GRU Adopted the Identity of Two UK Journalists to Phish the OPCW

Yesterday, the government rolled out another indictment against GRU. DOJ earlier indicted those involved in the 2016 election operation and those behind the WADA hack; one person, Antoliy Kovalev, was named in both yesterday’s indictment and the election one, and a second unit of the GRU was named in the earlier indictments along with Unit 74455, on which this focuses.

Down the road I’ll circle back to some of the similarities and differences between these three indictments (I compared the earlier two here). For now, I want to look at how the hackers targeted for spearphishing people at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, which runs Porton Downs, after the two organizations attributed the Sergey Skripal attack on GRU.

The spoofed actual journalists:

66. On or about April 5, 2018, KOVALEV created an email account with a username that mimicked the name of a German national weekly newspaper. Shortly after creating the account, KOVALEV sent spearphishing emails regarding the “Incident in Salisbury,” purporting to be from a German journalist, to approximately 60 official DSTL email addresses. The next day, KOVALEV used the above-described Email Service to send emails, with malware attached, that appeared to be from a legitimate DSTL email address.

67. Also on or about April 6, 2018, the Conspirators conducted three related spearphishing campaigns that targeted the OPCW and U.K. agencies involved in the investigation of the poisoning.

a. On or about April 6, 2018, the Conspirators used an operational account which was created on or about April 5, 2018, and had a username mimicking the name of a U.K. journalist working for a U.K. media entity-to send approximately 20 spearphishing emails with the email subject line “Salisbury Spy Poisoning Investigation” to official OPCW email addresses. In the emails, the Conspirators purported to have information to share regarding the poisoning.

b. After the Conspirators received an email from OPCW directing them to instead share their information with certain U.K. authorities at three particular email addresses, the Conspirators used the same operational account to send spearphishing emails to those three email addresses.

c. Also on or about April 6, 2018, the Conspirators created another operational account, with a username mimicking the name of another U.K. journalist at the same U.K. media entity, and shortly thereafter sent approximately 19 spearphishing emails with the subject line “Salisbury Spy Poisoning Investigation” to official OPCW email addresses. In the emails, the Conspirators again purported to have information to share regarding the poisoning.

They provide no hints about who the journalists were (though I have some guesses), but obviously they would have pretended to be people with close ties and significant trust in the national security community. Effectively, then, they were banking on the trust NatSec officials would have in familiar journalists.

The tactic is particularly interesting given the way GRU has targeted journalists in phishing attempts in recent years, preferring the kind of NatSec friendly ones that might be useful for such a phish.

The indictment provides no other information about whether the GRU succeeded in this hack, and if so, what they did with it, leaving out any details obtained when the Netherlands caught the field hackers in the act later that year.

It’s as if this passage in the indictment exists solely to make public this tactic and signal that Kovalev (the one person also involved in the 2016 operation) was part of it.

“A Digital Pearl Harbor:” The Ways in Which the Vault 7 Leak Could Have Compromised US and British Assets’ Identities

The Julian Assange extradition defense yesterday started presenting evidence that Assange suffers from conditions — Aspergers, depression, and suicidal tendencies — that would make US prisons particularly lethal. It’s the defense that Lauri Love used to avoid extradition, and is Assange’s most likely chance of success. And given our inhumane prisons, it’s a perfectly fair defense against his extradition.

Before that, though, the most interesting evidence submitted by Assange’s team pertained to the three charges that he identified the identities of US and Coalition (and so, British) informants in the Afghan, Iraq, and Cablegate releases. For each of those releases, Assange’s team presented evidence that someone else — Cryptome, in one case, some Guardian journalists in another — released the informants’ identities first. At one point, the lawyer for the US seemed to suggest that Assange had made such disclosures more readily available after the identities had already been published. But Assange can only be extradited for charges that are illegal in the UK as well, and while the UK’s Official Secrets Act explicitly prohibits the publication of covert identities, it does not prohibit republication of names.

In other words, it’s the one evidentiary question where I think WikiLeaks might have the better case (the government has yet to present its own counter-evidence, and Assange has to prove that the charges are baseless to prevent the extradition, so it’s a high hurdle).

The question is particularly interesting for several reasons. Publishing the names of informants is the one charge specifically tied to publication, rather than conspiring to get Chelsea Manning to leak, making it dangerous for journalism in a different way than most of the other charges (save the CFAA charge).

But also because — in a Mike Pompeo screed that many WikiLeaks witnesses have cited completely out of context, in which the then-CIA Director named WikiLeaks a non-state hostile intelligence agency — he accused WikiLeaks of being like Philip Agee, a disillusioned CIA officer who went on to leak the identities of numerous CIA officers who was credibly accused of working with Cuban and Russian intelligence services.

So I thought I’d start today by telling you a story about a bright, well-educated young man. He was described as industrious, intelligent, and likeable, if inclined towards a little impulsiveness and impatience. At some point, he became disillusioned with intelligence work, and angry at his government. He left the government and decided to devote himself to what he regarded as public advocacy: exposing the intelligence officers and operations that he had sworn to keep secret. He appealed to agency employees to send him leads, tips, suggestions. He wrote in a widely-circulated bulletin quote “We are particularly anxious to receive – and anonymously, if you desire – copies of U.S. diplomatic lists and U.S. embassy staff,” end of quote.

That man was Philip Agee, one of the founding members of the magazine CounterSpy, which in its first issue, in 1973, called for the exposure of the CIA undercover operatives overseas. In its September 1974 issue, CounterSpy publicly identified Richard Welch as the CIA station chief in Athens. Later, Richard’s home address and phone number were outed in the press, in Greece. In December 1975, Richard and his wife were returning home from a Christmas party in Athens. When he got out of his car to open the gate in front of his house, Richard Welch was assassinated by a Greek terrorist cell.

At the time of his death, Richard was the highest-ranking CIA officer killed in the line of duty. He had led a rich and honorable life – one that is celebrated with a star on the agency’s memorial wall. He’s buried at Arlington National Cemetery, and has remained dearly remembered by his family and colleagues.

Meanwhile, Philip Agee propped up his dwindling celebrity with an occasional stunt, including a Playboy interview. He eventually settled down as the privileged guest of an authoritarian regime – one that would have put him in front of a firing squad without a second thought had he betrayed its secrets instead of ours.

Today, there are still plenty of Philip Agees in the world, and the harm they inflict on U.S. institutions and personnel is just as serious today as it was back then. They don’t come from the intelligence community, they don’t all share the same background, or use precisely the same tactics as Agee, but they are soulmates. Like him, they choose to see themselves under a romantic light as heroes above the law, saviors of our free and open society. They cling to this fiction even though their disclosures often inflict irreparable harm on both individuals and democratic governments, pleasing despots along the way.

The one thing they don’t share with Agee is the need for a publisher. All they require now is a smartphone and internet access. In today’s digital environment, they can disseminate stolen U.S. secrets instantly around the globe to terrorists, dictators, hackers and anyone else seeking to do us harm.

The reference to Richard Welch is inaccurate (in the same way the claim that WikiLeaks is responsible for release of these informants’ identities could be too). Much of the rest of what Pompeo said was tone-deaf, at best. And that Pompeo — who months earlier had been celebrating WikiLeaks’ cooperation with Russia in interfering in the 2016 election — said this is the kind of breathtaking hypocrisy he specializes in.

Still, I want to revisit Pompeo’s insinuation, made weeks after the release of the Vault 7 files, that Julian Assange is like Philip Agee. The comment struck me at the time, particularly given that the only thing he mentioned to back the claim — also floated during the Chelsea Manning trial — was that WikiLeaks’ releases had helped al-Qaeda.

And as for Assange, his actions have attracted a devoted following among some of our most determined enemies. Following the recent WikiLeaks disclosure, an al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula member posted a comment online thanking WikiLeaks for providing a means to fight America in a way that AQAP had not previously envisioned. AQAP represents one of the most serious threats to our country and around the world today. It’s a group that is devoted not only to bringing down civil passenger planes but our way of life as well. That Assange is the darling of these terrorists is nothing short of reprehensible. Have no doubt that the disclosures in recent years caused harm, great harm, to our nation’s national security, and they will continue to do so for the long term.

They also threaten the trust we’ve developed with our foreign partners when that trust is crucial currency among allies. They risk damaging morale for the good officers at the intelligence community and who take the high road every day. And I can’t stress enough how these disclosures have severely hindered our ability to keep you all safe.

But given what we’ve learned about the Vault 7 release since, I’d like to consider the multiple ways via which the Vault 7 identities could have — and did, in some cases — identify sensitive identities. Pompeo’s a flaming douchebag, and the CIA’s complaint about being targeted like it targets others is unsympathetic, but understanding Pompeo’s analogy to Agee provides some insight into why DOJ charged WikiLeaks in 2017 when it hadn’t in 2013.

Vault 7, justifiably or not, may have changed how the government treated WikiLeaks’ facilitation of the exposure of US intelligence assets.

Before I start, let me emphasize the Vault 7 leak is not charged in the superseding indictment against Assange, and Assange’s treatment of Vault 7 may be radically different than his earlier genuine attempts to at least forestall or delegate the publication of US informant identities. Even if DOJ’s understanding of WikiLeaks’ facilitation of the exposure of US intelligence assets may have changed with the Vault 7 release, DOJ understanding may not be correct. Nor do I think this changes the risk to journalism of the current charges, as charged.

But it may provide insight into why the government did charge those counts, and what a superseding indictment integrating the Vault 7 leak might look like.

First, although WikiLeaks made a big show of redacting the identities of the coders who developed the CIA’s hacking tools (as they did with the 2010 and 2011 releases), some were left unredacted in the content of the release. That may be unintentional. But the first FBI affidavit against accused Vault 7 leaker Joshua Schulte noted that the pseudonyms of the two other SysAdmins who had access to the files were left unredacted in the first release, something that suggests more intentional disclosure, one that would presumably require the involvement of Schulte or someone else who knew these identities.

i. Names used by the other two CIA Group Systems Administrators were, in fact, published in the publicly released Classified Information.

ii. SCHULTE’s name, on the other hand, was not apparently published in the Classified Inforamtion.

iii. Thus, SCHULTE was the only one of the three Systems Administrators with access to the Classified Information on the Back-Up Server who was not publicly identified via WikiLeaks’s publication of the Classified Information.

A subsequent WikiLeaks release (after the FBI had already made it clear he was a, if not the, suspect) would include Schulte’s username, but I believe that is distinguishable from the release of the other men’s cover names.

Schulte would later threaten to leak more details (including, presumably, either his cover or his real name) on one of those same guys, someone he was particularly angry at, from jail, including the intriguing hint that he had been exposed in the Ashley Madison hack.

 

At trial, Schulte’s lawyer explained that the leaking he attempted or threatened from jail reflected the anger built up over almost a year of incarceration, but there’s at least some reason to believe that the initial Vault 7 release intentionally exposed the identities of CIA employees whom Schulte had personal gripes with, or at the very least he hoped would be blamed other than him.

Then there’s the damage done to ongoing operations. At trial, one after another CIA witness described the damage the Vault 7 leak had done. While the testimony was typically vague, it was also more stark in terms of scale than what you generally find in CIA trials.

After describing the leak the “equivalent of a digital Pearl Harbor,” for example, Sean Roche, who was the Deputy Director for Digital Innovation at the time of the leak, testified how on the day of the first release, the CIA had to shut down “the vast, vast majority” of operations that used the CIA tools (at a time, of course, when the CIA was actively trying to understand how Russia had attacked the US the prior year), and then CIA had to reach out to those affected.

It was the equivalent of a digital Pearl Harbor.

Q. What do you mean by that?

A. Our capabilities were revealed, and hence, we were not able to operate and our — the capabilities we had been developing for years that were now described in public were decimated. Our operations were immediately at risk, and we began terminating operations; that is, operations that were enabled with tools that were now described and out there and capabilities that were described, information about operations where we’re providing streams of information. It immediately undermined the relationships we had with other parts of the government as well as with vital foreign partners, who had often put themselves at risk to assist the agency. And it put our officers and our facilities, both domestically and overseas, at risk.

Q. Just staying at a very general level, what steps did you take in the immediate aftermath of those disclosures to address those concerns?

A. A task force was formed. Because operations were involved we had to get a team together that did nothing but focus on three things, in this priority order. In an emergency, and that’s what we had, it was operate, navigate, communicate, in that order. So the first job was to assess the risk posture for all of these operations across the world and figure out how to mitigate that risk, and most often, the vast, vast majority we had to back out of those operations, shut them down and create a situation where the agency’s activities would not be revealed, because we are a clandestine agency.

The next part of that was to navigate across all the people affected. It was not just the CIA. There were equities for other government agencies. There were, of course, equities at places and bases across the world, where we had relationships with foreign partners. People heeded immediately, were calling and asking what do I do, what do I say?

And the third part of that was to communicate, which was — in the course of looking at this as a what systemic issues led to the ability to have our information out there — was to document that and write a report that would serve as a lessons learned with the idea of preventing it from ever happening again. [my emphasis]

Notably, given that Assange could be vulnerable to Official Secrets Act charges in the UK if this leak affected any British intelligence officers or assets, Roche mentioned “foreign partners” twice in just this short passage. You don’t get very far down the list of CIA’s foreign partners before you’ve damaged MI6 assets.

Of course, shutting down ongoing operations would not have been enough to protect CIA’s assets. It took just 40 days for Symantec and Kaspersky to publicly identify the tools described in the Vault 7 releases as those found targeting their clients. If the CIA (or its foreign partners) had used human assets to introduce malware into target computers, as a number of these tools required, then those assets might be easily identifiable to the organizations affected.

Part of that same leak Schulte attempted from jail explains how this might work. He described how a tool from a particular vendor (which he would have named) was actually “Bartender,” by name presumably a watering hole attack, which had been released in Vault 7.

Had he succeeded in tweeting this out, Schulte would have identified either a cover organization or one in which CIA had recruited assets which was loading malware onto target computers while also loading some kind of vendor software.

I’m not defending CIA’s use of such assets to provide a side-helping of malware when targeted organizations install real software, though all major state-actors do this. But what Schulte (without any known active involvement of WikiLeaks, though he did continue to communicate with WikiLeaks, at least indirectly, while in jail) was allegedly attempting to do was burn either a cover organization or CIA assets, who would have been immediate targets if not exfiltrated. And it provides a good example of what could have happened over and over again on March 7, 2017, when these files were first released.

But there’s one other, possibly even more significant risk.

WikiLeaks has, in the past, preferentially withheld or shared files with Russia and other countries. Most obviously, at least one file hacked as part of the Syria Files which was damning to Russia never got published, and Emma Best claimed recently there were far more. The risk that something like that would have happened in this case is quite real. That’s because the files were leaked at a time when WikiLeaks was actively involved in another Russian operation. There was a ten month delay between the time the files were allegedly shared (in early May 2016) and the time WikiLeaks published them on March 7, 2017. The government has never made any public claim about how they got shared with WikiLeaks. Details of contacts between Guccifer 2.0 and WikiLeaks demonstrate that it would have been impossible to send the volume of data involved in this hack directly to WikiLeaks’ public facing submission system in the time which Schulte did so, and several people familiar with the submission system at the time of that hack have suggested it served more as cover than a functional system. That suggests that Schulte either would have had to have prior contact with WikiLeaks to arrange an alternate upload process, or shared them with WikiLeaks via some third party (notably, Schulte bragged in jail that compressing data to do this efficiently was one of his specialties at CIA).

At trial, even though the government in no way focused on this evidence themselves, there was (inconsistent) evidence that Schulte planned to involve Russia in his efforts to take revenge on the CIA. I’ve heard a related allegation independently.

Remember, too, that WikiLeaks has never published the vast majority of the code for these tools, even though Schulte did leak it, which would make it still easier to identify anyone who had used these tools.

So imagine what might have happened had Russia gotten advance notice (either via WikiLeaks, a WikiLeaks associate, or Schulte himself) of these tools? Russia would have had months — starting well before US intelligence had begun to understand the full extent of the election year operation — to identify any of the CIA tools used against it. To be clear, what follows is speculative (though I’m providing it, in part, because I’m trying to summarize the Vault 7 information so people who are experts on other parts of the Russian treason case can test the theory). But if it had, the aftermath might have looked something like Russia’s prosecution of several FSB officers for treason starting in December 2016. And the response — if CIA recognized that its assets had already been compromised by the Vault 7 release — might look something like the Yahoo indictment charging one of the same FSB officers rolled out, with great fanfare, on March 15, just over a week after the Vault 7 release (DOJ obtained the indictment on February 28, after the CIA knew that WikiLeaks had the release coming and months after the treason arrest, but a week before the actual release). That is, Russia might move to prosecute months before the CIA got specific notice, using the years-old complaints of Pavel Vrublevsky to hide the real reason for the prosecution, and the US might move to disclaim any tie to the FSB officers by criminally prosecuting them and identifying many of the foreign targets they had used Yahoo infrastructure to spy on. Speaking just hypothetically, then, that’s the kind of damage we’d expect if any country — and Russia has been raised here explicitly — got advance access to the CIA tools before the CIA did its damage mitigation starting on March 7, 2017.

This scenario (again, it is speculative at this point) is Spy versus Spy stuff, the kind of thing that state intelligence agencies pull off against each other all the time. But it’s not journalism.

And even the stuff that would have happened after the public release of the CIA files would not just have exposed CIA collection points, but also, probably, some of the human beings who activated those collection points.

WikiLeaks would have you believe that nothing that happened after 2013 could change DOJ’s understanding of those earlier exposures of US (and British) assets.

But the very same Mike Pompeo speech that they’ve all been citing explained precisely what changed.

The US Asks Spain to Pin Down the UC Global Accusations before Responding

Back in February, I noted some wild inconsistencies and unsupported claims in various reports that UC Global — a security firm employed at the time by Ecuador to protect their London embassy — worked with Sheldon Adelson and the CIA to spy on Julian Assange’s meetings with his lawyers.

As I noted, the actual details of the surveillance (which I don’t contest or minimize) are actually most consistent with UC Global head David Morales being served a subpoena and follow-up legal process served on UC Global’s US location by the known grand jury investigation in Alexandria, VA targeting both Assange and accused Vault 7 leaker Joshua Schulte, who appears to have remained in active communication with WikiLeaks at the time.

In his talk, AMM mentions that the US was unhappy about certain “publications,” plural, without describing them. There’s good reason to be silent about it — the same silence that WikiLeaks supporters like to enforce elsewhere. WikiLeaks was not only publishing CIA’s hacking tools with thin — and inaccurate — claims to justify doing so in the guise of journalism, but WikiLeaks was and is sitting on CIA’s actual hacking tools.

At the time, WikiLeaks was in ongoing communications with accused Vault 7 leaker Joshua Schulte (communication it continued at least as long as June 2018, when WikiLeaks posted the blogs Schulte published from jail, but probably even after that). The targeting of Schulte, himself, might explain some of this surveillance. And Morales’ presence in Alexandria (which AMM misstates as Arlington) is utterly consistent with someone subject to US subpoena appearing before a grand jury in EDVA; surveillance records are considered business records in the US subject to subpoena.

Certainly, questions about what WikiLeaks was doing with the still unpublished hacking tools might have elicited the surveillance. And in the months before the surveillance actually ratcheted up in December 2017 (which is when the surveillance in question really began), Schulte was doing some things on Tor that may have included reactionary communications with WikiLeaks.

Even AMM’s presentation, however, confirms that before December 2017 — that is, before the US finally detained Schulte and charged Assange — much of Assange’s private space was not covered by the surveillance.

Given the way WikiLeaks’ claims about this surveillance don’t match the public details of it, I’m particularly interested in the way that the US responded to Spain’s request for more information about it: They’re demanding that Spain nail down precisely what they’re claiming happened, who is behind the accusations, and what IP addresses Spain believes the US government had some tie to.

US prosecutors have now sent a letter to María de las Heras, a liaison judge for Spain in the US, asking her to convey their demands to De la Mata. These include showing proof that the requested IP addresses are “relevant and substantial to the investigation.” The document requests further details about the Spanish probe, including the sources of information for most of the assertions made in the request for judicial cooperation.

The Spanish judge has been asked to answer a long list of questions regarding every aspect of his investigation, including who he believes that Morales was providing information to, or whether the judge thinks Morales was working for a foreign information service or as an agent for a foreign power – or whether it was simply a case of bribery.

US prosecutors have asked for all this information to be relayed before October 16, otherwise “we will assume that Spanish authorities are not interested” and the request will be shelved.

The Spanish accusations, as released to the public, make no sense. At the very least, the US may be trying to get Spain to pick one of the inconsistent explanations for the surveillance before denying or explaining it to avoid playing whack-a-mole regarding all the other claims.

The US may be asking totally inappropriate questions about a sovereign Spanish investigation. But they do have a point about the nature of the claims.

Returning to Venue in the Peter Debbins Case

In my post on the Peter Debbins indictment, I noted with curiosity the EDVA venue for the former Special Forces guy charged with sharing information with GRU. Just one of the alleged acts, a January 3, 2011 email, took place in EDVA. I suggested that might mean Debbins would eventually be prosecuted for later acts, acts which took place in Virginia.

Several filings and the WaPo account of his detention hearing (not to mention the involvement of prosecutor David Aaron, one of the people who prosecuted Hal Martin, the guy originally accused of being the Shadow Brokers source) raise further questions whether that’s true.

According to the current story, DOJ discovered that Debbins had been recruited by Russia when he self-reported that recruitment in a SF-86 in July 2019. After that, FBI interviewed him 8 times; on July 11, 2019, they got him to describe that recruitment in a voluntary statement (PDF 5ff). As demonstrated below, the interactions with GRU officers map onto the indictment very closely (which is to say, in indicting Debbins, the government only told Debbins and his Russian handlers what he already told them).

That said, Debbins’ statement includes two later details: further emails with a guy named Nikolai, lasting until May 2011 (and therefore presumably extending venue in EDVA), and a description of GRU officers going to his Russian military officer father-in-law’s office in 2012, inquiring what Debbins was doing in DC, in response to which his wife’s father provided outdated information.

In December 2019, Debbins asked his Senator, Mike Rounds, to intercede in the investigation (PDF 10ff.), claiming that he couldn’t even get unclassified employment while the FBI was investigating. He also claimed that the FBI had told him “they [were] pretty well done with [his] case.” Debbins’ claim to Rounds had to have been false. His resume (PDF 16) shows he was continually employed in this period, working as an intelligence trainer for Cosolutions until January 2020 and then working as a Cyber Financial Crimes Project Manager for a Ukrainian American university after that. Which suggests he was trying to get his Senator to intervene based on a false representation, perhaps as a way to figure out what was really happening in the investigation.

The FBI also searched Debbins’ home in the UK and executed search warrants sometime after March 8, 2020 (to shift from a counterintelligence investigation to a criminal one, the FBI would want to parallel construct what they already knew with such searches).

To explain why they needed to detain Debbins now after letting him wander around freely for over a year after disclosing these decade old contacts, AUSA Thomas Traxler (who is also prosecuting Julian Assange) explained that they needed to corroborate his statement before arresting him.

Traxler said the government was “concerned” Debbins would flee over the past year but had to corroborate the statement. It would have been “premature” to arrest him any earlier, Traxler said.

The real thing that got Magistrate Judge John Anderson to deny Debbins bail was the list of things Debbins has done since the last act in his statement. Senior DIA CI Expert David Tomlinson described how, when Debbins worked at Booz Allen Hamilton from 2014 to 2016, he was read into one Special Access Program and six Alternative or Compensatory Control Measures (which are less classified but nevertheless restricted on a need-to-know basis). Defense Intelligence Senior Leader Joseph Simon described how Debbins’ training, both while in Special Forces and in his cybersecurity jobs since, would make it easy for him to flee if he were not detained. Both declarations make it clear that Debbins has been working on Russian language counterintelligence for almost a decade, precisely the kind of positions that would be most valuable to Russia. His resume further makes it clear he spent three years at Fort Meade and 20 months working for Booz at Quantico, VA.

It would be fairly remarkable if GRU were willing to let a former recruit work in such positions, with a signed admission of his involvement with them from years earlier, without asking for further cooperation.

All the declarations submitted for his detention hearing make clear the affiant is not revealing all he knows about this case.

Finally, as WaPo noted, in addition to having organizational ties that overlap with Mike Flynn and Erik Prince, Debbins told a friend he’d get a job in Donald Trump’s NSC.

In early 2017, Debbins told a friend via email that he was a candidate for a position on the National Security Council, “specifically Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Russia and Central Asia.”

It is not clear how serious his candidacy was; he never served in the Trump administration.

DOJ is not saying — and they might never say anything publicly if they wanted to obscure what damage Debbins has done and what they know or don’t know. DOJ could get Debbins to plead to facts he has already admitted to in his statement, and push for a stiff sentence based off classified declarations laying out related conduct.

But it sure seems likely his related conduct in EDVA extends beyond that one January 2011 email.

The EDVA Venue and the Peter Debbins Indictment

DOJ just rolled out the indictment of a former Special Forces officer for spying for Russia.

The general story is that GRU started recruiting Peter Rafael Dzibinski Debbins when he traveled to Russia via family ties when he was young. He went on to join the Army and then the Special Forces. Along the way, he told GRU about who was in his units and what their mission was. The timeline in the indictment starts in 1996, when Debbins traveled to Chelyabinsk as a student. Debbins met with GRU officers in Russia repeatedly; after he joined the Army he provided details of what his units did, including when he was stationed in Azerbijan in 2004, where his clearance was suspended and he was discharged from the Army.

After he was discharged, on his trips to Russia in 2008 and 2010, Debbins tried to drum up Russian business. The indictment seems to suggest he started to get cold feet in 2009, resisting the recruitment.

Beginning in April 2009, DEBBINS and [Russian Intelligence Officer] 7 began exchanging a series of emails that, on their face, referenced potential business opportunities. In an April 2009 email, RIS 7 encouraged DEBBINS to travel to Russia for a visit, but DEBBINS did not commit to the trip. Later, in August 2009, RIS sent an email to DEBBINS inviting DEBBINS to travel to Russia and offering to pay his expenses. DEBBINS, however, did not travel at that time.

Subsequent to that seeming moment of resistance, however, Debbins got a new TS/SCI security clearance and traveled to Russia to discuss business with someone linked to the GRU. He did not, as most recently instructed, bring a Field Manual, because (he said) he feared he’d be caught by DHS.

Nevertheless, his GRU handlers still pitched him on a business deal. On January 3, 2011, after being reminded of his ties to GRU, Debbins moved to DC and started working on the business deal with the Russian.

A January 3 email from Debbins to the business partner is the single thing that (presumably) happened in EDVA, and the single thing that happened in 2011, the last year of the scope of this indictment.

On January 3, 2011, DEBBINS sent the RUSSIAN NATIONAL an email stating that he had moved to “the capital,” meaning Washington, D.C., and that he was working on their business matter.

And yet, even though Debbins had closest ties to Minnesota for the span of this indictment (and could have gotten venue in North Carolina through Special Forces for some of the overseas stuff), the venue is EDVA.

That may be because that’s the easiest place to win a national security case.

Or it may be because what has happened since 2011, when Debbins has been traveling elite circles and working on cybersecurity, is of more interest to the government. [h/t Laura Rozen for both links] According to one online biography, Debbins was at Fort Meade from around 2012 to 2015 and then worked as a contractor since.

Later, I got a job working at Fort Meade as a Russian analyst and did that for three years. I then transitioned to working as a cyber instructor for CACI for another three years.

Which is to say it’s unclear whether this indictment is about what happened between 1996 and 2011 — the span covered by the indictment — or about what has happened since.

The Growing WikiLeaks Conspiracy [Indictment]

I want to revisit the superseding Julian Assange indictment with a view to unpacking how the conspiracy charges work in it. Alexa O’Brien and Dell Cameron — both experts on some of the acts described in the indictment — have written really useful pieces on the indictment that don’t, however, fully account for the way DOJ built the charges around two conspiracy charges, one a conspiracy to obtain and disclose national defense information (18 USC 793(g)) and one a conspiracy to commit computer intrusions (18 USC 371). While commenters are right to argue that the Espionage Act related charges risk criminalizing journalism, the CFAA conspiracy charge — particularly as expanded in this superseding indictment — does nothing unusual in charging the conspiracy.

As background to what the government has to do to prove a conspiracy, see this Elizabeth de la Vega thread from 2018. As she notes,

  • A conspiracy needs not succeed
  • Co-conspirators don’t have to explicitly agree
  • Conspiracies can have more than one object
  • But all co-conspirators have to agree on one object of the conspiracy
  • Co-conspirators can use multiple means to carry out the conspiracy
  • Co-conspirators don’t have to know what all the other conspirators are doing
  • Once someone is found to have knowingly joined a conspiracy, he is responsible for all acts of other co-conspirators
  • Statements of any co-conspirator made to further the conspiracy may be introduced into evidence against any other co-conspirator
  • Overt acts taken in furtherance of a conspiracy need not be illegal

Conspiracy charges are a powerful way for the government to charge groups of people (and also a way to charge crimes without showing all the evidence for them). But that’s true whenever it is used, not just against Assange. So if this associative kind of guilt bothers you (often with justification), your problem is with the law and precedents, not with the treatment of Assange.

For the moment, there are two key takeaways from de la Vega’s list: to prove Assange guilty of conspiring to hack various victims, the government only needs to show that he entered into an agreement to break US law and took overt acts to advance that conspiracy.

Here’s how the government presented the elements of this very same hacking conspiracy in Jeremy Hammond’s change of plea hearing (though Assange is charged with conspiring to violate four different CFAA charges, so the conspiracy is larger than what Hammond pled guilty to).

The crime of conspiracy, which is what he’s charged with, the elements are that there existed an agreement or implicit understanding between two or more people to violate a law of the United States, that the defendant knowingly and willingly joined that agreement, and that any one member of the conspiracy committed at least one overt act in the Southern District of New York. And the object of the conspiracy here is computer hacking to obtain information in violation of 18 U.S.C. 1030(a)(2)(A).

The elements of that offense are that, without authorization, members of the conspiracy agreed to intentionally access a computer, that they obtained information  from a protected computer, and that the value of the information obtained was greater than $5,000.

With regard to venue, I believe that defendant said that, I believe he did say that information was intentionally uploaded to a server located in the Southern District of New York.

The venue for Assange is different — EDVA rather than SDNY. The venue would be uncontroversial in any case, given that the Chelsea Manning-related leaks tie to the Pentagon and so EDVA. That said, when the US government extradites someone from overseas, they get venue wherever the person first enters the US (which is why EDNY, where JFK is located, has a lot of interesting precedents tied to foreigners violating US law). The indictment against Assange notes repeatedly that Assange “will be first brought to the Eastern District of Virginia,” so they plan on obtaining venue in EDVA, with all its harsh precedents on the Espionage Act, by landing him there if and when they get him, on top of the venue they’d already get via the leaks themselves.

Thus, so long as the government can prove that Assange entered into an agreement with co-conspirators to commit illegal hacks, then the government will have plenty of evidence to prove that the conspiracy happened, not least because co-conspirators Chelsea Manning, Jeremy Hammond, and Sabu pled guilty to them. Sigurdur Thordarsson (Siggi) is another key co-conspirator; the reason the government refers to him as “Teenager,” is to signal he was part of the conspiracy while explaining whey he wasn’t prosecuted for it (because he was a minor). The government also refers to Daniel Domscheit-Berg (WLA-2), Jake Appelbaum (WLA-3), and Sarah Harrison (WLA-4) in a way that treats them as co-conspirators; it’s unclear whether that numbering system starts at 2 because it treats Assange as WLA-1 or whether there’s some unnamed conspirator who will be added in the future.

The indictment alleges Assange entered into an agreement to commit CFAA in a number of ways:

  • Agreeing to help Manning crack a password on the same day Manning said the Gitmo detainee briefs were “all [she] really have got left” and Assange said, “curious eyes never run dry in my experience” (¶¶18-21)
  • Asking Siggi to hack Iceland (¶36)
  • Asking David House to decrypt a file stolen from Iceland before going on to hire him (¶44)
  • Agreeing that Siggi should meet with Gnosis, which included getting Laurelei and Kayla to agree to hack for WikiLeaks (¶¶48-49)
  • Publicly stating a link with LulzSec in June 2011 (¶62)
  • Validating Siggi’s outreach to Topiary, in which Siggi said, “WikiLeaks cannot publicly be taking down websites, but we might give a suggestion of something or something similar, if that’s acceptable to LulzSec” (¶¶63-64)
  • Cooperating with Jeremy Hammond, as reflected in Hammond’s statements to Sabu (¶70)
  • Providing Hammond a script to search the emails hacked from Stratfor (¶72)
  • Responding to a Sabu request for targets first by saying they could not do that “for the obvious legal reasons” but then suggesting a target (¶73)
  • Providing Sabu a script for searching emails (¶75)

The reason (one reason, anyway, I suspect there are a bunch more) that — as Cameron notes — the indictment doesn’t describe the earlier parts of the Stratfor hack is because they don’t matter at all to proving Assange was part of the conspiracy. The indictment provides evidence Assange agreed to enter into a conspiracy with LulzSec long before the hack and further evidence he remained actively involved as Hammond tried to exploit it.

Cameron’s piece is inconsistent, as well, when it attributes the hack to Hyrriiya but then claims that Sabu initiated the crime. Neither ultimately matters in the Assange conspiracy indictment, because — to the extent that Hyrriiya’s letter taking credit can be believed without corroboration — he laid out the basis for a conspiracy in the letter in any case, and he, too, would be a member of the conspiracy and that letter, if it could be validated, would be admissible.

As de la Vega described, once someone joins a conspiracy, that person becomes implicated in the acts of all the others in the conspiracy, whether or not one knows about those other acts. Assange agreed to enter into a conspiracy before and after the actual hack of Stratfor, so he’s on the hook for it.

Finally, given that the contemporaneous statements of all the co-conspirators would be admissible, concerns about the credibility of Siggi or any lack of cooperation from Manning and Hammond are less serious than they might otherwise be.

That principle of conspiracies — that once someone joins the conspiracy he is on the hook for everything else — is why (as O’Brien notes), the Espionage abetting charges all take place after the March 8 agreement to help hack a password. Before that, DOJ might be thinking, Assange might be playing a typical role of a publisher, publishing classified information provided to him, but after that, they seem to be arguing, he was part of the crime. An awful lot hangs on that agreement to crack a password (remember, a conspiracy doesn’t need to be successful to be charged), which is the main thing that distinguishes the Manning-related charges from journalism. But the government may be planning to tie WikiLeaks’ targeting of Iceland — which was not charged as a Manning-related crime but which involves conspiring to hack materials related to materials that Manning provided — with the Espionage charges.

As I’ve repeatedly argued, though, this dual structure — one conspiracy to hack, and another to steal National Defense Information from the US — sets up the Vault 7 leak perfectly, the charge that for some reason WikiLeaks associates want no tie to. The government will show, among other things, that even after WikiLeaks published the Vault 7 files, WikiLeaks published Joshua Schulte’s blogs, in which he attempted to provide details of the skills he deployed at CIA. The government will likewise show that Schulte, in attempting, from prison, to convince others to leak, fits into their theory that WikiLeaks was recruiting others to leak.

That’s one of many reasons why I expect Vault 7 to eventually be added to this indictment. Thus far, the government has obtained two indictments just as statutes of limitation might toll on the overt acts (the first being the agreement to crack a password, and the second to be the recruiting efforts five years ago). So I wouldn’t be surprised if, in April of next year, the government supersedes this again to include Vault 7, including some of the same charges (such as exposing the identities of covert officers) we already see in this indictment.

The real question, however, is if the government includes Russians as co-conspirators in a future superseding indictment. There were Russians in the chat rooms behind the Stratfor hack. And the existing conspiracy to hack charge is the same charge (though with slightly different counts) as two of the charges against the GRU officers who hacked the Democrats in 2016. Plus, there are repeated references in the Schulte trial about outreach to Russia (these references are quite ambiguous, but I hope to explain why that might be in the nearish future); I had heard about that outreach before it was publicly disclosed.

When the government made its last ditch attempt to get Hammond to testify before the grand jury, according to Hammond’s account, they twice claimed to Hammond that Assange was a Russian spy. And when he asked why Assange wasn’t charged in the 2016 hack-and-leak, the prosecutor appears to have suggested the extradition would take a long time, which might mean they could add those charges in a superseding indictment.

If the government eventually argues that Russians were part of this conspiracy from very early on, then the charges will look very different if and when Assange gets extradited.

The Government Argues that Edward Snowden Is a Recruiting Tool

As I noted in my post on the superseding indictment against Julian Assange, the government stretched the timeline of the Conspiracy to Hack count to 2015 by describing how WikiLeaks helped Edward Snowden flee to Russia. DOJ seems to be conceiving of WikiLeaks’ role in helping Snowden as part of a continuing conspiracy designed to recruit more leakers.

Let me make clear from the onset: I am not endorsing this view, I am observing where I believe DOJ not only intends to head with this, but has already headed with it.

Using Snowden as a recruitment tool

After laying out how Chelsea Manning obtained and leaked files that were listed in the WikiLeaks Most Wanted list (the Iraq Rules of Engagement and Gitmo files, explicitly, and large databases more generally; here’s one version of the list as entered into evidence at Manning’s trial), then describing Assange’s links to LulzSec, the superseding Assange indictment lays out WikiLeaks’ overt post-leak ties and claimed ties to Edward Snowden.

83. In June 2013, media outlets reported that Edward J. Snowden had leaked numerous documents taken from the NSA and was located in Hong Kong. Later that month, an arrest warrant was issued in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, for the arrest of Snowden, on charges involving the theft of information from the United States government.

84. To encourage leakers and hackers to provide stolen materials to WikiLeaks in the future, ASSANGE and others at WikiLeaks openly displayed their attempts to assist Snowden in evading arrest.

85. In June 2013, a WikiLeaks association [Sarah Harrison, described as WLA-4 in the indictment] traveled with Snowden from Hong Kong to Moscow.

86. On December 31, 2013, at the annual conference of the Chaos Computer Club (“CCC”) in Germany, ASSANGE, [Jacob Appelbaum] and [Harrison] gave a presentation titled “Sysadmins of the World, Unite! A Call to Resistance.” On its website, the CCC promoted the presentation by writing, “[t]here has never been a higher demand for a politically-engaged hackerdom” and that ASSANGE and [Appelbaum] would “discuss what needs to be done if we re going to win.” ASSANGE told the audience that “the famous leaks that WikiLeaks has done or the recent Edward Snowden revelations” showed that “it was possible now for even a single system administrator to … not merely wreck[] or disabl[e] [organizations] … but rather shift[] information from an information apartheid system … into the knowledge commons.” ASSANGE exhorted the audience to join the CIA in order to steal and provide information to WikiLeaks, stating, “I’m not saying doing join the CIA; no, go and join the CIA. Go in there, go into the ballpark and get the ball and bring it out.”

87. At the same presentation, in responding to the audience’s question as to what they could do, [Appelbaum] said “Edward Snowden did not save himself. … Specifically for source protection [Harrison] took actions to protect [Snowden] … [i]f we can succeed in saving Edward Snowden’s life and to keep him free, then the next Edward Snowden will have that to look forward to. And if look also to what has happened to Chelsea Manning, we see additionally that Snowden has clearly learned….”

The following section describes how, “ASSANGE and WikiLeaks Continue to Recruit,” including two more paragraphs about the Most Wanted Leaks:

89. On May 15, 2015, WikiLeaks tweeted a request for nominations for the 2015 “Most Wanted Leaks” list, and as an example, linked to one of the posts of a “Most Wanted Leaks” list from 2009 that remained on WikiLeaks’s website.

[snip]

92. In June 2015, to continue to encourage individuals to hack into computers and/or illegaly obtain and disclose classified information to WikiLeaks, WikiLeaks maintained on its website a list of “The Most Wanted Leaks of 2009,” which stated that documents or materials nominated to the list must “[b]e likely to have political, diplomatic, ethical or historical impact on release … and be plausibly obtainable to a well-motivated insider or outsider,” and must be “described in enough detail so that … a visiting outsider not already familiar with the material or its subject matter may be able to quickly locate it, and will be motivated to do so.”

Effectively, Snowden is included in this indictment not because the government is alleging any ties between Snowden and WikiLeaks in advance of his leaks (Snowden’s own book lays out reasons to think there was more contact between him and Appelbaum than is publicly known, but the superseding Assange indictment makes no mention of any contacts before Snowden’s first publications), but because WikiLeaks used their success at helping Snowden to flee as a recruiting pitch.

Snowden admits Harrison got involved to optimize his fate

This is something that Snowden lays out in his book. First, he addresses insinuations that Assange only helped Snowden out of selfish reasons.

People have long ascribed selfish motives to Assange’s desire to give me aid, but I believe he was genuinely invested in one thing above all—helping me evade capture. That doing so involved tweaking the US government was just a bonus for him, an ancillary benefit, not the goal. It’s true that Assange can be self-interested and vain, moody, and even bullying—after a sharp disagreement just a month after our first, text-based conversation, I never communicated with him again—but he also sincerely conceives of himself as a fighter in a historic battle for the public’s right to know, a battle he will do anything to win. It’s for this reason that I regard it as too reductive to interpret his assistance as merely an instance of scheming or self-promotion. More important to him, I believe, was the opportunity to establish a counterexample to the case of the organization’s most famous source, US Army Private Chelsea Manning, whose thirty-five-year prison sentence was historically unprecedented and a monstrous deterrent to whistleblowers everywhere. Though I never was, and never would be, a source for Assange, my situation gave him a chance to right a wrong. There was nothing he could have done to save Manning, but he seemed, through Sarah, determined to do everything he could to save me.

This passage is written to suggest Snowden believed these things at the time, describing what “seemed” to be true at the time. But it’s impossible to separate it from Appelbaum’s explicit comparison of Manning and Snowden at CCC in December 2013.

Snowden then describes what he thinks Harrison’s motive was.

By her own account, she was motivated to support me out of loyalty to her conscience more than to the ideological demands of her employer. Certainly her politics seemed shaped less by Assange’s feral opposition to central power than by her own conviction that too much of what passed for contemporary journalism served government interests rather than challenged them.

Again, this is written to suggest Snowden believed it at the time, though it’s likely what he has come to believe since.

Then Snowden describes believing, at that time, that Harrison might ask for something in exchange for her help — some endorsement of WikiLeaks or something.

As we hurtled to the airport, as we checked in, as we cleared passport control for the first of what should have been three flights, I kept waiting for her to ask me for something—anything, even just for me to make a statement on Assange’s, or the organization’s, behalf. But she never did, although she did cheerfully share her opinion that I was a fool for trusting media conglomerates to fairly guard the gate between the public and the truth. For that instance of straight talk, and for many others, I’ll always admire Sarah’s honesty.

Finally, though, Snowden describes — once the plane entered into Chinese airspace and so narratively at a time when there was no escaping whatever fate WikiLeaks had helped him pursue — asking Harrison why she was helping. He describes that she provided a version of the story that WikiLeaks would offer that December in Germany: WikiLeaks needed to be able to provide a better outcome than the one that Manning suffered.

It was only once we’d entered Chinese airspace that I realized I wouldn’t be able to get any rest until I asked Sarah this question explicitly: “Why are you helping me?” She flattened out her voice, as if trying to tamp down her passions, and told me that she wanted me to have a better outcome. She never said better than what outcome or whose, and I could only take that answer as a sign of her discretion and respect.

Whatever has been filtered through time and (novelist-assisted) narrative, Snowden effectively says the same thing the superseding indictment does: Assange and Harrison went to great lengths to help Snowden get out of Hong Kong to make it easier to encourage others to leak or hack documents to share with WikiLeaks. I wouldn’t be surprised if these excerpts from Snowden’s book show up in any Assange trial, if it ever happens.

Snowden’s own attempt to optimize outcomes

Curiously, Snowden did not say anything in his book about his own efforts to optimize his outcome, which is probably the most interesting new information in Bart Gellman’s new book, Dark Mirror (the book is a useful summary of some of the most important Snowden disclosures and a chilling description of how aggressively he and Askhan Soltani were targeted by foreign governments as they were reporting the stories). WaPo included the incident in an excerpt, though the excerpt below is from the book.

Early on in the process, Snowden had asked Gellman to publish the first PRISM document with a key, without specifying what key it was. When WaPo’s editors asked why Gellman’s source wanted them to publish a key, Gellman finally asked.

After meeting with the Post editors, I remembered that I could do an elementary check of the signature on my own. The result was disappointing. I was slow to grasp what it implied.

gpg –verify PRISM.pptx.sig PRISM.pptx

gpg: Signature made Mon May 20 14:31:57 2013 EDT

using RSA key ID ⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛

gpg: Good signature from “Verax”

Now I knew that Snowden, using his Verax alter ego, had signed the PowerPoint file himself. If I published the signature, all it would prove to a tech-savvy few was that a pseudonymous source had vouched for his own leak. What good would that do anyone?

In the Saturday night email, Snowden spelled it out. He had chosen to risk his freedom, he wrote, but he was not resigned to life in prison or worse. He preferred to set an example for “an entire class of potential whistleblowers” who might follow his lead. Ordinary citizens would not take impossible risks. They had to have some hope for a happy ending.

To effect this, I intend to apply for asylum (preferably somewhere with strong Internet and press freedoms, e.g. Iceland, though the strength of the reaction will determine how choosy I can be). Given how tightly the U.S. surveils diplomatic outposts (I should know, I used to work in our U.N. spying shop), I cannot risk this until you have already gone to press, as it would immediately tip our hand. It would also be futile without proof of my claims—they’d have me committed—and I have no desire to provide raw source material to a foreign government. Post publication, the source document and cryptographic signature will allow me to immediately substantiate both the truth of my claim and the danger I am in without having to give anything up. . . . Give me the bottom line: when do you expect to go to print?

Alarm gave way to vertigo. I forced myself to reread the passage slowly. Snowden planned to seek the protection of a foreign government. He would canvass diplomatic posts on an island under Chinese sovereign control. He might not have very good choices. The signature’s purpose, its only purpose, was to help him through the gates.

How could I have missed this? Poitras and I did not need the signature to know who sent us the PRISM file. Snowden wanted to prove his role in the story to someone else. That thought had never occurred to me. Confidential sources, in my experience, did not implicate themselves—irrevocably, mathematically—in a classified leak. As soon as Snowden laid it out, the strategic logic was obvious. If we did as he asked, Snowden could demonstrate that our copy of the NSA document came from him. His plea for asylum would assert a “well-founded fear of being persecuted” for an act of political dissent. The U.S. government would maintain that Snowden’s actions were criminal, not political. Under international law each nation could make that judgment for itself. The fulcrum of Snowden’s entire plan was the signature file, a few hundred characters of cryptographic text, about the length of this paragraph. And I was the one he expected to place it online for his use.

Gellman, Poitras, and the Post recognized this would make them complicit in Snowden’s flight and go beyond any journalistic role.

After some advice from WaPo’s lawyers, Gellman made it clear to Snowden he could not publish the key (and would not have, in any case, because the slide deck included information on legitimate targets he and the WaPo had no intent of publishing).

We hated the replies we sent to Snowden on May 26. We had lawyered up and it showed. “You were clear with me and I want to be equally clear with you,” I wrote. “There are a number of unwarranted assumptions in your email. My intentions and objectives are purely journalistic, and I will not tie them or time them to any other goal.” I was working hard and intended to publish, but “I cannot give you the bottom line you want.”

This led Snowden to withdraw his offer of exclusivity which — as Gellman tells the story — is what led Snowden to renew his efforts to work with Glenn Greenwald. The aftermath of that decision led to a very interesting spat between Gellman and Greenwald — to read that, you should buy the book.

To be clear, I don’t blame Snowden for planning his first releases in such a way as to optimize the chances he wouldn’t spend the rest of his life in prison. But his silence on the topic in his own account, even while he adopted the WikiLeaks line about their goal of optimizing his outcome, raises questions about any link between Harrison’s plans and Snowden’s.

The government is using Snowden as inspiration in other cases

The superseding Assange indictment is the first place I know of where the government has specifically argued that WikiLeaks’ assistance to Snowden amounted to part of a criminal conspiracy (though it is totally unsurprising and I argued that it was clear the government was going there based on what they had argued in the Joshua Schulte case).

But it’s not the first place they have argued a tie between Snowden as inspiration and further leaks.

The indictment for Daniel Everette Hale, the guy accused of sharing documents on the drone program with Jeremy Scahill, makes it clear how Hale’s relationship with Scahill blossomed just as the Snowden leaks were coming out (and this detail makes it clear he’s the one referred to in Citizenfour as another source coming forward).

15. On or about June 9, 2013, the Reporter sent HALE an email with a link to an article about Edward Snowden in an online publication. That same day. Hale texted a friend that the previous night he had been hanging out with journalists who were focused on his story. Hale wrote that the evening’s events might provide him with “life long connections with people who publish work like this.”

Hale launched a fairly aggressive (and if it weren’t in EDVA, potentially an interesting) challenge to the Espionage Act charges against him. It included (but was not limited to) a Constitutional motion to dismiss as well as a motion to dismiss for selective prosecution. After his first motions, however, both the government’s response and Hale’s reply on selective prosecution were (and remain, nine months later) sealed.

But Hale’s reply on the Constitutional motion to dismiss was not sealed. In it, he makes reference to what remains sealed in the selective prosecution filings. That reference makes it clear that the government described searching for leakers who had been inspired “by a specific individual” who — given the mention of Snowden in Hale’s indictment — has to be Snowden.

Moreover, as argued in more detail in Defendant’s Reply in support of his Motion to Dismiss for Selective or Vindictive Prosecution (filed provisionally as classified), it appears that arbitrary enforcement – one of the risks of a vague criminal prohibition – is exactly what occurred here. Specifically, the FBI repeatedly characterized its investigation in this case as an attempt to identify leakers who had been “inspired” by a specific individual – one whose activity was designed to criticize the government by shedding light on perceived illegalities on the part of the Intelligence Community. In approximately the same timeframe, other leakers reportedly divulged classified information to make the government look good – by, for example, unlawfully divulging classified information about the search for Osama Bin Laden to the makers of the film Zero Dark Thirty, resulting in two separate Inspector General investigations.3 Yet the investigation in this case was not described as a search for leakers generally, or as a search for leakers who tried to glorify the work of the Intelligence Community. Rather, it was described as a search for those who disclosed classified information because they had been “inspired” to divulge improprieties in the intelligence community.

Hale argued, then, that the only reason he got prosecuted after some delay was because the FBI had a theory about Snowden’s role in inspiring further leaks.

Judge Liam O’Grady denied both those motions (and most of Hale’s other motions), though without further reference to Snowden as an inspiration. But I’m fairly sure this is not the only case where they’re making this argument.

The Superseding Assange Indictment Tidies Up CFAA Charges

Yesterday, the government released a second superseding indictment against Julian Assange. The EDVA press release explains that no new counts were added, but the language describing the computer hacking conspiracy was expanded.

The new indictment does not add additional counts to the prior 18-count superseding indictment returned against Assange in May 2019. It does, however, broaden the scope of the conspiracy surrounding alleged computer intrusions with which Assange was previously charged. According to the charging document, Assange and others at WikiLeaks recruited and agreed with hackers to commit computer intrusions to benefit WikiLeaks.

It is true the description of the hacking charge has been dramatically expanded, incorporating a bunch of hacks that WikiLeaks was associated with.

But there are a few details of the charges that changed as well. The CFAA charge has actually been reworked, focused on four different kinds of hacks:

  • Accessing a computer and exceeding access to obtain information classified Secret
  • Accessing a computer and exceeding access to obtain information from protected computers at a department or agency of the United States committed in furtherance of criminal acts
  • Knowingly transmitting code that can cause damage,
    • Greater than $5000
    • Used by an entity of the US in furtherance of the administration of justice, national defense, and national security
    • Affecting more than 10 or more protected computers in a given year
  • Intentionally accessing protecting computers without authorization to recklessly cause damage,
    • Greater than $5000
    • Used by an entity of the US in furtherance of the administration of justice, national defense, and national security
    • Affecting more than 10 or more protected computers in a given year

This is a grab bag of hacking charges, and it could easily cover (and I expect one day it will cover) actions not described in this indictment. While adding this grab bag of charges, the indictment takes out a specific reference to the Espionage Act, probably to ensure at least one charge against Assange can in no way be claimed to be a political crime. It also takes out 18 U.S.C. § 641, possibly because the thinking of its applicability to leaking classified information has gotten more controversial.

The indictment also changes the dates on several of the counts. The timeline on the three counts addressing leaking of informants’ identities (something that is criminalized in the UK in ways it is not here, but also the counts that most aggressively charge Assange for the publication of information) now extends to April 2019. The timeline on the hacking charges extends (for reasons I’ll explain below), to 2015. And the overall timeline of Assange’s behavior extends back to 2007, a date that post-dates the earliest WikiLeaks activity and so raises interesting questions about what actions it was chosen to include.

As to the 2015 date, the indictment gets there by discussing WikiLeaks’ role in helping Edward Snowden flee China and the ways WikiLeaks used Snowden’s case to encourage other leakers and hackers. It describes:

  • Sarah Harrison’s trip to Hong Kong in June 2013
  • The presentation Harrison, Jake Appelbaum, and Assange gave in December 2013 encouraging potential leakers to, “go and join the CIA. Go in there, go into the ballpark and get the ball and bring it out,” and claiming that, “Edward Snowden did not save himself … Harrison took actions to protect him”
  • A conference on May 6, 2014 when Harrison recruited others to obtain classified or stolen information to share with WikiLeaks
  • A May 15, 2015 Most Wanted Leaks pitch that linked back to the 2009 list that Chelsea Manning partly responded to
  • Comments Assange made on May 25, 2015 claiming to have created distractions to facilitate Snowden’s flight
  • Appelbaum and Harrison’s efforts to recruit more leakers at a June 18, 2015 event
  • The continued advertisement for Most Wanted Leaks until at least June 2015, still linking back to the 2009 file

I’ll explain in a follow-up where this is going. Obviously, though, the government could easily supersede this indictment to add later leakers, most notably but in no way limited to Joshua Schulte, who first started moving towards leaking all of CIA’s hacking tools to WikiLeaks in 2015.

I argued, in December, that the government appeared to be moving towards a continuing conspiracy charge, one that later hackers and leakers (as well as Appelbaum and Harrison) could easily be added to. Doing so as they’ve done here would in no way violate UK’s extradition rules. And fleshing out the CFAA charge makes this airtight from an extradition standpoint; some of the crimes alleged involving Anonymous have already been successfully prosecuted in the UK.

This doesn’t mitigate the harm of the strictly publishing counts. But it does allege Assange’s personal involvement in a number of hacks and leaks that others — both in the US and UK — have already been prosecuted for, making the basic extradition question much less risky for the US.

Update: I think this allegation in the new indictment is important:

In September 2010, ASSANGE directed [Siggi] to hack into the computer of an individual former associated with WikiLeaks and delete chat logs containing statements of ASSANGE. When Teenager asked how that could be done, ASSANGE wrote that the former WikiLeaks associate could “be fooled into downloading a trojan,” referring to malicious software, and then asked Teenager what operating system the former-WikiLeaks associate used.

I’ve heard allegations from the entire period of WikiLeaks’ prominence of Assange asking to spy on one or another partner or former partner, including protected entities. One relatively recent allegation I know of targeted a former WikiLeaks associate in 2016, after a break on election-related issues. I have no idea whether these allegations are credible (and I know of none who would involve law enforcement). But allegations that Assange considered — or did — spy on his allies undercuts his claim to being a journalist as much as anything else he does. It also raises questions about what WikiLeaks did with the unpublished Vault 7 files.

Update: Dell Cameron, who is the expert on the Stratfor hack, lays out some apparently big holes in the parts of the indictment that pertain to that.

The Other Things the Press Missed by Ignoring the Details Revealed in the Joshua Schulte Prosecution

The WaPo got a copy of the WikiLeaks Task Force report introduced as evidence in the Joshua Schulte from Ron Wyden’s office and so, four months after it was first made public, is declaring the scathing report “news”. (Note, WaPo does not reveal that InnerCity Press made this report public months ago after fighting for its release.)

If the report is news it’s a testament to all the news from the trial that didn’t get reported

The report is scathing. But it describes what any news outlet that covered the trial closely would have reported in real time (as well as the evidence that one after another Schulte denial had been contradicted by evidence submitted at trial), and as such is a confession that besides some passing coverage, few national security journalists did cover this trial and all its alarming disclosures.

The trial showed that Schulte tried to make sure 1TB of data got transferred properly in early May 2017 and then wiped two TB disk drives; this report from early in the investigation assesses that Schulte stole “at least 180 gigabytes to as much as 34 terabytes of information,” something CIA later got more certainty about. The government provided evidence that Schulte inserted outside CDs and thumb drives into his CIA workstation, made a copy of a months-old backup file, and set an Admin password for the files he is accused of stealing, which is why the report focuses so closely on the findings that, “users shared systems administrator-level passwords, there were no effective removable media controls, and historical data was available to users indefinitely.”

The report was published on October 17, 2017, weeks before WikiLeaks published the source code for Hive on November 9, 2017, making this claim (though not necessarily the assessment that Schulte didn’t get the “Gold File”) out of date:

To date, WikiLeaks has released user and training guides and limited source code from two parts of DevLAN: Stash, a source code repository, and Confluence, a collaboration and communication platform. All of the documents reveal, to varying degrees, CIA’s tradecraft in cyber operations.

The trial showed that everyone from Schulte’s colleagues to then-CIA Executive Director Meroe Park had concerns about Schulte’s reliability, but none put him on leave or successfully cut off his access to the vulnerable systems, which makes this passage seem like a breathtaking understatement.

We failed to recognize or act in a coordinated fashion on warning signs that a person or persons with access to CIA classified information posed an unacceptable risk to national security.

The trial also showed that the CIA waited almost two years after this report to put “Michael,” Schulte’s CIA buddy who testified to seeing him stealing files in real time, on paid leave, making it clear they didn’t address this issue even though it appeared in the report.

The report also doesn’t include unredacted descriptions of how the leak led all of CIA’s hack-based spying to grind to a halt, such as that offered by Sean Roche, who had been Deputy Director of the Directorate for Digital Innovation.

Our capabilities were revealed, and hence, we were not able to operate and our — the capabilities we had been developing for years that were now described in public were decimated. Our operations were immediately at risk, and we began terminating operations; that is, operations that were enabled with tools that were now described and out there and capabilities that were described, information about operations where we’re providing streams of information. It immediately undermined the relationships we had with other parts of the government as well as with vital foreign partners, who had often put themselves at risk to assist the agency. And it put our officers and our facilities, both domestically and overseas, at risk.

[snip]

Because operations were involved we had to get a team together that did nothing but focus on three things, in this priority order. In an emergency, and that’s what we had, it was operate, navigate, communicate, in that order. So the first job was to assess the risk posture for all of these operations across the world and figure out how to mitigate that risk, and most often, the vast, vast majority we had to back out of those operations, shut them down and create a situation where the agency’s activities would not be revealed, because we are a clandestine agency.

Nor does the October 2017 report include details about the exploits — such as that these tools were USB drives that NOCs and/or assets would stick into target computer systems, making it likely the leak endangered people who had used the tools — that provide some idea of the kinds of damage the leak did.

Schulte claims the “classified” information on his server consisted of Snowden documents

Meanwhile, there have been several updates in the government’s attempt to retry Schulte.

First, on May 21, the court docketed a hand-written letter from Schulte to Judge Paul Crotty, dated April 12. In it, he claimed He had no counsel,” which is confusing because he has appeared in court subsequent to the letter and its posting with the same trial team (though in a recent filing, his lawyers said Steve Bellovin may not be available to serve as expert in his retrial). Based on his claim to have no lawyers, he asked for access to a bunch of things withheld in discovery, a number of which are things his lawyers had tried but failed to obtain already. That includes his own server, which (according to Schulte, who has proven utterly unreliable) the government withheld because it held “classified” information consisting of the publicly released Snowden files.

The claim is interesting in any case. If Schulte viewed the files while still at CIA, it would be a violation of the government’s ridiculous claims that clearance holders could not view those files without violating their clearance. It’s also interesting given Schulte’s claims, to colleagues, that Snowden should be executed, even while saying elsewhere that Snowden didn’t harm anyone.

The government floated — and then did not fully develop (possibly as part of an agreement to avoid a subpoena to Mike Pompeo) a theory about Schulte’s ties to other leaks, including Snowden’s. That makes the fact they’re still sitting on these files far more interesting. (Schulte used the reports about the hacking of Angela Merkel in his defense.)

DOJ’s superseding indictment tries to make the retrial easier to win

Then there are the circumstances surrounding a third superseding indictment obtained against Schulte on June 8 (which the WaPo notes but doesn’t explain). As the government had explained, they got the indictment to make the specific allegations more clear for the jury than the second indictment, which was released before CIA had declassified the things used at trial.

These counts are based on the same conduct that was at issue during the February trial, namely, the defendant’s theft and transmission of the Backup Files, his destruction of log files and other forensic data on DEVLAN in the course of committing that theft, his obstruction of the investigation into the leak of the Backup Files, and his transmission and attempted transmission of national defense information while detained at the MCC. The modifications in the Proposed Indictment, however, are intended to make clear what conduct is covered in the specific counts. Thus, the Proposed Indictment (i) contains two separate § 793(e) counts related to (1) the defendant’s transmission of writings containing national defense information from the MCC and (2) the defendant’s attempted transmission of writings containing national defense information from the MCC, whereas the S2 Indictment grouped that conduct together in a single count; (ii) clarifies that all the § 793(e) counts, pertaining both to the transmission of the Backup Files and the defendant’s conduct in the MCC, charge the transmission of documents and writings, which does not require proof that the defendant had reason to believe the information therein could be used to harm the United States; (iii) contains two separate § 1030(a)(5)(A) counts specifying that the charged harmful computer commands at issue are (1) the defendant’s manipulation of the Confluence virtual server and (2) the defendant’s log deletions, whereas the S2 Indictment grouped that conduct together in a single count; and (iv) lists the false statements underlying the obstruction charge, which had previously been identified for the defendant in a bill of particulars, whereas the S2 Indictment did not do so.

Here’s a table that shows the difference between the second superseding indictment and the new one.

The government had dropped Count Two during the trial to make it clear that Schulte was exceeding his access when he stole the files he allegedly sent to WikiLeaks. And Schulte had challenged the 641 charge on legal grounds, which explains the dropped charges (marked in black). Jury questions had made it clear that jurors were fighting over what Schulte leaked and tried to leak from jail, and couldn’t agree upon whether Schulte’s various manipulations of the backup servers amounted to a crime. By turning each into two charges, the government not only tells the jury precisely what to look for, but might even get prosecutors to focus on describing why the forensics prove the crime rather than describing the CIA’s personnel disputes. In other words, this superseding indictment is an effort to make it more likely Schulte will be found guilty for the actions described at trial.

Meanwhile, whereas elsewhere the new indictment aims to make things more explicit for the jury, the new one does not mention two things that were laid out in the bill of particulars laying out his false statements and obstruction in the second indictment: any reference to the Brutal Kangaroo tool that Schulte was working on at home and then may have brought back into work, and a discussion of a proffer session that took place on November 16, 2017 where Schulte falsely claimed to have been approached by an unknown male on the way to a court appearance. The government dropped the latter before Schulte’s trial. As to the former, it’s unclear whether the government has decided Brutal Kangaroo (which might have been used to help steal the files or unknown follow-up ones) is too sensitive to explain, or whether they want to make the obstruction charges more generalized.

Now that a bunch of journalists have effectively confessed they missed all this in real time, maybe they’ll finally get around to explaining why the government is having to revamp their charges to try they guy the CIA claims burned their hacking ability to the ground, which seems as newsworthy as this out-of-date, already published report.

Schulte doesn’t want a suburban jury

Nothing the government has done, however, will prevent jury nullification, which appears to have been a key factor in the first trial. Given the notes from the jury, at least two jurors seemed to be unwilling consider fairly clear evidence, and one of them hid that she had outside knowledge (comments she made publicly after she was dismissed suggested she believed Schulte’s claims that the government was using child porn to frame him for this leak).

Ultimately, prosecutors are going to have to explain to a NY jury why they should care that the CIA department in charge of hacking everyone else got hacked itself, all while Schulte’s lawyers make claims about what CIA does when it hacks that the CIA is not about to rebut publicly.

Which may explain why Schulte is preparing to challenge the circumstances of the most recent indictment. The grand jury on the most recent indictment is a White Plains one, not a Manhattan one.

The unusual circumstances of the S3 indictment—the grand jury was sitting in White Plains as opposed to Manhattan, and most members of the public in the Southern District of New York were still under a stay-at-home order—may have compromised the defendant’s right to a grand jury selected from a fair cross-section of the community. Accordingly, through this letter-motion and the accompanying declaration of statistician Jeffrey Martin, Mr. Schulte respectfully requests access to the records and papers used in connection with the constitution of the Master and Qualified Jury Wheels in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, pursuant to the Fifth and Sixth Amendments to the United States Constitution and the Jury Selection and Service Act (“JSSA”), 28 U.S.C. § 1867(a) and (f).

While this motion to get records of how this jury was chosen may not lead to a challenge, ultimately, he seems prepared to argue that the pandemic prevented him from being tried by a jury of his peers. And that’s happening all while he’s refusing (as is his right) to toll Speedy Trial rights during the pandemic. (Plus, I’m not sure prosecutors are being very attentive to excluding the time that the defense itself has asked for.)

The press is only now waking up to what the trial (and the prior court filings) has shown. Perhaps now that they’ve tuned in they’ll bother to explain why the guy who allegedly burned the CIA to the ground may well get off on all his Espionage and hacking related charges?

Prosecutors Have Discovered the Joshua Schulte Is a Hack-and-Leak Case, Not a Personnel Dispute

While I’ve been buried in the Mike Flynn beat, on Monday, there was a status hearing in the Joshua Schulte case.

There were three main news items in the hearing.

First, prosecutors revealed unsurprisingly that they’re going retry Schulte. More interesting, they said they planned to supersede the indictment against Schulte, alleging the same charges, but providing more information on them. They cited the notes from jurors, which made it crystal clear that the jurors were confused by the forensic testimony and how the charges related to that testimony. What the limits of Schulte’s legal access were seemed to be particularly confusing (something that is not sufficiently clear in the law anyway). At the time of both the initial Espionage indictment and the superseding one, the CIA was still trying to keep secret specifically what had been stolen when and how, but now that that’s public. I expect the superseding indictment to explain more clearly what was stolen and how Schulte allegedly exceeded his legal accesses to do that.

In discussions around that superseding indictment, prosecutor David Denton said something to the effect that grand juries are only available in emergencies. As far as the public record goes, however, grand juries aren’t available at all, so Denton’s disclosure was news. That only matters in the Schulte case insofar as he’s going to refuse most Speedy Trial exclusions (meaning prosecutors may be forced to find some way to start a new trial before COVID lockdowns end). But it’s an interesting admission more generally.

Finally, prosecutors said they didn’t think the retrial will take as long as his initial trial. In my summary of why the prosecution was in a remarkably weak position as the last trial went to the jury, I described how prosecutors had made it look like the Vault 7 breach was just a really nasty personnel dispute to which burning the CIA’s hacking abilities to the ground was just a side dispute.

Add that to the pace of the trial, which feels like a nasty employment dispute to which the massive breach of the CIA’s hacking tools became just a side-dispute. That’s often true of CIA trials — it certainly was for Jeffrey Sterling. But the long parade of CIA witnesses — Schulte’s buddy, two other colleagues, his boss, his boss’s boss, his boss’s boss’s boss, her boss, and then yet another boss, plus a CIA SysAdmin and a security guy — all describing a series of disputes escalating from a nerf gun fight to WikiLeaks burning the CIA’s hacking capabilities to the ground refocused the trial onto whether Schulte’s complaints had merit and not on what the forensic evidence showed.

And Sabrina Shroff did a superb job of defending not the forensic case (indeed, defense expert Steve Bellovin did not take the stand to float any of the alternate theories that Schulte has been offering for two years, and in so doing will leave Shroff to claim Michael could have accessed the backup without prosecutors having gotten him to admit that wouldn’t have worked), but instead arguing that her client was maligned by the entire CIA. The boss, the boss’s boss, the boss’s boss’s boss, the boss’s boss’s boss’s boss, and then the senior-most boss are all lined up against Schulte for being an asshole. She even defused utterly damning notes about working with Russia (which I’ll return to). From the transcripts, it seemed like Shroff rattled a good many government witnesses, too, and a number of them (one of the FBI agents and the classification expert, especially) seemed to come off as unresponsive as a result.

I expect prosecutors will shorten the trial by limiting this testimony to just the four or so people who have first-hand knowledge of Schulte’s actions (and in the retrial, the government won’t have to backpedal as they try to fix their late disclosure that Schulte’s buddy Michael had been put on paid leave by the CIA). If so, that should make it easier for prosecutors to focus on why the circumstantial forensic evidence strongly supports Schulte’s involvement.

All that said, prosecutors also seemed to be fighting jury nullification in Schulte’s trial, with at least two jurors who were determined to acquit Schulte no matter what other jurors said. That may be a WikiLeaks thing (one that would be far less likely to happen if this were tried in EDVA, which is why Julian Assange says he can’t get a fair trial in EDVA). But it also may be the case that CIA’s hacking department doesn’t make a very sympathetic hacking victim.

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