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The Implications of the Competing Flynn-Billingslea Stories

In advance of Sally Yates’ testimony Monday, the WaPo and AP have released stories on concerns about Mike Flynn’s ties with Russia during the transition period.

The stories themselves are interesting enough. But that and how they differ make them all the more interesting.

The WaPo story makes the Trump White House — and very specifically Marshall Billingslea, whom Trump recently nominated to be Treasury’s terrorist finance Assistant Secretary — look the hero of a story about warnings Trump’s people gave Mike Flynn about Russia. In this version, after growing concerned that Flynn had showed more interest in meeting Sergey Kislyak than any of the other ambassadors who were pestering him for meetings, Billingslea intervened to obtain CIA’s profile of Kislyak in time for a November 28 meeting Flynn and (though this receives far less emphasis) Jared Kushner attended.

Billingslea warned Flynn that Kislyak was likely a target of U.S. surveillance and that his communications — whether with U.S. persons or superiors in Moscow — were undoubtedly being monitored by the FBI and National Security Agency, according to officials familiar with the exchange. Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general who led the Defense Intelligence Agency, would presumably have been aware of such surveillance.

Billingslea then said that he would obtain a copy of the profile of Kislyak, officials said, a document that Billingslea urged Flynn to read if he were going to communicate with the Russian envoy. Flynn’s reaction was noncommittal, officials said, neither objecting to the feedback nor signaling agreement.

Shortly thereafter, during the week of Nov. 28, Billingslea and other transition officials met with lower-level Obama administration officials in the Situation Room at the White House.

At the end of the meeting, which covered a range of subjects, Billingslea asked for the CIA profile. “Can we get material on Kislyak?” one recalled Billingslea asking.

Days later, Flynn took part in a meeting with Kislyak at Trump Tower. White House spokeswoman Hope Hicks has confirmed that both Flynn and Jared Kushner, Trump’s adviser and son-in-law, took part in that session, which was not publicly disclosed at the time.

In that story of the Trump Administration’s effort to warn off someone who (unlike the barely mentioned Kushner) had spent a lifetime working with spies of spying, the CIA dossier, which reportedly doesn’t say Kislyak is a spy (though other outlets have claimed he is this year) gets placed in the transition SCIF.

The CIA bio on Kislyak was placed in a room in the Trump transition offices set up to handle classified material. Officials familiar with the document said that even if Flynn had read it, there was little in it that would have triggered alarms.

The file spanned three or four pages, describing Kislyak’s diplomatic career, extensive involvement in arms negotiations, and reputation as a determined proponent of Russian interests. It noted that he routinely reported information back to Moscow and that any information he gathered would be shared with Russia’s intelligence services. But the file did not say Kislyak was a spy.

Compare that key detail to something that appears in the AP version, which is told from the perspective of Obama officials. That story reveals that documents (they’re not described as the CIA dossier) were copied and removed from the SCIF.

After learning that highly sensitive documents from a secure room at the transition’s Washington headquarters were being copied and removed from the facility, Obama’s national security team decided to only allow the transition officials to view some information at the White House, including documents on the government’s contingency plans for crises.

In the AP story, Billingslea’s request was seen as a warning sign about Flynn’s preparation (who, again, had a lifetime of working with spies) to deal with America’s adversarial relationship with Russia.

In late November, a member of Donald Trump’s transition team approached national security officials in the Obama White House with a curious request: Could the incoming team get a copy of the classified CIA profile on Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the United States?

Marshall Billingslea, a former Pentagon and NATO official, wanted the information for his boss, Michael Flynn, who had been tapped by Trump to serve as White House national security adviser. Billingslea knew Flynn would be speaking to Kislyak, according to two former Obama administration officials, and seemed concerned Flynn did not fully understand he was dealing with a man rumored to have ties to Russian intelligence agencies.

To the Obama White House, Billingslea’s concerns were startling: a member of Trump’s own team suggesting the incoming Trump administration might be in over its head in dealing with an adversary.

But later in the AP story, it describes the Obama’s team’s concern that the Kislyak dossier was the only one requested.

Leading up to the revelation that Trump officials copied classified documents from the SCIF (which is how it ends), the AP first warns that some of this story will come out in Sally Yates’ testimony next Monday. It also reveals that the Obama Administration withheld information from Trump’s team, worried they’d share it with Russia.

In late December, as the White House prepared to levy sanctions and oust Russians living in the in the U.S. in retaliation for the hacks, Obama officials did not brief the Trump team on the decision until shortly before it was announced publicly. The timing was chosen in part because they feared the transition team might give Moscow lead time to clear information out of two compounds the U.S. was shuttering, one official said.

While it’s not inappropriate for someone in Flynn’s position to have contact with a diplomat, Obama officials said the frequency of his discussions raised enough red flags that aides discussed the possibility Trump was trying to establish a one-to-one line of communication — a so-called back channel — with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Obama aides say they never determined why Flynn was in close contact with the ambassador.

Viewed in comparison, the stories seem like competing efforts to get ahead of what both sides know will come out on Monday. The Trump team, knowing some of what Yates will say (in testimony they tried to prevent), is now making the remaining White House officials look good, and providing a somewhat plausible explanation for obtaining just the Kislyak dossier. But AP’s revelation that Trump’s people were copying documents from the SCIF that held the dossier raise questions about whether the reason it was obtained was to share the dossier. Neither story mentions what Adam Schiff has, which is that one really interesting detail will be the delay in ousting Flynn after Yates first told the White House of her concerns.

Both the stories leave out a detail the NYT previously reported that seems important, however: that Kislyak meeting, which the spook-savvy Flynn and the young Kushner attended, led to a second and a third, ultimately leading Kushner to meet the FSB-trained head of a sanctioned bank.

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

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

The subtext of taking the two Billingslea stories and the Sergey Gorkov one together is that Flynn — or even the President’s son-in-law — may have provided intelligence to the Russians, in events that led up to the closest thing we’ve seen to a possible quid pro quo.

In any case, the dossier seems either better suited to warning Kushner, not Flynn, of the dangers he was navigating, or a document that, if copied and handed to its subject, would be interesting though not devastating intelligence to share.

One final point: this story helps to explain why both the December 28 sanctions and the early January hack report were so awful; remember, too, when first announced, the press had the wrong location of the Long Island compound in question. At the time, I thought both were designed to be a document, any document, ones that didn’t reveal what the intelligence community actually knew (aside from the identities of the 35 expelled diplomats), particularly regarding who actually conducted the DNC hack. The AP story reveals Obama’s team was particularly worried Trump’s team would warn the Russians in time to dismantle some of the communications equipment at the two compounds. The crummy documents, plus the delay in informing Congress of the scope of the investigation until Flynn had been ousted, are both best explained by a concern that the National Security Advisor would share the information directly with Russia.

So will we learn that Flynn — or Kushner — did share such information?

Last Fall’s Efforts against Russia: Influence versus Tamper

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

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

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

[snip]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the full statement from Feinstein and Schiff:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Susan Rice May Be a Shiny Object

A bunch of Republican propagandists are outraged that the press isn’t showing more interest in PizzaGate Mike Cernovich’s “scoop” that the woman in charge of ensuring our national security under President Obama, then National Security Advisor Susan Rice, sought to fully understand the national security intercepts she was being shown.

There are two bases for their poutrage, which might have merit — but coming from such hacks, may not.

The first is the suggestion, based off Devin Nunes’ claim (and refuted by Adam Schiff) that Rice unmasked things she shouldn’t have. Thus far, the (probably illegally) leaked details — such as that family members, perhaps like Jared Kushner (who met with an FSB officer turned head of a sanctioned Russian bank used as cover for other spying operations), Sean Hannity (who met with an already-targeted Julian Assange at a time he was suspected of coordinating with Russians), and Erik Prince (who has literally built armies for foreign powers) got spied on — do nothing but undermine Nunes’ claims. All the claimed outrageous unmaskings actually seem quite justifiable, given the accepted purpose for FISA intercepts.

The other suggestion — and thus far, it is a suggestion, probably because (as I’ll show) it’s thus far logically devoid of evidence — is that because Rice asked to have the names of people unmasked, she must be the person who leaked the contents of the intercepts of Sergey Kislyak discussing sanctions with Mike Flynn. (Somehow, the propagandists always throw Ben Rhodes’ name in, though it’s not clear on what basis.)

Let me start by saying this. Let’s assume those intercepts remained classified when they were leaked. That’s almost certain, but Obama certainly did have the authority to declassify them, just as either George Bush or Dick Cheney allegedly used that authority to declassify Valerie Plame’s ID (as some of these same propagandists applauded back in the day). But assuming the intercepts did remain classified, I agree that it is a problem that they were leaked by nine different sources to the WaPo.

But just because Rice asked to unmask the identities of various Trump (and right wing media) figures doesn’t mean she and Ben Rhodes are the nine sources for the WaPo.

That’s because the information on Flynn may have existed in a number of other places.

Obviously, Rice could not have been the first person to read the Flynn-Kislyak intercepts. That’s because some analyst(s) would have had to read them and put them into a finished report (most, but not all, of Nunes’ blathering comments about these reports suggest they were finished intelligence). Assuming those analysts were at NSA (which is not at all certain) someone would have had to have approved the unmasking of Flynn’s name before Rice saw it.

In addition, it is possible — likely even, at least by January 2017, when we know people were asking why Russia didn’t respond more strongly to Obama’s hacking sanctions — that there were two other sets of people who had access to the raw intelligence on Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak: the CIA and, especially, the FBI, which would have been involved in any FISA-related collection. Both CIA and FBI can get raw data on topics they’re working on. Likely, in this case, the multi-agency task force was getting raw collection related to their Russian investigation.

And as I’ve explained, as soon as FBI developed a suspicion that either Kislyak was at the center of discussions on sanctions or that Flynn was an unregistered agent of multiple foreign powers, the Special Agents doing that investigation would routinely pull up everything in their databases on those people by name, which would result in raw Title I and 702 FISA collection (post January 3, it probably began to include raw EO 12333 data as well).

So already you’re up to about 15 to 20 people who would have access to the raw intercepts, and that’s before they brief their bosses, Congress (though the Devin Nunes and Adam Schiff briefing, at least, was delayed a bit), and DOJ, all the way up to Sally Yates, who wanted to warn the White House. Jim Comey has suggested it is likely that the nine sources behind the WaPo story were among these people briefed secondarily on the intercepts. And it’s worth noting that David Ignatius, who first broke the story of Flynn’s chats with Kislyak but was not credited on the nine source story, has known source relationships in other parts of the government than the National Security Advisor, though he also has ties to Rice.

All of which is to say that the question of who leaked the contents of Mike Flynn’s conversations with Sergey Kislyak is a very different question from whether Susan Rice’s requests to unmask Trump associates’ names were proper or not. It is possible that Rice leaked the intercepts without declassifying them first. But it’s also possible that any of tens of other people did, most of whom would have a completely independent channel for that information.

And the big vulnerability is not — no matter what Eli Lake wants to pretend — the unmasking of individual names by the National Security Advisor. Rather, it’s that groups of investigators can access the same intelligence in raw form without a warrant tied to the American person in question.

Did Trump Just Confirm He Hid Sally Yates’ Warning from Mike Pence?

The WaPo has another big story, this one reporting that the Trump Administration attempted to prevent Sally Yates from testifying about her warnings to the Trump Administration that Mike Flynn had had conversations about sanctions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

Scott Schools, another Justice Department official, replied in a letter the following day, saying the conversations with the White House “are likely covered by the presidential communications privilege and possibly the deliberative process privilege. The president owns those privileges. Therefore, to the extent Ms. Yates needs consent to disclose the details of those communications to [the intelligence panel], she needs to consult with the White House. She need not obtain separate consent from the department.’’

Yates’s attorney then sent a letter Friday to McGahn, the White House lawyer, saying that any claim of privilege “has been waived as a result of the multiple public comments of current senior White House officials describing the January 2017 communications. Nevertheless, I am advising the White House of Ms. Yates’ intention to provide information.’’

That same day, Nunes, the panel’s chairman, said he would not go forward with the public hearing that was to feature Yates’s testimony.

In response to the story, Adam Schiff suggested Yates might have testified about why Trump waited before firing Flynn.

[W]e would urge that the open hearing be rescheduled without further delay and that Ms. Yates be permitted to testify freely and openly so that the public may understand, among other matters, when the President was informed that his national security advisor had misled the Vice President and through him, the country, and why the President waited as long as he did to fire Mr. Flynn.

According to the WaPo, Yates informed Don McGahn that Flynn was lying about his calls, making him susceptible to blackmail, on January 26. She was fired on January 31. Flynn tried to lie about the conversation again on February 8. Then, as the WaPo was reporting this story, he altered his story. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until the WaPo reported on Yates’ warning, on February 13, that Trump forced Flynn to resign.

Two days after Yates’ warning, January 28, Trump spent an hour on the phone with Vladimir Putin, with Flynn (and Pence) in attendance.

So one of the things that Trump enabled by stalling on his response to Sally Yates was that phone call.

In any case, the claim that Yates’ conversations with McGahn should be covered by Executive Privilege is a stretch. Just by way of precedent, in 2007, Jim Comey testified about his conversations with White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales while serving as Acting Attorney General.

That is, Yates’ conversation should not be covered by Executive Privilege unless Trump is claiming he was involved in hiding this information from Mike Pence.

The Temporal Feint in Adam Schiff’s Neat Narrative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

April 19th: DCLeaks.com registered.

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

June 13th: First archived record of DCLeaks posts.

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

June 18: Guccifer releases at WordPress site.

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

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

July 11-12: Platform drafted.

July 18-21: RNC.

July 18: First report of changes to platform.

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

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

July 22: Wikileaks starts releasing DNC emails.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why We Should Remain Skeptical of the Five (!!) Congressional Investigations into the Russian Hack

I was interviewed (on Thursday) about the Flynn resignation and larger investigation into the Russia hack for Saturday’s On the Media. In what made the edit, I made one error (which I’ll explain later), but a key point I made holds. The leaking about Flynn and other Russian events are hypocritical and out of control. But they may create pressure to fix two problems with the current investigations into the Russian hack: the role of Jeff Sessions overseeing the DOJ-led investigations, and the role of Trump advisory officials Devin Nunes and Richard Burr overseeing the most appropriate congressional investigations.

In this post I’ll look at the latter conflicts. In a follow-up I’ll look at what the FBI seems to be doing.

As I noted in the interview, contrary to what you might think from squawking Democrats, there are five congressional investigations pertaining to Russian hacks, though some will likely end up focusing on prospective review of Russian hacking (for comparison, there were seven congressional Benghazi investigations). They are:

  • Senate Intelligence Committee: After months of Richard Burr — who served on Trump’s campaign national security advisory council — saying an inquiry was not necessary and going so far as insisting any inquiry wouldn’t review the dossier leaked on Trump, SSCI finally agreed to do an inquiry on January 13. Jim Comey briefed that inquiry last Friday, February 17.
  • House Intelligence Committee: In December, James Clapper refused to brief the House Intelligence Committee on the latest intelligence concluding Russian hacked the DNC with the goal of electing Trump, noting that HPSCI had been briefed all along (as was clear from some of the leaks, which clearly came from HPSCI insiders). In January, they started their own investigation of the hack, having already started fighting about documents by late January. While Ranking Democratic Member Adam Schiff has long been among the most vocal people complaining about the treatment of the hack, Devin Nunes was not only a Trump transition official, but made some absolutely ridiculous complaints after Mike Flynn’s side of some conversations got legally collected in a counterintelligence wiretap. Nunes has since promised to investigate the leaks that led to Flynn’s forced resignation.
  • Senate Armed Services Committee: In early January, John McCain announced he’d form a new subcommittee on cybersecurity, with the understanding it would include the Russian hack in its focus. Although he originally said Lindsey Graham would lead that committee, within weeks (and after Richard Burr finally capitulated and agreed to do a SSCI inquiry), McCain instead announced Mike Rounds would lead it.
  • Senate Foreign Relations Committee: In December, Bob Corker announced the SFRC would conduct an inquiry, scheduled to start in January. At a hearing in February, the topic came up multiple times, and both Corker and Ben Cardin reiterated their plans to conduct such an inquiry.
  • Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism: After Graham was denied control of the SASC panel, he and Sheldon Whitehouse announced they’d conduct their own inquiry, including a prospective review of “the American intelligence community’s assessment that Russia did take an active interest and play a role in the recent American elections.”

All the while, some Senators — McCain, Graham, Chuck Schumer, and Jack Reed — have called for a Select Committee to conduct the investigation, though in true McCainesque fashion, the maverick has at times flip-flopped on his support of such an inquiry.

Also, while not an investigation, on February 9, Jerry Nadler issued what I consider (strictly as it relates to the Russian hack, not the other conflicts) an ill-advised resolution of inquiry calling for the Administration to release materials relating to the hack, among other materials. Democrats in both the House and Senate have introduced legislation calling for an independent commission, but have gotten no support even from the mavericky Republicans.

As you can see from these descriptions, it took pressure from other committees, especially Lindsey Graham getting control of one of the inquiries, before Richard Burr let himself be convinced by SSCI Vice Chair Mark Warner to conduct an inquiry. Thus far, Mitch McConnell has staved off any Select Committee. As soon as SSCI did claim to be launching an investigation, a bunch of Republicans tried to shut down the others, claiming it was all simply too confusing.

Let me be clear: as I noted in the OTM interview, the intelligence committees are the appropriate place to conduct this investigation, as it concerns really sensitive counterintelligence matters — people who could be witnesses to it are getting killed! — and an ongoing investigation. The only way to conduct a responsible inquiry is to do so in secret, and unless a select committee with clearance is formed, that means doing so in the dysfunctional intelligence committees.

That’s made worse by Nunes and Burr’s obvious conflicts, having served on Trump’s pre-inauguration advisory teams (at a time when Mike Flynn was chatting about ongoing sanctions with Russia), and their equally obvious disinterest in conducting the investigation. Remember that the intelligence committees successfully bolloxed up the independent investigation into Iran-Contra. While neither Nunes nor Burr is as smart as Dick Cheney, who had a key role in that intentional bolloxing, Democrats should be cognizant of the ways that such bolloxing has happened in the past.

And now that SSCI has finally started its inquiry, Ali Watkins published an uncharacteristically credulous report on Burr’s role in the investigation, slathering on the colorful vocabulary — “brutally yanked;” “underground cohort;” “dark shadow of Langley;” “Wearily, they’re trudging forward on a probe littered with potential political landmines;” — before portraying the allegedly difficult position Burr is in:

That he’s now in charge of the sweeping Russia inquiry puts the North Carolina Republican in between a rock and a hard place. Since taking over the helm of the intelligence committee, Burr has pressed for more active and aggressive oversight, and has kept a rigorous travel schedule to match. But his decisive reelection victory in November came at a cost — throughout the contentious race, Burr towed Trump’s line, and hasn’t yet directly criticized the White House publicly.

But Burr has shown no indication that he’s ever angled for a Trump administration job, and says he’s not running for re-election. How seriously he takes his obligation to carry his president’s water remains to be seen.

Burr has been slammed by colleagues in recent days, who fear he’s slow-rolling an investigation into a fast-moving story. But much of the inquiry’s slow start was due to bureaucratic wrangling — some intelligence agencies insisted products be viewed on site rather than sent to the Hill, and some of the intelligence was so tightly controlled that it was unclear if staffers could even view it.

This is just spin. There is abundant public record that Burr has thwarted oversight generally (he has said things supporting that stance throughout his history on both the Senate and House Intelligence Committee, even ignoring his role in covering up torture, and Watkins’ earlier incorrect claims about Burr’s open hearings remain only partly corrected). There is no mention in this article that Burr was on Trump’s national security advisory committee. Nor that SSCI had reason to do hearings about this hack well before January 2017, back when it might have made a difference — at precisely the time when Burr apparently had time to advise Trump about national security issues as a candidate. Plus, it ignores all the things laid out here, Burr’s continued equivocation about whether there should even be a hearing.

There is no reason to believe Burr or Nunes intend to have a truly rigorous investigation (bizarrely, Warner seems to have had more success pushing the issue than Schiff — or Dianne Feinstein when she was Vice Chair — though that may be because the Ranking position is stronger in the Senate than in the House). And history tells us we should be wary that their investigations will be counterproductive.

As I noted, on Friday — the Friday before a recess — Jim Comey briefed the SSCI on the Russian hack. That briefing was unusual for the date (regular SSCI meetings happen on Tuesday and Thursday, and little business of any kinds happens right before a recess). Reporters have interpreted that, along with the presumed silence about the content of the briefing, as a sign that things are serious. That may be true — or it may be that that was the only time a 3-hour briefing could be scheduled. In the wake of the briefing, it was reported that the SSCI sent broad preservation requests tied to the inquiry (that is, they sent the request long after the inquiry was started). And while the press has assumed no one is talking, the day after the briefing, Reuters reported outlines of at least three parts of the FBI investigation into the Russian hack, attributed to former and current government officials.

Trump Raises the Axe over the Intelligence Community, Again

The Intelligence Community is finishing its report on the intelligence regarding Russia’s influence in our elections. The report is expected to be delivered to President Obama tomorrow and briefed to President Elect Trump on Friday.

That’s the context for — and surely at least part of the explanation for — this WSJ story reporting that Trump plans to reorganize the intelligence community.

[A]dvisers also are working on a plan to restructure the Central Intelligence Agency, cutting back on staffing at its Virginia headquarters and pushing more people out into field posts around the world. The CIA declined to comment on the plan.

“The view from the Trump team is the intelligence world [is] becoming completely politicized,” said the individual, who is close to the Trump transition operation. “They all need to be slimmed down. The focus will be on restructuring the agencies and how they interact.”

[snip]

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence was established in 2004 in large part to boost coordination between intelligence agencies following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.

Many Republicans have proposed cutting the ODNI before, but this has proven hard to do in part because its mission centers are focused on core national security issues, such as counterterrorism, nuclear proliferation, and counterintelligence.

“The management and integration that DNI focuses on allows agencies like the CIA to better hone in on its own important work,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D., Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, who believes dismantling the ODNI could lead to national security problems.

Mr. Trump’s advisers say he has long been skeptical of the CIA’s accuracy, and the president-elect often mentions faulty intelligence in 2002 and 2003 concerning Iraq’s weapons programs. But he has focused his skepticism of the agencies squarely on their Russia assessments, which has jarred analysts who are accustomed to more cohesion with the White House.

The report repeats earlier reporting — in part from some of the same WSJ reporters — that Trump planned this briefing. Back then, in mid-November, Trump was merely disdainful of the IC and much of the reorganization appeared to be a mix of vengeance on the part of Mike Flynn and, frankly, some reasonable ideas (things like splitting NSA and reversing some of the questionable changes John Brennan made). At the center of it all was a plan to make Admiral Mike Rogers Director of National Intelligence.

The day after that reporting, however, outlets reported that Ash Carter and James Clapper had been planning to fire Rogers, partly because the NSA had remained a leaky sieve under his tenure and partly because he had delayed cyber-bombing ISIS (perhaps to preserve intelligence collection). And that’s before it became public that the NSA hadn’t adopted four security measures recommended after the Snowden leaks.

After that, of course, Democrats and the CIA started leaking that Russia hacked the DNC with the purpose of electing Trump, which gave Trump the entrée to suggest this discussion is all politicized, which has escalated to this week. Trump seems to have orchestrated the Sean Hannity interview at which Julian Assange said what he has long said — that he didn’t get the DNC files from Russia.

Reuters is now reporting that after the election the IC determined that third parties had gotten the files from Russian entities to Wikileaks, which means Assange likely has no idea where the files came from.

But the timing of this story, sourced significantly to the Trump camp, seems to be a warning to those who will brief Trump on Friday. While Clapper and Brennan are on their way out (the fate of Comey and Rogers is still undecided), they certainly will want to protect their agencies.

Which should make for an interesting briefing Friday.

Our Syrian Rebels Are Issuing Threats Via WaPo

This is a striking article in the WaPo. It deals extensively with setbacks rebels in Syria have already suffered at the hand of Russia’s campaign. But it bears this headline, as if Trump’s administration, not Russian intervention (and Obama’s mixed commitment), is the key change.

Fearing abandonment by Trump, CIA-backed rebels in Syria mull alternatives

As I said, the story provides plenty of evidence the real change here stems from Russian involvement, not Trump’s election. But Trump’s election provides a way for a bunch of people to issue threats about what rebels might do in response to their fading fortunes.

The story quotes some anonymous US officials which likely includes Adam Schiff, who is also quoted by name, as well as an anonymous “U.S.-vetted rebel commander” who apparently speaks for the thousands the article claims to represent, and Qatar’s foreign minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Jassim al-Thani, suggesting that if rebels aren’t helped more America’s alliance with the Gulf States may be in trouble. It also lays out what Trump’s incoming team, including Mike Flynn and James Mattis, might feel about how a Syrian win would help Iran.

I’m most interested in this part of the article, in which a single US official lays out a certain narrative about the US backed rebels — basically pretending that the covert program has worked.

The possibility of cutting loose opposition groups it has vetted, trained and armed would be a jolt to a CIA already unsettled by the low opinion of U.S. intelligence capabilities that Trump had expressed during his presidential campaign.

From a slow and disorganized start, the opposition “accomplished many of the goals the U.S. hoped for,” including their development into a credible fighting force that showed signs of pressuring Assad into negotiations, had Russia not begun bombing and Iran stepped up its presence on the ground, said one of several U.S. officials who discussed the situation on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

The United States estimates that there are 50,000 or more fighters it calls “moderate opposition,” concentrated in the northwest province of Idlib, in Aleppo and in smaller pockets throughout western and southern Syria, and that they are not likely to give up.

“They’ve been fighting for years, and they’ve managed to survive,” the U.S. official said. “Their opposition to Assad is not going to fade away.”

Not only does this passage far overstate the success of US efforts, but it — like Qatar’s foreign minister — threatens that these armed men won’t go away if the US backs Assad.

No matter what you think of US efforts in Syria, this kind of narrative from the people who’ve backed an unsuccessful covert program is fairly disturbing, as if even the US officials in the story are siding with the more explicit threats from Qatar against the US.

Yes, if Trump really remains committed to his promised partnership with Russia (assuming he and the nutjobs he has hired can manage that relationship, which I doubt), the rebels will side with Qatar (and the Saudis and who knows what Erdogan will do?) against Assad — which has basically been what they’ve been doing all this time anyway. Yes, if that happens, the US will lose its leverage over Qatar, with potentially dangerous consequences.

But this sounds awfully close to Americans turning against American policy, no matter how untutored Trump is.

Why Is HPSCI’s Snowden Report So Inexcusably Shitty?

There’s now a growing list of things in the HPSCI report on Snowden that are either factually wrong, misleading, or spin.

One part of the spin the report admits itself: the committee assessed damage based on the 1.5 million documents Snowden touched — an approach the now discredited General Michael Flynn presented in briefings to the committee — rather than the far more limited set the Intelligence Community included in its damage assessment.

Over the past three years, the IC and the Department of Defense (DOD) have carried out separate reviews with differing methodologies of the damage Snowden caused. Out of an abundance of caution, DOD reviewed all 1.5 million documents Snowden removed. The IC, by contrast, has carried out a damage assessment for only a small subset of the documents. The Committee is concerned that the IC does not plan to assess the damage of the vast majority of documents Snowden removed.

Clearly, the IC wants a real assessment of the damage Snowden caused. HPSCI, however, appears to be interested in the most damning, which makes sense given that members of Congress actively solicited information they could use to damage Snowden.

Here are other problems with the report.

From Bart Gellman’s rebuttal:

  • HPSCI claimed the “bilateral tibial stress fractures” that led to Snowden’s discharge were “shin splints.”
  • HPSCI claimed he never got a GED. According to official Maryland records, Snowden got his equivalent degree on June 2, 2004.
  • HPSCI claimed Snowden was a computer technician at CIA. At the end he served as a “solutions referent/cyber referent” working on cyber contracts.
  • HPSCI claimed Snowden’s effort to show a security hole in CIA’s human resources intranet was an effort to doctor his performance evaluations.

From me:

HPSCI claimed Snowden failed the Section 702 training. According to an email from the SIGINT Compliance Chief, Snowden did pass it (the Chief had not checked whether or not Snowden had really failed it).“He said he had failed it multiple times (I’d have to check with ADET on that). He did pass the course at some point.”

The claim Snowden didn’t pass the test stems from an email written a year after an exchange between him and a Compliance training person. The training person wrote the email in direct response to Snowden’s claims that he had “contacted N.S.A. oversight and compliance bodies.” While it may be true Snowden failed the test before he passed it, there are enough irregularities with the email claim and related story it should not be credited without backup. When we asked NSA for specific answers about that email in conjunction with this story, they flipped out and went nuclear and preemptively released all the emails rather than provide the very easy answers to validate the email story.

From Patrick Eddington:

HPSCI claimed Snowden could have reported complaints to the committee, but HPSCI killed an effort to extend whistleblower protections to intelligence contractors in 2012.

Eddington and Steven Aftergood both suggest the shitty HPSCI report is good reason to embrace a set of reforms to improve HPSCI oversight.

But depending on the reason for the utter shittiness of the report, I think it might just warrant shutting the entire committee down and devolving oversight to real committees, like Judiciary, Homeland Security, and Armed Services. Remember, every single member of the committee, Democrat or Republican, signed this report. Every single one. For some reason, even fairly smart people like Adam Schiff and Jackie Speier signed off on something with inexcusable errors.

So I wanted to point to this passage on methodology.

The Committee’s review was careful not to disturb any criminal investigation or future prosecution of Snowden, who has remained in Russia since he fled there on June 23, 2013. Accordingly, the Committee did not interview individuals whom the Department of Justice identified as possible witnesses at Snowden’s trial, including Snowden himself, nor did the Committee request any matters that may have occurred before a grand jury. Instead, the IC provided the Committee with access to other individuals who possessed substantively similar knowledge as the possible witnesses. Similarly, rather than interview Snowden’s NSA coworkers and supervisors directly, Committee staff interviewed IC personnel who had reviewed reports of interviews with Snowden’s co-workers and supervisors.

So for this inexcusably shitty report, HPSCI did not interview:

  • Direct witnesses (presumably including the Compliance training woman whose email on 702 training is dodgy and probably also Booz and Dell contractors who might risk losing contracts)
  • Snowden’s co-workers
  • Snowden’s supervisors

They did interview:

  • People who possessed “substantively similar knowledge” as the people DOJ think might be witnesses at trial
  • People who reviewed reports of interviews with Snowden’s co-workers and supervisors

HPSCI spent two years but didn’t interview any of the direct witnesses.

Now, as a threshold matter, the publicly released emails provide good reason to doubt the adequacy of this indirect reporting on Snowden’s colleagues. Here’s how the Chief of NSA’s CI Division backed the conclusion that Snowden never talked about concerns about NSA surveillance with his colleagues.

Our findings are that we have found no evidence in the interviews, email, or chats reviewed that support his claims. Some coworkers reported discussing the Constitution with Snowden, specifically his interpretation of the Constitution as black and white, and others reported discussing general privacy issues as it relates to the Internet. Not one mentioned that Snowden mentioned a specific NSA program that he had a problem with. Actually, many of the people interviewed affirmed that he never complained about any NSA program. We also did not have any reflection that he asked anyone how he should/could report perceived wrongdoing.

So colleagues — who would presumably be in great fear of association with Snowden, especially in interviews with NSA’s Counterintelligence people — nevertheless revealed that they discussed the Constitution (and Snowden’s black and white interpretation of it) and general privacy issues about the Internet. “Many” of the interviewees said he never complained about any NSA program, which raises questions about what those excluded from this “many” said.

But it appears that NSA’s CI investigators only considered mention of specific programs to be a complaint, not general discussions about privacy and the Constitution.

We should assume the interview reports back to HPSCI members and staffers were similarly scoped.

There’s another reason I’m interested in this methodology section. That’s the implication from Spencer Ackerman’s series on SSCI’s Torture Report that CIA successfully used the John Durham investigation to undermine the SSCI investigation.

In August 2009, US attorney general Eric Holder expanded the remit of the prosecutor looking at the tapes destruction, John Durham, to include the torture program, much as the Senate committee had. The justice department’s new mandate was not as broad as the Senate’s. It would only concern itself with torture that exceeded the boundaries set for the CIA by the Bush-era justice department. Still, for all of Obama’s emphasis on looking forward and not backward, now the CIA had to face its greatest fear since launching the torture program: possible prosecution.

Holder’s decision, ironically, would ultimately hinder the committee more than the CIA, and lead to a criticism that the agency would later use as a cudgel against the Senate.

Typically, when the justice department and congressional inquiries coincide, the two will communicate in order to deconflict their tasks and their access. In the case of the dual torture investigations, it should have been easy: Durham’s team accessed CIA documents in the exact same building that Jones’s team did.

But every effort Jones made to talk with Durham failed. “Even later, he refused to meet with us,” Jones said.

Through a spokesman, Durham, an assistant US attorney in Connecticut, declined to be interviewed for this story.

The lack of communication had serious consequences. Without Durham specifying who at CIA he did and did not need to interview, Jones could interview no one, as the CIA would not make available for congressional interview people potentially subject to criminal penalty. Jones could not even get Durham to confirm which agency officials prosecutors had no interest in interviewing. “Regrettably, that made it difficult for our committee to do interviews. So the judgment was, use the record,” said Wyden, the Oregon Democrat on the panel.

[snip]

The CIA stopped compiling the Panetta Review in 2010 after Durham told Preston that CIA risked complicating any prosecution if it “made different judgments than the prosecutors had reached”, Charlie Savage reported in his 2015 book Power Wars.

Not only did CIA’s General Counsel Stephen Preston (who later served as DOD General Counsel from October 2013 until June 2015) use the Durham investigation to halt the CIA’s own internal investigation into the worthlessness of their torture, but it served as the excuse to withhold cooperation from SSCI. That, in turn, gave Republicans an excuse to disavow the report.

With the HPSCI report, an FBI investigation has again been used as an excuse to limit congressional oversight.

HPSCI’s failure to interview any of the relevant people directly is all the weirder given that there should be no problem for a witness to appear before both the grand jury and the committee. Certainly, House Oversight had no problem interviewing some of the subjects of the Hillary email investigation! And unlike the email investigation, with the Snowden one, few if any of the people who might serve as witnesses at any Snowden trial would be subjects of the investigation; they’d have no legal risk in also testifying to the committee. Snowden is the one at legal risk, and he has already been charged. And curiously, we’re hearing no squawking from Republicans about the necessity of direct interviews for the integrity of an investigation, like we heard with the Senate Torture Report.

One thing is certain: the public is owed an explanation for how HPSCI came to report knowably false information. The public is owed an explanation for why HPSCI is effectively serving as NSA’s propaganda wing.

And if we don’t get one, we should shut down the entire charade of post-Church Committee oversight committee.

If Snowden Doesn’t Know Privacy Protections of 702, That’s a Problem with NSA Training

The House Intelligence Committee just released a report — ostensibly done to insist President Obama not pardon Snowden — that is instead surely designed as a rebuttal to the Snowden movie coming out in general release tomorrow. Why HPSCI sees it as their job to refute Hollywood I don’t know, especially since they didn’t make the same effort when Zero Dark Thirty came out, which suggests they are serving as handmaidens of the Intelligence Community, not an oversight committee.

There will be lots of debates about the validity of the report. In some ways, HPSCI admits they’re being as inflammatory as possible, as when they note that the IC only did a damage assessment of what they think Snowden took, whereas DOD did a damage assessment of every single thing he touched. HPSCI’s claims are all based on the latter.

There are things that HPSCI apparently doesn’t realize makes them and the IC look bad — not Snowden — such as the claim that he never obtained a high school equivalent degree; apparently people can just fake basic credentials and the CIA and NSA are incapable of identifying that. The report even admits a previously unknown contact between Snowden and CIA’s IG, regarding the training of IT specialists. BREAKING: Snowden did try to report something through an official channel!

It concerns me the “Intelligence Committee” can’t distinguish between details that help and hurt their case.

Meanwhile, Snowden has a bunch of rebuttals here, which extends the game of he says they say, but doesn’t help clarity much.

On one issue, however, I’m particularly concerned: with the HPSCI claim that Snowden may not understand the privacy impact of the programs he leaked because he failed Section 702 training:

It is also not clear Snowden understood the numerous privacy protections that govern the activities of the IC. He failed basic annual training for NSA employees on Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and complained the training was rigged to be overly difficult. This training included explanations of the privacy protections related to the PRISM program that Snowden would later disclose.

There are several implications about this allegation. First, the passage suggests that Snowden never passed 702 training. But he did. The Chief of the SIGINT Compliance Division said this in an email written on the low side (and as such, probably written with knowledge it would be released publicly). “He said he had failed it multiple times (I’d have to check with ADET on that). He did pass the course at some point.” Even in the middle of a big to-do over this training, the NSA knew one thing for certain: Snowden did pass the test (even if they weren’t sure whether he had really failed it).

The passage also suggests the training program was really basic. But a Lieutenant Colonel who clearly worked with a lot of 702 analysts at some point had this to say about it: “It is not a gentleman’s course; *I* failed it once, the first time I had to renew.”

The passage also suggests that the training was worthwhile. Except days before the conflict, NSA’s IG reissued an IG Report that revealed problems with this and related training — including that NSA still had outdated materials pertaining to the Protect America Act available as the “current” standard operating procedures available online.

There’s evidence the NSA’s training materials and courses at the time had significant errors. A revised Inspector General report on Section 702 of FISA, reissued just days before Snowden returned to Maryland for training on the program in 2013, found that the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) posted on the NSA’s internal website, purportedly telling analysts how to operate under the FISA Amendments Act passed in 2008, actually referenced a temporary law passed a year earlier, the Protect America Act.

“It is unclear whether some of the guidance is current,” the report stated, “because it refers only to the PAA,” a law that had expired years before. A key difference between the two laws pertains to whether the NSA can wiretap an American overseas under EO 12333 with approval from the attorney general rather than a judge in a FISA Court. If the SOPs remained on the website when Snowden was training, it would present a clear case in which NSA guidance permitted actions under EO 12333 that were no longer permitted under the law that had been passed in 2008.

Similarly, a key FISA Amendments Act training course (not the one described in the face-to-face exchange, but another one that would become mandatory for analysts) didn’t explain “the reasonable belief standard,” which refers to how certain an analyst must be that their target was not an American or a foreigner in the US — a key theme of Snowden’s disclosures. While some work on both these problems had clearly been completed between the time of the report’s initial release and its reissue just days before Snowden showed up in Maryland, both these findings remained open and had been assigned revised target completion dates in the reissued report, suggesting the IG had not yet confirmed they had been fixed.

Perhaps most troubling, to me, is that HPSCI repeats as true a story that should not be treated as such by anyone — because the story has a number of problems, and the person who told it almost certainly didn’t write it down for a full year after it happened, and then, only in response to Snowden’s claims about the interaction. I don’t know whether she was telling the truth or Snowden (or, most likely, both were shading the truth), but given the circumstances of the evidence, neither one should be assumed to be credible. But this report treats it, perhaps unaware of the many problems and inconsistencies with the story, as credible.

Ultimately, though, if Snowden didn’t fully appreciate the privacy protections of PRISM, you can’t attribute that to the training program, because he took and passed it.

Remarkably, this dodgy claim is the only evidence HPSCI has to claim that Snowden didn’t understand the privacy implications of what he was looking at. I’m fully willing to admit that reporting (that is, second-hand from Snowden) has made errors. But if NSA’s overseers can’t assess Snowden’s public comments about the programs they allegedly oversee, then they’re not doing their job.

Unless their job extends only to running PR for the agencies they are supposed to oversee.