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.

 

Last Fall’s Efforts against Russia: Influence versus Tamper

NYT has a story — citing “former government officials” and eventually citing Harry Reid — that’s attracting a lot of attention. It explains the CIA had evidence in August that Russia was affirmatively trying to elect Trump, rather than just hurt Hillary.

In an Aug. 25 briefing for Harry Reid, then the top Democrat in the Senate, Mr. Brennan indicated that Russia’s hackings appeared aimed at helping Mr. Trump win the November election, according to two former officials with knowledge of the briefing.

The officials said Mr. Brennan also indicated that unnamed advisers to Mr. Trump might be working with the Russians to interfere in the election. The F.B.I. and two congressional committees are now investigating that claim, focusing on possible communications and financial dealings between Russian affiliates and a handful of former advisers to Mr. Trump. So far, no proof of collusion has emerged publicly.

[snip]

In the August briefing for Mr. Reid, the two former officials said, Mr. Brennan indicated that the C.I.A., focused on foreign intelligence, was limited in its legal ability to investigate possible connections to Mr. Trump. The officials said Mr. Brennan told Mr. Reid that the F.B.I., in charge of domestic intelligence, would have to lead the way.

Given Jim Comey’s description of the FBI assessment Russia wanted to elect Trump — which he described as an “enemy of my enemy” approach, rooting against the Pats at all times because he’s a Giants fan — and given the NSA’s continued moderate confidence in this claim, I don’t make too much of the CIA claim. Furthermore, given Roger Stone’s public exchanges with Guccifer 2 in the weeks leading up to this briefing (and CIA’s purported prohibition on involvement in domestic affairs), I also don’t put too much stock in CIA’s evidence of Russian coordination. In precisely this period, after all, Brennan continued to publicly brief that Putin was out of his depth, which seemed then and seems even more now to underestimate Putin’s ability to play the United States.

The line about Brennan saying FBI would have to investigate the ties between Trump and Putin also reminds me of the recent complaint, laundered through BBC’s Paul Wood, that FBI is fucking up the investigation and CIA should take the lead.

The rest of the article includes partisan details that have attracted a lot of attention but that — in light of this Lisa Monaco interview — seem to miss some distinction. The NYT describes a conflict between a bipartisan statement about the integrity of the election and a more assertive statement implicating Russia with influencing the outcome of the election.

In the briefings, the C.I.A. said there was intelligence indicating not only that the Russians were trying to get Mr. Trump elected but that they had gained computer access to multiple state and local election boards in the United States since 2014, officials said.

Although the breached systems were not involved in actual vote-tallying operations, Obama administration officials proposed that the eight senior lawmakers write a letter to state election officials warning them of the possible threat posed by Russian hacking, officials said.

But Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican majority leader, resisted, questioning the underpinnings of the intelligence, according to officials with knowledge of the discussions. Mr. McConnell ultimately agreed to a softer version of the letter, which did not mention the Russians but warned of unnamed “malefactors” who might seek to disrupt the elections through online intrusion. The letter, dated Sept. 28, was signed by Mr. McConnell, Mr. Reid, Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Representative Nancy Pelosi, the ranking Democrat.

On Sept. 22, two other members of the Gang of Eight — Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representative Adam B. Schiff, both of California and the ranking Democrats on the Senate and House intelligence committees — released their own statement about the Russian interference that did not mention Mr. Trump or his campaign by name.

Here’s the full statement from Feinstein and Schiff:

Based on briefings we have received, we have concluded that the Russian intelligence agencies are making a serious and concerted effort to influence the U.S. election.

At the least, this effort is intended to sow doubt about the security of our election and may well be intended to influence the outcomes of the election—we can see no other rationale for the behavior of the Russians.

We believe that orders for the Russian intelligence agencies to conduct such actions could come only from very senior levels of the Russian government.

We call on President Putin to immediately order a halt to this activity. Americans will not stand for any foreign government trying to influence our election. We hope all Americans will stand together and reject the Russian effort.

Note the difference in emphasis: the letter from Congressional leaders emphasizes voting apparatus. Also note (and I suspect this is far more important than any report has yet made out) the letter Mitch McConnell was willing to sign states clearly that voting systems are not being designated critical infrastructure (which Jeh Johnson tried to do in early January, to much resistance from the states).

We urge the states to take full advantage of the robust public and private sector resources available to them to ensure that their network is secure from attack. In addition, the Department of Homeland Security stands ready to provide cybersecurity assistance to those states that choose to request it. Such assistance does not entail federal regulation or binding federal directives of any kind, and we would oppose any effort by the federal government to exercise any degree of control over the states’ administration of elections by designating these systems as critical infrastructure.

In other words, the Democrats wanted this to be about Russian influence, whereas the government was primarily worried about Russia affecting the outcome of the election at the polls.

Here’s how Monaco described the effort, which she describes as largely successful.

[M]y own view on that is we did not want to do anything to do the Russians’ work for them by engaging in partisan discussion about this, which is why we were so intent upon getting bipartisan support, and ultimately, we did so from the House and Senate leadership, in trying to get the state and local governments to work with us to shore up their cybersecurity.

We made a specific effort to go to Congress, to say we want bipartisan support for state governments to take us up on our offer to shore up their cybersecurity in their election systems, because there was a tremendous amount of resistance. This is an election year, I think there was a view that we—if we came to state and municipal governments and said, “We want to help you shore up your cybersecurity for your election system,” they viewed it as a big federal takeover.

We really needed bipartisan support for the efforts we were making, largely out of the Department of Homeland Security. Ultimately, that turned out to be a smart way of doing business, and we ended up having 48 of 50 states take us up on our offer, but we needed bipartisan support to do it. Ultimately, that turned out to be a smart way of doing business, and we ended up having 48 of 50 states take us up on our offer, but we needed bipartisan support to do it.

For Monaco, the effort was entirely about convincing states to accept help from DHS to ensure the machines counting the vote would not be compromised in a way that would affect the vote, not about the theft of emails from the DNC.

Incidentally, one of the two states that refused DHS help was Georgia, which of course is conducting an election to replace Tom Price as we speak, and which accused DHS of trying to hack its systems in the weeks after the election.

Two more comments on this. First, Mitch McConnell appears to have been in the right on this. Public discussion of the probes at the time noted that such hacks had happened in the past and generally sought credentials, not voting information. DHS released a warning on the polling probes on September 20, a week before the Leaders’ statement was released, and it still discussed the probes in terms of stealing PII.

(U//FOUO) DHS has no indication that adversaries or criminals are planning cyber operations against US election infrastructure that would change the outcome of the coming US election. Multiple checks and redundancies in US election infrastructure—including diversity of systems, non-Internet connected voting machines, pre-election testing, and processes for media, campaign, and election officials to check, audit, and validate results—make it likely that cyber manipulation of US election systems intended to change the outcome of a national election would be detected.

(U//FOUO) We judge cybercriminals and criminal hackers are likely to continue to target personally identifiable information (PII), such as that available in voter registration databases. We have no indication, however, that criminals are planning theft of voter information to disrupt or alter US computer-enabled election infrastructure.

And the October 7 joint DHS/ODNI statement –released after the Leaders’ statement — still stopped short of blaming Russia for those probes.

Some states have also recently seen scanning and probing of their election-related systems, which in most cases originated from servers operated by a Russian company. However, we are not now in a position to attribute this activity to the Russian Government.

In other words, McConnell’s resistance to blaming Russia in that September 28 letter was completely consistent with the public intelligence at the time.

Finally, now how the role of Richard Burr and Devin Nunes always gets glossed over in these descriptions? I get that people want to blame Mitch for refusing to take a tougher line. But what were Trump’s campaign surrogates doing at the time?

The Jared Kushner Meeting Gets Closer to Quid Pro Quo

Last week, several members of Congress anonymously told the press they had, for the first time, seen evidence that might support charges of collusion between Trump’s associates and the Russians. The frenzied speculation mostly focused on the usual suspects: Paul Manafort, Mike Flynn, Roger Stone, or Carter Page (somehow, the frenzied speculation often forgets Trump lawyer Michael Cohen).

Today, the NYT has a story reporting that the Senate Intelligence Committee wants to talk to Jared Kushner about a previously undisclosed meeting arranged by Russian Ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak.

Until now, the White House had acknowledged only an early December meeting between Mr. Kislyak and Mr. Kushner, which occurred at Trump Tower and was also attended by Michael T. Flynn, who would briefly serve as the national security adviser.

Later that month, though, Mr. Kislyak requested a second meeting, which Mr. Kushner asked a deputy to attend in his stead, officials said. At Mr. Kislyak’s request, Mr. Kushner later met with Sergey N. Gorkov, the chief of Vnesheconombank, which drew sanctions from the Obama administration after President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia annexed Crimea and began meddling in Ukraine.

The NYT only notes this obliquely by stating the committee has access to routine intercepts involving the Ambassador, but remember that FBI went through Kislyak’s intercepted communications in hopes of explaining why Vladimir Putin didn’t respond more aggressively to sanctions Obama imposed in December. So SSCI likely discovered this undisclosed meeting that way.

Which is interesting, because Kushner did not reveal it to some senior Trump officials (likely including White House Counsel Don McGahn).

The extent of Mr. Kushner’s interactions with Mr. Kislyak caught some senior members of Mr. Trump’s White House team off guard, in part because he did not mention them last month during a debate then consuming the White House: how to handle the disclosures about Mr. Flynn’s interactions with the Russian ambassador.

Ms. Hicks said that Mr. Trump had authorized Mr. Kushner to have meetings with foreign officials that he felt made sense, and to report back to him if those meetings produced anything of note. She said that because in Mr. Kushner’s view the meetings were inconsequential, it did not occur to him to mention them to senior staff members earlier.

NYT raises the possibility that Kushner discussed his efforts to fund one of his family’s business in NYC, though Hope Hicks claimed it — and the sanctions — did not come up.

But consider how this meeting might interact with another known Kislyak conversation, the multiple calls with Flynn on December 29 after Obama imposed hacking related sanctions. In context, that conversation was about the hacking sanctions, not the more onerous Ukraine ones. But if Kushner had just met with a sanctioned bank and discussed those sanctions, that could change Kislyak’s understanding of what Flynn was saying.

One mistake of a lot of the frenzied speculation is a focus on changing US policy towards Ukraine, a focus not borne out by the public evidence. The result of that focus is to ignore what the Christopher Steele dossier makes clear was the real Russian goal, unsurprisingly: the lifting of the Ukraine-related sanctions.

There still is no evidence that’s what happened at this meeting that Kushner succeeded in hiding from people within the White House. But if it did, then it might amount to far more than all the smoke swirling around Manafort, Page, and Stone.

Republicans Prepare to Accuse Hillary of Russian Ties

In Monday’s hearing, Devin Nunes asked Jim Comey for reassurances that if anyone — including a member of the public — brought allegations of Russian attempts to infiltrate the Hillary campaign to the FBI, the FBI would expand the investigation to include those efforts as well.

NUNES:Director Comey, you announced this morning that there’ll be an investigation into Trump associates possible and President Trump and anyone around the campaign and any association with the Russian government.

If this committee or anyone else for that matter, someone from the public, comes with information to you about the Hillary Clinton campaign or their associates or someone from the Clinton Foundation, will you add that to your investigation? They have ties to Russian intelligence services, Russian agents, would that be something of interest to you?

COMEY: People bring us information about what they think is improper unlawful activity of any kind, we will evaluate it. Not just in — not just in this context. Folks send us stuff all the time. They should keep going that.

NUNES: Do you think it’s possible that the Russians would not be trying to infiltrate Hillary Clinton’s campaign, get information on Hillary Clinton and try to get to people that are around that campaign or the Clinton Foundation?

COMEY: I’m not prepared to comment about the particular campaigns but the Russians in general are always trying to understand who the future leaders might be and what levers of influence there might be on them.

NUNES: I just hope that if — if information does surface about the other campaigns, not even just Hillary Clinton’s but any other campaigns, that you would take that serious also if the Russians were trying to infiltrate those campaigns around them.

COMEY: Of course we would.

Yesterday, Politico reported that the RNC paid an intelligence firm that employs a former KGB officer dig up dirt on Hillary.

The payments attracted attention in political and intelligence circles, largely because the Virginia-based firm, Hamilton Trading Group, had particular expertise in Russia, which was emerging as a major campaign issue at the time.

RNC officials and the president and co-founder of Hamilton Trading Group, an ex-CIA officer named Ben Wickham, insisted the payments, which eventually totaled $41,500, had nothing to do with Russia.

[snip]

But RNC officials now acknowledge that most of the cash$34,100 — went towards intelligence-style reports that sought to prove conflicts of interest between Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State and her family’s foundation.

The firm produced two dossiers that tried to make the case that Clinton intervened in Bulgaria and Israel, respectively, on behalf of energy companies that had donated to the Clinton Foundation, according to people briefed on the reports.

The oppo firm’s story has been evolving, but thus far, it seems that the former KGB officer, Gennady Vasilenko, did not work on the Hillary project. That said, remember that the Christopher Steele dossier (which is effectively the Clinton counterpart to this oppo project) indicated that Russia held compromising information on Hillary. We don’t know if that was included in the earlier reports shared with Steele’s first, Republican client. If it was, I could imagine the RNC trying to replicate the same information via a different source.

Meanwhile, serial fabulist oppo hit man Jerome Corsi has a piece at Infowars purporting to explain Roger Stone’s August 21, 2016 tweet stating “it would soon be Podesta’s time in the barrel.” Corsi includes two reports from last summer — one done by Government Accountability Institute and another by himself in response to the Paul Manafort allegations — alleging ties between Hillary and Podesta and Russia.

When this article was published, I suggested to Roger Stone that the attack over Manafort’s ties to Russia needed to be countered.

My plan was to publicize the Government Accountability Institute’s report, “From Russia With Money,” that documented how Putin paid substantial sums of money to both Hillary Clinton and John Podesta.

Putin must have wanted Hillary to win in 2016, if only because Russian under-the-table cash payments to the Clintons and to Podesta would have made blackmailing her as president easy.

On Aug. 14, 2016, I began researching for Roger Stone a memo that I entitled “Podesta.”

I completed that memo on Aug. 31, 2016, and is embedded here in its entirety.

It’s not clear Corsi’s explanation works to absolve Stone: while the earlier (July 31) report does focus on John Podesta, Corsi’s August 31 report focuses primarily on John’s brother Tony.

But it does dig out these Russian allegations just after Nunes raised the possibility private citizens might provide FBI with evidence implicating the Hillary campaign.

I’d say this is all ridiculous, and within the counterintelligence department it probably is, but remember that similar allegations from Steve Bannon got the NY office of the FBI chasing after the Clinton Foundation for months and months.

The Temporal Feint in Adam Schiff’s Neat Narrative

I did four — count them! four! — interviews on the Russian hearing yesterday. And one thing I realized over the course of the interviews is that people were far more impressed with Adam Schiff’s opening speech than they should have been.

I want to look closely at this passage which — if it were accurate — would be a tight little presentation of quid pro quo tied to the change of platform at the July 18-21, 2016 RNC. But it’s not. I’ve bolded the two claims that are most problematic, though the presentation as a whole is misleading.

In early July, Carter Page, someone candidate Trump identified as one of his national security advisors, travels to Moscow on a trip approved by the Trump campaign. While in Moscow, he gives a speech critical of the United States and other western countries for what he believes is a hypocritical focus on democratization and efforts to fight corruption.

According to Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer who is reportedly held in high regard by U.S. Intelligence, Russian sources tell him that Page has also had a secret meeting with Igor Sechin (SEH-CHIN), CEO of Russian gas giant Rosneft. Sechin is reported to be a former KGB agent and close friend of Putin’s. According to Steele’s Russian sources, Page is offered brokerage fees by Sechin on a deal involving a 19 percent share of the company. According to Reuters, the sale of a 19.5 percent share in Rosneft later takes place, with unknown purchasers and unknown brokerage fees.

Also, according to Steele’s Russian sources, the Trump campaign is offered documents damaging to Hillary Clinton, which the Russians would publish through an outlet that gives them deniability, like Wikileaks. The hacked documents would be in exchange for a Trump Administration policy that de-emphasizes Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and instead focuses on criticizing NATO countries for not paying their fare share – policies which, even as recently as the President’s meeting last week with Angela Merkel, have now presciently come to pass.

In the middle of July, Paul Manafort, the Trump campaign manager and someone who was long on the payroll of Pro-Russian Ukrainian interests, attends the Republican Party convention. Carter Page, back from Moscow, also attends the convention. According to Steele, it was Manafort who chose Page to serve as a go-between for the Trump campaign and Russian interests. Ambassador Kislyak, who presides over a Russian embassy in which diplomatic personnel would later be expelled as likely spies, also attends the Republican Party convention and meets with Carter Page and additional Trump Advisors JD Gordon and Walid Phares. It was JD Gordon who approved Page’s trip to Moscow. Ambassador Kislyak also meets with Trump campaign national security chair and now Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions would later deny meeting with Russian officials during his Senate confirmation hearing.

Just prior to the convention, the Republican Party platform is changed, removing a section that supports the provision of “lethal defensive weapons” to Ukraine, an action that would be contrary to Russian interests. Manafort categorically denies involvement by the Trump campaign in altering the platform. But the Republican Party delegate who offered the language in support of providing defensive weapons to Ukraine states that it was removed at the insistence of the Trump campaign. Later, JD Gordon admits opposing the inclusion of the provision at the time it was being debated and prior to its being removed.

Later in July, and after the convention, the first stolen emails detrimental to Hillary Clinton appear on Wikileaks. A hacker who goes by the moniker Guccifer 2.0 claims responsibility for hacking the DNC and giving the documents to Wikileaks. But leading private cyber security firms including CrowdStrike, Mandiant, and ThreatConnect review the evidence of the hack and conclude with high certainty that it was the work of APT28 and APT29, who were known to be Russian intelligence services. The U.S. Intelligence community also later confirms that the documents were in fact stolen by Russian intelligence and Guccifer 2.0 acted as a front. [emphasis on most problematic claims mine]

What Schiff tries to do here is suggest that the Russians offered Trump kompromat on Hillary, Trump’s team changed the GOP platform, and then in response the Russians started releasing the DNC emails through Wikileaks.

Later in the hearing, several Republicans disputed the nature of the change in the platform. Both in and outside of the hearing, Republicans have noted that the changed platform matched the policy in place by the Obama Administration at the time: to help Ukraine, but stop short of arming them. All that said, the story on this has clearly changed. The change in the platform clearly shows the influence of Russophiles moving the party away from its hawkish stance, but it’s not enough, in my opinion, to sustain the claims of quid pro quo. [Update: One of the outside the hearing arguments that the platform was not weakened is this Byron York piece b linked, which argues the platform actually got more anti-Russian.]

The bigger problem with Schiff’s neat narrative is the way it obscures the timeline of events, putting the release of DNC emails after the change in platform. That is true with regards to the Wikileaks release, but not the Guccifer 2 release, which preceded the platform change.  Moreover, the references in Steele’s dossier Schiff invokes are not so clear cut — the dossier alleges Russia offered kompromat on Hillary unrelated to the stolen emails before any discussion of the Wikileaks emails. I’ve put what Schiff’s timeline would look like if it were not aiming to play up the quid pro quo of the RNC below (note this timeline doesn’t include all Steele reports, just those specifically on point; see also this site for a comprehensive Guccifer related timeline). It shows several things:

  • The changes to the platform preceded the meetings with Sergey Kislyak. Indeed, the first public report on the change in platform even preceded the Kislyak meetings by a day.
  • The stolen documents began to be released well before the platform got changed.
  • The early Steele report on discussions of sharing a dossier of kompromat on Hillary pertains to a dossier dating back decades (even though these reports all post-date the first Guccifer releases, so could have included a discussion of hacked materials). The first explicit reference to the DNC hack comes after Wikileaks started releasing documents (and earlier reports which ought to include such references don’t).
  • The later Steele report tying the Wikileaks release to a change in policy came after the policy had already changed and documents had already been released.
  • The alleged quid pro quo tied to the early July Carter Page meeting was for the lifting of sanctions, not the shift on NATO and Ukraine; the Steele dossier describes the latter as the quid pro quo in exchange for the Wikileaks release only after the emails start coming out from Wikileaks.

Also note: the report that first ties Wikileaks (but not Guccifer) to a quid pro quo is one of the reports that made me raise questions about the provenance of the report as we received it.

This is not lethal for the argument that the Trump campaign delivered on a quid pro quo. For example, if there was extensive coordination, Trump could have changed his policy in March after learning that the Russian military intelligence hack — the one allegedly designed to collect documents to leak — had started. Or perhaps the Guccifer leaks were a down-payment on the full batch. But there’s no evidence of either.

In any case, the narrative, as laid out by Adam Schiff, doesn’t hold together on several points. Trump’s team has not yet delivered on the quid pro quo allegedly tied to the Rosneft brokerage fees that were paid to someone (it’s not public whom) in December — that is, the lifting of sanctions. As laid out here, the descriptions of an offer of a dossier of information on Hillary prior to the Republican platform pertained to stuff going back decades, not explicitly to Wikileaks; the shift of discussion to Wikileaks only came after the emails had already appeared and any Ukraine related policy changes had already been made.

There’s plenty of smoke surrounding Trump and his associates. It doesn’t require fudging the timeline in order to make it appear like a full quid pro quo (and given Jim Comey’s reliance on “coordination” rather than “collusion” in Monday’s discussion, it’s not even clear such quid pro quo would be necessary for a conspiracy charge). Adam Schiff can and should be more careful about this evidence in future public hearings.

Update: Given how remarkably late the references to the stolen emails are in the dossier, I’m linking this post showing how later entries included a feedback loop.


March 19: John Podesta phished (DNC compromise generally understood to date to same time period).

March 31: Trump reportedly embraces pro-Russian stance in foreign policy meeting with advisors.

April 19th: DCLeaks.com registered.

June 8th: DCLeaks.com posts leaks (from post dates).

June 13th: First archived record of DCLeaks posts.

June 15: Crowdstrike report names Russia in DNC hack, first Guccifer 2.0 releases via TSG and Gawker.

June 18: Guccifer releases at WordPress site.

June 20: Steele report presents obviously conflicting information on exchanging intelligence with Trump. A senior Russian Foreign Ministry figure said “the Kremlin had been feeding TRUMP and his team valuable intelligence on his opponents, including … Hillary CLINTON, for several years.” A former top level intelligence officer still active in the Kremlin stated that the Kremlin had been collating a dossier on Hillary, “for many years, dating back to her husband Bill’s presidency, and comprised mainly eavesdropped conversations of various sorts. … Some of the conversations were from bugged comments CLINTON had made on her various trips to Russia and focused on things she had said which contradicted her current position on various issues.” A senior Kremlin official, however, said that the dossier “had not as yet been made available abroad, including to TRUMP or his campaign team.”

July 7-8: Carter Page in Moscow. Allegedly (per later Steele dossier reports) he is offered brokerage fees for the sale of a stake in Rosneft in exchange for ending sanctions on Russia.

July 11-12: Platform drafted.

July 18-21: RNC.

July 18: First report of changes to platform.

July 19: Sergey Kislyak meets numerous Trump associates after a Heritage sponsored Jeff Sessions talk.

July 19: Steele report provides first details of Carter Page meeting in Russia during which Divyekin raises “a dossier of ‘kompromat’ the Kremlin possessed on TRUMP’s Democratic presidential rival, Hillary CLINTON, and its possible release to the Republican’s campaign team.” In context (especially because the same report also warns Trump of kompromat Russia holds on him), this seems to be the dossier going back years also mentioned in the June 20 report, not Wikileaks emails. Certainly no explicit mention of Wikileaks or the hack appears in the report, even though the report is based off July reporting that post-date the first Guccifer 2.0 leaks.

July 22: Wikileaks starts releasing DNC emails.

July 26: Steele report describing conversations from June describes Russian hacking efforts in terms already publicly known to be false. For example, the report claims FSB had not yet had success penetrating American or other “first tier” targets. FSB had success hacking American targets the previous year, including the DNC. This report includes no discussion of the DNC hack or Wikileaks.

Undated July, probably because of report number between July 26 and 30: An “ethnic Russian close associate of Republican US presidential candidate Donald TRUMP” includes the first reference to the DNC hack and WikiLeaks:

[T]he Russian regime had been behind the recent leak of embarrassing e-mail messages, emanating from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to the Wikileaks platform. The reason for using WikiLeaks was “plausible deniability” and the operation had been conducted with the full knowledge and support of TRUMP and senior members of his campaign team. In return the TRUMP team had agreed to sideline Russian intervention in Ukraine as a campaign issue and to raise US/NATO defence commitments in the Baltics and Eastern Europe to deflect attention away from Ukraine, a priority for PUTIN who needed to cauterise the subject.

July 30: A Russian emigre close to Trump describes concern in the campaign about the DNC email fallout. This report mentions that the Kremlin “had more intelligence on CLINTON and her campaign but he did not know the details or when or if it would be released.” In context, it is unclear whether this refers to stolen documents, though the reference to the campaign suggests that is likely.

August 5: Steele report describes Russian interference as a botched operation, discusses wishful thinking of Trump withdrawing.

August 10: Steele report discusses the “impact and results of Kremlin intervention in the US presidential election to date” claiming Russia’s role in the DNC hack was “technically deniable.” This report conflicts in some ways with the August 5 report, specifically with regards to the perceived success of the operation.

September 14: Steele report referencing kompromat on Hillary clearly in context of further emails.

October 18: More detailed Steele report account of Carter Page meeting, including date. It asserts that “although PAGE had not stated it explicitly to SECHIN, he had clearly implied that in terms of his comment on TRUMP’s intention to lift Russian sanctions if elected president, he was speaking with the Republican candidate’s authority.”

October 19: More Steele report accounting of Michael Cohen’s August attempts to clean up after Manafort and Page.

Devin Nunes Commits “Felonious Leaking”

As I laid out here, Trey Gowdy spent much of Monday’s Russia hearing talking about how, if someone reveals details of FISA collection, that person has violated sacred trust and also committed felonious leaking. House Intelligence Chair Devin Nunes was present for some, if not all of Gowdy’s tirade.

Yet that didn’t stop Nunes from engaging in precisely the kind of felonious leaking that Gowdy claims violates that sacred trust. At a press conference today, Nunes gave the following statement:

At our open hearing on Monday, I encouraged anyone who has information about relevant topics—including surveillance on President-elect Trump or his transition team—to come forward and speak to the House Intelligence Committee. I also said that, while there was not a physical wiretap of Trump Tower, I was concerned that other surveillance activities were used against President Trump and his associates.

  • I recently confirmed that, on numerous occasions, the Intelligence Community incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition.
  • Details about U.S. persons associated with the incoming administration—details with little or no apparent foreign intelligence value—were widely disseminated in intelligence community reporting.
  • I have confirmed that additional names of Trump transition team members were unmasked.
  • To be clear, none of this surveillance was related to Russia or any investigation of Russian activities or of the Trump team.

The House Intelligence Committee will thoroughly investigate this surveillance and its subsequent dissemination to determine:

  • Who was aware of it
  • Why it was not disclosed to Congress
  • Who requested and authorized the additional unmasking
  • Whether anyone directed the intelligence community to focus on Trump associates; and
  • Whether any laws, regulations, or procedures were violated

I’ve asked the Directors of the FBI, NSA, and CIA to expeditiously comply with my March 15 letter, and to provide a full account of these surveillance activities. I informed Speaker Ryan this morning of this new information, and I will be going to the White House this afternoon to share what I know with the President.

Nunes went on to say this was normal incidental collection, possibly including Trump’s communications. He said it was all obtained legally. He said the communications were collected in November, December, and January. He stated he was unsure whether these were wiretapped phone calls, or something else. He wondered why the identities of Trump people were unmasked (though his later statements suggested it may have been circulated in raw form) and said “it bothers me that that would have any foreign intelligence value whatsoever.”

Nunes said he saw dozens of reports and that the information he saw has nothing to do with Russia or the Russia investigation, or any discussions with Russians.

Nunes then said he was headed to the White House to tell Trump which, if there is any legal interest in any of these intercepts (as there might be if they pertained to Mike Flynn’s communications with Turkey, for example), then Nunes just committed obstruction of justice.

“It’s all classified information,” Nunes explained.

And Nunes so lacks any self-awareness, he seemed completely oblivious to the ways he had violated everything the Republicans were wailing about on Monday.

The presser ended with this exchange, which may totally upend the debate over Section 702 reauthorization this year:

Reporter 1: Do you think right now the NSA — or a member of the intelligence community — was spying on Trump during the transition period?

Nunes: Well, I guess it all  depends on one’s definition of spying. Clearly it bothers me enough, I’m not comfortable with it.

Reporter 2: But you think he might have been spied on?

Nunes: I’m not going to get into legal definitions here, but clearly I have a concern.

 

The Friday Afternoon Massacre: Who Is Overseeing the Trump Investigation?

Update: After refusing to resign, Preet has now officially been fired. It remains to be seen whether there’s some underlying legal reason to force Trump to do this, or whether it’s press grand-standing.

Dana Boente, the US Attorney for Eastern District of VA and Acting Deputy Attorney General since Trump fired Sally Yates, just called the other US Attorneys and told them to submit their resignations effective immediately.

The press seems most interested in whether this order covers media hound Preet Bharara, US Attorney for Southern District of NY. Preet is leading an investigation into NY political scandals affecting key Democrats, and Trump had told him he would be kept on (Preet’s political godfather is Chuck Schumer, which may have had something to do with that).

But I’m far more interested in whether Boente himself is resigning to himself.

In addition to serving as Acting DAG, since Jeff Sessions recused himself from any investigation into Trump last week, Boente has been in charge of that investigation. So if Boente resigned to himself this afternoon, it would mean no one was in charge of the investigation. Plus, Boente also oversees several other interesting investigations, notably the long-standing investigation of Wikileaks.

Mind you, Rod Rosenstein, at least until this afternoon US Attorney for MD, is all teed up to be confirmed as DAG. Except Richard Blumenthal has said he would hold up that investigation until a special counsel was appointed to investigate Trump. With no DAG and no one in charge of the Trump investigation (the USAs in WDPA, DC, and NDCA, who also have a piece of the investigation presumably also just resigned), Blumenthal might be pressured to relent on that front.

Update: NBC finally got some clarity on Boente — he (and Rosenstein) will stay on. Which I guess means Preet is out.

The Feedback Loop in Christopher Steele’s Dossier

Last week, at least three media outlets have provided new details about the relationship between former MI6 officer Christopher Steele — the author of the Trump dossier — and the FBI. First WaPo reported that Steele had reached a verbal agreement that the FBI would pay him to continue his investigation of Russia’s involvement with Trump after still unnamed Democrats stopped paying him after the election. CNN then reported that FBI actually had paid Steele for his expenses. Finally, NBC reported Steele backed out of the deal before it was finalized. Chuck Grassley just sent a letter to Jim Comey asking for more information about the proposed arrangement with Steele.

I’m with Grassley on this. According to WaPo and NBC, FBI would only have paid Steele after the election, presumably regardless of the outcome; by that point Steele’s research couldn’t affect the outcome of the investigation. Nevertheless, the possibility that FBI may have used information from a Democratically paid oppo researcher does raise questions of propriety. Add in the discrepancies in these three reports about whether FBI did pay for Steele’s work, and Grassley is right to raise questions.

I’m also interested in what the relationship says about the way in which political necessities may have impacted the content of Steele’s dossier. All three reports attribute the termination of any FBI-Steele relationship, at least in part, to Steele’s frustration with the FBI. WaPo goes on at some length, explaining that Steele got pissed when Jim Comey reopened the Hillary investigation on October 28, and then grew angrier after the NYT reported the FBI had not confirmed any link to Russia.

Ultimately, the FBI did not pay Steele. Communications between the bureau and the former spy were interrupted as Steele’s now-famous dossier became the subject of news stories, congressional inquiries and presidential denials, according to the people familiar with the arrangement, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

[snip]

In October, anticipating that funding supplied through the original client would dry up, Steele and the FBI reached a spoken understanding: He would continue his work looking at the Kremlin’s ties to Trump and receive compensation for his efforts.

But Steele’s frustration deepened when FBI Director James B. Comey, who had been silent on the Russia inquiry, announced publicly 11 days before the election that the bureau was investigating a newly discovered cache of emails Clinton had exchanged using her private server, according to people familiar with Steele’s thinking.

Those people say Steele’s frustration with the FBI peaked after an Oct. 31 New York Times story that cited law enforcement sources drawing conclusions that he considered premature. The article said that the FBI had not yet found any “conclusive or direct link” between Trump and the Russian government and that the Russian hacking was not intended to help Trump.

WaPo doesn’t lay this out in detail, however. Here’s what happened on those days in October:

October 28: Comey informs eight committee chairs he will reopen the investigation, which promptly (and predictably) leaks.

October 30: Having been officially briefed on the dossier, Harry Reid writes Comey accusing him of a Hatch Act violation for releasing the information on Clinton while withholding what we know to be information in the dossier.

October 31, 6:52PM: David Corn publishes story based on dossier.

October 31, 9:27PM: NYT publishes article describing multiple investigations into Russian interference, stating “no evidence has emerged that would link him or anyone else in his business or political circle directly to Russia’s election operations.”

October 31, 10:52PM: NYT edits article, adding “conclusive or direct” as a caveat in the sentence “Law enforcement officials say that none of the investigations so far have found any conclusive or direct link between Mr. Trump and the Russian government.”

Notably, assuming the times in Newsdiffs (from which I got the NYT timing) are correct, Steele had already gone public before the NYT published its article. That suggests he (like Harry Reid) believed his research should be part of a competing public story. And by going public in what was obviously a Democratically-seeded article, Steele likely made it far more difficult for FBI to continue the relationship.

Already, these new timeline details raise questions about the degree to which Steele’s concerns that the Trump Russian investigation should have more prominence than the email investigation may have influenced his work. Even if Jim Comey did do something colossally stupid by announcing the reopening of the investigation, that shouldn’t affect Steele’s interest in providing the best intelligence to the US, regardless of the public impact, unless he was always motivated primarily by his role as campaign oppo researcher.

The pointless Alfa Bank report that nevertheless seems to reinforce the dodgy Alfa server story

But I also wonder whether it relates to the content. Consider report 112, dated September 14. It pertains to “Kremlin-Alpha Group Cooperation.” It doesn’t have much point in a dossier aiming to hurt Trump. None of his associates nor the Russian DNC hack are mentioned. It does suggest that that Alfa Group had a “bag carrier … to deliver large amounts of illicit cash to” Putin when he was Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg, though describes the current relationship as “both carrot and stick,” relying in part on kompromat pertaining to Putin’s activities while Deputy Mayor. It makes no allegations of current bribery, though says mutual leverage helps Putin “do his political bidding.”

As I said, there’s no point to have that Alfa Bank passage in a dossier on Trump. But it does serve, in its disclosure, to add a data point (albeit not a very interesting one) to the Alfa Server story that (we now know) FBI was already reviewing but which hadn’t been pitched to the press yet. In Corn’s piece, he mentions the Alfa Bank story but not the report on Putin’s ties to it. It may be in there because someone — perhaps already in possession of the Alfa Bank allegations — asked Steele to lay out more about Alfa’s ties with Putin.

Here’s one reason that’s interesting, though. Even aside from all the other reasons the Alfa story is dodgy, it was deliberately packaged for press consumption. Rather than the at least 19 servers that Trump’s spam email was pinging, it revealed just two: Alfa Bank and Spectrum Health (the latter of which got spun, anachronistically, as a DeVos organization that thus had to be tight with Trump). Which is to say, the Alfa story was dodgy and packaged by yet unknown people.

The discovery of direct collusion during the intelligence review of the Russian hack

More interesting still is what happens in the period that — according to public reporting, anyway — Steele was working for free.

Contrary to what Steele’s anger suggests, there was no real evidence of direct Russian ties to Trump outside of the famous PeeGate incident (and even if that happened, he was not a knowing participant). In the first report, there’s a claim that “the Kremlin has been feeding TRUMP and his team valuable intelligence … including Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton,” but the part of the report that purportedly describes that sharing states that the Kremlin file on Hillary “had not yet been made available abroad, including to TRUMP or his campaign team,” seemingly contradicting the claim. A subsequent report describes a Presidential Administration official discussed the “possible release [of the dossier] to the Republican’s campaign team,” but without any confirmation that occurred (or even that Trump knew about it).

A subsequent report includes a claim of a “well-developed conspiracy of co-operation between [Trump’s team] and the Russian leadership managed through Paul Manafort and Carter Page. It continued to suggest a quid pro quo between the Russian hack and a shift on Ukraine and NATO policies. But in subsequent discussions of Manafort and Page’s corruption, it drops this claim entirely. Even when Michael Cohen enters the narrative, its about managing fallout over Manafort’s Ukrainian corruption.

There are claims that Trump was trying to set up business in Russia, followed by repeated descriptions of Russians not succeeding in getting him to do so.

In other words, in spite of the fact that there were some really damning allegations in the reports, the subsequent reporting didn’t necessarily back the most inflammatory aspects of them.

After the election, there’s just one report, dated December 13. That dates it to after the CIA’s leak fest reporting that Putin hacked the DNC not just to hurt Hillary and the US, but also to elect Trump. It dates to after Obama ordered an IC report on the hack. It dates to after John McCain delivered yet another copy of the dossier to FBI. It slightly precedes a Crowdstrike report (also done for free) bumping its formerly non-public “medium” confidence Russia’s GRU hacked the DNC to “high.”

And after previous reports describing Michael Cohen’s meetings as serving to cover up Manafort’s corruption and Page’s non-consummated Rosneft deal, this one alleges “the operatives involved [in the DNC hack] had been paid by both TRUMP’s team and the Kremlin,” the first such allegation. That is, over a month after the election but less than a month before its leak, the kind of detail backing direct collusion reappeared in this report.

Chuck Grassley’s questions

Which brings me back to Grassley’s letter. In addition to asking about payments, whether the agreement ever went into force, and whether and how Steele’s material served as a basis for FBI reports or even warrants, Grassley asks a question I’ve long wanted to know: Why we got this version of the memo, which is obviously just a partial selection of the complete dossier (rather like the Alfa story).

  1. How did the FBI first obtain Mr. Steele’s Trump investigation memos?  Has the FBI obtained additional memos from this same source that were not published by Buzzfeed?  If so, please provide copies.

We will actually learn a lot about the validity of the dossier if we see what other parts got dealt to the FBI, and if so whether the copy released to the public was cherry picked for the most damning information.

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