October 22, 2021 / by 

 

The Undie Bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, Life Coached “Who Moved My Cheese” Weeks before Jihad

I’m still working on the serious parts of the reports from Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s FBI interrogations that Scott Shane liberated. But I wanted to share this detail, because it’s pretty funny.

In his fourth interview with the FBI on January 31, 2010 (the third after he started cooperating), Abdulmutallab told about how he tried to serve as a life coach for someone — perhaps a friend or a family member — back in Nigeria. He relied, according to the interrogation report, on principles he learned not from reading the Quran, but from the pop business book, Who Moved My Cheese.

That was in May 2009. Just two months later (two paragraphs in the interrogation report), Abdulmutallab decided to take set off to find Anwar al-Awlaki to undertake jihad.

In the last few days of July, 2009, UM [Abdulutallab] emailed the headmaster at SIAL [the school he would study at in Yemen]. He obtained the email address from SIAL’s website and sent the message using UM’s [redacted]

[snip]

This decision was entirely UM’s; no one encouraged him to go to Yemen to participate in jihad.

[snip]

For security reasons, UM told no one of his plan to travel to Yemen and participate in jihad.

Perhaps it’s not just funny and schmaltzy. It also demonstrates the degree to which Abdulmutallab was just looking for a path in life. Not long before he left to Yemen, he twice to propose to a woman, but (as he told the FBI, at least), his family wouldn’t permit him to marry yet.

Having been deprived that cheese, perhaps, he set off to martyr himself in the service of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.


Pre-Empting the Abdulmutallab “Confession” with a Drone Killing Decision

Make sure to read the update below: It’s possible McMahon’s estimate is off and this whole review process has gotten hopeless screwed up. 

Update: yes, this memo is actually the February 19, 2010 memo, not an earlier one. The referenced pages refer to the discussion from the February 19 memo. I’m marking out this post, because it appears to be incorrect.

If I’m understanding this heavily redacted memo from Colleen McMahon correctly, the government was reviewing whether it was legal to kill Anwar al-Awlaki before Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab implicated him in his High Value Interrogation Group obtained “confession.”

That’s because, in her discussion of what she, at times, calls “the first Barron memo,” she says this:

Bies Exhibits B, which is responsive to both FOIA requests, is a memorandum prepared by OLC six months prior to its preparation of the OLC-DoD memorandum and the Draft White Paper. It pertains specifically to the proposed al-Aulaqi operation that was the subject of the Draft White Paper and the OLC-DoD Memorandum. Written by David J. Barron, it is entitled “Lethal Operation Against Shaykh Anwar Aulaqi.” I will refer to it hereafter as the Bies Exhibit B or as “The First Barron Memorandum.”

The “OLC-DoD” memo is the July 16, 2010 memo. McMahon justifies the partial release of “the First Barron Memo” because the July 16, 2010 memo cites it specifically. Apparently, the reference “As we explained in our earlier memorandum, Barron Memorandum at 5-7” (page 94) refers to that memo, and further discussions on the Fourth and Fifth Amendment and EO 12333 rely on that memo.

But McMahon tells us this earlier memo — the first Barron memo considering the drone killing of Anwar al-Awlaki — was “prepared by OLC six months prior” to the July 16, 2010 one.

That would date it around January 16, 2010. Before Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab could have implicated Awlaki in his plot. We know that’s true because:

  • In the opening at Abdulmutallab’s trial, prosecutor Jonathan Tukel made it clear that Abdulmutallab’s Christmas Day confession attributed everything to “Abu Tarak.”
  • After that confession, Abdulmutallab stopped cooperating for almost a month.
  • According to the sentencing documents turned over, Abdulmutallab did not start “cooperating” until January 29, which accords with public claims as well.

That is, unless McMahon’s estimate is off by 2 weeks, there’s no way they could be relying on Abdulmutallab’s confession in their case against Awlaki. And yet that is the one thing the government points to to explain its changed view — from December 24, 2009 — that Awlaki was not operational.

The government appears to be aware of this problem. In trying to claim this document was still secret, they claimed “the date, title, and recipient of the analysis provided in the document relate to “entirely separate deliberative processes.” Indeed, it seems likely this was one of the memos the government was trying to bury after the Second Circuit ruled.

Because, when this memo gets released with a mid-January release date, it will be clear that the entire story they’ve been telling about Awlaki doesn’t hold up.

In any case, McMahon is having none of that claim.

The Government’s arguments are demonstrably untrue. There were no “separate deliberative processes” here; rather, the Government deliberated about  whether or not it could and should kill al-Aulaqi over the course of many months, during which time it asked OLC to render advice on a number of occasions.

The deliberation process is the same process. And it started before such time as the government had what it claims is first-hand evidence against Awlaki.

Update: There is one more possibility. That this memoreleased in August and dated February 19, 2010–is the memo in question. That would mean 1) That McMahon was off in her estimate by a month and 2) that she’s very confused about what she’s reviewing, given that her opinion dates to a month and a half after the memo was released. But the content and the title would match up. So it seems possible that’s the memo, at which point they had their first “confession” implicating Awlaki.


Lawfare Uses Incomplete Facts about Abdulmutallab Trial to Attack Dirty Wars

I’m going to take a break from noting how Lawfare ignores the public record on NSA spying — both of past failures to inform Congress, and of Intelligence Community lies about having done so — to note how Lawfare ignores the public record on drone killing.

On Sunday, Lawfare posted a long review of Jeremy Scahill’s book Dirty Wars. While it is not entirely negative, it stakes a claim on what the public record shows to argue that Scahill glossed over what a dangerous man Anwar al-Awlaki was. Yet the review itself ignores key details in the public record.

First, full disclosure. I’m friends with Scahill, and he acknowledged me in the book. But given that I’m not quoted, I suspect he acknowledged me because I’ve followed certain aspects of the narrative he covered — especially the evidence in the Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab case and the shoddy OLC case to support Awlaki’s killing — in more detail than most other reporters.

It’s for that reason that I find the review to be so problematic.

After spending two paragraphs praising the on-the-ground reporting Scahill did, Lawfare reviewer Nick Basciano complains,

Scahill simply skips over facts that don’t promote his narrative of Awlaki. One such example comes in Awlaki’s relationship with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “Christmas Day Bomber” who attempted to detonate almost three ounces of PETN aboard Northwest flight 253 on its descent to Detroit. A publically-available and widely-cited sentencing memorandum for Abdulmutallab describes how Awlaki housed Abdulmutallab in Yemen and took him to AQAP’s primary bomb-maker, Ibrahim Al Asiri. There, they “discussed a plan for martyrdom mission” and Awlaki himself gave the bombing plot “final approval and instructed Defendant Abdulmutallab on it.” Awlaki’s “last instructions,” the memorandum continues, “were to wait until the airplane was over the United States and then to take the plane down.” Without dealing with this evidence from the Abdulmutallab trial, Scahill admits that Awlaki was only “in touch” with Abdulmutallab, insisting that “no conclusive evidence [was] presented, at least not publicly, that Awlaki had played an operational role in any attacks.” Why such a relevant piece of evidence isn’t included in Scahill’s retelling of the Abdulmuttallab plot is unclear, but it isn’t the only instance of turning a blind eye to evidence linking Awlaki’s directly to terrorism.

The trial, of course, took place several weeks after the final event of Scahill’s narrative, the killing of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki [Correction: The trial took place on October 11 and 12, 2009, before Abdulrahman’s death. But as I note, the narrative presented there differs in key ways from the one Basciano adopts]. The sentencing took place several months later. That doesn’t mean Scahill couldn’t have included the evidence from “the trial.” But it was not part of the narrative arc Scahill told in the book.

Moreover, Basciano’s description ignores the reporting Scahill did do on Awlaki’s role in Abdulmutallab’s attempted attack, reporting based on talking to people who knew of Abdulmutallab’s movements in Yemen.

A local trial leader from Shabwah, Mullah Zabara, later told me he had seen the young Nigerian at the farm of Fahd al-Quso, the alleged USS Cole bombing conspirator. “He was watering trees,” Zabara told me. “When I saw [Abdulmutallab], I asked Fahd, ‘Who is he?’” Quso told Zabara the young man was from a different part of Yemen, which Zabara knew was a lie. “When I saw him on TV, then Fahd told me the truth.”

Awlaki’s role in the “underwear plot” was unclear. Awlaki later claimed that Abdulmutallab was one of his “students.” Tribal sources in Shabwah told me that al Qaeda operatives reached out to Awlaki to give religious counseling to Abdulmutallab, but that Awlaki was not involved in the plot. While praising the plot, Awlaki said he had not been involved with its conception of planning. (318)

After having complimented Scahill’s efforts to speak to people on the ground, Basciano did not mention that he had done so, too, in regards to the Abdulmutallab attack.

Moreover, if Scahill had used the material released in relation to the trial, the evidence would be much muddier than Basciano lays out. After all, the narrative Basciano finds centrally important is just one of three confessions Abdulmutallab made:

  • On December 25, 2009, Abdulmutallab claimed “Abu Tarak” prepared all aspects of the attack. A DOJ source has since said that Abu Tarak “was” Awlaki, but that claim conflicts with DOJ’s own sentencing memo, which attributes at least one activity Abdulmutallab attributed to Abu Tarak to Ibrahim al-Asiri.
  • Sometime after Dana Priest reported, on January 27, 2010, that Awlaki had already been placed on JSOC’s kill list, and April 15, 2010 Abdulmutallab said Awlaki had a central role, both in directing him to target the US specifically, but also in making his martyrdom video. This confession was made during an interrogation directed in part by the High Value Interrogation Group, after some time in solitary confinement, and was offered in conjunction with a plea negotations that never reached agreement. This narrative is the one Basciano presents as “fact.”
  • At his guilty plea, Abdulmutallab said Awlaki had inspired his attack, but he did not say Awlaki had prepared it (he did not name his co-conspirators, and he also insisted that Awlaki was still alive).

Basciano, in short, commits the same error he accuses Scahill of, ignoring the parts of the case record that don’t help his argument.

And there are a whole slew of reasons the sentencing memo narrative should not be accepted as fact unquestioningly. Dr. Simon Perry, who read Abdulmutallab’s interrogation reports, treated Abu Tarak and Awlaki as different people, indicating the reports never include a clear claim that Tarak was Awlaki. The sentencing memo narrative claims that AQAP’s greatest English language propagandist would make a martyrdom video with someone formally schooled in English and still learning Arabic, but make that video in Arabic, even while other English speaking terrorists made their videos in English for the greater propaganda value. It ignores Fahd al-Quso’s role in working with Abdulmutallab, which is especially interesting given his apparent central role in training UndieBomb 2.0. Oddly, Abulmutallab’s interrogators discussed Awlaki’s possible death during interrogations.

In addition, prosecutors planned the actual trial, during which Abdulmutallab would have had the opportunity to challenge this statement, so as not to rely on it. (Abdulmutallab objected to its use because it was only a proffer, and the prosecutors readily agreed to that demand.) I would suggest they were not confident the narrative would go unchallenged. Their failure to indict Awlaki, either in Abdulmutallab’s conspiracy charge or on his own, further supports that.

So Basciano’s claim Scahill should have presented the sentencing memorandum needs far more context than he gives it, because it not a “fact,” but just one version of the “facts,” which conflicts with other versions. We don’t know which version is correct, because the government chose not to present this narrative in the normal venue for assessing conflicting claims, a trial.

But there’s a detail in the public record — and important new reporting from Scahill’s book — that I find Basciano’s silence on just as troubling.

As I have noted, the WikiLeaks cable of the January 2, 2010 meeting between Ali Abdullah Saleh and David Petraeus, in which Saleh blithely notes both Nasir al-Wuhayshi and Awlaki escaped death in a US strike on Christmas Eve 2009, strongly suggests Awlaki was a named target of that attack. Scahill doesn’t cite the cable, which would have helped his case. Instead, Scahill relays that, on December 20, Saleh told Awlaki’s father his son had been killed in a strike on that day.

He said, ‘Nasser, have you heard the news?’ I said, ‘What news?’ He said, ‘Four hours ago, your son was killed by an American airplane.’ I said, ‘What American airplane? Where?’” Saleh told him the location, a mountainous area of Shabwah. Nasser hung up and started calling tribal leaders in the area, desperate for any information. There had been no air strikes reported. “I don’t know why the president told me that,” Nasser later told me, adding that he believes the Americans had told Saleh they were going to hit Anwar on that day but that the operation had been called off for some reason. Regardless of the reason, it was now clear: “The Americans really wanted to kill Anwar.” (314)

Nasser al-Awlaki is obviously not an unbiased observer (though if he had wanted to lie, he might have crafted a less convoluted story). But Nasser’s story, the WikiLeaks cable, and a number of contemporary reports all support the case that Anwar al-Awlaki was targeted by name, not just incidentally, the day before the UndieBomb plot.

That’s important because — another public record not cited by either Basciano or Scahill — according to the William Webster report, Anwar al-Awlaki was not considered to be operational until the UndieBomb attack, a day after (increasing amounts of evidence suggest) Awlaki may have been targeted based solely on Presidential authority. Significantly, FBI sources immediately started leaking that Abdulmutallab had implicated Awlaki in his Christmas day confession, which we now know to be false (he implicated “Abu Tarak.”) Thus, over a month before Abdulmutallab did implicate Awlaki in a plea proffer at the hands of HIG, FBI was already anonymously claiming he had. All just days after the government had apparently tried to kill Awlaki before they had definitive evidence he was operational.

Mind you, Abdulmutallab’s confessions are not the only piece of evidence implicating Awlaki (or not) in his attack. The sentencing memo also refers to electronic communications Abdulmutallab wrote to Awlaki. Though curiously, no one has ever questioned why FBI’s two Agents spending several hours a day monitoring Awlaki’s wiretap missed that particular dot in advance of the attack.

The public record shows two things. A good deal of conflicting information about Awlaki’s role in Abdulmutallab’s attack (as well as evidence that he grew even closer to Al Qaeda after that point, which Scahill shows too, though even some of that doesn’t support the claim he played a leadership role). And solid — but unconfirmed — evidence that the government tried to kill Awlaki before they had evidence he was operational, the key criterion that would (according to DOJ’s white paper) make such killing legal. I would suggest those two details must be presented together to understand both the incentives driving the plea deal DOJ tried to get Abdulmutallab to take and the circumstances under which DOJ decided it could kill an American citizen with no recognizable due process.

Basciano is absolutely entitled to attack Scahill’s book if he chooses. But for a guy claiming Scahill ignored key facts, he seems to be claiming a mighty selective set of “facts” himself.

Update: In related news, the 6th Circuit has scheduled a hearing for Abdulmutallab’s appeal of his conviction and sentence on December 5. Here’s a post describing the appeal; the most interesting claim is that 15 months in solitary confinement made Abdulmutallab incompetent to represent himself.


In Guilty Plea, Abdulmutallab Named Awlaki as Inspiration, Not as Co-Conspirator

In Eric Holder’s letter on drone killing today, he used Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s UndieBomb attack as the most extensive evidence justifying the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki.

For example, when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab — the individual who attempted to blow up an airplane bound for Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 — went to Yemen in 2009, al-Aulaqi arranged an introduction via text message. Abdulmutallab told U.S. officials that he stayed at al-Aulaqi’s house for three days, and then spent two weeks at an AQAP training camp. Al-Aulaqi planned a suicide operation for Abdulmutallab, helped Abdulmutallab draft a statement for a martyrdom video to be shown after the attack, and directed him to take down a U.S. airline. Al-Aulaqi’s last instructions were to blow up the airplane when it was over American soil. [Emphasis original]

That version of what Abdulmutallab said about his attack draws on Abdulmutallab’s confession to the High Value Interrogation Group at Milan Correctional Facility, last presented in a narrative submitted at Abdulmutallab’s sentencing. I commented on some oddities in that narrative here and will likely return to it.

Contrast that with how Abdulmutallab pled guilty to conspiracy to commit terrorism in court in October 2011.

In the name of Allah, the most merciful, if I were to say I the father did not do it, but my son did it and he conspired with the holy spirit to do it, or if I said I did it but the American people are guilty of the sin, and Obama should pay for the crime, the Court wouldn’t accept that from me or anyone else.

In late 2009, in fulfillment of a religious obligation, I decided to participate in jihad against the United States. The Koran obliges every able Muslim to participate in jihad and fight in the way of Allah, those who fight you, and kill them wherever you find them, some parts of the Koran say, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

I had an agreement with at least one person to attack the United States in retaliation for U.S. support of Israel and in retaliation of the killing of innocent and civilian Muslim populations in Palestine, especially in the blockade of Gaza, and in retaliation for the killing of innocent and civilian Muslim populations in Yemen, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan and beyond, most of them women, children, and noncombatants.

As a result, I traveled to Yemen and eventually to the United States, and I agreed with at least one person to carry an explosive device onto an aircraft and attempt to kill those onboard and wreck the aircraft as an act of jihad against the United States for the U.S. killing of my Muslim brothers and sisters around the world.

I was greatly inspired to participate in jihad by the lectures of the great and rightly guided mujahideen who is alive, Sheikh Anwar al-Awlaki, may Allah preserve him and his family and give them victory, Amin, and Allah knows best. [my emphasis]

He pleads to a conspiracy (the first crime he was charged with), but he doesn’t name the person or people with whom he conspired.

Then, immediately after not naming his co-conspirators, he says he was inspired to conduct this act by Anwar al-Awlaki. But even there, he doesn’t attribute Awlaki’s influence to conversations he had with Awlaki in Yemen — even Awlaki acknowledged to having contact with Abdulmutallab, though he maintained he did not order the attack. Rather, Abdulmutallab points to speeches Awlaki published, speeches which, according to other court documents, he listened to as early as 2005.

Thus, at a moment when Abdulmutallab controlled his own speech, when there was no question of coercion (though his current lawyer now challenges his competence at the time), in a speech in which he boasted of Awlaki’s role in inspiring his terror attack, he did not name Awlaki as his co-conspirator.

You could argue, I suppose, that Abdulmutallab did so out of some belief the government or news had lied about Awlaki’s death almost two weeks before (as he makes clear, he refused to believe Awlaki was dead), in an attempt to get him to implicate Awlaki, and that his tribute to Awlaki’s influence but not co-conspiracy was an attempt to push back. The FBI appears to have badgered Abdulmutallab about the likelihood Awlaki would be killed after he got put on a kill list, so it is possible he worried that if he implicated Awlaki he might lead to his death (which had already happened).

Whatever the explanation, these two narratives present two of the three confessions Abdulmutallab gave (the other being the one he gave just after he had been captured, as presented by AUSA Jonathan Tukel at trial, in which Abdulmutallab did not name Awlaki at all). And as the Administration’s newfound transparency rolls out tomorrow, it’s worth keeping in mind that the confession that implicates Awlaki is just one of three Abdulmutallab made, and not even the most recent known one.


Two Years after Missing Abdulmutallab because of a Spelling Variance, Government Missed Tsarnaev because of a Spelling Variance

On the Sunday shows yesterday, House Intelligence Chair Mike Rogers suggested that the government missed Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s trip to Russia in 2012 because he used an alias. This morning, Lindsey Graham explained that the problem was slightly different. Tamerlan’s travel documents misspelled his name.

“He went over to Russia, but apparently, when he got on the Aeroflot plane, they misspelled his name,” Graham, a South Carolina Republican said on Fox television this morning. “So it never went into the system that he actually went to Russia.”

Graham, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said in answer to a follow-up question that he did not know whether Tsarnaev, the 26-year-old terrorist suspect who died early Friday following a shootout with law enforcement, had misspelled his name on purpose.

The FBI “said Aeroflot gave us the information” that Tsarnaev had traveled there, Graham said, though he did not specify when that occurred.

Now, Lindsey doesn’t appear to know whether misspelling was the government’s or Aeroflot’s fault or Tamerlan’s deceit. Assuming Lindsey’s right about the larger point, whatever the source, a misspelling suggests a very different issue than an outright alibi (which would raise questions about the documents Tamerlan used, rather than the tracking of those documents).

Update: At the very end of the Senate Judiciary Committee Immigration hearing, Chuck Schumer said the error arose from Aeroflot typing in Tamerlan’s name incorrectly, so it appears it was not an attempt to deceive by Tamerlan.

Two years before Tsarnaev departed for Russia in January 2012, the government spent a good deal of time reviewing what prevented the government from responding to the several warnings about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the UndieBomber, to prevent him from traveling to the country. One of the problems (though by no means the most serious one), was that the cable conveying warnings from Abdulmutallab’s father spelled his name wrong.

As was widely reported within hours of the failed bombing attempt, Abdulmutallab’s father—a former Nigerian government minister and prominent banker—went to the US embassy in Abuja in November to warn that his son was involved with radical Islamists in Yemen and had broken off contact with his family. The family said they had given US officials extensive information about their son in the expectation that they would “find and return him home.”

In his prepared statement to the House Committee on Homeland Security on January 27, State Department Under-Secretary for Management Patrick Kennedy said: “In the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, on the day following his father’s November 19 visit to the Embassy, we sent a cable to the Washington intelligence and law enforcement community through proper channels (the Visas Viper system) that ‘Information at post suggests [Farouk] may be involved in Yemeni-based extremists.’”

Kennedy confirmed that all US intelligence agencies received warnings that Abdulmutallab was training with terrorists in Yemen. He noted that the initial diplomatic cable from Abuja misspelled Abdulmutallab’s name.

As I said, that was not the most important problem leading to missed warnings. But it was one identified in the lessons learned period.

Yet it appears likely that one of the potential (if Tamarlan’s trip ends up showing any contact with extremists, which it hasn’t yet) lessons learned here will be one we purportedly learned 3 years ago: that our software needs to be better at using wildcards to identify close but not exact spellings.

We’re already seeing hints that facial recognition may not have served as the miracle solution it often gets sold as. It now appears we might not even have the databases running our watchlist system working as well as it needs to.

Update: Swapped out the Politico version of this report for the BoGlo one, which was more informative and changed the language to reflect the additional information.

 


It’s Not Just Whether Nidal Hasan’s Emails Stuck Out, It’s Whether Abdulmutallab’s Did

I’ve been meaning to return to the Webster report on Nidal Hasan’s conversations with Anwar al-Awlaki. This conversation between Gunpowder & Lead and Intelwire about how alarming those emails were will be a start provides a good place to start.

Hasan’s emails should have raised more concern–but probably didn’t because of the sheer volume of Awlaki intercepts

G&L notes that certain details from the emails–such as his invocation of Hasan Akbar, a Muslim-American soldier who killed two officers in Kuwait–as an example that should have raised more concern than it did.

But more significant, his question to Awlaki didn’t actually deal with the valid question that he raised, the feeling of inner conflict between one’s faith and serving in the U.S. military. Instead, he leaped right to a question that should rightly trigger alarm: if Hasan Akbar died while attacking fellow soldiers, would he be a martyr? Hasan skipped over questions about whether serving in the U.S. military is religiously acceptable; whether going to war against fellow Muslims is a violation of religious principles. Instead, in addressing “some” soldiers who felt conflicted about fighting fellow Muslims, Hasan right away asked whether it was permissible to kill other U.S. soldiers in the way Hasan Akbar.

After a close analysis of a number of the emails, G&L refutes the representation of these emails as “fairly benign.”

I agree with that assessment (and would add that the suggestion, in a February 22, 2009 email, that Hasan was donating to entities that his mosque would not is another troubling detail). But I also agree with Intelwire. These emails, from an Army officer, surely merited more attention. But these emails, as they likely appeared among the stream of Anwar al-Awlaki communications, probably did not stick out.

Based on who Hasan was (a military officer), who he was talking to (a suspected 9/11 accomplice), and the fact he repeatedly tried to get Awlaki’s attention using a variety of stratagems, the case should have been escalated and Hasan’s superiors should have been informed.

But when you place the content of Hasan’s messages alongside all the other raw intelligence that counterterrorism investigations generate, it’s extremely hard to argue from a subjective, non-psychoanalytical reading that they represented a red flag.

Which is why this report has seemed poorly scoped to me. Because not only did Nidal Hasan’s emails fail to trigger further attention, but Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s contacts with Awlaki before Fort Hood did too.

In spite of the fact that the FBI had two people spending a significant chunk of each day (they claimed it took 40% or 3 hours of their work day; 88) reviewing communications tied to Awlaki, in spite of the fact that two men about to attack the US were in contact with Awlaki, “the FBI’s full understanding of Aulaqi’s operational ambitions developed only after the attempted bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day 2009.” (72)

The government also failed to respond to Abdulmutallab intercepts leading up to the Fort Hood attack

Consider: according to the report itself, Robert Mueller formally asked William Webster to conduct this inquiry on December 17, 2009 (though Webster’s appointment was reported over a week before then). Just 8 days later, another terrorist who had been in contact with Awlaki struck the US. Just 5 days after that, sources started leaking details of NSA intercepts from 4 months earlier (so around August) that might have warned about the attack.

Intelligence intercepts from Yemen beginning in early August, when Abdulmutallab arrived in that country, contained “bits and pieces about where he was, what his plans were, what he was telling people his plans were,” as well as information about planning by the al-Qaeda branch in Yemen, a senior administration official said. “At first blush, not all these things appear to be related” to the 23-year-old Nigerian and the bombing attempt, he said, “but we believe they were.”

It’s unclear how many of these intercepts were directly between Abdulmutallab and Awlaki, and therefore presumably reviewed by the FBI team in San Diego. But at least according to the sentencing materials submitted in the Abdulmutallab case (there are reasons to treat this with a bit of skepticism), there were substantive communications between Awlaki and Abdulmutallab.

Defendant provided this individual [who offered to connect him with Awlaki] with the number for his Yemeni cellular telephone. Thereafter, defendant received a text message from Awlaki telling defendant to call him, which defendant did. During their brief telephone conversation, it was agreed that defendant would send Awlaki a written message explaining why he wanted to become involved in jihad. Defendant took several days to write his message to Awlaki, telling him of his desire to become involved in jihad, and seeking Awlaki’s guidance. After receiving defendant’s message, Awlaki sent defendant a response, telling him that Awlaki would find a way for defendant to become involved in jihad.

Now, it’s possible this communication didn’t show up in the San Diego stream. Maybe the NSA didn’t share all its Awlaki intercepts with the San Diego team. The report notes that Awlaki and his allies were using means to hide their contacts (127). The report notes some forms of VOIP are not included under CALEA, which may have affected Abdulmutallab’s call. (128)  And the month after the Abdulmutallab attack and after Pete Hoekstra revealed the NSA intercepts on Awlaki, he allegedly implemented a sophisticated encryption system with Rajib Karim. But if the Awlaki collection, as it existed in 2009, failed both because of volume and because of technical reasons, shouldn’t those be part of the same inquiry?

By the end of December 2009, the FBI and NSA knew they had collected, reviewed, and failed to adequately respond to intercepts from two future terrorists. Why not include both in this study?

Hasan’s contacts (and presumably Abdulmutallab’s) were dissociated needles in an Awlaki haystack

The Webster report doesn’t provide exact details of how much intelligence was coming in on the Awlaki investigation. They redact the number of leads, investigations, and Information Intelligence Reports the intercepts produced–though they appear to be 3-digit numbers (see page 35). The report suggests that the San Diego team focused attention on Awlaki-related intercepts starting on March 16, 2008 (87; interestingly, in the extension period for PAA and before FAA imposed new protections for Americans overseas). Between March 2008 and November 2009, the JTTF team in San Diego reviewed over 29,000 intercepts. And the volume was growing: in earlier phases of the Hasan investigation, the San Diego team was averaging 1,420 intercepts a month; that number grew to 1,525 by the time of the Fort Hood attack. The daily average went from 65-70 intercepts a day to 70-75, though some days the team reviewed over 130 intercepts. And while he obviously had reasons to play up the volume involved, the Analyst on the San Diego team considered it a “crushing volume” of intercepts to review. Discussions of the volume of intercepts appear on page 35, 36, 46, 61, 87, 88, 92.

In any case, the emails between Hasan and Awlaki made up just one quarter of one percent of the volume the FBI reviewers reviewed over this period. While we don’t know how these emails compared to the rest of the traffic (a point the Webster report makes, (88) it is clear they made up just a tiny fraction of what the FBI reviewed.

There are two factors that must have made this review process more difficult.

First, the FBI’s database of intercepts sucked. When the first Hasan intercepts came in, it allowed only keyword searches; tests the Webster team ran showed it would have taken some finesse even to return all the contacts between Hasan and Awlaki consistently. More importantly, it was not until February 2009 that the database provided some way to link related emails, so the Awlaki team in San Diego relied on spreadsheets, notes, or just their memory to link intercepts. (91) But even then, the database only linked formal emails; a number of Hasan’s “emails” to Awlaki were actually web contacts, (100) which would not trigger the database’s automatic linking function. In any case, it appears the Awlaki team never pulled all the emails between Hasan and Awlaki and read them together, which would have made Hasan seem much more worrisome (though when the San Diego agent set the alert for the second email, he searched and found the first one).

In addition, the Agent in charge of the investigation took on a supervisory role in mid-July 2009, just before Abdulmutallab came on the scene. (45)  Given that the computer didn’t allow for any institutional memory, losing an investigative team member would effectively lose the work on any given investigation.

One more factor would have made it harder to respond appropriately to early Abdulmutallab intercepts. At least some of those reportedly needed to be translated (this also suggests that some of the most interesting intercepts involving Abdulmutallab weren’t between Awlaki and the Nigerian, as English would be the natural language for the two to converse in).

Even tracking the communications of one terrorist radicalizer, we’re drowning in data

All of which suggests we’re still collecting more information than we can even analyze. Whatever else I’ve said about the government’s evidence against Awlaki, I absolutely believe he was an obvious target for collection. But if we don’t have the technical capabilities to exploit even that one stream, what does that say about our intelligence gathering?

The Webster report does say that many of the problems with FBI’s intercepts database were fixed with a September 2011 update. And FBI changed training and access rules before that point to make sure key members of the JTTFs can use the database. But several of the recommendations made by the Webster team pertain to enhancing the database with both hardware and software improvements.

One of the big takeaways from the Webster report, it seems to me, is we were asking FBI officers to analyze a flood of data using the most archaic tools. Sure, there was reason enough they should have escalated the investigation into Nidal Hasan. But far more attention needs to be focused on our continued data failures, particularly among the belief more data is a cure-all.


What Is the Secret Item the Government Wants Withheld from Abdulmutallab?

As I tweeted earlier, I find the timing of the Anwar al-Awlaki assassination to be rather curious. The first time we might hear real evidence supporting the government’s claim that Awlaki was operational, and not just producing propaganda, will be in Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s trial, which starts next week.

Which is why I’m curious about the government’s motion for a protective order submitted last Friday, seeking to have one item withheld from Abdulmutallab (who, remember, is technically defending himself; Judge Edmunds granted the motion on Monday).

The United States of America respectfully moves pursuant to [Criminal Procedure and CIPA] for a second protective order precluding the discovery of a particular item which contains classified information. The classified information is not exculpatory, is privileged, and is otherwise not discoverable.

A page and a half of the seven page filing (which includes a half page redacted description of the item in question) is background which I don’t believe to be boilerplate; that is, I think it is background specific to this filing. And that background includes a close focus on Abdulmutallab’s ties to Awlaki.

The defendant told the [FBI] agents that he was inspired to commit jihad against the United States as a result of regular visits to the web sites of Anwar Awlaki, a member and leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (“AQAP”), which has been designated by the United States government as a foreign terrorist organization. The defendant stated that while in Yemen, he was able to make contact with members of Al Qaeda, who subsequently provided the defendant with the bomb and gave him training on its components. The defendant and other members of Al Qaeda discussed plans to attack the United States.

Now, I have no real suspicions about what this item is and I’m not suggesting the government is withholding it improperly.

But I find it curious that the government is, at this late date (and at a time when they were already watching Awlaki for their opportunity to kill him) finding items that must be withheld from Abdulmutallab. And I find the particular focus in this filing on his time with Awlaki–precisely the stuff that supports the claim Awlaki had given Abdulmutallab operational instructions–to be interesting.

Is there any reason why the government might be obliged to protect the assassination approval, which we know to be based in part on Abdulmutallab’s own testimony, from him?

Update: I’ve got just a few more major filings left, and thus far, I haven’t found one that mentions Awlaki. This is how the superseding indictment referred to Abdulmutallab’s time in Yemen, which is some of the most detail given on this front.

Defendant Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is a Nigerian national. In August 2009, defendant Abdulmutallab traveled to Yemen for the purpose of becoming involved in violent “jihad” on behalf of Al Qaeda.

[snip]

In preparation for a suicide attack, defendant Abdulmutallab practiced detonating explosive devices similar to one which he later received for an attack on a U.S. airliner.

The government moved for an earlier protective order in August. That motion doesn’t mention Yemen at all.

Update: This request for expert testimony again mentions Yemen.

The First Superseding Indictment, on which defendant will be tried, alleges that he traveled to Yemen to become involved in violent jihad on behalf of Al Qaeda, a designated terrorist organization, as part of a conspiracy to commit an act of terrorism transcending national boundaries.

And it describes the importance of English-language propaganda.

Finally, the government seeks to admit three minutes and forty two seconds of the Al Qaeda produced video, America and the Final Trap1 and portions of the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula publication Inspire. Through testimony by the Al Qaeda expert, see Argument A, supra, the government will establish that America and the Final Trap and Inspire are produced by Al Malahem media, an Al Qaeda production company, that products of Al Malahem media serve as official statements by Al Qaeda, and thus are unquestionably authentic. The Al Qaeda expert will explain the reasons Al Qaeda produces Arabic language videos with accurate English language subtitles, as is the case with America and the Final Trap. The expert also will establish that such productions are created by terrorist organizations as part of and in furtherance of their criminal conspiracies, for a number of reasons. Those reasons include the goals of terrorizing their targets into fearing that additional attacks will be forthcoming, and to convince their own supporters and possible recruits that the terrorists are successful and are gaining the upper hand.

And it mentions the toner cartridge plot.

The conspiracy to commit aircraft attacks against the United States had not ended, as demonstrated, at a minimum, by the contents of America And the Final Trap and the 2010 toner cartridge conspiracy by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Yet in none of these discussions–all of which involve actions in which Awlaki was central–does the filing mention the cleric.


“Fact Witness:” How Rod Rosenstein Got DOJ IG To Land a Plane on Bruce Ohr

As I said in my summary post, the DOJ IG Report on Carter Page shows there were three problems with the Carter Page FISA application:

  • It did not reveal that the first of several attempted recruitments of Page by Russia happened when he was approved for contact by the CIA
  • It failed to update the application as questions about the Steele dossier’s reliability became known over time
  • It did not include exculpatory evidence (though the report overstates whether information related to George Papadopoulos was exculpatory or the opposite)

On that level, the report is an important portrayal of the FISA application process.

But, as I hope to show generally in a follow-up, the report commits precisely the kinds of errors that it takes the FBI to task for. And in the case of its treatment of Bruce Ohr, the report not only commits those types of errors, but does so in a way that risks harming national security. The Report basically suggests Ohr should be punished for doing what DOJ has spent the last 17 years demanding everyone do: share information related to national security.

Since 9/11, DOJ has emphasized sharing information relating to national security

Ever since 9/11, all parts of the government — especially DOJ and FBI — have concluded over and over again that they have to find ways to better share information relating to national security. 9/11 happened, in part, because CIA didn’t tell FBI that suspected al Qaeda figures had entered the US and, in part, because FBI’s Minnesota field office didn’t tell others about a suspect trying to learn to take off but not land planes. We went to war in Iraq on a mistaken premise because information got stovepiped, rather than shared with people who could appropriately vet it. Nidal Hassan was permitted to remain in the military and so kill 13 people because the FBI’s surveillance systems did not flag his prior contacts with Anwar al-Awlaki. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab managed to board a plane and try to blow it up because a warning his father had given US authorities didn’t get entered into the flight screener. The FBI missed an opportunity to prevent the Boston Marathon bombing because warnings from Russia and Tamerlan’s travels didn’t get triggered for full investigation.

The emphasis on information sharing is not limited to terrorism. The government’s approach to cybersecurity, too, has focused on better sharing information among different parts of government and with the private sector. Indeed, in this case, the Democrats (not entirely credibly) claimed the FBI didn’t warn them aggressively enough of ongoing hacks and states (far more credibly) complained they didn’t get notice that Russia was targeting voting infrastructure.

DOJ’s Inspector General has repeatedly emphasized information sharing. Just during 2019, DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s office has released a number of reports calling for more information sharing. On December 20, multiple relevant Inspectors General submitted an assessment mandated by Congress on whether agencies are sharing cybersecurity threat information among themselves and with the private sector; it described continued barriers to sharing such information. On August 1, DOJ IG issued a report calling, in part, for better information sharing between the FBI and Homeland Security Investigations on the border with Mexico. On April 1, DOJ IG issued a report describing some of the impediments to informing victims when they’ve been targeted in a cyberattack, which may delay the victim’s ability to respond. On March 21, DOJ IG issued a report concluding, in part, that FBI Agents conducting assessments about whether terrorists might exploit maritime facilities need to gather better data.

Some of the key reports Horowitz has overseen historically also criticized inadequate information sharing. In March 2018, DOJ IG explained that the FBI gave Congress misleading information about Syed Rizwan Farook’s phone because people weren’t communicating internally about resources available to the Bureau. A September 2017 Report on whether there were known or suspected terrorists in FBI’s witness protection program complained that earlier information sharing recommendations had not yet been implemented. A March 2014 report on DOJ’s efforts to combat mortgage fraud found serious data integrity and collection issues. An October 2013 review of FBI’s responses to being badly burned by Chinese double agent Katrina Leung found the FBI needed to do better tracking and sharing of derogatory information from confidential human sources, a finding pertinent to this report. The September 2012 Fast and Furious report (largely completed prior to Horowitz’s arrival, but released just after he started) emphasized ATF’s inadequate information sharing with DEA and ICE.

None of these conclusions say, “share information, but only after it’s vetted.” DOJ’s Inspector General generally only complains about Department employees sharing information if it involves the sharing of investigative, classified, or sensitive information to unauthorized recipients (including but not limited to the media) or the improper use of whistleblower complaints to retaliate against them.

Ohr did neither of those things.

Indeed, this report is largely about FBI’s failure to share information. There’s even a complaint in there about the over two months it took for Christopher Steele’s first reports to get shared with FBI HQ.

FBI officials we interviewed told us that the length of time it took for Steele’s election reporting to reach FBI Headquarters was excessive and that the reports should have been sent promptly after their receipt by the Legat. Members of the Crossfire Hurricane team told us that their assessment of the Steele election reporting could have started much earlier if the reporting had been made available to them.

One of the three main complaints about FBI’s actions involves their failure to vet the dossier and share the results of that vetting in timely fashion. Along with State Department’s Kathleen Kavalec (whose feedback FBI failed to obtain for over a month), Ohr provided the best timely and accurate details about how the dossier fit into Fusion GPS’s election year process. But one of just nine recommendations DOJ’s IG made in this report is that DOJ’s Office of Professional Responsibility and DOJ’s Criminal Division review his actions.

The Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility should review our findings related to the conduct of Department attorney Bruce Ohr for any action it deems appropriate. Ohr’s current supervisors in CRM should also review our findings related to Ohr’s performance for any action they deem appropriate.

In short, DOJ’s IG has spent years saying “share more information, share more information, share more information.” Bruce Ohr did just that. In response, DOJ IG insinuated he should be fired for it.

Not only does this response undercut every single exhortation to share national security information since 9/11, but it bears similarities to other efforts by DOJ IG to help President Trump retaliate against his critics.

The IG Report misrepresents the nature of Bruce Ohr’s information sharing

The DOJ IG manages to attack a guy for doing what DOJ IG has repeatedly said people should do, share information, by obscuring the nature of his sharing.

While the IG Office declined to provide an on the record answer to a question not answered in the IG Report itself — why Ohr even came to be the subject of this investigation — the answer is clear: When Congress started nagging Rod Rosenstein about their conspiracy theories about Ohr, claiming that Ohr kept injecting the dossier back into the FBI to sustain an investigation into Trump, Rosenstein got the IG to expand the inquiry to include Ohr. The IG Report’s presentation of Ohr’s actions must be taken against the backdrop of what started it: Rosenstein’s capitulation to politicized claims that someone in his office was responsible for pushing the Steele dossier and therefore the investigation into Trump.

The IG Report never does for Ohr’s conversations what it does with Operation Crossfire as a whole (though the facts it presents merit it) — debunk the conspiracy theory about the role of the dossier in predicating the investigation. It leaves out or downplays some key facts. And its narrative does not fit the actual facts it presents about Ohr’s actions.

The facts it does present show:

  • Ohr and Steele had been sharing information of mutual interest for years as part of Ohr’s efforts to bring an information-sharing approach to combatting organized crime, including Russian organized crime
  • They were sharing information unrelated to the dossier specifically or Trump generally prior to and during their July 30, 2016 meeting
  • The report includes no evidence Ohr shared two allegations from the dossier learned at a July 30 meeting with anyone involved in opening Crossfire Hurricane before the investigation got opened
  • Steele continued to share information with Ohr that did not appear in the dossier (but that, because it involved credulity about Oleg Deripaska’s willingness to help the US government, was problematic for entirely different reasons)
  • Some information Ohr shared from Glenn Simpson was information the FBI otherwise pursued on its own
  • During the weeks after FBI closed Steele as a source, Ohr provided some of the most useful information to vet the dossier and the FBI regarded that information as part of the vetting process
  • The only time Ohr shared reports from the dossier directly with the Crossfire Hurricane team came during and was regarded as useful because it was part of this vetting process
  • The IG Report provides no evidence that Ohr pushed Steele’s Trump-related intelligence in 2017 (even though Steele was working with Dan Jones to continue to collect it)
  • The 2017 conversations Ohr had with Steele about the Trump investigation pertained either to protecting sources — something DOJ treated as a priority even in this Report — or to Steele’s concerns about the consequences of the various ongoing investigations on him and his sources
  • As he had for years, including in 2016, Steele shared information about other topics with Ohr in 2017, proving that this was not an exclusively Trump-focused effort
  • The complaints that Ohr didn’t inform his superiors about this sharing, while justified, are overstated

As noted, there are still problems with what Ohr did in 2016-2017, largely because he and Steele were being used by someone who — lots of evidence suggests — had a role in the 2016 operation, Oleg Deripaska. I plan to do a separate post on what the IG Report says about Deripaska, but the short version is Ohr and Steele’s coziness with him posed real counterintelligence risks. With a few exceptions, it appears that FBI limited the impact of those risks. And that counterintelligence risk is part of the downside of a call to share information widely, but not something unique to Ohr’s actions.

Steele and Ohr had been sharing information as part of their common pursuit against Russian organized crime for years

The IG Report splits up its introduction to how Steele came to work with FBI from its introduction of Ohr’s relationship with him. That means key details about Ohr’s career appear almost 200 pages after the IG Report’s first explanation of how Ohr introduced Steele to his handling agent, Mike Gaeta, described as Handling Agent 1.

In the later section, the IG Report explains Ohr’s background in prosecuting organized crime — including Russian organized crime — and how he moved into more of a policy role on the topic, including leading an Obama initiative to pursue transnational organized crime using an intelligence-based approach similar to the one used to fight terrorism (that is, one based on information sharing). That initiative included a focus on Russian organized crime from the start, and Ohr continued to share information on the topic.

Ohr told the OIG that as Chief of OCRS, he tried to develop the Department’s capacity for fighting transnational organized crime and that this was when he began tracking Russian organized crime.

[snip]

He stated that he was often the Department’s “public face” at conferences and was sometimes approached by individuals who provided information about transnational organized crime.

[snip]

Ohr told us that when he became the OCDETF Director, then DAG Jim Cole expressed his desire for Ohr to expand OCDETF’s mission to include transnational organized crime matters. He said that, as a result, he continued working on transnational organized crime policy and, in order to maintain awareness, tracked Russian organized crime issues.

That later section also describes how Ohr, who had been passing on information from Steele already, came to encourage FBI to open a direct channel with the former MI6 officer for investigative purposes while he continued to accept information from Steele for his own policy purposes.

Ohr said he introduced Steele to Handling Agent 1 so that Steele could provide information directly to the FBI in approximately spring 2010. 407 He told us that he “pushed” to make Steele an FBI Confidential Human Source (CHS) because Steele’s information was valuable. Ohr also said that it was “not efficient” for him to pass Steele’s information to the FBI and he preferred having Steele work directly with an FBI agent. According to Steele, Ohr and Handling Agent 1 coordinated over a period of time with Steele to set up his relationship with the FBI.

Ohr’s contact with Steele did not end after Steele formalized his relationship with Handling Agent 1 and the FBI.408 Ohr met or talked with Steele multiple times from 2014 through fall 2016, and on occasion those in-person meetings or video calls included Handling Agent 1. Ohr told us that he viewed meeting with Steele as part of his job because he needed to maintain awareness of Russian organized crime activities and Steele knew Russian organized crime trends better than anyone else. He said he knew Steele was also speaking to Handling Agent 1 at this time because Steele would say that he provided the same information to Handling Agent 1. Handling Agent 1 told us that he knew Steele and Ohr were in contact and talked about issues “at a higher policy level,” but stated that he did not know anything further regarding their interactions.

Here’s how the more general introduction of Ohr’s introduction of Steele to Gaeta appears without that context, almost 200 pages earlier:

Steele’s introduction in 2010 to the FBI agent who later became Steele’s primary handling agent (Handling Agent 1) was facilitated by Department attorney Bruce Ohr, who was then Chief of the Organized Crime and Racketeering Section in the Department’s Criminal Division in Washington, D.C. Ohr told the OIG that he first met Steele in 2007 when he attended a meeting hosted by a foreign government during which Steele addressed the threat posed by Russian organized crime. Ohr said that, after this first meeting with Steele, he probably met with him less than once a year, and after Steele opened his consulting firm, Orbis Business Intelligence, he furnished Ohr with reports produced by Orbis for its commercial clients that he thought may be of interest to the U.S. government. Ohr said that he eventually put Steele in contact with Handling Agent 1, with whom Ohr had previously worked.

By splitting these two discussions, the IG Report also splits the discussion of the centrality of Steele’s intelligence on Russian oligarchs from the discussion of Ohr’s conversations with Steele in 2016. For example, the FBI formally entered into a source relationship with Steele in 2013 after he shared a report on a fugitive Russian oligarch that proved really valuable.

For example, we learned that, in October 2013, Steele provided lengthy and detailed reports to the FBI on three Russian oligarchs, one of whom was among the FBI’s most wanted fugitives. According to an FBI document, an analyst who reviewed Steele’s reporting on this fugitive found the reporting “extremely valuable and informative” and determined it was corroborated by other information that the FBI had obtained.

The earlier discussion explains how Ohr remained personally involved with Steele in this period, including meeting with Oleg Deripaska (described as Russian Oligarch 1).

Handling Agent 1 told the OIG that Steele facilitated meetings in a European city that included Handling Agent 1, Ohr, an attorney of Russian Oligarch 1, and a representative of another Russian oligarch. 209 Russian Oligarch 1 subsequently met with Ohr as well as other representatives of the U.S. government at a different location. Ohr told the OIG that, based on information that Steele told him about Russian Oligarch 1, such as when Russian Oligarch 1 would be visiting the United States or applying for a visa, and based on Steele at times seeming to be speaking on Russian Oligarch 1’s behalf, Ohr said he had the impression that Russian Oligarch 1 was a client of Steele. 210

Note, the IG Report rather dishonestly either redacts or does not include the dates of these interactions involving Deripaska. Those interactions continued into 2016, and indeed, are — for better and worse — inseparable from any conversations they had about Steele’s work for Fusion.

In addition to providing information on Russian oligarchs that FBI found valuable, Steele also provided information on other topics, including on hacking and Russia’s sports doping.

Steele’s prior reporting to the FBI addressed issues other than Russian oligarchs. For example, we reviewed FBI records reflecting that he provided information on the hack of computer systems of an international corporation, and corruption involving former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. In addition, Steele told us he introduced Handling Agent 1 to sources with knowledge of Russian athletic doping and obtained samples of material for the FBI to analyze.

As a result, FBI paid Steele $64,000 in 2014 and 2015 and — it doesn’t say this explicitly but the math suggests — $31,000 for information in 2016, none of it for information related to the dossier.

As a result, in 2014 and 2015, the FBI made five payments to Steele totaling $64,000. By the time the FBI closed Steele in November 2016, his cumulative compensation totaled $95,000, including reimbursement for expenses.

All of these topics, of course — Russian oligarchs, Russian doping, and Russian hacking — are an integral part of Russian organized crime. All were part of Bruce Ohr’s job in 2016. That’s the kind of information sharing that the IG Report, with its rebuke of Ohr, is saying DOJ shouldn’t do, contrary to what both the IG and DOJ as a whole have been saying for decades.

By suggesting that sharing this kind of information with other experts on the topic merits discipline or firing, as the IG Report does, DOJ IG risks making us less safe.

The IG Report largely ignores Ohr and Steele’s discussions from the first half of 2016

The IG Report then examines what it claims to be Steele and Ohr’s “2016 contacts … regarding Russian issues.” It starts this story with a meeting the two had on July 30, 2016.

Suggesting that Ohr’s July 30, 2016 meeting with Steele is the beginning of the story of contacts they had in 2016 “regarding Russian issues” is profoundly dishonest — the kind of failure to disclose relevant information that the IG Report as a whole condemns the FBI for with regards to Carter Page’s FISA application.

A Judicial Watch FOIA for Ohr’s communications with Steele between January 1, 2015 and December 12, 2017 shows they spoke in March 2016.

In the Judicial Watch FOIA, DOJ redacted the dates on all their other emails in part because of ongoing investigations (suggesting they still had investigative sensitivity at the time DOJ responded to JW’s FOIA), but leaks from Congress to the frothy right made it clear that they also communicated in January, February, and earlier in July. As coverage of those leaks makes clear, the vast majority of their conversations earlier that year include discussion about Deripaska.

The emails, given to Congress by the Justice Department, began on Jan . 12, 2016, when Steele sent Ohr a New Year’s greeting. Steele brought up the case of Russian aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska (referred to in various emails as both OD and OVD), who was at the time seeking a visa to attend an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in the United States. Years earlier, the U.S. revoked Deripaska’s visa, reportedly on the basis of suspected involvement with Russian organized crime. Deripaska was close to Paul Manafort, the short-term Trump campaign chairman now on trial for financial crimes, and this year was sanctioned in the wake of Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election.

“I heard from Adam WALDMAN [a Deripaska lawyer/lobbyist] yesterday that OD is applying for another official US visa ice [sic] APEC business at the end of February,” Steele wrote in the Jan . 12 email. Steele said Deripaska was being “encouraged by the Agency guys who told Adam that the USG [United States Government] stance on [Deripaska] is softening.” Steele concluded: “A positive development it seems.”

Steele also asked Ohr when he might be coming to London, or somewhere in Europe, “as I would be keen to meet up here and talk business.” Ohr replied warmly the same day and said he would likely travel to Europe, but not the U .K ., at least twice in February.

An early July exchange includes the reference to a “favorite business tycoon” that the frothy right would — falsely — spin up into an early reference to Trump (it was another reference to Deripaska).

Then, on July 1, came the first apparent reference to Donald Trump, then preparing to accept the Republican nomination for president. “I am seeing [redacted] in London next week to discuss ongoing business,” Steele wrote to Ohr, “but there is something separate I wanted to discuss with you informally and separately. It concerns our favourite business tycoon!” Steele said he had planned to come to the U.S. soon, but now it looked like it would not be until August. He needed to talk in the next few days, he said, and suggested getting together by Skype before he left on holiday. Ohr suggested talking on July 7. Steele agreed.

Both of these passages, even with the error imagining a Deripaska reference invokes Trump, include discussion (bolded in both) about what appears to be other business. Yes, the reference in the IG Report explaining that Ohr thought Steele might be working for Deripaska, appearing 180 pages earlier, probably incorporates these references. But their earlier 2016 contacts — both about Deripaska (and therefore Russia) and other business — provide important context for the discussion of the July 30 meeting, which IG Report falsely suggests is the beginning of the discussions about Russia they had been happening since the beginning of the year. Not least, because those earlier contacts not only make it clear that their relationship did not shift radically when Steele started working on the dossier, but they also make it clear that Steele and Ohr’s contacts about Deripaska — however problematic — would not appear to be a break from their previous three year focus on Deripaska and other oligarchs.

Having ignored earlier conversations about other topics in 2016, the Report then provides this description of the first meeting where they did speak about Trump.

On Saturday, July 30, 2016, at Steele’s invitation, Ohr and Nellie Ohr had breakfast with Steele and an associate in Washington, D.C. Nellie Ohr told us she initially thought it was going to be a social brunch, but came to understand that Steele wanted to share his current Russia reporting with Ohr. According to Steele, he intended the gathering to be a social brunch, but Ohr asked him what he was working on. Steele told us that he told Ohr about his work related to Russian interference with the election. Ohr told us that, among other things, Steele discussed Carter Page’s travel to Russia and interactions with Russian officials. He also said that Steele told Ohr that Russian Oligarch 1 ‘s attorney was gathering evidence that Paul Manafort stole money from Russian Oligarch 1. Ohr also stated that Steele told him that Russian officials were claiming to have Trump “over a barrel.” According to Ohr, Steele mentioned that he provided two reports concerning these topics to Handling Agent 1 and that Simpson, who owned Fusion GPS, had all of Steele’s reports relating to the election. Steele did not provide Ohr with copies of any of these reports at this time. Later that evening, Steele wrote to Ohr asking to “keep in touch on the substantive issues” and advised Ohr that Simpson was available to speak with him. [my emphasis]

If you didn’t know better, you’d think that on July 30, 2016, Christopher Steele lured Bruce Ohr to brunch to push his dossier and only his dossier.

Except … that would be wrong.

Even leaving out the context of the years during with Steele and Ohr had discussed matters of Russian oligarchs generally and Deripaska specifically, as the IG Report does, Deripaska’s feud with Paul Manafort — while likely crucial background to the dossier — cannot be described as content from the dossier. The only possible reference to the feud in the dossier is a report, dated October 19, referring to “scandals involving MANNAFORT’s [sic] commercial and political role in Russia/Ukraine.” If the Deripaska feud were to be treated as part of the dossier, then so should be Deripaska’s outreach to Manafort on August 2, 2016, one of the most suspect unexplained events from 2016 (as I’ll show in a follow-up, this is a critical overlap, but one that points to other problems the IG Report barely mentions).

Plus, this passage appears to deliberately obscure behind the phrase “among other things,” the full range of what got discussed. As it appears, the phrase suggests Ohr and Steele discussed, among other things, Carter Page’s alleged trip to Moscow, with the other things being Deripaska’s feud with Manafort and Russia’s claim to have Trump “over a barrel.” This passage suggests those are the only three topics discussed.

But that’s false. As Ohr’s own notes and testimony make clear, in between the time he discussed Page and Russia having Trump over a barrel and Manafort’s dispute with Deripaska and when he told Ohr that Steele’s handling agent, Mike Gaeta, had two reports on this and Glenn Simpson had four, Steele discussed something about Russian doping.

Q Were there any other topics that were discussed during your July 30, 2016, meeting?

A Yes, there were. Based on my sketchy notes from the time, I think there was some information relating to the Russian doping scandal, but I don’t recall the substance of that. And based on my notes, it indicated that Chris Steele had provided some reports to the FBI, I think two, but that Glenn Simpson had more.

In other words, in addition to information about the Deripaska feud that doesn’t appear in the dossier, Steele also shared information on Russian doping, information on Russia that had nothing to do with Trump.

In other words, what appears to have happened is that Steele and Ohr had a meeting that, in significant part, reflected a continuation of their past discussions, especially regarding Deripaska, but also Russian doping, both key parts of Ohr’s work on organized crime. Along with that, Steele shared two details that showed up in some form in dossier reports. And Ohr seems to have treated that the way he treated other information he got from Steele. He shared it with Gaeta (who already had received the dossier-related information) and Deputy Assistant Attorney General for International Affairs Bruce Swartz (who had been concerned about Manafort’s corruption for several years). DOJ IG found no evidence he shared it with the people who opened Crossfire Hurricane and therefore no evidence that the dossier was part of the reason they opened the investigation.

Then, Ohr spoke with or met Steele or Glenn Simpson four more times before the election. According to the IG Report’s own descriptions, those four additional times Ohr shared information related to Steele before the election, it was often tangential to matters in the dossier, rather than the key allegations in it.

On August 22, for example, Ohr met with Glenn Simpson, who shared the names of three people who he thought might be intermediaries between Trump and Russia. The two of those that are public — Sergei Millian and (by description) probably Sergey Yatsenko — were of interest in the Mueller Report. In fact, Millian was already on the FBI’s radar, and in October 2016, FBI would open a counterintelligence investigation into him. According to the IG Report, Ohr probably shared that information with Gaeta and maybe with FBI’s Transnational Organized Crime people.

Then, on September 23, Ohr met Steele. They discussed who was funding Fusion GPS’s opposition research, allegations about the Alfa Bank/Trump Tower server, including a claim that Millian also used the Alfa Bank server, and that an individual working with Carter Page was a Russian intelligence officer. None of these topics show up in Steele’s publicly released dossier reports, though FBI obtained three reports that are not public. Steele would explain to DOJ IG that Orbis was not responsible for the Alfa Bank allegations, though would do a report on the relationship Alfa’s founders had with Putin from years earlier. According to the IG Report, Ohr probably shared this information with Bruce Swartz and possibly Gaeta.

On October 13, FBI’s Transnational Organized Crime-East people told Ohr (probably in response to a question from him) that counterintelligence agents had spoken with Gaeta; Ohr told them he had the names of three possible intermediaries, one of whom (Millian) FBI had either just or was about to open an investigation into. The IG Report is inconclusive about whether this conversation went any further.

Early on October 18, Steele contacted Ohr about Oleg Deripaska’s company, Rusal, being sanctioned (probably in Ukraine). Shortly thereafter, Ohr scheduled a meeting to discuss Steele’s information with Andrew McCabe, with whom he had worked on organized crime in the past. According to Lisa Page’s notes from the meeting, they discussed Steele’s background, Nellie Ohr’s by then past relationship with Fusion (her last day was September 24), and the three intermediaries Simpson was concerned about. They also talked about Deripaska.

Lisa Page’s notes from the meeting show that Ohr discussed Steele, provided Steele’s previous employment background, talked about issues concerning Russian Oligarch 1, and indicated that Simpson provided Ohr with names of intermediaries between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. Lisa Page also wrote that Ohr met with Russian Oligarch 1 the previous year and “Need report?”

DOJ IG was clearly skeptical of Ohr’s decision to set up this meeting after having been told, five days earlier, that counterintelligence agents were meeting with Gaeta. But there’s an explanation that would be bloody obvious if the Report hadn’t downplayed the continuity in Ohr and Steele’s discussions about Deripaska but instead treated all the information coming in from Steele as dossier-related information. This was, according to the description in the IG Report, a meeting significantly focused on Deripaska (which makes sense, given that’s what Steele called Ohr that morning about).

Deripaska was treated at the time less as a counterintelligence issue and more as a witness to Manafort’s corruption. Probably, this was Deripaska’s effort to work both sides, offering to provide dirt on Manafort in exchange for some protection against US sanctions (which makes the reference to “scandals involving MANNAFORT’s [sic] commercial and political role in Russia/Ukraine” in a Steele report the next day all the more provocative). Again, Ohr’s involvement in a Deripaska channel deserves far more attention, but of the kind that the IG Report only gives a passing mention to. But it’s an obvious explanation for why Ohr would schedule this meeting in the wake of discussing increasing pressure on Deripaska’s company.

In any case, at the meeting, per both McCabe and Ohr, Ohr provided information that was treated as derogatory information against Steele: that Nellie had worked with Simpson, that he was sharing his information with a number of others, and that he was collecting the information as opposition research. This is the kind of information the IG Report, generally, complains wasn’t shared widely enough. And yet it faults Ohr for sharing it.

Immediately after Mother Jones published an article demonstrably based on Steele’s reporting, the FBI closed him as a source. Up until that point, Ohr had shared:

  • The Carter Page allegation and a general allegation about Trump that might reflect the pee tape report
  • Information (however problematic from a counterintelligence standpoint) about Oleg Deripaska that showed up in the dossier in passing if at all
  • Information about another Russia-related topic, doping
  • Three names that Glenn Simpson thought might be intermediaries between Trump and Russia, two of whom FBI agreed were suspect
  • Allegations about Alfa Bank that Steele claims did not come from Orbis
  • What the IG Report treats as the kind of derogatory information it wishes FBI had obtained earlier

In short, the IG Report does not support two key conspiracy theories about Ohr’s role — that he introduced the Crossfire Hurricane team to the dossier before they opened the investigation into Trump, and that his information sharing amounted to an effort to push the dossier to the FBI (though he definitely believed Trump’s close ties to Russia merited scrutiny, and kept pushing the names of intermediaries the FBI seems to have considered concerning themselves). Nevertheless, the IG Report seems to treat Ohr’s information sharing as if those conspiracy theories were true.

The IG Report demands that FBI treat information from Ohr as vetting information but doesn’t give Ohr credit for helping FBI to vet the dossier

During the month from November 21 to December 20, Ohr had a series of meetings with the Crossfire Hurricane team or a Supervisory Agent from it (SSA 1) in which he provided extensive information about Steele, the dossier, Glenn Simpson, and his wife Nellie’s work for Simpson (most of which, by time and apparent volume, was paid for by right wing billionaire Paul Singer).

The IG Report makes it clear that the Crossfire Hurricane team treated the first of these meetings, on November 21, as part of their vetting process

Strzok, the OGC Unit Chief, SSA 1, and the Intel Section Chief told us the purpose of the meeting was to better understand Steele’s background and reliability as a source and to identify his source network.

Members of the team believed some of what Ohr shared in the following weeks might be helpful in the vetting process, too. Bill Priestap, FBI’s Counterintelligence Assistant Director, who was overseeing the investigation, described Ohr’s ties with Steele as potentially useful as a way to better understand the dossier.

Priestap stated that the FBI’s engagement with Ohr to learn what Steele had shared with Ohr was potentially useful in understanding Steele and verifying his reporting.

The agent he had follow-up meetings with found Ohr’s background helpful and though Ohr might be able to help him identify Steele’s source network (how the FBI succeeded in identifying Steele’s source network remains unexplained in the IG Report).

SSA 1 stated that he was in “receive mode” with respect to Ohr’s information and was trying to glean from it as much as he could about Steele’s source network. He also said that Ohr was well-versed in Russian organized crime and that, in SSA 1’s view, Ohr’s motives for coming to the FBI were “pure.”

The Supervisory Analyst involved with the investigation told the IG that “the Simpson thumb drive containing some of Steele’s reports the FBI did not already possess [was] an example of useful information from Ohr.”

There’s no evidence in the IG Report that Ohr attempted to protect Steele during this vetting process. Indeed, the IG Report focuses on a number of the potentially derogatory things Ohr says about Steele’s actions or his reporting.

  • Because of the impact of the dossier-based David Corn article, Ohr apologized to Gaeta for even introducing him to Steele
  • Ohr told Kathleen Kavalec (before or after a meeting on how to respond to Russian efforts to influence foreign elections) that Steele’s information was “kind of crazy”
  • Ohr warned the Crossfire Hurricane team that reporting of Kremlin activities “may be exaggerated or conspiracy theory talk,” so Steele cannot know whether all the reporting is true
  • Ohr revealed that Steele was “desperate” that Trump not be elected, but was providing reports for ideological reasons, specifically that “Russia [was] bad”(while notes from the meeting made it clear Ohr described this as ideological, the 302 of that meeting did not reflect that, which has formed a key sound bite to undermine Steele)

And in fact, a failure to integrate Ohr’s candid comments about Steele and the Fusion project — starting at least in October — make up two of the IG Report’s 17 complaints about the FBI’s actions.

11. Omitted information obtained from Ohr about Steele and his election reporting, including that (1) Steele’s reporting was going to Clinton’s presidential campaign and others, (2) Simpson was paying Steele to discuss his reporting with the media, and (3) Steele was “desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being the U.S. President”

12. Failed to update the description of Steele after information became known to the Crossfire Hurricane team, from Ohr and others, that provided greater clarity on the political origins and connections of Steele’s reporting, including that Simpson was hired by someone associated with the Democratic Party and/or the DNC;

Yet, even though the IG Report makes it clear the team treated these discussions as useful for vetting, and even though the IG Report criticizes the FBI for not including derogatory information Ohr provided in the Carter Page FISA applications, the IG Report does not treat these exchanges (or comments from State Department’s Kathleen Kavalec) as part of the vetting process, which it covered 80 pages earlier in the IG Report.

Effectively, then, DOJ IG advocates punishing Ohr for the most timely vetting of the dossier, including the details about Steele’s efforts to share it with the press.

DOJ IG protects sources while complaining that Steele attempted to protect his sources

The final period of Ohr’s communications with Steele covered by the IG Report spans from January 25 through November 2017. As I lay out in this post based on the underlying notes and FBI 302s, those communications largely consist of Steele panicking about the possibility his source will become exposed and require help, followed by Steele’s concern about the impact of ongoing investigations on him or his sources. There’s no mention — in the 302s, the IG Report, or the underlying notes — of Steele sharing any details of his ongoing intelligence collection into Trump, though there continue to be references to Deripaska.

Given that even Bill Barr’s DOJ kept all Steele’s identified sources (even Oleg Deripaska and Sergei Millian) anonymous and the earlier release of the 302s and his notes use the FOIA exemption designated for source protection, DOJ clearly agrees with the import of protecting his sources, so it’s hard to understand how this could be an improper conversation (even if you can be exasperated with Steele’s panic given that he himself was sharing his own raw intelligence with the press).

Moreover, as the IG Report admits far more forthrightly for this period than it did their earlier conversations, to the extent that Steele was sharing his intelligence reporting in 2017, it didn’t have to do with Trump.

In addition to the information summarized in this section, Ohr also provided information to the FBI from Steele and other individuals on unrelated matters.

[snip]

On February 14, 2017, Ohr shared with SSA 3 and Case Agent 8 information on topics Steele was working on for different clients, unrelated to Russia or Crossfire Hurricane.

[snip]

SSA 3 also told us that Ohr forwarded other information to the team regarding Russian oligarchs and other issues unrelated to the Crossfire Hurricane investigation.

Some of these conversations were ill-considered (such as the Deripaska ones, as well as an effort by the lawyer that represented both Julian Assange and Deripaska to trade Assange immunity for advance notice of the Vault 7 files). But the IG Report provides no indication that they were outside the norm for Ohr or detrimental to Trump.

The IG Report also makes it clear that, even though Steele was likely trying to get Ohr to help his clients, it never found evidence he did so. DOJ didn’t find any instance of it.

Ohr said that he understood Steele was “angling” for Ohr to assist him with his clients’ issues. For example, Ohr stated that Steele was hoping that Ohr would intercede on his behalf with the Department attorney handling a matter involving a European company. Ohr denied providing any assistance to Steele in this regard, and we found no evidence that he did.

Nor did the FBI.

The FBI personnel we interviewed generally told us that Ohr did not make any requests of the FBI, nor did he inquire about any ongoing cases or make any recommendations about potential investigative steps.

DOJ IG’s analysis of Ohr’s actions strains to reach a negative conclusion

Which brings us to the basis of the IG’s complaint about Ohr’s information sharing. The complaint is twofold. First, some people claimed that Ohr was doing stuff that was not part of his job. The most credible of those complaints came from the Transnational Organized Crime-East Section Chief, who complained Ohr should have just handed off Steele entirely to the FBI (though Ohr’s direct meeting with Oleg Deripaska happened with an FBI Agent).

The TOC-East Section Chief noted that while it was odd to have a high-level Department official in contact with Russian oligarchs, it did not surprise him that Ohr would be approached by individuals, such as Steele, who wanted to talk to the U.S. government. The TOC-East Section Chief said that it would be “outside [of Ohr’s] lane” to continue the relationship with these potential sources after their introduction to the FBI.

Steele’s handler, Mike Gaeta, knew that Ohr continued his contacts with Steele, even if he didn’t know the substance of them. And one of the Steele emails to Ohr the IG Report does not include in the report shows that Steele also knew his intelligence had to go through Gaeta.

Steele said he would send the reporting to a name that is redacted in the email, “as he has asked, for legal reasons I understand, for all such reporting be filtered through him (to you at DoJ and others).”

That’s consistent with the fact that Steele did not provide any of his reports directly to Ohr; only Simpson did that, during the period the FBI was vetting the dossier.

Meanwhile, contrary to the claims that Ohr was working outside his lane, the State Department believed he was an appropriate attendee for a meeting focusing on Russia’s interference in other countries’ elections.

On the morning of November 21, 2016, at the State Department’s request, Ohr met with Deputy Assistant Secretary Kathleen Kavalec and several other senior State Department officials regarding State Department efforts to investigate Russian influence in foreign elections and how the Department of Justice might assist those efforts.

Perhaps the most telling complaint that Ohr was doing something that was not his job came from Sally Yates, in whose office he worked during the most substantive conversations he had with Steele. She was “stunned,” she told the IG investigators, by press reports describing Ohr communicating to Steele about stuff that “involved the Russia investigation.”

Former DAG Yates told the OIG that she was “stunned” to learn through media reports in late 2017 that Ohr had engaged in these activities without telling her, and that she would have expected Ohr to inform her about his communications with Steele because they were outside of his area of responsibility and involved the Russia investigation. Yates added that she “would have hoped that [Ohr and the FBI] would have both told me” of Ohr’s meetings with Steele and the FBI. She further stated that Ohr’s activities needed to be coordinated with the overall Crossfire Hurricane investigation, which included ensuring that the chain of command at both the Department and FBI were jointly deciding what actions, if any, Ohr might take relating to the Russian interference investigation.

The thing is, Yates’ response is clearly a response to the press reporting, which claimed that every communication they had pertained to the Steele dossier and Trump, not the substance of what Ohr was doing — which included communications about Deripaska and Russian doping. This passage suggests that the IG didn’t inform her the depictions of what Ohr was doing in the press were significantly debunked by what IG investigators found. Yates also complained that Ohr should not have had the October 18 meeting with someone as senior as Andrew McCabe without informing her, which is a far more substantial complaint, except one that is inconsistent with her suggestion that Ohr communicated with the Crossfire Hurricane team without coordinating with FBI’s chain of command.

The person leading the Deputy Attorney General’s office (and therefore the Russian investigation once Jeff Sessions recused) after Yates got fired was Dana Boente. The IG Report shows that Boente — along with the entire rest of the chain of command, including Scott Schools, who would later demote Ohr — at least got briefed of his relationship with Steele in the context of the Russian investigation.

As described in Chapter Nine, handwritten notes of an FBI briefing Boente received in February 2017 indicate that the FBI advised Boente and others at that time-including [Stu] Evans, then Acting Assistant Attorney General Mary McCord, then Deputy Assistant Attorney General George Toscas from NSD, ADAG Tashina Gauhar, ADAG Scott Schools, and Principal ADAG James Crowell-that Ohr knew Steele for several years and remained in contact with him, and that Ohr’s wife worked for Simpson as a Russian linguist. However, none of these handwritten notes-which include separate notes taken by Boente, Schools, and Gauhar-stated that the FBI had interviewed Ohr or that Ohr had provided the FBI with information regarding Steele’s election reporting or Steele’s feelings toward candidate Trump. Schools told us that he recalled a meeting in which the OGC Unit Chief referenced Ohr having contact with Simpson, but Schools was not sure if it was during this February 2017 briefing or another briefing. Further, he said that it was a “passing reference,” and he never would have imagined that Ohr was having regular contact with the Crossfire Hurricane team and providing the information that appeared in the FD-302s. Boente and the other attendees of the February 2017 briefing told the OIG that they did not recall the FBI mentioning Ohr at any time during the investigation, and that they did not know about the FBI’s interviews with Ohr at the time of the FISA applications. According to Gauhar, she was surprised to find a reference to Ohr in her notes, and, regardless, she “would never have dreamt” back then what she knows now concerning the extent of Ohr’s interactions with Steele, Simpson, and the FBI on Steele’s election reporting.

The IG Report seems to complain that the FBI did not offer up Ohr’s role robustly enough. But it seems to hold Jim Comey responsible for having received the same level of briefing about Ohr’s actions (which question, in addition, seems to be premised on the public conspiracies about Ohr which may explain why he didn’t believe he had heard about them).

Comey told us he had no knowledge of Ohr’s communications with members of the Crossfire Hurricane investigative team and only discovered Ohr’s association with Steele and the Crossfire Hurricane investigation when the media reported on it. However, notes taken by Strzok during a November 23, 2016 Crossfire Hurricane update meeting attended by Comey, McCabe, Baker, Lisa Page, Anderson, the OGC Unit Chief, the FBI Chief of Staff, and Priestap, reference a discussion at the meeting concerning “strategy for engagement [with Handling Agent 1] and Ohr” regarding Steele’s reporting. Strzok stated that, based on his notes, he believed he informed FBI leadership that Ohr approached the FBI concerning his relationship with Steele and that Ohr relayed Steele’s information regarding Russia to the team. Although the OGC Unit Chief could not recall when it occurred, she recalled discussing with executive leadership that the FBI should not use Ohr to direct Steele’s actions. Because Strzok’s notes of the meeting were classified at the time we interviewed Comey, and Comey chose not to have his security clearances reinstated for his OIG interview, we were unable to show him the notes and ask about the reference in them to Steele and Ohr. [my emphasis]

That’s especially true given that no one was using Ohr to direct Steele’s actions, which seems to suggest that these questions were based, as many of the ones about Ohr, on a false premise arising from the conspiracy theories that the IG Report does not support.

If you ask top managers whether they knew of Ohr’s actions that exist only in conspiracy theories but not in reality, there may be a ready explanation for why they didn’t know about it: because (as the evidence presented in the IG Report makes clear) the conspiracy theories imagined things had happened that had not.

In any case, DOJ IG seems to hold the FBI to a much higher standard for asking questions at briefings, and so doesn’t treat a briefing where the entire chain of command at ODAG and NSD was informed Ohr had a role as informing them he had a role. Scott Schools, who was in that FBI briefing with NSD and was the one who demoted Ohr, complains that FBI didn’t fully report Ohr’s involvement to NSD.

Then Associate Deputy Attorney General Scott Schools, who was the highest-ranking career official in the Department, and ODAG’s ethics advisor, stated that the FBI had a responsibility to fully report Ohr’s involvement to the Department’s National Security Division (NSD) and that Ohr had a duty to report his involvement to ODAG’s managers.

But he also describes a conversation with Ohr where Ohr asked about ethics.

Schools recalled that Ohr, at some point, “stuck his head in the door and said, hey I just wanted to make sure there’s nothing I need to do. My wife works at Fusion GPS. I don’t know if there’s anything, like, a recusal, or anything I need to deal with.” Schools stated that he responded to Ohr by saying that “you don’t have anything to do with that case. We don’t typically in the Department recuse individuals who aren’t responsible for the matter giving rise to a potential conflict.” Schools believed this conversation occurred a couple months before Ohr’s conduct became public and may have coincided with Ohr’s October 2017 conversation with Rosenstein.

If this conversation really did not take place until October 2017, as Schools says, then his understanding of it is inaccurate, as by that point Nellie Ohr had not worked for Fusion for over a year and Ohr had had no role in sharing substantive information about the Russian investigation for ten months. If Ohr really did raise the issue of a conflict because of Nellie’s work, however, it’s much more likely it happened a year earlier, when he was providing the same warnings to FBI.

In any case, Ohr’s question to Schools, whenever it occurred, raises real questions about why DOJ IG included analysis finding that Ohr “displayed a lapse in judgment” for not choosing to use a process that, guidelines say, should not be characterized as a lapse.

The federal ethics rules further provide in Section 502(a)(2) that an employee “who is concerned that circumstances other than those specifically described in this section would raise a question regarding his impartiality should use the process described in this section [namely, to consult with Department ethics officials] to determine whether he should or should not participate in a particular matter.” However, while OGE has made clear that employees are “encouraged” to use this process, it also has stated that “[t]he election not to use that process should not be characterized … as an ‘ethical lapse.”‘ OGE 94 x 10(1), Letter to a Department Acting Secretary, March 30, 1994; see also, OGE 01 x 8 Letter to a Designated Agency Ethics Official, August 23, 2001. While OGE guidance establishes that Ohr did not commit a formal ethical violation, we nevertheless concluded that Ohr, an experienced Department attorney and a member of the SES, should have been more cognizant of the appearance concerns created by Nellie Ohr’s employment with Fusion GPS and availed himself of the process described in Section 502(a). We found that his failure to take this step displayed a lapse in judgment. [my emphasis]

The first step of using the process, it seems, is asking the department ethics advisor if he needed to use the process.

All of which brings us to Rod Rosenstein’s claimed surprise of hearing about Bruce Ohr’s relationship with Steele. Ohr warned Rosenstein that his role in introducing Steele to the FBI when he learned it might become public. Rosenstein didn’t pursue it until Congress started sowing conspiracy theories about it.

He complains, fairly, about the fact that he did not know Ohr had an operational role in the investigation (note, as with all of this, it’s unclear whether Rosenstein knew the actual details of what Ohr had done when, or whether he understood Ohr to have tried to sustain the Steele dossier, as the GOP was alleging).

Ohr told the OIG that in October 2017, Nellie Ohr received a call from someone at Fusion GPS who told her that the company was providing documents to Congress that identified her as a Fusion GPS contractor and that he realized that then DAG Rosenstein may need to know about this, so he asked to speak with him. He stated that he informed Rosenstein that his wife, Nellie Ohr, worked for Fusion GPS, and that it may become public that Ohr knew Steele and introduced him to the FBI. Ohr told the OIG that he was “prepared to go into more detail [with Rosenstein], but there really wasn’t time.” Rosenstein recalled having this conversation in Ohr’s office and told us he remembered Ohr stating he knew Steele and that Nellie Ohr worked for Fusion GPS. Rosenstein told us that during this conversation, Ohr may have also said that he introduced Steele to the FBI and that all this information may become public. Rosenstein described the meeting with Ohr as casual and noted that he was in Ohr’s office for another reason, which indicated to him that Ohr did not make a special effort to notify him. Rosenstein stated that he left the conversation under the impression that it was only a “strange coincidence” that Ohr knew Steele.

[snip]

Ohr told us that a few weeks after his first conversation with Rosenstein on this issue, he spoke with Rosenstein again and told him that he still talked to Steele from time to time and provided information to the FBI when Steele called him. Rosenstein told us that he recalled a second conversation with Ohr concerning Steele, which he believed occurred in early December 2017. According to Rosenstein, Ohr told him that he delivered a thumb drive containing Steele’s election reports to the FBI. Rosenstein said this information changed his perspective of the situation. Rosenstein told us the fact that Ohr

knew Steele was kind of just an unusual coincidence, but the idea that he had actually had some role in this Russia investigation was shocking to me…. [W]e had been fending off these Congressional inquiries. And they were asking for all sorts of stuff, [FD-]302s and things, and .. .l had no idea that somebody on my staff had actually been involved in … an operational way in the investigation.

[snip]

Rosenstein told us Crowell and Schools reported back to him with their findings, and at that point, he realized Congress likely knew more about Ohr’s activities with Steele and the FBI than anyone in ODAG did. Rosenstein told us:
[It] was really disappointing to me that he had made the decision originally not to brief anybody [on] our staff and then even after it was clear it was going to be … of national interest…he chose not to disclose, at least to [Schools], that he had actually had an active role …. I felt like, if you’re in the DAG’s office, and the DAG is getting criticized by Congress for the handling of the Russia investigation, you ought to tell him that you had some role in it.

Again, this is fair enough, though Rosenstein seems to be interpreting Ohr’s effort to inform him in the light that best serves himself.

The truly crazy take from Rosenstein’s office, however, came from Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General James Crowell, who complained about how bad it would be to have a “potential fact witness” on Rosenstein’s staff when he supervised the Russia investigation.

Crowell stated that he was “flabbergasted” when he learned about Ohr’s involvement with Steele and the FBI. He stated that Ohr should have informed ODAG officials of his relationships with Steele and Simpson and his provision of information from them to the FBI, especially when Rosenstein appointed the Special Counsel and began supervising the investigation, because “a potential fact witness” was on Rosenstein’s staff.

Rosenstein’s staff was worried about Ohr because it meant that “a potential fact witness” was on Rosenstein’s staff.

Bruce Ohr’s name shows up once in the Mueller Report, in a quoted August 2018 tweet from Trump, perhaps not unsurprisingly given that he dossier was not central to the Mueller investigation. Rosenstein’s name shows up 78 times.

If Rosenstein and his deputies were worried about potential fact witnesses working in his office while he supervised the investigation, he should have recused himself.

By all means, Ohr should have revealed his role earlier. Most of all, he should have done so to avoid being criticized for things he did not do — like sustaining the dossier with FBI — so we could instead have a conversation about what point sharing information moves from vetting and becomes a counterintelligence risk.

In a follow-up, I hope to compare what DOJ IG did with Ohr and what Andrew McCabe has substantiated in a recent court filing.

But the bigger concern, to me, is that because Rod Rosenstein was embarrassed by conspiracy theories that this IG Report rebuts, DOJ’s Inspector General wrote up a report that villainizes one of the few people in this Report that was doing what DOJ has spent almost two decades trying to get people to do: sharing information on national security in timely fashion. The facts presented in the report don’t support such a stance, and the facts left out of the report even further undermine the case.

Update: Added the weird ethics language.

OTHER POSTS ON THE DOJ IG REPORT

Overview and ancillary posts

DOJ IG Report on Carter Page and Related Issues: Mega Summary Post

The DOJ IG Report on Carter Page: Policy Considerations

Timeline of Key Events in DOJ IG Carter Page Report

Crossfire Hurricane Glossary (by bmaz)

Facts appearing in the Carter Page FISA applications

Nunes Memo v Schiff Memo: Neither Were Entirely Right

Rosemary Collyer Responds to the DOJ IG Report in Fairly Blasé Fashion

Report shortcomings

The Inspector General Report on Carter Page Fails to Meet the Standard It Applies to the FBI

“Fact Witness:” How Rod Rosenstein Got DOJ IG To Land a Plane on Bruce Ohr

Eleven Days after Releasing Their Report, DOJ IG Clarified What Crimes FBI Investigated

Factual revelations in the report

Deza: Oleg Deripaska’s Double Game

The Damning Revelations about George Papadopoulos in a DOJ IG Report Claiming Exculpatory Evidence

A Biased FBI Agent Was Running an Informant on an Oppo-Research Predicated Investigation–into Hillary–in 2016

The Carter Page IG Report Debunks a Key [Impeachment-Related] Conspiracy about Paul Manafort

The Flynn Predication

Sam Clovis Responded to a Question about Russia Interfering in the Election by Raising Voter ID


Trump Refuses to Keep This Country Safe from Terrorism

I thought a lot about two things over the weekend.

I thought about the line that disqualifies an otherwise excellent book on left wing terrorism in the 1970s, Days of Rage: “With the possible exception of the Ku Klux Klan,” author Bryan Burrough claimed close to the beginning of the book, “the United States until 1970 had never spawned any kind of true underground movement committed to terrorist acts.” The book, which spends a lot of time talking about left wing political violence in significant part stemmed out of a concern for the rights of African Americans, utterly dismissed (perhaps because it was so widely accepted it could barely be called “underground”?) America’s most persistent terrorist movement as such. The line has haunted me ever since as an example of the kind of blindness even experts have about the centrality of right wing terrorism in American history.

I thought, too, about Charlie Savage’s description in Power Wars of how Scott Brown’s team claimed that his polling showed he won the 2010 special election to replace Ted Kennedy chiefly because of perceptions of how Obama responded to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s failed Christmas Eve bombing, because Brown attacked Obama for wanting to give terrorists due process. Once Republicans learned that, they doubled down, encouraging voters to become more afraid.

In a question-and-answer period following his prepared remarks, [Mitch] McConnell candidly acknowledged the political advantage of hammering away at the issue, citing Brown’s victory.

“If this approach of putting these people in U.S. courts doesn’t play in Massachusetts, I don’t know where it sells,” McConnell said, adding: “You can campaign on these issues anywhere in America.”

As Savage describes, that was when Obama started caving on his efforts to adopt a more reasonable approach to terrorism, first reversing Eric Holder’s decision to try the 9/11 defendants in NYC, then launching an 18-month campaign to drone kill Anwar al-Awlaki, and ultimately failing to close Gitmo or hold torturers to account.

Now, as Savage tells it, all that arose solely out of the Abdulmutallab case. He barely covered an event that preceded it, one where Republicans very much set up the Brown lines: when Pete Hoekstra leaked information obtained via FISA collection showing that Nidal Hasan had had communications with Awlaki before his attack on Fort Hood, using it to suggest the Obama Administration should have prevented the Fort Hood attack by adequately analyzing collected communications. Republican efforts to exact a cost from Obama for a more reasonable approach to terrorism (which included demanding that Obama call Hasan’s attack on a military target, terrorism) actually preceded the Abdulmutallab attack, and it was far more deliberate than made out.

The point is, though, that it had the short term desired effect of breaking the Democratic super majority in the Senate and the longer term effect of making Obama reactive on terrorism, rather than proactive (even through the time, in 2013, when Massachusetts was successfully attacked at the Boston Marathon and polls showed people actually didn’t want any more limits on civil liberties). Republicans deliberately and successfully forced a president who wanted to be something other than a War on Terror President to instead be just that.

And now, 8 years after Mitch McConnell gleefully said Republicans should run on hard nose accountability for terrorist attacks everywhere, Republicans are whining that Democrats are treating Trump’s actions in advance of and in the wake of serial right wing terrorist attacks last week as a political issue.

In the wake of last week’s terrorist attacks, we have returned to a discussion we always have after such things, why we call Islamic terrorism terror, but call the targeting of black churches and Jewish synagogues hate crimes and the attempted assassination of Democratic figures bomb attacks. Popehat wrote a worthy lawsplainer, from the viewpoint of a former prosecutor, why domestic terrorists don’t get (immediately) labeled as terrorist attacks. 9/11 Commission staffer Daniel Byman acknowledged that while we don’t have the same legal structure for pursuing domestic terrorist as we do terrorism with a foreign nexus, for the Pittsburgh case, at least, we should probably use the T-word.

I’ve talked about why it is important to call domestic terrorism terrorism here: First, because not doing so results in an equal protection problem, where Muslims are more likely to be targeted in a sting because the FBI has greater access to the communications of still-innocent people with suspect people overseas. And, because calling something terrorism conceives of the possibility of a supporting network, and investigating that network might prevent deaths, such as those perpetrated by the networks of Eric Rudolph or Kevin Harpham.

But the government may not call these acts terrorism. That’s true, in part, because DOJ has invented a separate category to criminalize (impose the death penalty on) hateful motives with hate crimes designation. In addition, Jeff Sessions’ DOJ has adopted a deliberate policy of record-keeping to try to claim that the greatest threats come from outside the country, which is paralleled by their thus far unsuccessful attempt to brand the (US-born) MS-13 gang both as a threat sourced from Central American and as a threat to rival ISIS.

Trump’s effort to brand a group of refugees 1,000 miles from the border as a more urgent threat to the country than corruption or climate change or domestic gun violence — an effort which likely had a tie to both Cesar Sayoc’s terrorist attempt and Robert Bowers’ mass killing — is more of the same, an effort to claim that the most critical threats are foreign and anything he deems a threat is therefore un-American, also foreign.

Ultimately, the reason why the government won’t call last week’s attacks terrorism, however, is precisely the reason they should. Call them terror attacks, and the networks of support and enablers get investigated rather than just isolated men treated as lone wolves. Call them terror attacks, and we start to ask what responsibility Lou Dobbs or Steve King or Chris Farrell (or the people who vote for and fund them) — or Donald Trump — have for the attacks, in the same way we held Anwar al-Awlaki responsible for his role in the terrorist attacks that Scott Brown exploited to get elected.

Byman describes correctly how contentious this can be, because those espousing the same policies as terrorists don’t want to be associated with those terrorist acts.

[D]omestic terrorism often has a bigger political impact than jihadi violence. A foreign-based attack brings America together in the face of tragedy. But right-wing (and left-wing) violence is more likely to divide the country. Just this week, for example, 56-year-old Cesar Sayoc reportedly sent explosive packages to CNN, Democratic politicians, and others seen as “enemies” of Trump. Some right-wing voices immediately embraced conspiracy theories rather than recognizing his activities for what it was. Domestic terrorists poke at bigger political wounds than do jihadis, with at least some Americans sympathizing with their cause even as they reject their violent means.

In turn, observers often avoid the word “terrorism” because peaceful proponents of right-wing and left-wing causes don’t want to be lumped together, even by weak association, with terrorists. We can and should recognize that most political groups of all stripes abhor violence. Doing so—while also acknowledging that the groups and individuals who don’t belong in a separate category—will better enable the United States to isolate extremists and cut them off before the next tragedy.

Which is why this post bears the headline, “Trump refuses to keep this country safe from terrorism” rather than Trump fosters terrorism, even if I believe the latter to be the case.

Because until the time those willing to coddle Trump’s racism in the name of tribal loyalty are defeated politically, they will want to pitch questions about what to label Cesar Sayoc and Robert Bowers’ actions as an attack on themselves.

Instead, let’s make it an attack on Donald Trump’s basic competence as President, one the Republicans themselves, from top to bottom, have embraced.

It is the Republican party of Karl Rove and Mitch McConnell and Scott Brown and (Trump Ambassador to the Netherlands) Pete Hoekstra that says a President who won’t keep the country safe from terrorism must be defeated politically. Me, I’d rather deal with all this domestic terrorism by first closely tracking those accused of domestic violence (which would have the effect of preventing non-ideological mass killings along with the ideological mass killings and attempts) and by noting that under George W Bush and Obama, the FBI was actually pretty good at discovering right wing terrorism without the tools they have against Islamic terrorism. I’d rather Democrats run on the fear of losing health insurance or the impact of climate change or gun violence generally.

But not Republicans. Republicans believe that a President who refuses to take a very aggressive approach to terrorism should not be President. So for those Republicans, let’s make this an issue not of the ways Trump’s network fostered actions like we saw last week, but how Trump’s Administration has chosen not to combat terrorism.


10 Years of emptywheel: Key Non-Surveillance Posts 2011-2012

Happy Birthday to me! To us! To the emptywheel community!

On December 3, 2007, emptywheel first posted as a distinct website. That makes us, me, we, ten today.

To celebrate, over the next few days, the emptywheel team will be sharing some of our favorite work from the last decade. I’ll be doing probably 3 posts featuring some of my most important or — in my opinion — resilient non-surveillance posts, plus a separate post bringing together some of my most important surveillance work. I think everyone else is teeing up their favorites, too.

Putting together these posts has been a remarkable experience to see where we’ve been and the breadth of what we’ve covered, on top of mainstays like surveillance. I’m really proud of the work I’ve done, and proud of the community we’ve maintained over the years.

For years, we’ve done this content ad free, relying on donations and me doing freelance work for others to fund the stuff you read here. I would make far more if I worked for some free-standing outlet, but I wouldn’t be able to do the weedy, iterative work that I do here, which would amount to not being able to do my best work.

If you’ve found this work valuable — if you’d like to ensure it remains available for the next ten years — please consider supporting the site.

 

2011

DOJ Points to David Passaro’s Trial as Proof We Investigate Torture, But It Actually Proves John Yoo Should Be Tried

I’v written a lot about the David Passaro case — the only one associated with the CIA (he was a contractor training Afghans) to be prosecuted for abuse. This post summarizes a lot of the problems with his case and its use to claim that the US ever held itself responsible for torture.

One Year After Collateral Murder Release, DOD’s Networks Are Still Glaring Security Problem

I’ve done a ton of posts on how the government complains about leaks even while it fails to close gaping security holes in its networks. This was one of the first. A day later I noted that DOD wasn’t aspiring to fix these problems until 2013; as it would turn out, Edward Snowden managed to download NSA’s crown jewels before they would fix them.

The Drone War on Westphalia

For Independence Day in 2011, I wrote a post arguing that the damage the use of drones will do to sovereignty will pose a real problem, particularly with regard to the consent of the governed. In a follow-up I argued against invoking “national security” to defend policies that weaken the nation.

Pakistani Bounty Claims: Adnan Farhan Abd Al Latif and TD-314/00684-02

In the first of a bunch of posts on Adnan Farhan abd al Latif, I showed that the intelligence report on which his detention relied — which Judge Henry Kennedy had originally deemed unreliable — probably was used to detain a bunch of people turned over with bounties.

49% of Michigan’s African Americans to Lose Their Right to Self-Governance

As the country started focusing on MI’s disastrous policy of  emergency managers, I was the first to note the moment when half of Michigan’s African Americans lost their right to local self-governance.

2012

Why Has the Government Story about Who Ordered the UndieBomber to Attack the US Changed?

As part of an effort to justify drone-killing Anwar al-Awlaki, the government publicly blamed him for all of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attack on the US, blame which should have been shared with others in AQAP. This was the first post where I made that clear.

“The Gloves Come Off” Memorandum of Notification

I discovered that language the government was trying to keep classified in the ACLU torture FOIA was not (as ACLU mistakenly believed) a description about waterboarding, but instead an admission that torture was authorized by the September 17, 2001 Memorandum of Notification that authorized a bunch of other programs. This was a key post in a series of posts on the MON.

US Climate Inaction: Blame Dick Cheney

I believe the US invaded Iraq as part of a Cheney-backed decision to double down on our petroleum-based hegemonic position in the world, in the apparent belief that we can clean up the damage from climate change at some later time. Even our shift to fracking is more about power than the environment. Given how catastrophic the Iraq war was, and given everything that has occurred since — not least our singular abstention from the Paris Accord — I think it a particularly ironic choice.

Lanny Breuer Covers Up Material Support for Terrorism

I wrote a ton about Obama’s failure to prosecute the banks that blew up the world’s economy. One of the most important ones was the post where I laid out Lanny Breuer’s efforts to hide the fact that HSBC had materially supported al Qaeda. Of course, it got no more than a hand slap even as Pete Seda was in prison for closely related actions (Seda’s case ultimately blew up).

Other Key Post Threads

10 Years of emptywheel: Key Non-Surveillance Posts 2008-2010

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