Peter Smith Had a Penchant for Secrecy, But Whence Might Be More Interesting Than How

After a long period of press disinterest in the Peter Smith operation during election year, the WSJ has an important story that describes that “investigators” are (predictably) showing intense interesting in the Republican rat-fucker’s efforts, which extended to working with presumed Russian hackers, to find Hillary’s deleted emails.

Before I address the headline claim of the story — about Smith’s secrecy — I’d like to lay out what the story actually describes.

Way at the end of the story, it provides evidence that casts doubt on the claim Smith killed himself last year — an on the record quote from retired Wall Street financier Charles Ortel, who had been involved in the anti-Clinton effort, describing correspondence with Smith in the days before he died laying out optimistic future plans.

As regards the Clinton email effort itself, the story says that the Smith effort “remain[s] of intense interest to federal investigators working for special counsel Robert Mueller’s office and on Capitol Hill,” suggesting it relies on both Hill sources and people who know what Mueller is up to (the latter of which up to this point, has always been mediated through witnesses). In key places in the story, it conflates those two investigations, which doesn’t necessarily mean witnesses making claims about Mueller’s intensifying focus are wrong, but does show real sloppiness on the part of the reporting, which invites some skepticism about the significance of the conclusions offered (including the article’s focus on Mike Flynn role in Smith’s rat-fuck; click through to read that).

People familiar with the investigations described Mr. Smith’s activities as an area of expanding interest.

The article also relies on documents, which it describes to include emails and court records, including:

  • Court records involving Smith associate John Szobocsan’s efforts to get Smith’s estate to repay him for legal fees associated with three interviews with the Mueller team and an August grand jury appearance (which is pretty good evidence of Mueller’s focus, though not why).
  • Correspondence showing Smith asking associates to “folder,” writing drafts in a Gmail account under the fake name of Robert Tyler, that both the associates and Smith had access to.
  • “[A]n email in the ‘Robert Tyler’ [foldering] account [showing] Mr. Smith obtained $100,000 from at least four financiers as well as a $50,000 contribution from Mr. Smith himself.” The email was dated October 11, 2016 and has the subject line, “Wire Instructions—Clinton Email Reconnaissance Initiative.” It came from someone calling himself “ROB,” describing the funding as supporting “the Washington Scholarship Fund for the Russian students.” The email also notes, “The students are very pleased with the email releases they have seen, and are thrilled with their educational advancement opportunities.” The WSJ states that Ortel is not among the funders named in the email, which means they know who the other four funders are (if one or more were a source for the story, it might explain why WSJ is not revealing that really critical piece of news).

The WSJ really bolloxes describing the significance of the timing of this email as coming,

just days after WikiLeaks and the website DCLeaks began releasing emails damaging to Mrs. Clinton’s campaign and four days after the U.S. government publicly warned that Russia was attempting to interfere in the U.S. election

What it means is that it came just four days after the Podesta emails first started coming out, suggesting that the reference to Russian students is actually code for happiness about the emails already being released by the Russians.

For reasons I’ll return to, the suggestion Smith and his fellow rat-fuckers appear to have been using code to discuss already released emails that were neither Clinton Foundation nor deleted emails are really interesting.

With all that in mind, here are Smith’s adopted methods of secrecy (beyond whatever funding methods are described in the email; Buzzfeed talked about different suspicious transactions here):

  • The apparent code used by an unidentified person, which appears to show conspirators speaking about stolen emails in the guise of a student fund in DC
  • Foldering — a method for which law enforcement has had effective countermeasures that have been widely publicized since the David Petraeus case, the use of which Smith committed to correspondence that got shared outside of the immediate conspirators
  • A burner phone or phone number: “one phone number that he used for sensitive matters”
  • Proton Mail or similar: “a commercially available encrypted email account”
  • Encryption not described to be anything beyond typical full disk encryption (but which could be PGP)

The code is interesting and perhaps intentionally damning. But fat lot of good either the code or the foldering does if the emails in question bear the smoking gun subject line, “Wire Instructions—Clinton Email Reconnaissance Initiative,” to say nothing of the correspondence that commits to writing that they’re using foldering. Indeed, using code in an email with an uncoded subject line is the opposite of good operational security; it serves instead as a blinking red light telling investigators where to look and that the code is code. “Bobby Three Sticks Read Me!!!”

As for the other things — basically the use of encryption and a burner that, given that it was discovered, wasn’t narrowly enough executed — they show an effort to use secrecy. But not a successful effort to do so.

Further, with regards to encryption, this Politico article from last year reveals Royal O’Brien (who, except for the context, might be a candidate to be the October 11 email described by WSJ) advising Smith about PGP, which suggests any non-commercial encryption may have been adopted after key parts of the conspiracy took place.

In an email chain from October obtained by Politico, Smith sought the advice of a tech-savvy business associate about concerns that WikiLeaks had been attacked by hackers. In the email, the associate, Royal O’Brien, a Jacksonville-based programmer Smith described as a dark web expert, advised Smith about the use of PGP keys for encryption and opined that anyone who launched an attack on WikiLeaks would likely face stiff blowback from the group’s web-savvy supporters.

All of this leads me to be more interested in where the methods adopted imperfectly by this 80 year old came from than that he did. An obvious candidate is Chuck Johnson, whose cooperation with the Smith rat-fuck is detailed in the Politico article, and whose businesses have all been shutting down in recent months, and whose defense attorney did not respond to a question from me last week about whether he still represents Johnson. Though Johnson, and his Nazi friend living in Ukraine, Weev, are better at operational security than what the WSJ describes here.

Someone got this old rat-fucker to use just enough secrecy to serve as signposts for the interesting bits.

I’m as interested in who provided that advice (and when) as I am in the identity of the four donors whom WSJ must know but isn’t sharing.

As I said in July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 

42 replies
  1. Danno says:

    Um, disinterested means impartial; uninterested means not interested.

    Common usage and abusage of words are different things.

    Cool insights, though!

          • klynn says:

            My sincere regrets. My Twitter account was having issues so I was unable to give you a heads up via Twitter. I posted here to give you a heads up. I understand autocorrect errors are a fact of life.  After checking out the link…I thought it best to try and flag you down. Again, my regrets.

  2. Trip says:

    Thank you! The Smith Saga has always bugged me (as you know, since I’ve repeated it ad nauseam). I always thought the suicide odd too, but didn’t want to go down tin foil hat lane.

    Also, I thought you took a few days off (with Junebug)?

    • BobCon says:

      I’d be careful about reading too much into Smith’s death. It’s not uncommon for suicides to be preceded by normal or even happy interactions. Unless the WSJ has more information they’re not sharing, I’m not sure of the value of that quote from Ortel about his conversation with Smith.

      • Trip says:

        The method of suicide, the police not bothering to get store video, and the note saying I really really killed myself, look nowhere else, was odd enough. (subsequent to the weird WSJ confession of sorts). Sometimes people decide to kill themselves on the spur of the moment. Other times, people are killed with their deaths made to look like suicides.

        • BobCon says:

          The thing is that the number in the first group is vastly greater he number in the second group, so you have to be very careful separating out signal from noise.

          Smith was a weird guy associating with weird guys, so I’d put the odds at foul play higher than the average person. But until we start seeing something smore emerge, such as a Spinal Tap drummer pattern among Stone associates emerging, I’m staying on the side of caution.

  3. Trip says:

    I haven’t been around here as long as Marcy has and so, on a whim, I made a general search for Chuck Johnson.
    Nestled in this old Gawker article is a link to Dershowitz. Interesting.
    What Is Chuck Johnson, and Why? The Web’s Worst Journalist, Explained

    Charles has worked for Alan M. Dershowitz at Harvard Law School, Seth Lipsky at the New York Sun, Carl Schramm at the Kauffman Foundation, and Charles Kesler at the Claremont Review of Books.

    This is probably something everyone else already knows, but new to me.

    • Kevin Finnerty says:

      As someone who has followed Chuck Johnson, it’s utterly surreal to find him popping up in this story. (I had the same feeling when Cernovich seemed to have legitimate sources on the NSC). These are fringe figures in every sense of the word and yet Trump has vaulted them to the center. Every time their names come up it just underscores how dangerous this presidency is.

      Johnson, Cernovich and their ilk are driven entirely by unhinged conspiracy theories, so it’s no suprise that Johnson is not surviving first contact with legal scrutiny. But I still think the deeper danger is that the alt-right power brokers are fascists at heart. The Proud Boys have morphed from a weird men’s rights “fraternal organization” into a proto-brown shirt group, complete with T-shirt’s that proclaim “Pinochet was right.” If the alt-right continues it’s ascent into the centers of republican politics and government itself, you could see the virus of fascism taking root.

      • Kevin Finnerty says:

        Also, if I recall correctly, Gawker published a piece on Chuck Johnson trying to corroborate a rumor that he shit on the floor of his college dorm’s lounge (I believe Gawker found it to be unsubstantiated). But this piece led Johnson to sue Gawker (as part of Peter Thiel’s vendetta against the website). Johnson retained Charles Harder for the suit, the same attorney who represents Donald and Melania Trump in various lawsuits.

      • BobCon says:

        You can basically trace the line from these guys to people like Chuck Ross and Byron York, and from there to Schmidt and Haberman.

        It’s essentially the same process of assembling isolated bits of information, stitching together a thin narrative to hold them together in the same sack, and then finding a few sources willing to say something to give it all plausibility.

        Haberman and Schmidt would be horrified to hear the comparison, but the big difference in their stories aren’t methodology, it’s that Johnson gets his story pitch from Stone, Ross gets his pitch from a Nunes staffer, and Haberman gets her pitch from Giuliani.

        • Trip says:

          Haberman’s parents were running PR for Trump. Dershowitz is part of Gatestone and lobbies for the hard-right Netanyahu.

    • DMM says:

      I did know of that gawker piece about him from back at that time, but it wasn’t until you pointed it that I made the Chuck Johnson = Charles C. Johnson connection (besides of which either being among the top 5 most generic American name ever).


  4. orionATL says:

    ” Though Johnson, and his Nazi friend living in Ukraine, Weev, …”

    does “weev” refer to one weev aurenheimer who’s on s. pov law center’s wanted list? that would be an odd enough connection to make me  want to know more. i thought most of those guys worked as common meth criminals and drug mules to pay for their fun and games as storm troopers.

    • Jerome Steele says:

      I don’t see the connection as odd at all.

      White supremacists and conspiracy mongers make up a huge portion of the GOP voting bloc. “Establishment conservatives” have tapped into white supremacy as an electoral strategy at least as far back as the Goldwater campaign.

      • orionATL says:

        thanks. i guess folks like me are waking up to undreamed possibilities.

        republican – what a party!!

  5. orionATL says:

    there is always an ambiguity in the back of my mind about the phrase “clinton emails” particularly where i read about smith’s search and damage campaign. was he hunting the clinton campaign material or the personal emails deleted from the clinton foundation “home” server?

    in this case the answer seems to be the campaign-related email material:

    “… The email was dated October 11, 2016 and has the subject line, “Wire Instructions—Clinton Email Reconnaissance Initiative.” It came from someone calling himself “ROB,” describing the funding as supporting “the Washington Scholarship Fund for the Russian students.” The email also notes, “The students are very pleased with the email releases they have seen, and are thrilled with their educational advancement opportunities.”…

    … just days after WikiLeaks and the website DCLeaks began releasing emails damaging to Mrs. Clinton’s campaign and four days after the U.S. government publicly warned that Russia was attempting to interfere in the U.S. election…

    What it means is that it came just four days after the Podesta emails first started coming out, suggesting that the reference to Russian students is actually code for happiness about the emails already being released by the Russians….”

    • DMM says:

      Some of Mueller’s indictment docs don’t specify which set of “Clinton emails” — from the homebrew server or DNC/Podesta emails — they’re talking about either, which I first noticed in (I think) the Papadopoulos docs. Which is why this whole Peter Smith branch of events has stayed on a very low simmer in the back of my mind.

  6. Trip says:

    Feds freeze Russian oligarch’s assets, Upper East Side mansion

    A sprawling mansion on the Upper East Side has been frozen as part of a hard-core battle between the US government and Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, The Post has learned. But although the US government has frozen Deripaska’s US assets, including his property, Deripaska has arranged to have the children and ex-wife of his business partner, the oligarch Roman Abramovich, live within its secure walls, The Post has learned.
    According to Treasury officials, when the government freezes assets, that means anyone who does business with a sanctioned person, and sanctioned companies, could be subject to sanctions themselves. Abramovich recently transferred $92 million worth of property to his ex-wife, Dasha Zhukova, an editor and patron of the arts who listed her current address as 11 E. 64th St., according to property records…One of Zhukova’s good friends is Ivanka Trump. The two are so close that Zhukova and Abramovich often traveled and socialized with Trump and her husband, presidential son-in-law/adviser Jared Kushner, all over the world — from jet-setting hot spots in Russia and Croatia to Aspen and New York.

        • BobCon says:

          You have to wonder also if somebody at the Times is trying to signal to the NYC real estate moguls that they’re not on board with the big expose by the investigative reporting side of the Trump family real estate fraud.

          I’m sure the puff piece writers got an earful about the coverage of how fake appraisals and bogus billing and all the rest took place. Those dodges are undoubtably still in use all over the city.

          • posaune says:

            It was (not) surprising that the Trumps used the fake company (All County Building Supply) to not only hide income by false invoicing, but that they bootstrapped the inflated invoices to raise base rent levels of rent-stabilized apartments by the thousands of units.   THAT is a lot of money from a whole lot of people, most of whom were likely blue collar workers in Queens.   I wish there was a way to litigate that as a class action for those folks (or at least their children), OR turn the rents back NOW.

            • Becky C. says:

              That demographic most likely voted for Trump, as well.  I don’t know this for a fact, however & would be happy to be corrected, but it would be in line with their voting habits elsewhere in the country.

    • BobCon says:

      Hicks is officially reporting to Lachlan Murdoch, but it’s hard not to read this as a warning to Lachlan from dear old Dad not to get any big ideas while he’s still alive, because Hicks only has one loyalty — and it’s not to Lachlan.

  7. Trip says:

    OT: MSNBC is doing the exact same thing they did before the 2016 elections and that is running over, and over, and over again, Trump’s bullshit at rallies. There is no need to cover him calling Dr Ford’s accusations a hoax. THIS IS NOT NEWS. IT IS NOT TRUTH. You are once again giving FREE POLITICAL CAMPAIGN air time. STOP IT. Let them PAY for the lying ads. Where are the Democrats rallies? Huh?

      • Trip says:

        I would like to see a lot of their rallies. Instead, it’s constant Trump. His bullshit is not news, his Hitler rallies are not news, his bloviating about nonsense at campaign rallies is not news. We know what he has said. We don’t know what the Democrats are saying because they are given a half a second coverage. Stop railing about Trump and show the alternative. It’s sickening. They are back to the subliminal promos again.

      • Michael says:

        “MSNBC would call that free campaign promotion”

        And politically motivated, I’d almost bet.
        My nephew opined (during the BK circus), “… the Repug (sic) senators throwing ‘politically motivated’ at pretty much anything. I mean, it’s like it’s salt… they put on everything.”

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