Sessions Recusal: Election And/Or Russia?

Back when Jeff Sessions recused from the investigation into Trump, I noted that it was actually fairly narrow. He recused from election-related issues, but said nothing about Russia.

[T]he only thing he is recusing from is “existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States.”

There are two areas of concern regarding Trump’s ties that would not definitively be included in this recusal: Trump’s long-term ties to mobbed up businessmen with ties to Russia (a matter not known to be under investigation but which could raise concerns about compromise of Trump going forward), and discussions about policy that may involve quid pro quos (such as the unproven allegation, made in the Trump dossier, that Carter Page might take 19% in Rosneft in exchange for ending sanctions against Russia), that didn’t involve a pay-off in terms of the hacking. There are further allegations of Trump involvement in the hacking (a weak one against Paul Manafort and a much stronger one against Michael Cohen, both in the dossier), but that’s in no way the only concern raised about Trump’s ties with Russians.

Which is why I was so interested that Jim Comey emphasized something else in his testimony (see this post on this topic) — issues pertaining to Russia. [my emphasis throughout]

We concluded it made little sense to report it to Attorney General Sessions, who we expected would likely recuse himself from involvement in Russia-related investigations. (He did so two weeks later.)

This came up in his hearing yesterday, as well. First Wyden asked why Sessions was involved in Comey’s firing if he got fired for continuing to investigate Mike Flynn’s ties to Russia.

WYDEN: Let me turn to the attorney general. In your statement, you said that you and the FBI leadership team decided not to discuss the president’s actions with Attorney General Sessions, even though he had not recused himself. What was it about the attorney general’s interactions with the Russians or his behavior with regard to the investigation that would have led the entire leadership of the FBI to make this decision?

COMEY: Our judgment, as I recall, is that he was very close to and inevitably going to recuse himself for a variety of reasons. We also were aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an opening setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic. So we were convinced — in fact, I think we’d already heard the career people were recommending that he recuse himself, that he was not going to be in contact with Russia-related matters much longer. That turned out to be the case.

WYDEN: How would you characterize Attorney General Sessions’s adherence to his recusal? In particular, with regard to his involvement in your firing, which the president has acknowledged was because of the Russian investigation.

COMEY: That’s a question I can’t answer. I think it is a reasonable question. If, as the president said, I was fired because of the Russia investigation, why was the attorney general involved in that chain? I don’t know.

Then Kamala Harris asked whether there had been any official guidance on recusal.

HARRIS: Thank you. As a former attorney general, I have a series of questions in connection with your connection with the attorney general while you were FBI director. What is your understanding of the parameters of Attorney General Sessions’ recusal from the Russia investigation?

COMEY: I think it’s described in a written release from DOJ which I don’t remember sitting here but the gist is he will be recused from all matters relating to Russia or the campaign. Or the activities of Russia and the ’16 election or something like that.

HARRIS: So, is your knowledge of the extent of the recusal based on the public statements he’s made?

COMEY: Correct.

HARRIS: Is there any kind of memorandum issued from the attorney general to the FBI outlining the parameters of his recusal?

COMEY: Not that I’m aware of.

In every comment, Comey emphasized the Russian aspect. Indeed, most of his comments only mention Russia; just one instance mentions the election.

Indeed, yesterday’s hearing made it clear that Comey believed Sessions should be recused from Russia-related issues because of unclassified issues that include his undisclosed two (now three) conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

After yesterday’s hearing, DOJ issued a statement (reproduced in its entirely below), and also released an email that appears to serve as the written guidance on Sessions’ recusal. Yesterday’s statement makes the limitation to election-related issues even more explicit.

Given Attorney General Sessions’ participation in President Trump’s campaign, it was for that reason, and that reason alone, the Attorney General made the decision on March 2, 2017 to recuse himself from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States.

So while the email directive does state Sessions’ recusal “extends to Department responses to Congressional and media inquiries related to any such investigations,” not a single thing from DOJ ever mentions the word Russia.

There are actually many important potential implications of this.

It may mean, for example, that Sessions feels he had every right to help Trump fire Comey for his aggressive investigation in Russian issues — even in spite of the fact that his own actions may be reviewed in the Russian investigation — because the Flynn investigation pertained to issues that happened after the election.

More alarmingly, it may mean that there will be a squabble about the scope of Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation, which has already started digging into matters of Russian corruption that go back years, because Rod Rosenstein overstepped the scope of his own authority based on the limits of Sessions’ recusal.

Jim Comey thinks that as soon as February 14, it was clear that Sessions had to recuse from Russian related issues. Instead (all the evidence suggests) he recused only from election related issues.

The difference in understanding here is troubling.

Update: A friend notes that Jeff Sessions basically relied on Rod Rosenstein’s letter in recommending Trump fire Comey.

[F]or the reasons expressed by the Deputy Attorney General in the attached memorandum, I have concluded that a fresh start is needed at the leadership of the FBI.

The friend suggested that because Comey’s actions implicated the election, that means Sessions intervened in matter pertaining to the election (albeit for Trump’s opponent).

I’m not so sure. The phrasing of Rosenstein’s letter here is critical. Democrats may be angry at Comey for reopening the investigation (and sending a sure-to-leak letter to a stable of GOP Committee Chairs) days before the election. So to Democrats, Comey’s handing of the Hillary investigation pertains to the election.

But Rosenstein frames the issue in terms of “usurp[ing] the Attorney General’s authority” and “supplant[ing] federal prosecutors and assum[ing] control of the Justice Department.” While Rosenstein cites Eric Holder and Donald Ayer describing how Comey’s actions violated long-standing policies pertaining to comments in advance of elections, the Deputy Attorney General himself pitches it as insubordination.

Update: On Twitter Charlie Savage suggested the scope of the recusal could be taken from the language of Comey’s confirmation of the investigation in a HPSCI hearing on March 20, arguing that on March 2, when Sessions recused, the investigation and its ties to campaign members who spoke to Russians had not yet been disclosed.

I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts. As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.

Except this statement says nothing about Jeff Sessions’ recusal, and in Thursday’s testimony, Comey said he was unaware of a memo aside from Sessions public statement. As noted above, the email that DOJ has now pointed to says nothing about Russia.

Plus, even if the recusal originally intended to include the secret Russia investigation, the statement written on Thursday, very clearly in response to Comey’s testimony and repeated claims that Sessions had to recuse from Russia-related issues, said the only reason Sessions recused was because of the campaign tie. And as I noted in my original post on the scope of Sessions’ recusal, he played games in his admission of conversations with Sergey Kislyak as to whether they pertained to Russia.

Update: In a March 6 letter to SJC claiming he didn’t need to correct his false testimony on conversations with Sergey Kislyak, Sessions said that his recusal should cover Russian contacts with the Trump transition and administration.

The March 3, 2017, letter also asked why I had not recused myself from “Russian contacts with the Trump transition team and administration.” I understand the scope of the recusal as described in the Department’s press release would include any such matters.

This would seem to conflict with Thursday’s statement.

______________________________________________________________________________

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

THURSDAY, JUNE 8, 2017

DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE ISSUES STATEMENT ON TESTIMONY OF FORMER FBI DIRECTOR JAMES COMEY

 

WASHINGTON – In response to testimony given today by former FBI Director James Comey, Department of Justice Spokesman Ian Prior issued the following statement:

  • Shortly after being sworn in, Attorney General Sessions began consulting with career Department of Justice ethics officials to determine whether he should recuse himself from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States.

Those discussions were centered upon 28 CFR 45.2, which provides that a Department of Justice attorney should not participate in investigations that may involve entities or individuals with whom the attorney has a political or personal relationship. That regulation goes on to define “political relationship” as:

“[A] close identification with an elected official, a candidate (whether or not successful) for elective, public office, a political party, or a campaign organization, arising from service as a principal adviser thereto or a principal official thereof ***”

Given Attorney General Sessions’ participation in President Trump’s campaign, it was for that reason, and that reason alone, the Attorney General made the decision on March 2, 2017 to recuse himself from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States.

  • In his testimony, Mr. Comey stated that he was “not *** aware of” “any kind of memorandum issued from the Attorney General or the Department of Justice to the FBI outlining the parameters of [the Attorney General’s] recusal.” However, on March 2, 2017, the Attorney General’s Chief of Staff sent the attached email specifically informing Mr. Comey and other relevant Department officials of the recusal and its parameters, and advising that each of them instruct their staff “not to brief the Attorney General *** about, or otherwise involve the Attorney General *** in, any such matters described.”
  • During his testimony, Mr. Comey confirmed that he did not inform the Attorney General of his concerns about the substance of any one-on-one conversation he had with the President. Mr. Comey said, following a morning threat briefing, that he wanted to ensure he and his FBI staff were following proper communications protocol with the White House. The Attorney General was not silent; he responded to this comment by saying that the FBI and Department of Justice needed to be careful about following appropriate policies regarding contacts with the White House.
  • Despite previous inaccurate media reports, Mr. Comey did not say that he ever asked anyone at the Department of Justice for more resources related to this investigation.
  • In conclusion, it is important to note that after his initial meeting with career ethics officials regarding recusal (and including the period prior to his formal recusal on March 2, 2017), the Attorney General has not been briefed on or participated in any investigation within the scope of his recusal.

# # #

17-631

What a Difference a Day Makes to the Privileges of a King

As part of his testimony today, Jim Comey revealed he gave some or all of the nine memos he wrote documenting his interactions with President Trump to a friend, since confirmed to be Columbia Professor Dan Richman, who in turn shared one with the press.

COLLINS: Finally, did you show copies of your memos to anyone outside of the department of justice?

COMEY: Yes.

COLLINS: And to whom did you show copies?

COMEY: I asked — the president tweeted on Friday after I got fired that I better hope there’s not tapes. I woke up in the middle of the night on Monday night because it didn’t dawn on me originally, that there might be corroboration for our conversation. There might a tape. My judgement was, I need to get that out into the public square. I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter. Didn’t do it myself for a variety of reasons. I asked him to because I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel. I asked a close friend to do it.

COLLINS: Was that Mr. Wittes?

COMEY: No.

COLLINS: Who was it?

COMEY: A close friend who is a professor at Columbia law school.

The fact that Comey released the memo through Richman formed part of Trump lawyer Marc Kasowitz’s pushback after the hearing.

Of course, the Office of the President is entitled to expect loyalty from those who are serving in an administration, and, from before this President took office to this day, it is overwhelmingly clear that there have been and continue to be those in government who are actively attempting to undermine this administration with selective and illegal leaks of classified information and privileged communications. Mr. Comey has now admitted that he is one of the leakers.

Today, Mr. Comey admitted that he unilaterally and surreptitiously made unauthorized disclosures to the press of privileged communications with the President. The leaks of this privileged information began no later than March 2017 when friends of Mr. Comey have stated he disclosed to them the conversations he had with the President during their January 27, 2017 dinner and February 14, 2017 White House meeting. Today, Mr. Comey admitted that he leaked to his friends his purported memos of these privileged conversations, one of which he testified was classified. He also testified that immediately after he was terminated he authorized his friends to leak the contents of these memos to the press in order to “prompt the appointment of a special counsel.” Although Mr. Comey testified he only leaked the memos in response to a tweet, the public record reveals that the New York Times was quoting from these memos the day before the referenced tweet, which belies Mr. Comey’s excuse for this unauthorized disclosure of privileged information and appears to [sic] entirely retaliatory.

Kasowitz gets a lot wrong here. Comey said one memo was classified, but that’s the memo that memorialized the January 6 meeting, not the ones described here. And the NYT has already corrected the claim that the shared memos preceded the tweet.

And, as a number of people (including Steve Vladeck) have noted, even if this information were covered by executive privilege, even if that privilege weren’t waived with Trump’s tweet, it’s not a crime to leak privileged information.

Nevertheless, Kasowitz’ focus on purportedly privileged documents is all the more interesting given the pathetic conduct of Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and NSA Director Mike Rogers at yesterday’s 702 hearing. After a great deal of obfuscation from both men about why they couldn’t answer questions about Trump’s request they intervene in the FBI’s Mike Flynn investigation, Angus King finally got Rogers to admit that he and Coats never got a conclusive answer about whether the White House was invoking privilege.

King: I think you testified, Admiral Rogers, that you did discuss today’s testimony with someone in the White House?

Rogers: I said I asked did the White House intend to invoke executive privilege with respect to interactions between myself and the President of the United States.

King: And what was the answer to that question?

Rogers: To be honest I didn’t get a definitive answer. Both myself and the DNI are still talking–

King: So then I’ll ask both of you the same question. Why are you not answering these questions? Is there an invocation by the President of the United States of executive privilege? Is there or not?

Rogers: Not that I’m aware of.

King: Then why are you not answering the question?

Rogers: Because I feel it is inappropriate, Senator.

King: What you feel isn’t relevant Admiral. What you feel isn’t the answer. The question is why are you not answering the questions. Is it an invocation of executive privilege? If there is, then let’s know about it, and if there isn’t answer the questions.

Rogers: I stand by the comments I’ve made. I’m not interested in repeating myself, Sir. And I don’t mean that in a contentious way.

King: Well I do mean it in a contentious way. I don’t understand why you’re not answering our questions. When you were confirmed before the Armed Services Committee you took an oath, do you solemnly swear to give the committee the truth, the full truth and nothing but the truth. You answered yes to that.

Rogers: I do. And I’ve also answered that those conversations were classified. It is not appropriate in an open forum to discuss those classified conversations.

King: What is classified about a conversation about whether or not you should intervene in the FBI investigation?

Rogers: Sir I stand by my previous comments.

King: Mr. Coats? Same series of questions. What’s the basis for your refusal to answer these questions today?

Coats: The basis is what I’ve previously explained, I do not believe it is appropriate for me to–

King: What’s the basis? I’m not satisfied with I do not believe it is appropriate or I do not feel I should answer. I want to understand a legal basis. You swore that oath to tell us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and today you are refusing to do so. What is the legal basis for your refusal to testify to this committee?

Coats: I’m not sure I have a legal basis.

In other words, these men admit they had no legal basis (they’re not classified, no matter what Rogers claimed) to dodge the Committee’s question. But nevertheless they’re invoking things like their feelings to avoid testifying.

Clearly, the White House is playing a game here, invoking loyalty rather than law to compel silence from its top officials.

Kasowitz’ claims are, on their face, bogus. But taken in conjunction with the dodges from Coats and Rogers, they’re all the more problematic.

 

Sheldon Whitehouse and the Russia Investigation Deconfliction

Laura Rozen has me worried.

She pointed to this CNN article — posted sometime this afternoon — describing Sheldon Whitehouse’s worries that the scope of the DOJ inquiry into Trump and Russia might conflict with the Congressional inquiries.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, the top Democrat on a Judiciary subcommittee, told CNN Thursday that it’s possible Flynn is cooperating with the Justice Department — and that Capitol Hill has not been kept in the loop. He warned that congressional probes that have subpoenaed Flynn for records could undercut Mueller’s investigation if the former national security adviser is secretly working with the Justice Department as part of its broader investigation into possible collusion between Russian officials and Trump associates during the campaign season.

“There is at least a reasonable hypothesis that Mike Flynn is already cooperating with the DOJ investigation and perhaps even has been for some time,” said Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat.

Whitehouse added he had no direct evidence to suggest that Flynn is cooperating with the Justice Department. But he said there is circumstantial evidence to suggest that it could be the case, saying Mueller must immediately detail the situation to “deconflict” with probes on the Hill to “make sure that congressional investigations aren’t inadvertently competing with DOJ criminal investigations.”

[snip]

The Rhode Island Democrat said there are number of factors that suggest Flynn is working the Justice Department in its probe. He pointed out that “all reporting indicates they’ve got him dead to rights on a false statement felony” in his private interview with the FBI over his conversations last year with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. He also noted that Flynn has gone silent and retroactively signed on as a foreign agent to Turkey. And he noted that a federal grand jury has been summoned and has issued subpoenas to Flynn associates.

“So none of that proves anything but it’s all consistent with the hypothesis that he’s already cooperating,” Whitehouse told CNN.

“But that’s certainly a hypothetical case of a time when we do need need this de-confliction apparatus in place to make sure that congressional investigations aren’t inadvertently competing DOJ criminal investigations.”

Now, in point of fact, that deconfliction has already happened — or at least started. That’s what a May 11 meeting between Rod Rosenstein, Richard Burr, and Mark Warner was described as at the time.

Rosenstein was tight-lipped as he entered and emerged from a secure facility Thursday on Capitol Hill, where he huddled with Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Vice Chairman Mark R. Warner (D-Va.). The senators said the meeting had been scheduled before Comey’s ouster to discuss “deconfliction” — keeping the FBI’s and committee’s investigations of alleged ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government from stepping on each other’s toes.

According to reports, the meeting was scheduled before the Jim Comey ouster, so it should reflect the scope of what he was investigating, and therefore presumably resembles the scope of what Robert Mueller will investigate.

But there are three reasons why Whitehouse might be justified in worrying that Congress might fuck up what DOJ is investigating.

Obviously, the first is Mueller: the Comey firing might have reflected some new investigative approach (including Flynn immunity), or Mueller, because of the firing, might be scoping the investigation differently.

A second is jurisdiction. Whitehouse and Lindsey Graham have assumed jurisdiction over the Russia investigation for their subcommittee — and the Senate Judiciary Committee obviously should oversee the FBI. So it may be that former US Attorney Sheldon Whitehouse wants to have a deconflicting conversation for himself, because he knows how investigations work (and for all we know is getting tips from DOJ).

The other is another announcement from this afternoon: that the Senate Intelligence Committee had voted to give Chair Richard Burr and Vice Chair Mark Warner the ability to issue subpoenas themselves going forward, without consulting the committee.

The leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee now have broad authority to issue subpoenas in the Russia investigation without a full committee vote, Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said Thursday.

The panel voted unanimously to give Burr and Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) the blanket authority for the duration of the investigation into Russia’s election meddling and possible collusion with President Trump’s campaign.

The two Senate leaders must be in agreement in order to issue an order.

Now, as the article notes, thus far, the committee has asked for documents, not testimony. My suspicion is this might have more to do with ensuring Comey’s testimony — promised after Memorial Day — is “compelled” in such a way that DOJ can’t object.

Nevertheless, the power to subpoena does grant someone (like former Trump National Security Advisor Richard Burr) the ability to fuck with the DOJ investigation by potentially working at cross-purposes. To grant immunity (and therefore to fuck up the investigation as happened in Iran-Contra), I think Burr would still need the support of the committee.

Still, this still gives Burr far more power to thwart the investigation, with only Mark Warner (who unlike Whitehouse has never been a prosecutor) to prevent it.

In theory, I think Whitehouse is just pushing for jurisdiction (and for the ability to demand the same kind of deconfliction conversation Burr and Warner have gotten).

But upon reflection, I don’t think his concerns are entirely unjustified.

In any case, I trust Whitehouse (with whatever leftover ties he has to DOJ) to do this review more than Mark Warner.

Update: Burr told Bloomberg he has had a deconfliction conversation with Mueller.

Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, said he has contacted Mueller to discuss their parallel probes of Russian meddling.

The Scope of the Special Counsel Appointment Is Totally Inadequate

Rod Rosenstein just appointed former FBI Director (and, before that, US Attorney) Robert Mueller as Special Counsel to take over the investigation into Trump and his associates.

I’m agnostic about the selection of Mueller. He has the benefit of credibility among FBI Agents, so will be able to make up for some of what was lost with Jim Comey’s firing. He will be regarded by those who care about such things as non-partisan. With Jim Comey, Mueller stood up to Dick Cheney on Stellar Wind in 2004 (though I think in reality his willingness to withstand Cheney’s demands has been overstated).

But Mueller has helped cover up certain things in the past, most notably with the Amerithrax investigation.

My bigger concern is with the scope, which I believe to be totally inadequate.

Here’s how the order describes the scope:

(b) The Special Counsel is authorized to conduct the investigation confirmed by then-FBI Director James 8. Comey in testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on March 20, 2017, including:

(i) any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump; and

(ii) any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation; and

(iii) any other matters within the scope of 28 C.F.R. § 600.4(a).

As I read this, it covers just the investigation into ties between the Russian government and people associated with Trump’s campaign. Presumably, that includes Mike Flynn, Paul Manafort, and Carter Page, among others.

But there are other aspects of the great swamp that is the Trump and Russia orbit that might not be included here. For example, would Manafort’s corrupt deals with Ukrainian oligarchs be included? Would Flynn’s discussions with Turkish officials, or Rudy Giuliani’s attempt to excuse Turkey’s violation of Iran sanctions? Would the garden variety money laundering on behalf of non-governmental Russian mobbed up businessmen be included, something that might affect Manafort, Jared Kushner, or Trump himself?

And remember there are at least two other aspects of the Russian hacking investigation. Back in February, Reuters reported that San Francisco’s office was investigating Guccifer 2.0 and Pittsburgh was investigating the actual hackers.  Somewhere (San Francisco would be the most logical spot), they’re presumably investigating whoever it is that has been dumping NSA’s hacking tools everywhere. I’ve learned that that geography has either changed, or there are other aspects tied to those issues in other corners of the country.

Plus, there’s the Wikileaks investigation in EDVA, the same district where the Mueller-led investigation might reside, but a distinct investigation.

Any one of those investigations might present strings that can be pulled, any one of which might lead to the unraveling of the central question: did Trump’s associates coordinate with the Russian government to become President. Unless Mueller can serve to protect those other corners of the investigation from Trump’s tampering, it would be easy to shut down any of them as they become productive.

Yet, as far as I understand the scope of this, Mueller will only oversee the central question, leaving those disparate ends susceptible to Trump’s tampering.

Update: In its statement on the appointment, ACLU raises concerns about whether this would include the investigation into Trump’s attempt to obstruct this investigation.

Update: WaPo’s Philip Rucker reminds that Mueller is law firm partners with Jamie Gorelick, who has been representing both Ivanka and Kushner in this issue.

Update: Mueller is quitting WilmberHale to take this gig. He’s also taking two WilmerHale former FBI people with him. Still, that’s a close tie to the lawyer of someone representing key subjects of this investigation.

Update: One addition to the ACLU concern about investigating the Comey firing. In the most directly relevant precedent, the Plame investigation, when Pat Fitzgerald expanded his investigation from the leak of Plame’s identity to the obstruction of the investigation, he asked for approval to do so from the Acting Attorney General overseeing the investigation — in that case, Jim Comey.

The Acting Attorney General in this case is Rod Rosenstein. So if Mueller were as diligent as Fitzgerald was, he would have to ask the guy who provided the fig leaf for Comey’s firing to approve the expansion of the investigation to cover his own fig leaf.

Update: Petey noted to me that Jeff Sessions’ narrow recusal may limit how broadly Rosenstein’s order may be drawn. It’s a really interesting observation. Here’s what I said about Sessions’ recusal (which is very similar to what I tried to address in this post).

There are two areas of concern regarding Trump’s ties that would not definitively be included in this recusal: Trump’s long-term ties to mobbed up businessmen with ties to Russia (a matter not known to be under investigation but which could raise concerns about compromise of Trump going forward), and discussions about policy that may involve quid pro quos (such as the unproven allegation, made in the Trump dossier, that Carter Page might take 19% in Rosneft in exchange for ending sanctions against Russia), that didn’t involve a pay-off in terms of the hacking. There are further allegations of Trump involvement in the hacking (a weak one against Paul Manafort and a much stronger one against Michael Cohen, both in the dossier), but that’s in no way the only concern raised about Trump’s ties with Russians.

A Letter For Rod Rosenstein To Remember

Before there were internet “memes” there were still plays in words that conveyed huge situations beyond the mere words. One was “A Night To Remember”. Yes, even before the famous movie (and before the sappy and stupid “Titanic” decades later), it was an earlier book about the Titanic disaster. There are daily shipwrecks as significant as that now in the Age of Trump.

Today, specifically, we have the issue of a Titanic level shipwreck President crashing the country out of pettiness and ignorance like the United States has never ostensibly seen in its history.

Yesterday on Twitter, I noted that there was a telling omission in the supposed “justification” memo Rod Rosenstein penned and Trump initially claimed to rely on as basis for firing Comey:

This morning, in what I can only describe as an admirable mea culpa statement that I think will long be remembered, in a good way, Ben Wittes called for Rosenstein to go.

In the end, Trump was able to make set piece out of Rosenstein, because Rosenstein let himself be used as a set piece. And there’s an important lesson in that for the many honorable men and women with pending appointments and nominations to serve in senior levels of the Justice Department—or who are considering accepting such appointments. It took Donald Trump only two weeks to put Rosenstein, a figure of sterling reputation, in the position of choosing between continued service and behaving honorably—and it took only two days after that for the President to announce that Rosenstein’s memo, after all, was nothing more than a Potemkin village designed as a facade on Trump’s predecided outcome.

Do you really want this to be you? Do you really think Trump will not leave your reputation as so much roadkill on the highway after enlisting you in sliming someone else a week or two after you take office?

The lesson here is that these are not honorable people, and they will do their best to drag you down to their level. They will often succeed.

Here we are, and, thankfully, people in and around the Third Branch, especially in the all important Southern District of New York region (from which Comey has come and gone), are fighting back and speaking out with shouts that are from far more than the cheap seats people like me occupy.

Without further adieu, a letter from SDNY luminaries:

May 12, 2017

Rod J. Rosenstein, Esq.
Deputy Attorney General of the United States
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20530-0001

Dear Mr. Deputy Attorney General:

We, the undersigned, are former United States Attorneys and Assistant United States Attorneys for the Southern District of New York. In view of the recent termination of James Comey as Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, we are writing to request that you appoint a special counsel to oversee the FBI’s continuing investigation of Russian interference with the 2016 Presidential election and related matters. This letter is addressed to you rather than the Attorney General since he has recused himself from this matter.

As you know, Jim has had a long and distinguished career with the Department of Justice, beginning with his appointment as an Assistant United States Attorney in the Southern District of New York serving under United States Attorneys Rudolph Giuliani, Benito Romano and Otto Obermaier from 1987 through 1993. He returned to the Southern District of New York in 2002 when he was appointed the United States Attorney and served in that capacity until he was confirmed as Deputy Attorney General in 2003. Most of us came to know Jim when he worked in the Southern District of New York. Many of us know him personally. All of us respect him as a highly professional and ethical person who has devoted more than 20 years of his life to public service.

While we do not all necessarily agree with the manner in which he dealt with the conclusion of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, we sincerely believe that his abrupt and belated termination for this conduct, occurring months later and on the heels of his public testimony about his oversight of the investigation of Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election, has the appearance – if not the reality – of interfering with that investigation. Even if this investigation continues unabated, there is a substantial risk that the American people will not have confidence in its results, no matter who is appointed to succeed him, given that the Director of the FBI serves at the pleasure of the President. We believe it is critical in the present political climate and clearly in the public’s interest that this investigation be directed by a truly independent, non-partisan prosecutor who is independent of the Department of Justice, as is contemplated by 28 C.F.R. §600.1.

We are Republicans, Democrats and independents. Most importantly, we are proud alumni and alumnae of the Department of Justice. We do not suggest that you or any other members of the Department of Justice or a newly appointed Director of the FBI would not conduct yourselves properly, but the gravity of this investigation requires that even the appearance of political involvement in this investigation be avoided. As former prosecutors, we believe the only solution in the present circumstances would be to appoint a Special Counsel pursuant to 28 C.F.R. §600.1, and we urge you to take that course.

Respectfully submitted,

Jonathan S. Abernethy Elkan Abramowitz Richard F. Albert
Marcus A. Asner Martin J. Auerbach Miriam Baer
Thomas H. Baer Kerri Martin Bartlett Maria Barton
Andrew Bauer Bernard W. Bell Richard Ben-Veniste
Neil S. Binder Laura Gossfield Birger Ira H. Block
Suzanne Jaffe Bloom Barry A. Bohrer Daniel H. Bookin
Jane E. Booth Katharine Bostick Laurie E. Brecher
David M. Brodsky Stacey Mortiz Brodsky William Bronnermn
Jennifer K. Brown Marshall A. Camp Bennett Capers
Michael Q. Carey Neil S. Cartusciello Sarah Chapman
Robert J. Cleary Brian D. Coad Glenn C. Colton
William Craco Nelson W. Cunningham Constance Cushman
Frederick T. Davis John M. Desmarais Rhea Dignam
Gregory L. Diskant Philip L. Douglas Sean Eskovitz
Jesse T. Fardella Meir Feder Ira M. Feinberg
Michael S. Feldberg Steven D. Feldman Edward T. Ferguson
David Finn Eric P. Fisher Sharon E. Frase
Steven I. Froot Maria T. Galeno Catherine Gallo
Robert Garcia Kay K. Gardiner Ronald L. Garnett
Scott Gilbert Barbara S. Gillers Mark Godsey
Joshua A. Goldberg James A. Goldston Mark P. Goodman
George I. Gordon Sheila Gowan Stuart GraBois
Paul R. Grand Helen Gredd Bruce Green
Marc L. Greenwald Jamie Gregg James G. Greilsheimer
Jane Bloom Grise Nicole Gueron Barbara Guss
Steven M. Haber Jonathan Halpern David Hammer
Jeffrey Harris Mark D. Harris Roger J. Hawke
Steven P. Heineman Mark R. Hellerer William Hibsher
Jay Holtmeier John R. Horan Patricia M. Hynes
Linda Imes Douglas Jensen James Kainen
Eugene Kaplan Steven M. Kaplan William C. Komaroff
David Koenigsberg Cynthia Kouril Mary Ellen Kris
Stephen Kurzman Nicole LaBarbera Kerry Lawrence
Sherry Leiwant Jane A. Levine Annmarie Levins
Raymond A. Levites Donna H. Lieberman Jon Liebman
Sarah E. Light Jon Lindsey Robin A. Linsenmayer
Edward J.M. Little Mary Shannon Little Walter Loughlin
Daniel Margolis Walter Mack Kathy S. Marks
Mark E. Matthews Marvin S. Mayell Sharon L. McCarthy
James J. McGuire Joan McPhee Christine Meding
Paul K. Milmed Judith L. Mogul David E. Montgomery
Lynn Neils Peter Neiman Rosemary Nidiry
Tai H. Park Robert M. Pennoyer Elliott R. Peters
Michael Pinnisi Robert Plotz Henry Putzel
T. Gorman Reilly Emily Reisbaum Peter Rient
Roland G. Riopelle Michael A. Rogoff Benito Romano
Amy Rothstein Thomas C. Rubin Daniel S. Ruzumna
Robert W. Sadowski Elliot G. Sagor Peter Salerno
Joseph F. Savage John F. Savarese Edward Scarvalone
Kenneth I. Schacter Frederick Schaffer Gideon A. Schor
Julian Schreibman Wendy Schwartz Linda Severin
David Siegal Marjorie A. Silver Paul H. Silverman
Charles Simon Carolyn L. Simpson David Sipiora
Dietrich L. Snell Peter Sobol Ira Lee Sorkin
David W. Spears Katherine Stanton Franklin H. Stone
Richard M. Strassberg Howard S. Sussman Erika Thomas
Richard Toder Timothy J. Treanor Paula Tuffin
Peter Vigeland David Wales Max Wild
Samuel J. Wilson Elaine Wood Paulette Wunsch
Thomas Zaccaro Ellen Zimiles
cc: Jefferson B. Sessions III, Esq.
Attorney General of the United States

This letter reflects the signers’ personal views, not of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, the U.S. Department of Justice, or any other government agency.

But it is STRONG. And it is hard to not love it completely. It is raw, and it is real. Nobody asks defense attorneys to sign these missives, nor would anybody give them credit for having done so, were they asked.

This letter, however, is from the elite of the elite prosecutors, with SDNY historic names attached to it (and sometimes significant family names you may not notice), and there are a LOT of them. Almost wonder who did “not” sign on to it?

So, what does it mean?

A LOT. If you know how District level US Attorney offices run, but especially the hallowed ground in SDNY, then you know just how unusual and remarkable is this collective letter.

Think I mentioned “stunning” earlier. It is all that.

Why? Because the problem in the US is here, and it is now. It is bigger than Red versus Blue. It is bigger than Me versus You. It is bigger than all that. There is a fracture in the very machinery governance itself runs on.

The clockworks of governance are buggered. “We are Republicans, Democrats and independents.” And we all deserve better than the orange narcissist piloting the nation into an iceberg.

Tell The Truth: Who’s Been Bullying Who

The internet is a strange, yet consummately wonderful place. It allows for a feed from thought leaders and journalists, and with a new age real time speed emphasis, with the ability of other, and different on a granular level, voices to respond. It is a wonderful, even if still difficult, medium of interaction. Twitter is the epitome of it all.

Some will say Facebook, but I think Twitter is a far better avatar, especially for those that really think about hard news, current events and some sort of equilibrium of differing political discourse. Is it a little rough, unfiltered and harsh because of the proverbial 140 character limit? Sure. Absolutely. You hope that the friends you make are equal to the knowledge you take, whether you agree or disagree at any given point in time.

And then comes a day where a small fish gets accused of “bullying” by far bigger fishes. As if simple political and moral distinctions and views are “bullying” or otherwise unconscionable among people that have been agreeing and disagreeing/parrying with and against one another for give or take a decade.

Instead, I was always taught to go into a forum, argue like hell for what you think you must and/or right, and then go have a cocktail with your adversary, or at least shake hands and walk off with the understanding there are two sides to any legitimate argument. And, I will be honest, the “fight like hell” part is always job one. Indeed, criminal defense attorneys are schooled to zealously do just that.

So, recently, I was accused of “bullying”. By a friend with a perch several exponents above mine. I tried to explain. I apologized. And I got nothing in response but for the initial intellectual scorn and accusation that I was “bullying” the big fish.

But for the sadness, both on a personal and interpersonal plane, and greater intellectual one, I might laugh instead of cry. But I cannot. I will not.

The times are severe. The moment is critical. Let us all rise above this type of impertinent interaction. You can still respect and admire people you occasionally have real and very hard differences with. And you can talk to them. Both sides will be all the better for that discourse.

Trying times, civil rights, equality of justice, and the American experiment itself, depend on all of us.

[If you didn’t know, that was not just Slow Clapton in the video but also the one and only Yvonne Elliman too. She is, and always has been, special.]

The Tuesday Night Massacre

As you may have heard, President Trump has just fired FBI Director James Comey.

This is truly Nixonian Saturday Night Massacre level action.

Trump previously ran on, indeed got elected on, and likely only on, the scurrilous rogue comments of Jim Comey starting with the rogue July 5, 2016 press conference where Comey went off all rails on DOJ and PIN protocols. Here is the New York Times original report:

Mr. Comey’s dismissal was a stunning development for a president that benefited from the F.B.I. investigation of the Democratic nominee during the 2016 campaign. Separately, the F.B.I. also is investigating whether members of the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to influence the election.

The abrupt firing raised questions over whether Mr. Trump was trying to influence the Russia investigation. But he said he was following recommendations from the Justice Department, which criticized how Mr. Comey concluded the investigation into Mrs. Clinton.

Trump actually saluted Comey for this at one point. What a micro-moment self serving, not to mention narcissistic jerk.

If anybody in the world thought that that Trump is not as craven and against the Constitutional form of government we all were born and raised on, let that no longer be a question.

And if the media cannot get their heads out of their asses and realize the danger is NOT just to their First Amendment rights, but to the core of our republic and democracy, then they too should go the way of the dodo bird.

The foundations of this cowardly play were always there if you followed the ever changing voice and words of Donald Trump regarding the Clinton email issue and how the Department of Justice handled it.

If you thought this point, and/or Comey was the one only voice that could not be fired or silenced, you are sadly mistaken.

This blog has never, and I am being kind across my writings, Marcy’s and those of our departed friend Mary, been a friend of Jim Comey. He has long, and more presently, been an uneven and self serving voice mostly interested in preservation and enhancement of his own voice and position. Comey has been preternaturally successful at this.

That said, tonight I will be in Comey’s camp. I await what my friends at Lawfare and some others may have to say regarding the Tuesday Night Massacre.

Because this is a day that should live bright for a very long time.

People glibly talk about the “Resistance”. How naive. The battle is now, and has been joined in full by a cabal that makes Nixon look like a piker. The place is here. The time is now.

The temporal fact that it is Comey that tipped a scale of justice is immaterial. It has happened.

One Takeaway from the Five Takeaways from the Comey Hearing: Election 2016 Continues to Suffocate Oversight

The Senate Judiciary Committee had an oversight hearing with Jim Comey yesterday, which I live-tweeted in great depth. As you can imagine, most of the questions pertained either to Comey’s handing of the Hillary investigation and/or to the investigation into Russian interference in the election. So much so that The Hill, in its “Five Takeaways from Comey’s testimony,” described only things that had to do with the election:

  • Comey isn’t sorry (but he was “mildly nauseous” that his conduct may have affected the outcome)
  • Emotions over the election are still raw
  • Comey explains DOJ dynamic: “I hope someday you’ll understand”
  • The FBI may be investigating internal leaks
  • Trump, Clinton investigations are dominating FBI oversight

The Hill’s description of that third bullet doesn’t even include the “news” from Comey’s statement: that there is some still-classified detail, in addition to Loretta Lynch’s tarmac meeting with Bill Clinton and the intercepted Hillary aide email saying Lynch would make sure nothing happened with the investigation, that led Comey to believe he had to take the lead on the non-indictment in July.

I struggled as we got closer to the end of it with the — a number things had gone on, some of which I can’t talk about yet, that made me worry that the department leadership could not credibly complete the investigation and declined prosecution without grievous damage to the American people’s confidence in the — in the justice system.

As I said, it is true that most questions pertained to Hillary’s emails or Russia. Still, reports like this, read primarily by people on the Hill, has the effect of self-fulfilling prophecy by obscuring what little real oversight happened. So here’s my list of five pieces of actual oversight that happened.

Neither Grassley nor Feinstein understand how FISA back door searches work

While they primarily focused on the import of reauthorizing Section 702 (and pretended that there were no interim options between clean reauthorization and a lapse), SJC Chair Chuck Grassley and SJC Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein both said things that made it clear they didn’t understand how FISA back door searches work.

At one point, in a discussion of the leaks about Mike Flynn’s conversation with Sergey Kislyak, Grassley tried to suggest that only a few people at FBI would have access to the unmasked identity in those intercepts.

There are several senior FBI officials who would’ve had access to the classified information that was leaked, including yourself and the deputy director.

He appeared unaware that as soon as the FBI started focusing on either Kislyak or Flynn, a back door search on the FISA content would return those conversations in unmasked form, which would mean a significant number of FBI Agents (and anyone else on that task force) would have access to the information that was leaked.

Likewise, at one point Feinstein was leading Comey through a discussion of why they needed to have easy back door access to communication content collected without a warrant (so we don’t stovepipe anything, Comey said), she said, “so you are not unmasking the data,” as if data obtained through a back door search would be masked, which genuinely (and rightly) confused Comey.

FEINSTEIN: So you are not masking the data — unmasking the data?

COMEY: I’m not sure what that means in this context.

It’s raw data. It would not be masked. That Feinstein, who has been a chief overseer of this program for the entire time back door searches were permitted doesn’t know this, that she repeatedly led the effort to defeat efforts to close the back door loophole, and that she doesn’t know what it means that this is raw data is unbelievably damning.

Incidentally, as part of the exchange wit Feinstein, Comey said the FISA data sits in a cloud type environment.

Comey claims the government doesn’t need the foreign government certificate except to target spies

Several hours into the hearing, Mike Lee asked some questions about surveillance. In particular, he asked if the targeting certificates for 702 ever targeted someone abroad for purposes unrelated to national security. Comey seemingly listed off the certificates we do have — foreign government, counterterrorism, and counterproliferation, noting that cyber gets worked into other ones.

LEE: Yes. Let’s talk about Section 702, for a minute. Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act authorizes the surveillance, the use of U.S. signals surveillance equipment to obtain foreign intelligence information.

The definition includes information that is directly related to national security, but it also includes quote, “information that is relevant to the foreign affairs of the United States,” close quote, regardless of whether that foreign affairs related information is relevant to a national security threat. To your knowledge, has the attorney general or has the DNI ever used Section 702 to target individuals abroad in a situation unrelated to a national security threat?

COMEY: Not that I’m aware of. I think — I could be wrong, but I don’t think so, I think it’s confined to counterterrorism to espionage, to counter proliferation. And — those — those are the buckets. I was going to say cyber but cyber is fits within…

He said they don’t need any FG information except that which targets diplomats and spies.

LEE: Right. So if Section 702 were narrowed to exclude such information, to exclude information that is relevant to foreign affairs, but not relevant to a national security threat, would that mean that the government would be able to obtain the information it needs in order to protect national security?

COMEY: Would seem so logically. I mean to me, the value of 702 is — is exactly that, where the rubber hits the road in the national security context, especially counterterrorism, counter proliferation.

I assume that Comey said this because the FBI doesn’t get all the other FG-collected stuff in raw form and so isn’t as aware that it exists. I assume that CIA and NSA, which presumably use this raw data far more than FBI, will find a way to push back on this claim.

But for now, we have the FBI Director stating that we could limit 702 collection to national security functions, a limitation that was defeated in 2008.

Comey says FBI only needs top level URLs for ECTR searches

In another exchange, Lee asked Comey about the FBI’s continued push to be able to get Electronic Communication Transaction Records. Specifically, he noted that being able to get URLs means being able to find out what someone was reading.

In response, Comey said he thought they could only get the top-level URL.

After some confusion that revealed Comey’s lie about the exclusion of ECTRs from NSLs being just a typo, Comey said FBI did not need any more than the top domain, and Lee answered that the current bill would permit more than that.

LEE: Yes. Based on the legislation that I’ve reviewed, it’s not my recollection that that is the case. Now, what — what I’ve been told is that — it would not necessarily be the policy of the government to use it, to go to that level of granularity. But that the language itself would allow it, is that inconsistent with your understanding?

COMEY: It is and my understanding is we — we’re not looking for that authority.

LEE: You don’t want that authority…

(CROSSTALK)

COMEY: That’s my understanding. What — what we’d like is, the functional equivalent of the dialing information, where you — the address you e-mailed to or the — or the webpage you went to, not where you went within it.

This exchange should be useful for limiting any ECTR provision gets rushed through to what FBI claims it needs.

The publication of (US) intelligence information counts as intelligence porn and therefore not journalism

Ben Sasse asked Comey about the discussion of indicting Wikileaks. Comey’s first refusal to answer whether DOJ would indict Wikileaks led me to believe they already had.

I don’t want to confirm whether or not there are charges pending. He hasn’t been apprehended because he’s inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

But as part of that discussion, Comey explained that Wikileaks’ publication of loads of classified materials amounted to intelligence porn, which therefore (particularly since Wikileaks didn’t call the IC for comment first, even though they have in the past) meant they weren’t journalism.

COMEY: Yes and again, I want to be careful that I don’t prejudice any future proceeding. It’s an important question, because all of us care deeply about the First Amendment and the ability of a free press, to get information about our work and — and publish it.

To my mind, it crosses a line when it moves from being about trying to educate a public and instead just becomes about intelligence porn, frankly. Just pushing out information about sources and methods without regard to interest, without regard to the First Amendment values that normally underlie press reporting.

[snip]

[I]n my view, a huge portion of WikiLeaks’s activities has nothing to do with legitimate newsgathering, informing the public, commenting on important public controversies, but is simply about releasing classified information to damage the United States of America. And — and — and people sometimes get cynical about journalists.

American journalists do not do that. They will almost always call us before they publish classified information and say, is there anything about this that’s going to put lives in danger, that’s going to jeopardize government people, military people or — or innocent civilians anywhere in the world.

I’ll write about this more at length.

Relatedly (though technically a Russian investigation detail), Comey revealed that the investigation into Trump ties to Russia is being done at Main Justice and EDVA.

COMEY: Yes, well — two sets of prosecutors, the Main Justice the National Security Division and the Eastern District of Virginia U.S. Attorney’s Office.

That makes Dana Boente’s role, first as Acting Attorney General for the Russian investigation and now the Acting Assistant Attorney General for National Security, all the more interesting, as it means he is the person who can make key approvals related to the investigation.

I don’t have any problem with him being chosen for these acting roles. But I think it supremely unwise to effectively eliminate levels of oversight on these sensitive cases (Russia and Wikileaks) by making the US Attorney already overseeing them also the guys who oversees his own oversight of them.

The US is on its way to becoming the last haven of shell corporations

Okay, technically these were Sheldon Whitehouse and Amy Klobuchar comments about Russia. But as part of a (typically prosecutorial) line of questioning about things related to the Russian investigation, Whitehouse got Comey to acknowledge that as the EU tries to crack down on shell companies, that increasingly leaves the US as the remaining haven for shell companies that can hide who is paying for things like election hacks.

WHITEHOUSE: And lastly, the European Union is moving towards requiring transparency of incorporations so that shell corporations are harder to create. That risks leaving the United States as the last big haven for shell corporations. Is it true that shell corporations are often used as a device for criminal money laundering?

COMEY: Yes.

[snip]

WHITEHOUSE: What do you think the hazards are for the United States with respect to election interference of continuing to maintain a system in which shell corporations — that you never know who’s really behind them are common place?

COMEY: I suppose one risk is it makes it easier for illicit money to make its way into a political environment.

WHITEHOUSE: And that’s not a good thing.

COMEY: I don’t think it is.

And Klobuchar addressed the point specifically as it relates to high end real estate (not mentioning that both Trump and Paul Manafort have been alleged to be involved in such transactions).

There have been recent concerns that organized criminals, including Russians, are using the luxury real estate market to launder money. The Treasury Department has noted a significant rise in the use of shell companies in real estate transactions, because foreign buyers use them as a way to hide their identity and find a safe haven for their money in the U.S. In fact, nearly half of all homes in the U.S. worth at least $5 million are purchased using shell companies.

Does the anonymity associated with the use of shell companies to buy real estate hurt the FBI’s ability to trace the flow of illicit money and fight organized crime? And do you support efforts by the Treasury Department to use its existing authority to require more transparency in these transactions?

COMEY: Yes and yes.

It’s a real problem, and not just because of the way it facilitates election hacks, and it’d be nice if Congress would fix it.

Sean Hannity Cries Himself A River

There has been a lot of upheaval at Fox News lately. Gretchen Carlson went nuclear on Ailes and the misogynistic rapey culture that Fox cultivated over decades, and nothing has been the same there since.

That is a good thing. It may have been a limited, even if loud start, but Carlson initiated ripples in the Murdoch empire that could not be easily contained, even with the ample crisis suppression talents of hired liar Ted Wells and his firm, Paul Weiss. The once closed barn door was open, and all horses and carts were suddenly out.

The Murdoch cabal, give them an iota of credit, realized the situation….kind of, and cut bait with Ailes in record speed for a bigly man that supposedly was untouchable and was a bff of Trump.

Probably motivated by Rupert’s sons, James and Lachlan, but still correct, even if horribly behind the curve of human decency and sexual harassment law. But so much has happened since Gretchen Carlson cooked the supposed golden goose, Roger Ailes, that common lore held responsible for all the Fox News golden eggs.

Whatever the impetus, Roger Ailes was summarily dismissed when obviously necessary. The Murdochs and Fox News probably thought that might contain the exposure of their decades long belligerent misogyny. But, no, then came the claims against Bill O’Reilly. An odious asshole every bit as despicable as Ailes. And one known as exactly that since the Andrea Makris out of court settlement over O’Reilly’s loofah phone fetishes back in 2004.

Instead, Fox not only kept O’Reilly until they could no longer, they kept Ailes Number Two, Bill Schein and attendant protective underlings in place. Until they no longer could. That started today with Schein’s ouster. And Hannity is floating like an overboard deck chair in the seas away from the Titanic, away from the mothership. (Killer graphic by the one and only Darth – click to enlarge!). But the suddenly disposable Sean Hannity deck chair is drifting away from the ignorant and misogynistic shipwreck he helped perpetuate all these years.

In any normal corporation, especially such a public facing one like Fox News, they would have culled the problems out immediately after the Ailes embarrassment. But not Fox. Oh no. Instead, Fox and Fox News allowed O’Reilly and Sean Hannity to bellow with umbrage about the public admissions of their owners of misogyny and bigotry. Fox, as a company, had not learned their lesson going back to Andrea Makris in 2004, nor insured that their precious bought and paid for “talent” did.

But now the Murdoch sons, James and Lachlan, are protecting the family name by cleaning up their father’s idiocy at warp speed in a way that the gel headed sons in the Trump family can only dream of. Today, the Murdochs the younger have outed Bill Schein. Via Digby, a quote from Andrew Kirell at Daily Beast:

Sean Hannity is looking to leave Fox News, according to sources, following the resignation of Fox News co-president Bill Shine officially on Monday.

Schein was Hannity’s long-time ally whom he personally recommended the network hire two decades ago to produce Hannity & Colmes.

So, cry me a river Sean Hannity you stuporous dolt. In recent days, Hannity warned it would be the “total end” of Fox News should Shine leave, and he rallied conservative activists to back him up.

Initially, insiders said, Hannity’s army of lawyers had hoped to discuss with Fox ways of protecting his 8-year-old primetime show, amid fears that Lachlan and James Murdoch—fresh off the ousting of Bill O’Reilly—were looking to push the network away from hard-right politics.

Yeah, good riddance. See ya, wouldn’t want to be ya, Sean. Go fuck yourself in hell.

[Okay, went with that version of Cry Me a River because it is sooo much better audio and video production wise than the one from Mad Dogs and Englishmen (with Leon Russell, of course) that I really envisioned.]

Facebook Claims Just .1% of Election Related Sharing Was Information Operations

In a fascinating report on the use of the social media platform for Information Operations released yesterday, Facebook make a startling claim. Less than .1% of what got shared during the election was shared by accounts set up to engage in malicious propaganda.

Concurrently, a separate set of malicious actors engaged in false amplification using inauthentic Facebook accounts to push narratives and themes that reinforced or expanded on some of the topics exposed from stolen data. Facebook conducted research into overall civic engagement during this time on the platform, and determined that the reach of the content shared by false amplifiers was marginal compared to the overall volume of civic content shared during the US election.12

In short, while we acknowledge the ongoing challenge of monitoring and guarding against information operations, the reach of known operations during the US election of 2016 was statistically very small compared to overall engagement on political issues.

12 To estimate magnitude, we compiled a cross functional team of engineers, analysts, and data scientists to examine posts that were classified as related to civic engagement between September and December 2016. We compared that data with data derived from the behavior of accounts we believe to be related to Information Operations. The reach of the content spread by these accounts was less than one-tenth of a percent of the total reach of civic content on Facebook.

That may seem  like a totally bogus number — and it may well be! But to assess it, understand what they’re measuring.

That’s one of the laudable aspects of the report: it tries to break down the various parts of the process, distinguishing things like “disinformation” — inaccurate information spread intentionally — from “misinformation” — inaccurate information spread without malicious intent.

Information (or Influence) Operations – Actions taken by governments or organized non-state actors to distort domestic or foreign political sentiment, most frequently to achieve a strategic and/or geopolitical outcome. These operations can use a combination of methods, such as false news, disinformation, or networks of fake accounts (false amplifiers) aimed at manipulating public opinion.

False News– News articles that purport to be factual, but which contain intentional misstatements of fact with the intention to arouse passions, attract viewership, or deceive.

False Amplifiers – Coordinated activity by inauthentic accounts with the intent of manipulating political discussion (e.g., by discouraging specific parties from participating in discussion, or amplifying sensationalistic voices over others).

Disinformation – Inaccurate or manipulated information/content that is spread intentionally. This can include false news, or it can involve more subtle methods, such as false flag operations, feeding inaccurate quotes or stories to innocent intermediaries, or knowingly amplifying biased or misleading information. Disinformation is distinct from misinformation, which is the inadvertent or unintentional spread of inaccurate information without malicious intent.

Having thus defined those terms, Facebook distinguishes further between false news sent with malicious intent from that sent for other purposes — such as to make money. In this passage, Facebook also acknowledges the important detail for it: false news doesn’t work without amplification.

Intent: The purveyors of false news can be motivated by financial incentives, individual political motivations, attracting clicks, or all the above. False news can be shared with or without malicious intent. Information operations, however, are primarily motivated by political objectives and not financial benefit.

Medium: False news is primarily a phenomenon related to online news stories that purport to come from legitimate outlets. Information operations, however, often involve the broader information ecosystem, including old and new media.

Amplification: On its own, false news exists in a vacuum. With deliberately coordinated amplification through social networks, however, it can transform into information operations

So the stat above — the amazingly low .1% — is just a measure of the amplification of stories by Facebook accounts created for the purpose of maliciously amplifying certain fake stories; it doesn’t count the amplification of fake stories by people who believe them or who aren’t formally engaged in an information operation. Indeed, the report notes that after an entity amplifies something falsely, “organic proliferation of the messaging and data through authentic peer groups and networks [is] inevitable.” The .1% doesn’t count Trump’s amplification of stories (or of his followers).

Furthermore, the passage states it is measuring accounts that “reinforced or expanded on some of the topics exposed from stolen data,” which would seem to limit which fake stories it tracked, including things like PizzaGate (which derived in part from a Podesta email) but not the fake claim that the Pope endorsed Trump (though later on the report says it identifies false amplifiers by behavior, not by content).

The entire claim raises questions about how Facebook identifies which are the false amplifiers and which are the accounts “authentically” sharing false news. In a passage boasting of how it has already suspended 30,000 fake accounts in the context of the French election, the report includes an image that suggests part of what it does to identify the fake accounts is identifying clusters of like activity.

But in the US election section, the report includes a coy passage stating that it cannot definitively attribute who sponsored the false amplification, even while it states that its data does not contradict the Intelligence Community’s attribution of the effort to Russian intelligence.

Facebook is not in a position to make definitive attribution to the actors sponsoring this activity. It is important to emphasize that this example case comprises only a subset of overall activities tracked and addressed by our organization during this time period; however our data does not contradict the attribution provided by the U.S. Director of National Intelligence in the report dated January 6, 2017.

That presents the possibility (one that is quite likely) that Facebook has far more specific forensic data on the .1% of accounts it deems malicious amplifiers that it coyly suggests it knows to be Russian intelligence. Note, too, that the report is quite clear that this is human-driven activity, not bot-driven.

So the .1% may be a self-serving number, based on a definition drawn so narrowly as to be able to claim that Russian spies spreading propaganda make up only a tiny percentage of activity within what it portrays as the greater vibrant civic world of Facebook.

Alternately, it’s a statement of just how powerful Facebook’s network effect is, such that a very small group of Russian spies working on Facebook can have an outsized influence.

 

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