lucifer and Gucci, pronounced with the Italian word’s “tch” sound — breached longtime Clinton family confidant Sidney Blumenthal’s email account, it changed the world almost by accident. Buried among the thousands of messages in Blumenthal’s AOL account he stole and leaked in 2013 were emails to [email protected], Hillary Clinton’s previously unknown private address. The account’s existence, and later revelations that she had improperly used it to conduct official government business and transmit sensitive intelligence data, led to something like a national panic attack: nonstop political acrimony, federal investigations, and depending on who you ask, Trump’s 2016 victory.
In the end, the way Guccifer might be best remembered was in the cooptation of his wildly catchy name for a Russian hacker persona: Guccifer 2.0. The latter Guccifer would hack troves of information from Democratic National Committee servers, a plunder released on WikiLeaks.
Eventually, a federal indictment accused a cadre of Russian intelligence operatives of using the persona Guccifer 2.0 to conduct a political propaganda campaign and cover for Russian involvement. As the Guccifer 2.0 version grew in infamy, becoming a central figure in Americans’ wrangling over Russian interference in the 2016 election, the namesake hacker’s exploits faded from memory.
When I reached Lazar by phone, he was at home in Romania. He had returned to a family that had grown up and apart from him since he was arrested by Romanian police in 2014.
“I am still trying to connect back with my family, with my daughter, my wife,” Lazar said. “I’ve been away more than eight years, so this is a big gap, which I’m trying to fill with everything that takes.”
He spends most of his time alone at home, reading about American politics and working on a memoir. His wife supports the family as a low-paid worker at a nearby factory. Revisiting his past life for the book has been an odd undertaking, Lazar told me.
“It’s like an out-of-body experience, like this Guccifer guy is another guy,” he said. “Right now, having this time on my hands, I’m just trying to understand what this other me was making 10 years ago.”
Lazar has little to say of the two American prisons where he was sentenced to do time after extradition from Romania. Both were in Pennsylvania — a minimum-security facility and then a stint at the medium-security Schuylkill, which he described simply and solemnly as “a bad place.” He claimed he was routinely denied medical care, and says he lost many of his teeth during his four-year term.
On matters of his crime and punishment, Lazar contradicted himself, something he did often during our conversations. He wants to be both the righteous crusader and the steamrolled patsy. He repeatedly brought up what he considers a fundamental injustice: He revealed Clinton’s rule-breaking email setup and then cooperated with the Department of Justice probe, only to wind up in federal prison.
“Hillary Clinton swam away with the ‘reckless negligence’ or whatever Jim Comey called her,” Lazar said. “I did the time.”
Lazar was quick to rattle off a list of other high-profile officials who either knew about the secret Clinton email account all along or were later revealed to have used their own. “So much hypocrisy, come on man,” he said. “So much hypocrisy.”
And yet he pled guilty to all charges he faced and today fully admits what he did was wrong — sort of.
“To read somebody else’s emails is not OK,” he said. “And I paid for this, you know. People have to have privacy. But, you see, it’s not like I wanted to know what my neighbors are talking about. But I wanted to know what these guys in the United States are speaking about, and this is the reason why. I was sure that, over there, bad stuff is happening. This is the reason why I did it, not some other shady reason. What I did is OK.”
“I was inspired with the name, at least, because my whole Guccifer project was, after all, a failure.”
Though he takes pride in outing Clinton’s private email arrangement, Lazar said he found none of what he thought he’d uncover. The inbox-fishing expedition for the darkest secrets of American power instead mostly revealed their mediocre oil paintings and poorly lit family snapshots. He conceded that Guccifer’s legacy may be that Russian intelligence cribbed his name.
“I was inspired with the name, at least,” Lazar said, “because my whole Guccifer project was, after all, a failure.”
It can be difficult to tell where the Guccifer mythology ends and Lazar’s biography begins. Back in his hometown of Arad, a Transylvanian city roughly the size of Syracuse, New York, Lazar seems ambivalent about the magnitude of his role in American electoral history. “I don’t feel comfortable talking about me,” he told me. When I pressed in a later phone call, Lazar described 2016 as something of an inevitability: “Trump was the bullet in the barrel of the gun. He was already lingering around.”
While Lazar says James Comey’s October surprise memo to Congress — that Clinton’s emailing habits were still under investigation — was what “killed Hillary Clinton,” he didn’t deny his indirect role in that twist.
“Everything started with this mumbo jumbo email server, with this bullshit of email server,” he said. “So, if it was not for me, it was not for [Hillary’s] email server to start an investigation.”
Lazar now claims he very nearly breached the Trump inner circle in October 2013. “I was about to hack the Trump guys, Ivanka and stuff,” he told me. “And my computer just broke.”
How does it feel to have boosted, even accidentally, Donald Trump, a bona fide American elite? Though he described the former president as mentally unstable, a hero of Confederate sympathizers, and deeply selfish, Lazar is unbothered by his indirect role in 2016: “I feel like a regular guy. I don’t feel anything special about myself.”
At times, the retired hacker clearly still relishes his brief global notoriety. I asked him what it felt like to see his hacker persona usurped by Russian intelligence using the “Guccifer 2.0” cutout: Was it a shameless rip-off, or a flattering homage? Lazar said he first learned that Russia had cribbed his persona from inside a detention center outside D.C. He perked up.
“I was feeling good, it was like a recognition,” he said. “It made me feel good, because in all these 10 years, I was all the time alone in this fight.”
Lazar described his fight — a term he used repeatedly — as a personal crusade against the corrupt and corrupting American elite, based on his own broad understanding of the idea pieced together from reading about it online. It’s hard to dismiss out of hand.
“Look at the last 20 years of politics of United States,” Lazar explained. “It’s all lies, and it went so low in the mud. You know what I’m saying? It stinks.”
The quest to find and expose some smoking gun that could explain American decline became an obsession, one he said kept him in front of a computer for 16 hours a day, guessing Yahoo Mail passwords, scouring his roughly 100 victims’ contact books, and plotting his next account takeover. He understood that it might seem odd passion for a Romanian ex-cabbie.
“I am Romanian, I am living in this godforsaken place. Why I’m interested in this? Why? This is a good question,” he told me. “For us, for guys from a Communist country, for example Romania which was one of the worst Communist countries, United States was a beacon of light.”
George W. Bush changed all that for him. “In the time after 2000, you come to realize it’s all a humbug,” he said. “It’s all a lie, right? So, you feel the need, which I felt myself, to do something, to put things right, for the American people but for my soul too.”
It’s funny, Lazar told me, that his greatest admirers seemed to have been Russian intelligence, not the American people he now claims to have been working to inform. “We have somehow the same mindset,” Lazar mused. “Romania was a Communist country; they were Communists too.”
Hackers are still playing a game Guccifer mastered.
Since Lazar began this fight, the playbook he popularized — break into an email account, grab as many personal files as you can, dump them on the web, and seed the juiciest bits with eager journalists like myself — has become a go-to tactic around the world. Whether it’s North Korean agents pillaging Sony Pictures’ salacious email exchanges or an alleged Qatari hack of Trump ally Elliott Broidy exposing his foreign entanglements, hackers are still playing a game Guccifer mastered.
Despite having essentially zero technical skills — he gained access to accounts largely by guessing their password security questions — Lazar knew the fundamental truth that people love reading the private thoughts of powerful strangers. Sometimes these are deeply newsworthy, and sometimes it’s just a perverse thrill, though there’s a very fine line between the two. Even the disclosure of an innocuous email can be damaging for a person or organization presumed by the public to be impenetrable. When I brought this up to Lazar, his modesty slipped ever so slightly.
He said, “I am sure, in my humble way, I was a new-roads opener.”
The Lazar I’ve met on the phone was very different from the Guccifer of a decade ago. Back then he would send rambling emails to Gawker, my former employer, largely consisting of fragmented screeds against the Illuminati. The word, which he said he’s retired, nods to a conspiracy of global elites that wield unfathomable power.
“I’d like to call them, right now, ‘deep state,’” he said. “But Illuminati was back then a handy word. Of course, it has bad connotations, it’s like a bad B movie from Hollywood.”
Unfortunately for Lazar, the “deep state” — a term of Turkish origin, referring to an unaccountable security state that acts largely in secret — has in the years since his arrest come to connote paranoid delusion nearly as much as the word “Illuminati” does. Whatever one thinks of the deep state, though, the notion is as contentious and popular among internet-dwelling cranks — especially, and ironically for Lazar, Trump followers. Whatever you want to call it, Lazar believed he’d find it in someone else’s inbox.
“My ultimate goal was to find the blueprints of bad behavior,” he said.
Some would argue that, in Blumenthal’s inbox, he did. Still, after a full term of the Trump administration, the idea of bad behavior at the highest levels of power being something kept hidden in secret emails almost feels quaint.
While Lazar’s past comments to the media have included outright fabrications, racist remarks, and a reliance on paranoid tropes, he seemed calmer now. On the phone, he was entirely lucid, and thoughtful more often than not, even on topics that clearly anguish him. Prison may have cost him his teeth, but it seems to have given him a softer edge than he had a decade ago. He is still a conspiratorially minded man, but not necessarily a delusional one. He plans to remain engaged with American politics in his own way.
“I don’t care about myself,” he told me, “but I care about all the stuff I was talking about, you know, politics and stuff.” He said, “I’m gonna keep keeping one eye on American politics and react to this. I’m not gonna let the water just flow. I’m gonna intervene.”
This time, he says he’ll fight the powers that be by writing, not guessing passwords. “I am more subtle than I was before,” he tried to assure me.
“I’m gonna keep keeping one eye on American politics and react to this. I’m not gonna let the water just flow. I’m gonna intervene.”
At one point in our conversations, Lazar rattled off a sample of the 400 books he said he read in prison, sounding as much like a #Resistance Twitter addict as anything else: “James Comey, Andrew McCabe, Michael Hayden, James Clapper, all their biographies, which nobody reads, you know?”
While he still makes references to the deep state and “shadow governments” and malign influence of the Rockefeller family, he’s also quick to reference obscure FBI brass like Peter Strzok and Bill Priestap, paraphrase counterintelligence reports, or cite “Midyear Exam,” the Department of Justice probe into Clinton’s email practices.
It’s difficult to know if this more polished, better-read Lazar has become less conspiratorial, or whether the country that imprisoned him has become so much more so that it’s impossible to tell the difference. Lazar is a conspiracy theorist, it seems, in the same way everyone became after 2016.
Lazar, the free man, alluded to knowing that Guccifer was in over his head. He admitted candidly that he lied in an NBC News interview about having gained access to Clinton’s private email server, a claim he recanted during a later FBI interview, because he naively hoped the lie would grant him leverage to cut a better deal after his extradition. It didn’t, nor did his full cooperation with the FBI’s Clinton email probe.
When I asked Lazar whether he worried about the consequences of stealing the emails of the most famous people he could possibly reach, he said he believed creating celebrity for himself, anathema to most veteran hackers, would protect him from being disappeared by the state. In the end, it did not.
“At some point,” he said, “I lost control.”