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In Op-Ed Calling for Counter-Disinformation Strategy, Will Hurd Engages in His Own Disinformation

I like Will Hurd. I think he’s smart, thoughtful, and (when I met him at an event I did last year in DC) personally very nice. So I was a bit disappointed by this op-ed, arguing that to save democracy, “Americans must begin working together,” just weeks after he voted with all the rest of the House Intelligence Committee Republicans to release the Nunes memo.

After revealing that his CIA clandestine service was in places in Russia’s sphere, Hurd argues that we need a counter-disinformation strategy.

I served in places where Russia has geopolitical interests, and learned that Russia has one simple goal: to erode trust in democratic institutions.

[snip]

To address continued Russian disinformation campaigns, we need to develop a national counter-disinformation strategy. The strategy needs to span the entirety of government and civil society, to enable a coordinated effort to counter the threat that influence operations pose to our democracy. It should implement similar principles to those in the Department of Homeland Security’s Strategy for Countering Violent Extremism, with a focus on truly understanding the threat and developing ways to shut it down.

That much I can agree with him on.

But it has no business appearing in an op-ed that suggests bipartisan criticism of the Nunes Memo stunt amounts to Russia winning — which flips reality on its head.

Unfortunately, over the last year, the United States has demonstrated a lack of resilience to this infection. The current highly charged political environment is making it easier for the Russians to achieve their goal. The hyperbolic debate over the release of the FISA memos by the House Intelligence Committee further helps the Russians achieve their aim. Most recently, Russian social-media efforts used computational propaganda to influence public perceptions of this issue, and we found ourselves once again divided among party lines.

When the public loses trust in the press, the Russians are winning. When the press is hyper-critical of Congress for executing oversight and providing transparency on the actions taken by the leaders of our law-enforcement agencies, the Russians are winning. When Congress and the general public disagree simply along party lines, the Russians are winning. When there is friction between Congress and the executive branch resulting in the further erosion of trust in our democratic institutions, the Russians are winning.

Let’s unpack this passage closely.

First, note how Hurd refers to “the last year” during which the US demonstrated a lack of resilience to Russian disinformation? Hurd is pretending that that lack of resilience doesn’t extend to 2016, when in fact at least the social media companies started to respond to Russian election year events last year.

He then calls the debate over the release of the memo — not propaganda seeded by Republicans claiming the Nunes memo revealed something “worse than Watergate” — hyperbolic.

Hurd then makes the same mistake everyone always makes with the Fucking Gizmo™, the Hamilton Dashboard that tracks right wing propaganda and — because it moves in tandem with official Russian propaganda outlets — deems it Russian, not American.

Then Hurd rebrands Nunes’ stunt as the press being “hyper-critical of Congress for executing oversight and providing transparency on the actions taken by the leaders of our law-enforcement agencies.” As I’ve noted before, it’s particularly rich for people who voted against the Amash-Lofgren amendment to the FISA 702 reauthorization to claim they support transparency, as that amendment would have provided just that. But it’s also pathetic that Hurd would claim either the Nunes or Schiff memos are about transparency or oversight. It’d be awesome if HPSCI decided to hold a hearing on the use of consultants and informants in FISA applications and elsewhere in law enforcement. The Nunes stunt only brought a concern about that to a white politically connect white guy, not the people who really would benefit from actual oversight.

And more importantly, the Nunes memo (which GOPers admitted made a false claim about whether FISC got notice about the political nature of the Steele dossier), especially, was about obfuscation, not transparency.

Will Hurd was on the wrong side of adult behavior when he voted in favor of the Nunes memo. He seems to be trying to spin his vote as something it wasn’t.

He’d do well if, instead, he tried to make up for it.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

On the Grassley-Feinstein Dispute

In a podcast with Preet Bharara this week, Sheldon Whitehouse had the following exchange about whether he thought Carter Page should have been surveilled. (after 24:30)

Whitehouse: I’ve got to be a little bit careful because I’m one of the few Senators who have been given access to the underlying material.

Bharara: Meaning the affidavit in support of the FISA application.

Whitehouse And related documents, yes. The package.

Bharara: And you’ve gone to read them?

Whitehouse: I’ve gone to read them.

Bharara: You didn’t send Trey Gowdy?

Whitehouse: [Laughs] I did not send Trey Gowdy. I actually went through them. And, so I’ve got to be careful because some of this is still classified. But the conclusion that I’ve reached is that there was abundant evidence outside of the Steele dossier that would have provoked any responsible FBI with a counterintelligence concern to look at whether Carter Page was an undisclosed foreign agent. And to this day the FBI continues to assert that he was a undisclosed Russian foreign agent.

For the following discussion, then, keep in mind that a very sober former US Attorney has read the case against Carter Page and says that the FBI still — still, after Page is as far as we know no longer under a FISA order — asserts he “was” an undisclosed foreign agent (it’s not clear what that past tense “was” is doing, as it could mean he was a foreign agent until the attention on him got too intense or remains one; also, I believe John Ratcliffe, a Republican on the House Judiciary Committee and also a former US Attorney, has read the application too).

With that background, I’d like to turn to the substance of the dispute between Chuck Grassley and Dianne Feinstein over the dossier, which has played out in the form of a referral of Christopher Steele to FBI for lying. In the wake of the Nunes memo theatrics, Grassley released first a heavily redacted version of the referral he and Lindsey Graham sent the FBI in early January, followed by a less-redacted version this week. The referral, even as a transparent political stunt, is nevertheless more substantive than Devin Nunes’ memo, leading some to take it more seriously.  Which may be why Feinstein released a rebuttal this week.

In case you’re wondering, I’m tracking footnote escalation in these documents. They line up this way:

  • 0: Nunes memo (0 footnotes over 4 pages, or 1 over 6 if you count Don McGahn’s cover letter)
  • 2.6: Grassley referral (26 footnotes over 10 pages)
  • 3.6: Schiff memo (36 footnotes, per HPSCI transcript, over 10 pages)
  • 5.4: Feinstein rebuttal (27 footnotes over 5 pages)

So let me answer a series of questions about the memo as a way of arguing that, while by all means the FBI’s use of consultants might bear more scrutiny, this is still a side-show.

Did Christopher Steele lie?

The Grassely-Graham referral says Steele may have lied, but doesn’t commit to whether classified documents obtained by the Senate Judiciary Committee (presumably including the first two Page applications), a declaration Steele submitted in a British lawsuit, or Steele’s statements to the FBI include lies.

The FBI has since provided the Committee access to classified documents relevant to the FBI’s relationship with Mr. Steele and whether the FBI relied on his dossier work. As explained in greater detail below, when information in those classified documents is evaluated in light of sworn statements by Mr. Steele in British litigation, it appears that either Mr. Steele lied to the FBI or the British court, or that the classified documents reviewed by the Committee contain materially false statements.

On September 3, 2017 — a good three months before the Grassley-Graham referral — I pointed to a number of things in the Steele declaration, specifically pertaining to who got the dossier or heard about it when, that I deemed “improbable.”

That was the genius of the joint (!!) Russian-Republican campaign of lawfare against the dossier. As Steele and BuzzFeed and Fusion tried to avoid liability for false claims against Webzilla and Alfa Bank and their owners, they were backed into corners where they had to admit that Democrats funded the dossier and made claims that might crumble as Congress scrutinized the dossier.

So, yeah, I think it quite possible that Steele told some stretchers.

Did Christopher Steele lie to the FBI?

But that only matters if he lied to the FBI (and not really even there). The UK is not about to extradite one of its former spies because of lies told in the UK — they’re not even going to extradite alleged hacker Lauri Love, because we’re a barbaric country. And I assume the Brits give their spooks even more leeway to fib a little to courts than the US does.

The most critical passage of the referral on this point, which appears to make a claim about whether Steele told the FBI he had shared information with the press before they first used his dossier in a Page application, looks like this.

The footnote in the middle of that redacted passage goes to an unredacted footnote that says,

The FBI has failed to provide the Committee the 1023s documenting all of Mr. Steele’s statements to the FBI, so the Committee is relying on the accuracy of the FBI’s representation to the FISC regarding the statements.

1023s are Confidential Human Source reports.

I say that’s the most important passage because the referral goes on to admit that in subsequent FISA applications the FBI explained that the relationship with Steele had been terminated because of his obvious involvement in the October 31, 2016 David Corn story. Graham and Grassley complain that the FBI didn’t use Steele’s defiance of the FBI request not to share this information with anyone besides the FBI to downgrade his credibility rankings. Apparently FISC was less concerned about that than Graham and Grassley, which may say more about standards for informants in FISA applications than Steele or Carter Page.

The footnote, though, is the biggest tell. That’s because Feinstein’s rebuttal makes it quite clear that after Grassley and Graham made their referral, SJC received documents — which, given what we know has been given to HPSCI, surely include those 1023s — that would alter the claims made in the referral.

The Department of Justice has provided documents regarding its interactions with Mr. Steele to the Judiciary Committee both before and after the criminal referral was made. Despite this, the Majority did not modify the criminal referral and pressed forward with its original claims, which do not take into account the additional information provided after the initial January 4 referral.

Feinstein then goes on to state, several times and underlining almost everything for emphasis, that the referral provides no proof that Steele was ever asked if he had served as the source for Isikoff.

  • Importantly, the criminal referral fails to identify when, if ever, Mr. Steele was asked about and provided a materially false statement about his press contacts.
  • Tellingly, it also fails to explain any circumstances which would have required Mr. Steele to seek the FBI’s permission to speak to the press or to disclose if he had done so.

[snip]

But the criminal referral provides no evidence that Steele was ever asked about the Isikoff article, or if asked that he lied.

In other words, between the redacted claim about what Steele said and Feinstein’s repeated claims that the referral presents no evidence Steele was asked about his prior contacts with the press, the evidence seems to suggest that Steele was probably not asked. And once he was, after the Corn article, he clearly did admit to the FBI he had spoken with the press. So while it appears Steele blew off the FBI’s warnings not to leak to the press, the evidence that he lied to the FBI appears far weaker.

Does it harm the viability of the FISA application?

That should end the analysis, because the ostensible purpose of the referral is a criminal referral, not to make an argument about the FISA process.

But let’s assess the memo’s efforts to discredit the FISA application.

In two places, the referral suggests the dossier played a bigger role in the FISA application than, for example, Whitehouse suggests.

Indeed, the documents we have reviewed show that the FBI took important investigative steps largely based on Mr. Steele’s information–and relying heavily on his credibility.

[snip]

Mr. Steele’s information formed a significant portion of the FBI’s warrant application, and the FISA application relied more heavily on Steele’s credibility than on any independent verification or corroboration for his claims. Thus the basis for the warrant authorizing surveillance on a U.S. citizen rests largely on Mr. Steele’s credibility.

These claims would be more convincing, however, if they acknowledged that FBI had to have obtained valuable foreign intelligence off their Page wiretap over the course of the year they had him wiretapped to get three more applications approved.

Indeed, had Grassley and Graham commented on the addition of new information in each application, their more justifiable complaint that the FBI did not alert FISC to the UK filings in which Steele admitted more contact with the press than (they claim) show up in the applications would be more compelling. If you’re going to bitch about newly learned information not showing up in subsequent applications, then admit that newly acquired information showed up.

Likewise, I’m very sympathetic with the substance of the Grassley-Graham complaint that Steele’s discussions with the press made it more likely that disinformation got inserted into the dossier (see my most recently post on that topic), but I think the Grassley-Graham complaint undermines itself in several ways.

Simply put, the more people who contemporaneously knew that Mr. Steele was compiling his dossier, the more likely it was vulnerable to manipulation. In fact, the British litigation, which involves a post-election dossier memorandum, Mr. Steele admitted that he received and included in it unsolicited–and unverified–allegations. That filing implies that implies that he similar received unsolicited intelligence on these matters prior to the election as well, stating that Mr. Steele “continued to receive unsolicited intelligence on the matters covered by the pre-election memoranda after the US Presidential election.” [my underline]

The passage is followed by an entirely redacted paragraph that likely talks about disinformation.

This is actually an important claim, not just because it raises the possibility that Page might be unfairly surveilled as part of a Russian effort to distract attention from others (though its use in a secret application wouldn’t have sown the discord it has had it not leaked), but also because we can check whether their claims hold up against the Steele declaration. It’s one place we can check the referral to see whether their arguments accurately reflect the underlying evidence.

Importantly, to support a claim the potential for disinformation in the Steele dossier show up in the form of unsolicited information earlier than they otherwise substantiate, they claim a statement in Steele’s earlier declaration pertains to pre-election memos. Here’s what it looks like in that declaration:

That is, Steele didn’t say he was getting unsolicited information prior to the election; this was, in both declarations, a reference to the single December report.

Moreover, while I absolutely agree that the last report is the most likely to be disinformation, the referral is actually not clear whether that December 13 report ever actually got included in a FISA application. There’s no reason it would have been. While the last report mentions Page, the mention is only a referral back to earlier claims that Trump’s camp was trying to clean up after reports of Page’s involvement with the Russians got made public. So the risk that the December memorandum consisted partially or wholly of disinformation is likely utterly irrelevant to the validity of the three later FISA orders targeting Page.

Which is to say that, while I think worries about disinformation are real (particularly given their reference to Rinat Akhmetshin allegedly learning about the dossier during the summer, which I wrote about here), the case Grassley and Graham make on that point both miscites Steele’s own declaration and overstates the impact of their argued case on a Page application.

What about the Michael Isikoff reference?

Perhaps the most interesting detail in the Grassley-Graham referral pertains to their obsession with the applications’ references to the September 23 Michael Isikoff article based off Steele’s early discussions with the press. Grassley-Graham claim there’s no information corroborating the dossier (there’s a redacted Comey quote that likely says something similar). In that context, they point to the reference to Isikoff without explaining what it was doing there.

The application appears to contain no additional information corroborating the dossier allegations against Mr. Page, although it does cite to a news article that appears to be sourced to Mr. Steele’s dossier as well.

Elsewhere, I’ve seen people suggest the reference to Isikoff may have justified the need for secrecy or something, rater than as corroboration. But neither the referral nor Feinstein’s rebuttal explains what the reference is doing.

In this passage, Grassley and Graham not only focus on Isikoff, but they ascribe certain motives to the way FBI referred to it, suggesting the claim that they did not believe Steele was a source for Isikoff was an attempt to “shield Mr. Steele’s credibility.”

There’s absolutely no reason the FBI would have seen the need to shield Steele’s credibility in October. He was credible. More troubling is that the FBI said much the same thing in January.

In the January reapplication, the FBI stated in a footnote that, “it did not believe that Steele gave information to Yahoo News that ‘published the September 23 News Article.”

Let’s do some math.

If I’m doing my math correctly, if the FISA reapplications happened at a regular 90 day interval, they’d look like this.

That’d be consistent with what the Nunes memo said about who signed what, and would fit the firing dates of January 30 for Yates and May 9 for Comey, as well as the start date for Rosenstein of April 26 (Chris Wray started on August 1).

If that’s right, then Isikoff wrote his second article on the Steele dossier, one that made it clear via a link his earlier piece had been based off Steele, before the second application was submitted (though the application would have been finished and submitted in preliminary form a week earlier, meaning FBI would have had to note the Isikoff piece immediately to get it into the application, but the topic of the Isikoff piece — that Steele was an FBI asset — might have attracted their attention).

But that’s probably not right because the Grassley-Graham referral describes a June, not July, reapplication, meaning the application would have been no later than the last week of June. That makes the reauthorization dates look more like this, distributing the extra days roughly proportionately:

That would put the second footnote claiming the FBI had no reason to believe the September Isikoff piece was based on Steele before the time when the second Isikoff piece made it clear.

I’m doing this for a second reason, however. It’s possible (particularly given Whitehouse’s comments) Carter Page remains under surveillance, but for some reason it’s no longer contentious.

That might be the case if the reapplications no longer rely on the dossier.

And I’m interested in that timing because, on September 9, I made what was implicit clear: That pointing to the September Isikoff piece to claim the Steele dossier had been corroborated was self-referential. I’m not positive I was the first, but by that point, the Isikoff thing would have been made explicit.

Does this matter at all to the Mueller inquiry?

Ultimately, though, particularly given the Nunes memo confirmation that the counterintelligence investigation into Trump’s people all stems from the George Papadopoulos tip, and not Page (particularly given the evidence that the FBI was very conservative in their investigation of him) there’s not enough in even the Grassley-Graham referral to raise questions about the Mueller investigation, especially given a point I made out in the Politico last week.

According to a mid-January status report in the case against Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates, the government has turned over “more than 590,000 items” to his defense team, “including (but not limited to) financial records, records from vendors identified in the indictment, email communications involving the defendants, and corporate records.” He and Gates have received imaged copies of 87 laptops, phones and thumb drives, and copies off 19 search-warrant applications. He has not received, however, a FISA notice, which the government would be required to provide if they planned to use anything acquired using evidence obtained using the reported FISA warrant against Manafort. That’s evidence of just how much of a distraction Manafort’s strategy [of using the Steele dossier to discredit the Mueller investigation] is, of turning the dossier into a surrogate for the far more substantive case against him and others.

And it’s not just Manafort. Not a single thing in the George Papadopoulos and Michael Flynn guilty pleas—for lying to the FBI—stems from any recognizable mention in the dossier, either. Even if the Steele dossier were a poisoned fruit, rather than the kind of routine oppo research that Republicans themselves had pushed to the FBI to support investigations, Mueller has planted an entirely new tree blooming with incriminating details.

Thus the point of my graphic above. The Steele dossier evidence used in the Carter Page FISA application to support an investigation into Cater Page, no matter what else it says about the FISA application process or FBI candor, is just a small corner of the investigation into Trump’s people.

 

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

The Harm Releasing the Nunes Memo Caused

I did two pieces elsewhere on the Devin Nunes memo yesterday. At Vice, I tracked all the holes in the memo; subsequent reporting showed that I hit virtually all the big ones that Adam Schiff hit in his response memo: the memo misrepresented what FBI told FISC about the political nature of Christopher Steele’s, it misrepresents Andrew McCabe’s testimony, and the memo misrepresented why George Papadopoulos was mentioned in the application. At HuffPo, I described how on the twin FISA events of the last few weeks — 702 reauthorization and the Nunes memo — both Nunes and Paul Ryan were on the wrong side of the principles of rule of law and civil liberties.

Since the memo has proven to be such a dud, a lot of people are now questioning DOJ’s and Democrats’ claims that releasing the memo would harm national security. I want to lay out three ways (DOJ surely believes) it may well do that.

Tells Carter Page and any co-conspirators precisely when FISA surveillance started

The memo tells Carter Page — and any co-conspirators both within the Trump camp and overseas — precisely when the surveillance on Page started and what it consists of.

FBI obtained an electronic surveillance warrant against Page on October 21, 2016, and obtained 3 reauthorizations (so roughly January 19, April 19, and July 18). While Page’s interlocutors overseas were likely wiretapped, if possible, associates in the Trump camp can now assume any conversations they had with him before October 21 were not recorded and remain unavailable to Robert Mueller.

Mind you, we know the memo doesn’t reveal the full extent of surveillance directed against Carter Page, because it gives no details on the 2014 FISA wiretap reportedly used against him. That leaves open the possibility that he was surveilled using other means. I think the GOP would have included had FISC approved a physical search FISA warrant against Page, because that would include the possibility of obtaining stored communications from during the campaign. But I would also bet a lot of money that whatever Attorney General was in charge during periods when Page traveled overseas approved a 705(b) order on him, permitting surveillance to continue while he was overseas. I’ll have more to say on this in upcoming days.

Note, it is also possible that the surveillance against Page continues.

Tells subjects of the investigation the status of the investigation and FBI’s ability to validate the Steele memo

The memo provides other details about the investigation, too.

On October 21, per a quotation from FBI Assistant Director Bill Priestap, the investigation into Russian ties with the Trump camp was is its “infancy.” Again, this will let Russians and Trump associates know that anything they managed to destroy before that date may well be unavailable to Mueller.

Later in October, the source report on Steele reported that the dossier had been “only minimally corroborated.” If any of the events in the dossier are real, then the Russians (especially) will have a sense of how unsuccessful the FBI had been in finding the evidence to corroborate those events. If the dossier is, as I’ve suggested, disinformation, the Russians would know that their disinformation was wasting FBI Agent time at least for months.

Tells Australians and every other foreign partner shared intelligence may be officially declassified

The memo mentions the Papadopoulos tip and confirms that’s what triggered the investigation; it also confirms that nothing shared prior to then had triggered an investigation. While the description here doesn’t attribute that intelligence to the Australians, we know that’s where it came from. Now Australia and every other country will know that intelligence they share, including intelligence that makes it look like Five Eyes officials are reporting on the citizens of other Five Eyes countries, may be released by Devin Nunes for political gain. This will add to the many reasons why our friends will hesitate before sharing intelligence with us.

Makes it more likely defendants will get FISA review

In the 40 year history of FISA, no defendant who got notice that FISA data was being used against them in prosecution has been able to review the application used against them. Because Nunes released this information so frivolously, because White House Counsel Don McGahn, in his cover memo, suggested this was a time when “public interest in disclosure of [FISA materials] outweighs any need to protect the information, the memo lowers the bar for release of FISA-related information going forward.

I assume Carter Page, if he is charged, will successfully be able to win review of his FISA application (and think that would be entirely appropriate); that may mean he doesn’t get charged or, if he does, Mueller has to bend over backwards to avoid using FISA material.

But I also assume — and hope — that this disclosure ends the 40 year drought on the release of information, which the original drafters of FISA envisioned would be appropriate in certain circumstances. I think this the one salutary benefit of this memo; it makes it more likely that FISA will work the way it is supposed to going forward.

I even think it possible that the release of this information may affect the response to Keith Gartenlaub’s pending appeal in the Ninth Circuit. His is a case that merits FISA review, and whereas the court might have hesitated to give him that in the past, it would be far easier for them to do so here.

In other words, the release of this memo likely helped those Mueller is trying to investigate, provided another reason for our foreign partners to hesitate before sharing intelligence with us, and makes it more likely some defendants will get to review their FISA application going forward. I can see how DOJ would consider all of that harmful to national security.

Update: On Twitter some folks added that this makes people distrust FBI, making it less likely they’ll share information with the Bureau. In my opinion actually sharing interview reports with HPSCI already did that (though that Chris Wray was forced to do so wouldn’t be as widely known). I also think the sheer shittiness of the dossier minimizes the impact of that somewhat. But I think it’s a fair point.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

Byron York Confirms that Many Names and Sources Implicated Carter Page as an Agent of a Foreign Power

Adam Schiff’s complaints that Republicans won’t release his FISA memo in tandem with the Devin Nunes being reviewed for release at the White House must be doing damage: a bunch of Republicans, including Tom Rooney, ran to Byron York to try to spin the release process as a fair application of process.

But there was also a rare moment of bipartisanship for the bitterly divided panel. At the same meeting, Republicans and Democrats voted unanimously to make the Democratic memo — the counter-memo to the Republican document — available to all members of the House.

That is the same process Republicans, under chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., followed with their memo. First, make it available to House members. (That happened on Jan. 18.) Later, after members of both parties have had a chance to read the memo, decide whether to release it to the public.

But along the way, an anonymous source who might be Rooney had this to say:

“It was written by attorneys as a rebuttal to our memo, but it’s not going to move their argument forward,” noted one Republican member who has read the Democratic paper. “It’s too detailed, too confusing, and far more personal — they go after [Nunes] again and again.

The member noted that that Democratic memo contains far more classified information — names and sources — than the GOP paper. “It is much more revealing [of classified information],” he said. “It’s going to have to be heavily redacted before it can be released. We wrote our memo with the hope that it would be released to the American people. Their memo will have to be heavily redacted.”

The anonymous source who might be Rooney admits that the Schiff memo contains far more references to names and sources than the Nunes memo.

What the anonymous source who might be Rooney admits is that there are far more names and sources that implicated Carter Page as an agent of a foreign power than what Nunes’ memo — which reportedly focuses primarily on how the Steele dossier served as one source for at least three FISA applications against Carter Page — admits.

Thanks for clearing that up, Congressman Rooney.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

On Disinformation and the Dossier

By all accounts, the House will vote to release the Nunes memo tonight, even while Adam Schiff pushes to release his countering memo at the same time. Perhaps in advance of that, Andrew McCabe either chose to or was told to take leave today until such time as his pension kicks in in mid-March, ending his FBI career.

Since we’re going to be obsessing about the dossier for the next while again, I want to return to a question I’ve repeatedly raised: the possibility that some or even much of the Christopher Steele dossier could be the product of Russian disinformation. Certainly, at least by the time Fusion and Steele were pitching the dossier to the press in September 2016, the Russians might have gotten wind of the project and started to feed Steele’s sources disinformation. But there’s at least some reason to believe it could have happened much sooner.

Former CIA officer Daniel Hoffman argues the near misses are a mark of Russian disinformation

A number of spooks had advanced this idea in brief comments in the past. Today, former CIA officer Daniel Hoffman makes the arguement at more length at WSJ.

There is a third possibility, namely that the dossier was part of a Russian espionage disinformation plot targeting both parties and America’s political process. This is what seems most likely to me, having spent much of my 30-year government career, including with the CIA, observing Soviet and then Russian intelligence operations. If there is one thing I have learned, it’s that Vladimir Putin continues in the Soviet tradition of using disinformation and espionage as foreign-policy tools.

Hoffman points to what I consider the dossier’s abundance of near-misses (such as events involving the correct person in the wrong place or time) on correct information to back his case.

The pattern of such Russian operations is to sprinkle false information, designed to degrade the enemy’s social and political infrastructure, among true statements that enhance the veracity of the overall report. In 2009 the FSB wanted to soil the reputation of a U.S. diplomat responsible for reporting on human rights. So it fabricated a video, in part using real surveillance footage of the diplomat, that purported to show him with a prostitute in Moscow.

Similarly, some of the information in the Steele dossier is true. Carter Page, a Trump campaign adviser, did travel to Moscow in the summer of 2016. But he insists that the secret meetings the dossier alleges never happened. This is exactly what you’d expect if the Kremlin followed its usual playbook: accurate basic facts provided as bait to convince Americans that the fake info is real.

John Sipher, in our joint interview with Jeremy Scahill admitted such a thing was possible, though that the dossier still tied the hack to “collusion.”

The Russians are the best in the world at this disinformation and deception. I don’t think, based on what we saw in the June, the first of his reports, that the Russians would have controlled all of those sources and controlled that whole narrative. It just doesn’t seem to make sense to me. And if in fact they did control the information that was given to Mr. Steele at that time, you have to wonder what was the point. If they were trying to send a message that they had compromising information on Mr. Trump, that might be that they wanted Mr. Trump to know what they had so he would act accordingly. In terms of using kompromat you don’t have to go to the person and make the quid pro quo, you just have to let them know that you have the information and they’ll do the right thing. So, I do agree, as time went by, and as she mentioned, for example, that what GPS Fusion information had in the connections they had there’s, it’s certainly possible that the Russians could have come across some of these sources and provided disinformation especially as time went by. I don’t think that that’s out of the realm of possibility.

Nevertheless Sipher argued in response to Hoffman that the content of the dossier would rule against it being disinformation.

[Hoffman] did not address the content. If was disinformation, it was designed to hurt Trump.

The content of the dossier would have led Democrats to be complacent about the hacking

But I can think of several ways the information in the dossier, if it was disinformation, would help Trump. I have already noted how, if Democrats had used the intelligence provided by Steele in the very earliest reports in the dossier to gauge the risk posed by the hack, they would have been lulled into complacency, because Steele’s first reports clearly said any kompromat the Russians wanted to dump was old intercepts from Hillary’s trips to Russia, and even Steele’s first report after the WikiLeaks dump would not only not confirm Russia was behind the release, but would also contradict a year of public reporting on APT29 to claim that Russia had not had success breaching targets like the State Department and Hillary.

On June 20, Perkins Coie would have learned from a Steele report that the dirt Russia had on Hillary consisted of “bugged conversations she had on various visits to Russia and intercepted phone calls rather than any embarrassing conduct.” It would also have learned that “the dossier however had not yet been made available abroad, including to TRUMP or his campaign team.”

On July 19, Perkins Coie would have learned from a Steele report that at a meeting with a Kremlin official named Diyevkin which Carter Page insists didn’t take place, Diyevkin “rais[ed] a dossier of ‘kompromat’ the Kremlin possessed on TRUMP’s Democratic presidential rival, Hillary CLINTON, and its possible release to the Republican’s campaign team.” At that point in time, the reference to kompromat would still be to intercepted messages, not email.

On July 22, Wikileaks released the first trove of DNC emails.

On July 26 — days after Russian-supplied emails were being released to the press — Perkins Coie would receive a Steele report (based on June reporting) that claimed FSB had the lead on hacking in Russia. And the report would claim — counter to a great deal of publicly known evidence — that “there had been only limited success in penetrating the ‘first tier’ foreign targets.” That is, even after the Russian hacked emails got released to the public, Steele would still be providing information to the Democrats suggesting there was no risk of emails getting released because Russians just weren’t that good at hacking.

In fact, in his testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, in one of the few instances in either congressional appearance where he admitted that Steele was hired at almost precisely the same moment the Democrats were trying to get the FBI to make a public statement attributing the hack to Russia, Glenn Simpson explained that the Democrats did use Steele’s intelligence to “manage” the aftermath of the hack.

MR. SIMPSON: Well, this was a very unusual situation, because right around the time that the work started, it became public that the FBI suspected the Russians of hacking the DNC. And so there was sort of an extraordinary coincidence. It wasn’t really a coincidence but, you know, our own interest in Russia coincided with a lot of public disclosures that there was something going on with Russia.

And so what was originally envisioned as an original — as just a sort of a survey, a first cut of what might be — whether there might be something interesting about Donald Trump and Russia quickly became more of an effort to help my client manage a, you know, exceptional situation and understand what the heck was going on.

I also think it’s creepy that Guccifer 2.0 promised what he called a dossier on Hillary on the same day Steele delivered his first report, June 20, and delivered documents he claimed to be that dossier the next day.

There are multiple ways the Russians may have learned of the Steele dossier

Hoffman lays out a number of the reasons I believe Steele’s production process might have been uniquely susceptible to discovery.

There are three reasons the Kremlin would have detected Mr. Steele’s information gathering and seen an opportunity to intervene. First, Mr. Steele did not travel to Russia to acquire his information and instead relied on intermediaries. That is a weak link, since Russia’s internal police service, the FSB, devotes significant technical and human resources to blanket surveillance of Western private citizens and government officials, with a particular focus on uncovering their Russian contacts.

Second, Mr. Steele was an especially likely target for such surveillance given that he had retired from MI-6, the British spy agency, after serving in Moscow. Russians are fond of saying that there is no such thing as a “former” intelligence officer. The FSB would have had its eye on him.

Third, the Kremlin successfully hacked into the Democratic National Committee. Emails there could have tipped it off that the Clinton campaign was collecting information on Mr. Trump’s dealings in Russia.

I’d flesh out another, one the Republicans have been dancing close to for the last year. Because Fusion GPS did business with both the Democrats and, via Baker Hostetler, anti-Magnitsky lobbyists Natalia Veselnitskaya and Rinat Akhmetshin at the same time, it created a second source via which the Russians might learn that Hillary had a dossier. In addition to Simpson himself,  Fusion researcher Edward Baumgartner also worked with both Baker Hostetler and the Democrats at the same time. Simpson tried to minimize the overlap and the possibility for revealing the dossier, especially in his Senate testimony.

Q. We had talked about work for multiple clients. What steps were taken, if any, to make sure that the work that Mr. Baumgartner was doing for Prevezon was not shared across to the clients you were working for with regard to the presidential election?

A. He didn’t deal with them. He didn’t deal with the clients.

But the publicly released financial data shows a clear overlap in those projects and Baumgartner’s comments to BI show he worked quite closely with Veselnitskaya.

Baumgartner, a fluent Russian speaker, said he was hired by Fusion to serve as “an interface” with Veselnitskaya, who does not speak much English. They worked “very closely” together in Washington and Moscow, Baumgartner said, reviewing documents and finding witnesses who could bolster Prevezon’s case.

Simpson attended a dinner in DC on June 10, attended by both Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin, in the aftermath of the Trump Tower meeting at which (per Simpson) “we had drinks before;” Baumgartner’s vague memory suggests he did too. When asked if Baumgartner knew Akhmetshin, which is virtually certain, Simpson said, “I don’t know.” So there were at least opportunities where people working on both campaigns might have disclosed details about the project for the Democrats (though both Simpson and Baumgartner said Baumgartner didn’t know about the Steele part of the project).

One other detail makes it more likely that Russians succeeded in planting at least some disinformation: both Luke Harding (who worked closely with Steele on his book) and Simpson describe Steele’s sources drying up as the focus on Trump’s ties to Russia grew. Simpson’s statement on this grossly understates (as he often does) how much focus there already publicly was on the Russian hack by the time he hired Steele.

So, you know, when Chris started asking around in Moscow about this the information was sitting there. It wasn’t a giant secret. People were talking about it freely. It was only, you know, later that it became a subject of great controversy and people clammed up, and at that time the whole issue of the hacking was also, you know, not really focused on Russia. So these things eventually converged into, you know, a major issue, but at the time it wasn’t one.

So if Steele’s regular sources were drying up, it makes it far more likely any new ones would be easy to compromised.

Russians seem to have planned to use the dossier to discredit the investigation — just as they are using it

Finally, I want to turn to another reason why I think parts of this may be disinformation. At least two of the reports — the Alfa Bank report (which was pretty clearly a feedback loop on another dodgy story) and the depiction of what should have been the Internet Research Association but was instead targeted at Webzilla, seem custom made to prepare the kind of lawfare that has discredited the dossier. Indeed, Alfa Bank and Webzilla’s owners both sued, suggesting they feel like they can survive discovery.

Look, now, at this detail from the letters Chuck Grassley sent out to the DNC, its top officials, and the Hillary campaign, and its top officials, trying to find out how much they knew about and used the dossier. Grassley also asks for any communications to, from, or relating to the following (I’ve rearranged and classified them).

Fusion and its formal employees: Fusion GPS; Bean LLC; Glenn Simpson; Mary Jacoby; Peter Fritsch; Tom Catan; Jason Felch; Neil King; David Michaels; Taylor Sears; Patrick Corcoran; Laura Sego; Jay Bagwell; Erica Castro; Nellie Ohr;

Fusion researcher who worked on both the Prevezon and Democratic projects: Edward Baumgartner;

Anti-Magnitsky lobbyists: Rinat Akhmetshin; Ed Lieberman;

Christopher Steele’s business and colleagues: Orbis Business Intelligence Limited; Orbis Business International Limited.; Walsingham Training Limited; Walsingham Partners Limited; Christopher Steele; Christopher Burrows; Sir Andrew Wood,

Hillary-related intelligence and policy types: Cody Shearer; Sidney Blumenthal; Jon Winer; Kathleen Kavalec; Victoria Nuland; Daniel Jones;

DOJ and FBI: Bruce Ohr; Peter Strzok; Andrew McCabe; James Baker; Sally Yates; Loretta Lynch;

Grassley, like me, doesn’t believe Brennan was out of the loop either: John Brennan

Oleg Deripaska and his lawyer: Oleg Deripaska; Paul Hauser;

It’s the last reference I’m particularly interested in.

When Simpson talked about how the dossier got leaked to BuzzFeed, he complains that, “I was very upset. I thought it was a very dangerous thing and that someone had violated my confidences, in any event.” The presumed story is that John McCain and his aide David Kramer were briefed by Andrew Wood at an event that Rinat Akhmetshin also attended, later obtained the memo (I’m still not convinced this was the full memo yet), McCain shared it, again, with the FBI, and Kramer leaked it to Buzzfeed.

But Grassley seems to think Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska was in on the loop of this. Deripaska is important to this story not just for because he owns Paul Manafort (he figures heavily in this worthwhile profile of Manafort). But also because he’s got ties, through Rick Davis, to John McCain. This was just rehashed last year by Circa, which has been running interference on this story.

There is a report that Manafort laid out precisely the strategy focusing on the dossier that is still the main focus of GOP pushback on the charges against Trump and his campaign (and Manafort).

It was about a week before Trump’s inauguration, and Manafort wanted to brief Trump’s team on alleged inaccuracies in a recently released dossier of memos written by a former British spy for Trump’s opponents that alleged compromising ties among Russia, Trump and Trump’s associates, including Manafort.

“On the day that the dossier came out in the press, Paul called Reince, as a responsible ally of the president would do, and said this story about me is garbage, and a bunch of the other stuff in there seems implausible,” said a personclose to Manafort.

[snip]

According to a GOP operative familiar with Manafort’s conversation with Priebus, Manafort suggested the errors in the dossier discredited it, as well as the FBI investigation, since the bureau had reached a tentative (but later aborted) agreement to pay the former British spy to continue his research and had briefed both Trump and then-President Barack Obama on the dossier.

Manafort told Priebus that the dossier was tainted by inaccuracies and by the motivations of the people who initiated it, whom he alleged were Democratic activists and donors working in cahoots with Ukrainian government officials, according to the operative.

If Deripaska learned of the dossier — and obtained a copy from McCain or someone close to him — it would make it very easy to lay out the strategy we’re currently seeing.

Update: Welp, here’s why Grassley wants to know who among the Democrats spoke with Cody Shearer.

The FBI inquiry into alleged Russian collusion in the 2016 US presidential election has been given a second memo that independently set out many of the same allegations made in a dossier by Christopher Steele, the British former spy.

The second memo was written by Cody Shearer, a controversial political activist and former journalist who was close to the Clinton White House in the 1990s.

[snip]

The Shearer memo was provided to the FBI in October 2016.

It was handed to them by Steele – who had been given it by an American contact – after the FBI requested the former MI6 agent provide any documents or evidence that could be useful in its investigation, according to multiple sources.

The Guardian was told Steele warned the FBI he could not vouch for the veracity of the Shearer memo, but that he was providing a copy because it corresponded with what he had separately heard from his own independent sources.

Among other things, both documents allege Donald Trump was compromised during a 2013 trip to Moscow that involved lewd acts in a five-star hotel.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

The Increasing Panic Surrounding Devin Nunes’ “Extraordinarily Reckless” Plan to Release Memo

I thought I’d chronicle the increasingly senior panic surrounding Devin Nunes’ plan — reportedly backed by Trump — to release the Nunes memo without first letting FBI and DOJ review it. Clearly, there’s concern this will burn underlying sources for the FISA application(s) described in the report. I don’t rule our the belated revelation of something I’ve been hearing for at least six months — that the Dutch passed on intelligence in real time of APT 29 hacking US targets and had an inside view of the operations — isn’t meant as a warning of what will happen if the US further burns the Dutch.

I’m also interested in AAG Stephen Boyd’s emphasis that Nunes delegated his review of these documents to Trey Gowdy, perhaps suggesting both will have some kind of liability for any damage that will result from this game of telephone.

Sunday, January 21: FBI denied a copy of Nunes’ memo.

“The FBI has requested to receive a copy of the memo in order to evaluate the information and take appropriate steps if necessary. To date, the request has been declined,” said Andrew Ames, a spokesperson for the FBI.

Wednesday, January 24: Richard Burr’s Senate Intelligence Committee staffers denied a copy of the memo.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr’s staff has not been given access to a classified memo drafted by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, a sign of how closely House Republicans are guarding allegations of Justice Department wrongdoing over surveillance activities in the Russia investigation.

According to three sources familiar with the matter, Burr’s staff requested a copy of the memo and has been denied, just as the FBI and Justice Department have also been denied reviewing a copy of the document.

Wednesday, January 24: Trump’s Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs Stephen Boyd writes letter noting that releasing memo will violate agreement.

Recent news reports indicate a classified memorandum prepared by House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI or Committee) staff alleges abuses at the Department of Justice (Department) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the FISA process. We understand many members of the House of Representatives have views this memorandum and that it has raised concerns.

As you know, we have provided HPSCI with more than 1,000 pages of classified documents relating to the FBI’s relationship, if any, with a source and its reliance, if any, on information provided by that source. Media reports indicate that the Committee’s memorandum contains highly classified material confidentially provided by the Department to the Committee in a secure facility.1

[snip]

In addition, we have also heard that HPSCI is considering making the classified memorandum available to the public and the media, an unprecedented action. We believe it would be extraordinarily reckless for the Committee to disclose such information publicly without giving the Department and the FBI the opportunity to review the memorandum and to advise the HPSCI of the risk of harm to national security and to ongoing investigations that could come from public release. Indeed, we do not understand why the Committee would possibly seek to disclose classified and law enforcement sensitive information without first consulting with the relevant members of the Intelligence Community.

Seeking Committee approval of public release would require HPSCI committee members to vote on a staff-drafted memorandum that purports to be based on classified source materials that neither you nor most of them have seen. Given HPSCI’s important role in overseeing the nation’s intelligence community, you well understand the damaging impact that the release of classified material could have on our national security and our ability to share and receive sensitive information from friendly foreign governments.

[snip]

Additionally, we believe that wider distribution of the classified information presumably contained within your memorandum would represent a significant deviation from the terms of access granted in good faith by the Department, HPSCI, and the Office of Speaker Paul Ryan.

The Department renews its request — as previously made in a personal appeal by the Director of the FBI — for an opportunity to review the memorandum in question so that it may respond to the Committee before any vote on public release.

1 To date, the Department has provided detailed briefings and made available to HPSCI documents requested as part of its investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 election. The terms of access stipulated that review of the documents would be limited to the Chairman or his designee, the Ranking Member or his designee, and two staff members each. (Mr. Gowdy reviewed the documents for the majority. Mr. Schiff reviewed the documents for the minority.) Other committees of jurisdiction — the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, and the House Committee on the Judiciary — have accepted similar procedural safeguards to protect against improper dissemination of information.

Thursday, January 25: DOJ spox (and close Jeff Sessions ally) Sarah Isgur Flores goes on Fox to argue DOJ should get to look at the memo first,

Let us see it first. At this point, nobody in the Senate or the White House or the Department of Justice or FBI has seen this document, and a number of Congressmen have expressed a lot of concern about it. So we would like to see it. Well, I think we’d certainly want to see any evidence of wrong-doing and take action upon that if there is wrong-doing going on. And then, I think we’d want to discuss, I mean, this is classified material for a reason. It has national security implications. It may have implications for our allies or others in the intelligence community.

Thursday, January 25: Majority Whip and SSCI member John Cornyn says Nunes should let DOJ review the memo.

Cornyn, who has been briefed on Nunes memo, suggests Nunes should listen to DOJ concerns. “We all should pay attention to what the Justice Department’s concerns are, and I’m sure the chairman will. It’s always good when we communicate and consult with one another,” he told me

Thursday, January 25: James Lankford says Nunes should follow “proper declassification procedures.”

Update: First, I fixed the dates.

Second, I wasn’t aware of this statement from Paul Ryan’s spox, sometime in the last day. (h/t Maestro)

A spokesman for Ryan pushed back at the DOJ’s characterization of the negotiations.

“As previously reported, the speaker’s only message to the Department was that it needed to comply with oversight requests and there were no terms set for its compliance,” Doug Andres, the spokesman, said in a statement.

This is fairly breathtaking, as it suggests Ryan (and by association Nunes) are not agreeing to abide by any of the security precautions imposed on the access to highly sensitive case files Nunes obtained.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

The Gizmo™: Correlation Doesn’t Equal Adversary Nation

For days, reporters have been mis-using The Gizmo™ (the name I use for the “disinformation dashboard” from the German Marshall Fund, a black box that purports to show “Russian propaganda efforts on Twitter in near-real time”) to claim that Russian-linked accounts are pushing the #ReleaseTheMemo campaign calling for the public release of Devin Nunes’ politicized memo attacking the FBI.

As the effort lead by some Republicans to curtail special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into the election meddling has heated up, Russian-linked accounts helped amplify a Twitter hashtag calling for the release of a memo the group hopes will help discredit Mueller’s work, according to Hamilton 68, a research firm that tracks the malicious accounts. The #releasethememo hashtag was tweeted by these accounts nearly 4,000 times in the last couple of days, the firm said.

As always with such reporting, the articles don’t provide even the nuance the project’s most responsible contributor, JM Berger, lays out on their methodology page.

  1. Not all content in this network is “created” by Russia. A significant amount—probably a majority—of content is created by third parties and then amplified by the network because it is relevant to Russian messaging themes.
  2. Not all content amplified by this network is pro-Russian. The network frequently mobilizes to criticize or attack individuals or news reports that it wishes to discredit.
  3. Because of the two points above, we emphasize it is NOT CORRECT to describe sites linked by this network as Russian propaganda sites. We are not claiming that content producers linked by this network are Russian propaganda sites. Rather, content linked by this network is RELEVANT to Russian messaging themes.

Such reports certainly don’t consider the validity of drawing conclusions from such analysis that the authors have refused to have vetted by a third party. What does it mean to openly profess to be pro-Russian, for example? Do non-consensus views on Syria or Ukraine count? Does skepticism about Russian involvement in the election count?

And the reports don’t note the serial false positives, such as the time Jim Lankford used The Gizmo™ to claim Russia was stoking tensions around NFL players taking a knee during the anthem. More responsible analysis showed that,

[B]oth #TakeAKnee and #BoycottNFL were genuinely viral movements, generating high volumes of traffic from large numbers of accounts, but both received an additional boost from bots.

The bots which amplified #TakeAKnee were primarily non-political; they appear to be bots for hire, repurposed to amplify specific posts. Of these, the most significant group is that which retweeted @DianneLogic, given its previous use in online harassment campaigns in the context of Russia and the far right. However, the evidence of its prior behavior is suggestive but not conclusive. It cannot be taken as proving Senator Lankford’s claim.

The accounts which amplifed #BoycottNFL are a different breed. They are largely cyborgs, rather than bots, posting authored content in between slews of retweets. They are also political, rather than commercial. Their sole purpose appears to be boosting far-right American posts.

In both cases, the bots were functionally anonymous, providing no verifiable information on the identity of the user behind them. There is thus no independent information which would allow us to say definitively whether they were American, linked somehow to Russia, or managed from another country entirely.

In short, in spite of this thing being shown to measure something entirely different from what reporters continue to report — correlated traffic (and that, based on unpublished criteria) rather than causal traffic — nevertheless Russia got credit for a campaign clearly driven by right wing Americans backed by a far more extensive propaganda infrastructure.

And then, even as Twitter started leaking initial analysis saying just that — that Russia wasn’t to blame …

[A] knowledgeable source says that Twitter’s internal analysis has thus far found that authentic American accounts, and not Russian imposters or automated bots, are driving #ReleaseTheMemo. There are no preliminary indications that the Twitter activity either driving the hashtag or engaging with it is either predominantly Russian.

In short, according to this source, who would not speak to The Daily Beast for attribution, the retweets are coming from inside the country.

… Two members of Congress from California, Adam Schiff and Dianne Feinstein, called on two California companies, Twitter and Facebook, to confess further manipulation by Russia.

We understand Facebook and Twitter have developed significant expertise in identifying inauthentic and malicious accounts.  Further, your forensic investigations into Russian government exploitation of your platforms during the 2016 U.S. election have helped expose to the American public the vast extent of Russia’s covert influence efforts. We therefore request that your companies conduct an in-depth forensic examination of this real-time activity on your platforms to determine:

  1. Whether and how many accounts linked to Russian influence operations are involved in this campaign;
  2. The frequency and volume of their postings on this topic; and
  3. How many legitimate Twitter and Facebook account holders have been exposed to this campaign.

Given the urgency of this matter, we ask that you provide a public report to Congress and the American public by January 26, 2018.  In addition, we urge your companies to immediately take necessary steps to expose and deactivate accounts involved in this influence operation that violate your respective user policies.

Nothing in this letter explains why Facebook should have to do this work, as The Gizmo™, the sole piece of evidence Schiff and Feinstein rely on, doesn’t track Facebook.

But even the demand to Twitter was based on yet another misreading of what The Gizmo™ actually measures. And, having never asked The Gizmo™ to explain the methodology behind its serial panics, a Senator representing both Facebook and Twitter demanded that they check its work, rather than vice versa.

If I were a forewoman in a Russian troll factory, there would be no easier way to boost my career prospects than to use a few of my bots to manipulate The Gizmo™’s sloppy methodology to claim credit for an obviously American-generated hoax. “Ивана! Давайте претендовать на последнюю республиканскую пропаганду!” Doing so would set off a self-fulfilling prophecy, precisely the kind of thing The Gizmo™’s authors claim to want to prevent, boosting Russia’s ability to sow discord with virtually no effort.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

On the Sessions and Trump Interviews: It’s Not Just Obstruction of Justice

There are two stories out (in addition to this piece I did for TNR) renewing the frenzy around the Mueller investigation.

First, NYT reveals that Mueller interviewed Jeff Sessions for a few hours last week.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions was questioned for several hours last week by the special counsel’s office as part of the investigation into Russia’s meddling in the election and whether the president obstructed justice since taking office, according to a Justice Department spokeswoman.

Then, WaPo reports that Mueller wants to interview Trump about the Mike Flynn and Jim Comey firings.

Within the past two weeks, the special counsel’s office has indicated to the White House that the two central subjects that investigators wish to discuss with the president are the departures of Flynn and Comey and the events surrounding their firings.

Commenters and the WaPo piece (which cites information that should only be available from a member of Trump’s legal team) suggest these developments mean Trump is looking at obstruction.

Mueller’s interest in the events that led Trump to push out Flynn and Comey indicates that his investigation is intensifying its focus on possible efforts by the president or others to obstruct or blunt the special counsel’s probe.

I’m sure obstruction absolutely is one of the things Mueller is assessing when interviewing Sessions and Trump.

But neither of these interviews, particularly not the Sessions one, is necessarily focused exclusively on obstruction.

Sessions, for example, was in a key early meeting where setting up a meeting between Putin and Trump was discussed (though Sessions claims he opposed the idea). I have noted, for example, how Sessions played dumb when asked whether he had any discussions about emails and that key Sessions aide Stephen Miller is a top candidate to have heard about emails from George Papadopoulos.

[I]t seems highly likely that on April 27 (or whenever Papadopoulos was next in DC), Miller learned that Russia had some kind of emails from Hillary.

[Stephen] Miller, recall, is Jeff Sessions’ close aide, his installment in the Administration. The NYT makes clear that Miller was interviewed by Mueller’s team recently, which means he was one of the people the government planned to interview just after locking in Papadopoulos’ plea.

Which makes this exchange from Jeff Sessions’ most recent congressional appearance, on October 18, all the more interesting. First, Patrick Leahy got the Attorney General to admit that there was a difference between not recalling something and affirmatively denying something. Leahy then pointed out that, once the meetings he had denied were disclosed, Sessions started not recalling certain things about the meetings that he had previous affirmatively denied.

Leahy: Later in March, when you did disclose such meetings, you said you could not recall what was said at the meetings. Your answer to my question was an emphatic no. It wasn’t, “I don’t recall.” You are a lawyer, I am a lawyer. You are, in fact, our nation’s top lawyer. Is there a difference between responding “no” and “I do not recall”?

Sessions: Yes.

Leahy: Thank you.

Sessions: Certainly it is, Senator Leahy.

Leahy: So if you could not recall, then you could not answer have answered my first question, yes or no, if later you said that you don’t recall what was discussed. The reason I ask is that, US intelligence intercepts reported in July that it would appear you did in fact discuss campaign issues with the Russian Ambassador.

Leahy then asked Sessions whether he had, since the election, had conversations with Russian officials about a slew of things, starting with emails. Sessions got even squirrelier than he normally is, and first attempted to answer a question Leahy didn’t ask.

Sessions: I have never had a meeting with any Russian officials to discuss any kind of coordinating campaign efforts.

So then Leahy asked about each item in turn.

Leahy: Let’s take this piece by piece. Did you discuss any of the following: Emails?

Sessions: Repeat the question again about emails.

Leahy: Since the 2016 campaign, have you discussed with any Russian connected official anything about emails?

Sessions: Discuss with them. I don’t recall having done any such thing.

Right after this exchange, Sessions totally balks when Leahy asks him if he has been interviewed or asked for an interview by Mueller, saying he should clear it with the Special Counsel.

Now, there was some imprecision in this questioning. It’s clear that Sessions believed he was answering the question about during the campaign, not since it.

But of the things Leahy asked about — emails, Russian interference, sanctions, or any policies or positions of the Trump campaign or presidency — Sessions ultimately not-recalled in response to just one question: the emails.

Based on the past practice Leahy had just laid out, Sessions claimed to not recall issues that he had actually done. Which would suggest Sessions is worried that there’s evidence he has discussed emails — with someone. It’s just not clear how he interpreted that question.

And while Trump’s firing of Comey after attempting him to drop the Flynn investigation is a key prong in any obstruction case, his role in Flynn’s non-firing is far more interesting, especially given the likelihood, given Republican efforts to claim privilege, that he was on the Mar-a-Lago side of orders directing Flynn to ask Sergey Kislyak to hold off on a response to Obama’s sanctions. While it’s certainly possible that Mueller may hold off on any examination of Trump’s personal role in any hypothetical quid pro quo with the Russians, there’s plenty of reason to believe Trump was in the loop.

And in early discussions about Sally Yates’ testimony, Adam Schiff had said she might explain why Trump waited so long to fire Mike Flynn after she warned Don McGahn he had been compromised. One obvious reason is that it allowed Flynn, who had helped set up a meeting days later, attend it. That might change the connotation of the timing of the Comey firing, just in time to report back to Russia that the firing had “taken off” the pressure created by the investigation.

President Trump told Russian officials in the Oval Office this month that firing the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, had relieved “great pressure” on him, according to a document summarizing the meeting.

“I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Mr. Trump said, according to the document, which was read to The New York Times by an American official. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

Mr. Trump added, “I’m not under investigation.”

It’s crystal clear that Trump fired Comey in an attempt to stave off investigation of Mike Flynn.

But the why behind that obstruction led to the rest of the guts of the Russia investigation. And the why may implicate both Trump (as unindicted co-conspirator) and Sessions (most likely as witness) more directly in any quid pro quo pertaining to the election.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

Sergei Millian and the Simpson Testimony

Glenn Simpson’s testimony to the House Intelligence Committee was actually far more informative than that he gave to the Senate Judiciary Committee. I get the feeling we all might have been better served had Simpson released Fusion’s own research on Trump rather than the Steele dossier (and it might have avoided all the drama over the dossier).

I was particularly interested in Simpson’s extended comments about Sergei Millian, who ran a sketchy Russian-American chamber of commerce organization (here’s a David Corn profile that surely is influenced by Fusion), who has been alleged by many outlets (WSJ, ABC, WaPo) to be one (D) or another (E) source for the Steele dossier (note, Steele’s labels for sources in the dossier were not consistent, and other figures must be one or another of those letters in some reports).

Simpson described that his own, unpublished research showed that Millian had ties to the Trump camp going back years, first in conjunction with an effort to help Trump brand vodka under his own name in Russia.

And there was, prior to the 2013 Miss Universe fair, there.was an earlier Trump vodka marketing project in Russia that later became something that we were very interested in.

[snip]

MR. SIMPSON: Well, one of the guys who organized this trip was a guy who’s currently known as Sergi Millian. And he’s been in the press a good bit, I think, although not recently. And, you know, he came up in connection with that, and then he came up in connection with Chris’ work as one of the people around Trump who had a Russian background, and unexplained, you know, a lot of unexplained things. So when we looked at him, we found that he ran a sort of shadowy kind of trade group called the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce, which is — Russians are known to use chambers of commerce and trade groups as fronts for intelligence operations.

And this guy, his name – his real name or his original n_ame that he came to the United States wasn’t Sergi Millian. It was Siarhei Kukuts, and that’s a pretty different name.

And he changed his name when he got to Atlanta. And when we looked at him some more, we found two different resumes for him. In one resume he said he was from Belarus and he went to Minsk State; and then in another he was from Moscow and went to Moscow State. In one he said he worked for the Belarussian Foreign Ministry; in the other, he said he worked for the Russian Foreign Ministry.

He was a linguist, also an interesting thing about his background. And as time went on, yeah, we found other things about him.

Simpson also described Millian dealing Trump condos to Russians.

We found a picture of him with Donald Trump. He boasted to people that he had sold hundreds of millions of dollars in Trump condos, Trump real estate to Russians, that he was some kind of exclusive agent for Trump in Russia and that he organized this trade fair.

That may refer to Millian’s involvement in the Trump Hollywood project. Simpson describes him playing a role that has been alleged of others in Trump’s Soho project — falsely claiming there were more buyers for the project than there really were.

MR. SCHIFF: And tell me about the Trump Hollywood project. That was an example of the latter or the former? Did they get the financing from what you could tell because they got a bunch of Russians to pre-sale, or did they go to a bank and say these are our investors, or how did they go about that?

MR. SIMPSON: Well, eventually, I mean, they lost the project. It went under. I, can’t – I’m not – I’m sure we did look at who the creditors were, who the lenders were. This is the project that Sergi Millian appears to have been involved in, and there’s a picture of Jorge Perez, Donald Trump, and Sergi Millian.

And he tells a story about meeting Donald Trump at the golf — at a racetrack, drinking a bottle of Crystal with him, seems — he gave him some Crystal. And that was in the early phases of the project. So it was clear that Donald Trump — so the equity partner was the related group. It was clear that this Russian had been brought into this with Trump, and what you can surmise from that is that he’s there to say there are buyers. We can bring you buyers for this property. And that’s what a developer needs to know is that he’s got buyer interest.

MR. SCHIFF: And how does it work? Let’s say Sergi Millian or someone else lines up the Russian buyers. The Russian buyers sign pre-sale agreements. Trump can then get financing for the res! of the project. Do the buyers go through and buy the properties, or is that no longer necessary, once you’ve obtained the bank financing you can actually sell them to real people?

Simpson describes Millian’s role in an NGO that — public reporting had revealed years earlier — had been investigated by the FBI as a recruiting organization.

And then, I guess, last but not least, he, you know – as we became more and more interested in his background and the press started to write stories about him, it came out that he was associated with this Russian friendship entity called Rossotrudnichestvo, and that he was involved in organizing a junket to Moscow for some American businessmen that was the subject of an FBI investigation, because it was a suspected recruiting operation. And the FBI had questioned people who were involved in this trip about whether they were recruited by the Russians when they went to Moscow.

So it was that kind of thing.

Finally, Simpson claims his research established ties between Millian and Trump lawyer Michael Cohen (though it’s not clear whether this involved anything beyond Twitter exchanges) that Cohen subsequently tried to downplay.

And then, you know, as further time went on, we found he was connected to Michael Cohen, the President’s lawyer. And eventually, after boasting about a lot of this stuff on camera, on tape, to the TV network, he backed away from all of it suddenly when the Russia controversy began to get hot.

And Michael Cohen was very adamant that he didn’t actually have a connection to Sergi, even though he was one of only like 100 people who followed Sergi on Twitter. And they — we had Twitter messages back and forth between the two of them just – we just pulled them off of Twitter.

There are two reasons this is interesting.

First, as the NYT noted, in the wake of Trump’s victory, Millian proposed a business deal with George Papadopoulos, with whom he had gotten close in the previous six months.

Mr. Trump’s improbable victory raised Mr. Papadopoulos’s hopes that he might ascend to a top White House job. The election win also prompted a business proposal from Sergei Millian, a naturalized American citizen born in Belarus. After he had contacted Mr. Papadopoulos out of the blue over LinkedIn during the summer of 2016, the two met repeatedly in Manhattan.

[snip]

Mr. Millian proposed that he and Mr. Papadopoulos form an energy-related business that would be financed by Russian billionaires “who are not under sanctions” and would “open all doors for us” at “any level all the way to the top.”

One billionaire, he said, wanted to explore the idea of opening a Trump-branded hotel in Moscow. “I know the president will distance himself from business, but his children might be interested,” he wrote.

I think Millian’s cultivation of Papadopoulos likely explains this reference in the affidavit supporting Papadopoulos’ arrest, showing Papadopoulos asking Ivan Timofeev over Facebook on July 22, 2016 for any information he had on someone he was about to meet for the first time (see my timeline here).

“If you know any background of him that is noteworthy before I see him, kindly send my way.”

That would say that, on the same day WikiLeaks released the DNC emails — which itself took place a day after Papadopoulos signaled something about Trump’s RNC speech to Timofeev — Millian started cultivating Papadopoulos, who apparently had started spending more time in NYC.

And, according to the NYT, that cultivation ended up right where Michael Cohen had started in November 2015, discussing a deal for a Trump Tower in Moscow which inexplicably related to Trump winning election, with oligarchs who could evade US sanctions.

Cohen to Millian to Papadopoulos full circle, in the course of one year.

And if I’m right that that Facebook message that Papadopoulos tried to delete indicates a Timofeev role in Millian’s cultivation of Papadopoulos, it suggests a good deal of  orchestration on that front.

Which brings me to Simpson’s comments about Millian and the dossier.

In the first exchange about Millian, Simpson dodges on whether — as had been publicly reported, perhaps even based on sources close to Simpson — Millian was one of the sources for the dossier.

MR. SCHIFF: To your knowledge, was Mr. Millian one of the sources for Christopher Steele in the dossier?

MR. SIMPSON: I’m not in a position to get into the identity of the sources for the dossier for security reasons, primarily.

But there’s a more interesting exchange later, where, in response to a Mike Quigley question about Simpson’s non-public production, Simpson first offers up the non-sequitur that Fusion didn’t leak the dossier to BuzzFeed, then offers a seemingly different non-sequitur about the import of Sergei Millian.

MR. QUIGLEY: The dossier was published. Other elements were published. What wasn’t published? Are there still documents? Is there still information that was garnered by either Mr. Steele or others that the public isn’t aware of at this point, on this point?

MR. SIMPSON: Well, to just put it on the record, we were not the ones that gave this document to Buzzfeed, and I was not happy when this was published. I was very upset. I thought it was a very dangerous thing and that someone had violated my confidences, in any event. I think the story is largely known and that there’s very little that was left on the cutting room table from that time. I think, you know, there’s a little bit of, you know, color, I would say. You know, this guy that we were talking about earlier, Sergi Millian, isn’t named in the dossier, but is someone who was important.

In this bizarre series of non-sequiturs, Simpson appears to connect Millian with the leak of the dossier, which led to the lawfare that in turn led to the campaign to discredit the entire Mueller investigation by focusing on the dossier.

He almost certainly wasn’t the leaker; John McCain associate David Kramer almost certainly was.

But I wonder if, as part of the plan (in which former McCain campaign manager Paul Manafort may have been involved) to use the dossier to undercut the investigation, someone in Millian’s orbit encouraged its leak?

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

[Photo: National Security Agency, Ft. Meade, MD via Wikimedia]

Jack Goldsmith and Susan Hennessey Run Cover for Those Giving Jeff Sessions Unreviewable Authority to Criminalize Dissent

I’m used to Susan Hennessey partnering with Ben Wittes to write apologies for NSA and FBI that ignore known facts. I’m a bit surprised that Jack Goldsmith did so in this defense of Democrats — like Adam Schiff and Nancy Pelosi and nineteen Democratic Senators — who have voted to give Jeff Sessions unreviewable authority to criminalize dissent using certain privacy tools.

NSA did not fix “abouts” problems before the issues became public

There are numerous problems with this post. The one that irks me the most, however, is the claim that the “system itself” identified and addressed problems with “abouts” collection before they became public.

We acknowledge that the program has raised hard legal questions as well as difficult compliance issues, primarily involving “abouts” collection. But these problems were identified by the system itself, long before the issues became public, and the practices were fixed or terminated.

This claim, one I’ve corrected Hennessey for on numerous occasions on Twitter, is false, and should be retracted.

I say that with great confidence, because I wrote about the problems on August 11, 2016, well before NSA failed to disclose the full extent of the problems in an October 4, 2016 hearing, which led the worst FISC judge ever, Rosemary Collyer, to complain about NSA’s institutional “lack of candor.”

At the October 26, 2016 hearing, the Court ascribed the government’s failure to disclose those IG and OCO reviews at the October 4, 2016 hearing to an institutional “lack of candor” on NSA’s part and emphasized that “this is a very serious Fourth Amendment issue.”

As a reminder, the problem (the FISC has) with “abouts” collection is not so much that it collected entirely domestic communications — that’s the complaint of the rest of us. It’s that NSA never ever complied with John Bates’ 2011 requirement that NSA not conduct back door searches on upstream collection, because it might result in searches of those entirely domestic communications. In my August 2016 post, I noted that reviewers kept discovering that NSA continued to do back door searches on upstream data in violation of that prohibition, and kept refusing to implement technical fixes to avoid them.

I also raised concerns about the oversight of 704/705(b), which is how the NSA first realized how badly non-compliant their upstream searches were, on May 13, 2016, That’s about when NSA first reported to DOJ “in May and June 2016” that “approximately eighty-five percent of” queries using a tool the NSA employs with 704/705b queries “were not compliant with the applicable minimization procedures.”

I’ll grant that I’m remarkably attentive to documents that get declassified years after the fact. But I’m nevertheless “the public.” If I’m identifying these problems — and NSA’s refusal to make the technical fixes to avoid them — before they get fully briefed to DOJ or FISC, then it is absolutely false to claim that “the system” fixed or terminated the problem long before they became public.

Again, Lawfare should issue a retraction for that claim.

Update, January 19: On Twitter yesterday, Hennessey claimed I misread this quote, and that her proof that the system works was that the NSA had gotten away with ignoring Bates’ orders for five years, but finally shut it down before the public learned that NSA had been ignoring FISC’s orders.

This is still factually false — as I responded to her, the NSA was still identifying problems for eight months after I wrote about the problems, even assuming it had found all of them by April 2017, which was the last declassified reporting on it. But her explanation actually makes the comment downright damning for the NSA. It suggests a lawyer who was at NSA during the period it was not in compliance believes that getting away with violating the Fourth Amendment for five years, but fixing it before documents released on a three year delay (and only because of Snowden) is a sign of a law-abiding agency.

A portrait of a guy who doesn’t know key details as a rigorous overseer

The fact that I was harping on the “abouts” problems before any overseers of the program managed to fully investigate and fix them by itself disproves the claims that Hennessey and Goldsmith make in their hagiography of Adam Schiff.

He is the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee and one of the most knowledgeable and informed members of Congress on intelligence matters. Schiff has not hesitated to be  when he sees fit. He has watched the 702 program up close over many years in classified settings in his oversight role. He knows well its virtues and its warts. We suppose it is possible that Schiff would vote to give the president, whose integrity he so obviously worries about, vast powers to spy on Americans in an abusive way. Given everything Schiff has publicly said and done over the last year, however, a much more plausible inference is that he knows not only how valuable the 702 program is but also how law-constrained and carefully controlled and monitored it is.

Plus, I’m not sure why they think that Schiff’s attempt to fix the Section 215 phone dragnet only after Edward Snowden made it public proves that Schiff “never hesitated to be critical of intelligence community practices.” On the contrary, it proves that he did hesitate to do so before excessive programs became public.

The distinction is utterly critical given something I’ve pointed out about this bill. The bill itself is an admission that the intelligence community is out of control, and that congressional overseers can’t get information they need to adequately oversee the program without demanding it in legislation. That’s because it requires the IC to provide information on two practices that Congress cannot be deemed competent to legislate on without having answers about first.

For example, the bill requires an IG Report on how FBI queries raw data.

(b) MATTERS INCLUDED.—The report under subsection (a) shall include, at a minimum, an assessment of the following:

(1) The interpretations by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Division of the Department of Justice, respectively, relating to the querying procedures adopted under subsection (f) of section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (50 U.S.C. 1881a(f)), as added by section 101.

[snip]

(6) The scope of access by the criminal division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to information obtained pursuant to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (50 U.S.C. 1801 et seq.), including with respect to information acquired under subsection (a) of such section 702 based on queries conducted by the criminal division.

(7) The frequency and nature of the reviews conducted by the National Security Division of the Department of Justice and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence relating to the compliance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation with such querying procedures.

I have explained (and I know Hennessey regards this as a problem too) that since 2012, FBI has devolved its access to raw 702 data to field offices. The FBI already conducted far, far less oversight of the back door searches it conducts than NSA does. But because the DOJ/DNI 702 review teams visit only a fraction of the FBI field offices with each review, and because FBI’s querying system doesn’t collect enough information to do oversight remotely, it is possible that the offices that are least familiar with 702 requirements are — for the smaller number of 702 queries they conduct — getting the least oversight.

You can’t pass a bill that effectively blesses FBI’s use of back door searches on Americans about whom it has no evidence of any wrongdoing, while admitting you don’t know how FBI conducts those back door searches, and make any claim to conduct adequate oversight. Rather, the bill permits FBI to continue practices it has stubbornly refused to brief Congress on, rather than demanding that FBI brief Congress first, so Congress can impose any restrictions that might be necessary to adequately protect Americans.

The bill also requires a briefing within six months to explain how DOJ complies with FISA’s legally mandated notice requirements (because notice under 702 is treated as notice under 106(c), this covers 702 surveillance as well).

Not later than 180 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Attorney General, in consultation with the Director of National Intelligence, shall provide to the Committee on the Judiciary and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence of the House of Representatives and the Committee on the Judiciary and the Select 10 Committee on Intelligence of the Senate a briefing with respect to how the Department of Justice interprets the requirements under sections 106(c), 305(d), and 405(c) of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (50 14 U.S.C. 1806(c), 1825(d), and 1845(c)) to notify an aggrieved person under such sections of the use of information obtained or derived from electronic surveillance, physical search, or the use of a pen register or trap and trace device. The briefing shall focus on how the Department interprets the phrase ‘‘obtained or derived from’’ in such sections.

The public treatment of DOJ’s serial, obvious failures to give notice to defendants is a nifty trick. When DOJ fails to give notice, it clearly violates the law, but notice is not included in minimization procedure review, so therefore is not reviewed by the FISC. When surveillance boosters like Hennessey and Goldsmith say there have never been any willful violations of the law, they manage to ignore the notice violations that have allowed some pretty problematic practices to avoid judicial oversight only because by breaking the law DOJ ensures no court will find them to be breaking the law.

Catch 22: Heads legal violations never get reviewed by a court, tails surveillance boosters can claim the surveillance has a clean bill of health.

Again, this is a known, egregious problem with the implementation of 702.

But rather than do the obvious thing as part of what this post dubs “robust democratic deliberation,” which is to demand answers about how notice is (not) given and require DOJ to fix it as part of the bill, the bill instead simply requires DOJ to provide the information that Congress needs to do basic oversight six months after reauthorization, which effectively punts fixing the problem six years down the road.

How many Chinese-American scientists will be improperly prosecuted because FBI is technically inane in those 6 years, because a bunch of California legislators like Nancy Pelosi, Adam Schiff, and Dianne Feinstein chose to punt on basic oversight?

The most egregious example of this, however, involves the government’s obstinate refusal to explain how many US persons are affected by 702. This bill also did not incorporate an HJC proposal requiring a count of how many Americans got referred for criminal prosecution off of 702 collection.

Letting Jeff Sessions criminalize dissent

That refusal — the refusal to even legislatively require the government to report on the impact of 702 surveillance on Americans, via incidental collection and/or criminal referral — brings us to the problem with this bill that opponents are all raising, but about which Hennessey and Goldsmith are inexcusably silent: the codification of giving Jeff Sessions unreviewable authority to determine what counts as a “criminal proceeding [that] affects, involves, or is related to the national security of the United States.”

Here’s how Hennessey and Goldsmith describe the impact of this program on Americans.

As Lawfare readers know, Section 702 authorizes the intelligence community to target the communications of non-U.S. persons located outside the United States for foreign intelligence purposes. It does not permit the intelligence community to target a U.S. person anywhere in the world. But it does permit incidental collection on U.S. persons, subject to strict rules about minimization and use.

Their silence about how the bill doesn’t deal with back door searches is problematic enough.

But they predictably, but problematically, make no mention of the way the bill codifies the use of 702 in domestic law enforcement under the Tor/VPN exception.

As I have laid out, in 2014 FISC created an exception to the rule that NSA must detask from a facility as soon as they learn that Americans are also using that facility. That exception applies to Tor and (though I understand this part even less) VPN servers — basically the kinds of privacy tools that criminals, spies, journalists, and dissidents might use to hide their online activities. NSA has to sort through what they collect on the back end, but along the way, they get to decide to keep any entirely domestic traffic they find has significant foreign intelligence purpose or is evidence of a crime, among other reasons. The bill even codifies 8 enumerated crimes under which they can keep such data. Some of those crimes — child porn and murder — make sense, but others — like transnational crime (including local drug dealers selling imported drugs) and CFAA (with its well-known propensity for abuse) pose more potential for abuse.

But it’s the unreviewable authority for Jeff Sessions bit that is the real problem.

We know, for example, that painting Black Lives Matter as a national security threat is key to the Trump-Sessions effort to criminalize race. We also know that Trump has accused his opponents of treason, all for making critical comments about Trump.

This bill gives Sessions unreviewable authority to decide that a BLM protest organized using or whistleblowing relying on Tor, discovered by collection done in the name of hunting Russian spies, can be referred for prosecution. The fact that the underlying data predicating any prosecution was obtained without a warrant under 702 would — in part because this bill doesn’t add teeth to FISA notice — ensure that courts would never learn the genesis of the prosecution. Even if a court somehow managed to do so, however, it could never deem the domestic surveillance unlawful because the bill gives Jeff Sessions the unreviewable authority to treat dissent as a national security threat.

This is such an obviously bad idea, and it is being supported by people who talk incessantly about the threat that Trump and Sessions present. Yet, rather than addressing the issue head on (which I doubt Hennessey could legally do in any case), they simply remain silent about what is the biggest complaint from privacy activists, that this gives a racist, vindictive Attorney General far more authority than he should have, and does so without fixing the inadequate protections for criminal defendants along the way.

I mean, I get that surveillance boosters who recognize the threat Trump and Sessions pose want to absolve themselves for giving Trump tools that can so obviously be abused.

But this attempt does so precisely by dodging the most obvious reasons for which boosters should be held to account.

Update: Changed post to note that just Trump has accused FBI Agents of treason, not Sessions, and not (yet) journalists.

Update: Here’s the roll call of the 65-34 vote passage of the bill. Democrats who voted in favor are:

  1. Carper
  2. Casey
  3. Cortez Masto
  4. Donnelly
  5. Duckworth
  6. Feinstein
  7. Hassan
  8. Heitkamp
  9. Jones
  10. Klobuchar
  11. Manchin
  12. McCaskill
  13. Nelson
  14. Peters
  15. Reed
  16. Schumer
  17. Shaheen
  18. Stabenow
  19. Warner
  20. Whitehouse

 

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.