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The Viral Twitter Thread in Which Darrell Cooper Confesses Republicans Were Pawns of Russian Disinformation

For some reason, this Twitter thread by a guy named Darrell Cooper, purporting to explain why Trumpsters came to attack the US Capitol, went viral.

I resisted several requests to fact check it. Now, after it has gone even more viral (including on Tucker Carlson’s show), Phil Bump has done a good fact check. As Bump notes, while Cooper accurately lays out that Trump supporters have lost confidence in institutions, Cooper offers an explanation that relies on a series of false claims so as to put the blame on Democrats.

It is indisputably the case that Trump supporters accept claims about election fraud in part because of their diminished confidence in institutions such as government and the media. What is subject to dispute, though, is the cause of that lack of confidence. While Cooper suggests that it’s emergent, it isn’t. While Cooper argues that it’s a function of investigations into Trump, it’s actually a function of partisan responses — largely but not entirely on the right — driven by Trump himself. And, most important, what Cooper presents as the indisputable facts undergirding his argument are often misleading or false and a function of partisan defenses of Trump that are common in conservative media.

Bump then debunks Cooper’s claims that:

  • The FBI spied on the Trump campaign using evidence manufactured by the Clinton campaign
  • We now know that all involved knew it was fake from Day 1 (see: Brennan’s July 2016 memo, etc)
  • The Steele dossier was the sole evidence used to justify spying on the Trump campaign
  • The entire Russian investigation stemmed from the Page investigation and not George Papadopoulos and Paul Manafort
  • Protests planned in case Trump overturned the election were a plan for violence
  • There were legitimate concerns about the election

Bump is absolutely right that Cooper makes false claims to be able to blame Democrats and Bump’s fact checks are sound (and really exhausting that they’re still required). Bump is likewise correct that a false claim about the Steele dossier is central to Cooper’s story.

I’d add that Cooper doesn’t mention that his claims about the problems with the Steele dossier matter primarily to the third and fourth FISA orders against Carter Page, and so happened under the Trump Administration and in three cases, were signed by people Trump either kept (in the case of Jim Comey) or put in place (in the case of Dana Boente and Rod Rosenstein).

But according to Cooper’s logic, if the dossier hadn’t existed, a series of events that followed wouldn’t have happened, and so Republicans wouldn’t have attacked their own government. Thus far it’s a typical right wing attempt to disclaim responsibility for their own actions.

What Bump doesn’t mention, though, is that it is now almost universally agreed upon on among Trumpsters that the dossier was the product of Russian disinformation. Lindsey Graham — who conducted an investigation into the circumstances of the Carter Page FISA — thinks it is. Chuck Grassley — who led the investigation into the dossier — thinks it is. Ron Johnson — who also made a show of investigating these things — thinks it is. Chuck Ross — the chief scribe of the dossier on the right — thinks it is. The high gaslighter Catherine Herridge thinks it is. Fox News and all their favorite sources think it is. WSJ’s editorial page thinks it is. None of these people have thought through the implications of that, but they do all appear to believe that the Russians fed disinformation through the Democratic-funded dossier to the FBI.

So, even setting aside the implications of the possibility that the dossier was Russian disinformation, according to Cooper’s narrative, Trump’s supporters wouldn’t have attacked their own government if it weren’t for Russian disinformation that set off a chain of events that led them to lose confidence in American institutions.

But consider the implications of the dossier as disinformation, implications that are evident largely thanks to sources that right wing figures have made great effort to liberate.

In response to a Trey Gowdy question at an interview by a GOP-led investigation into the dossier, Bruce Ohr explained that on July 30, 2016, Christopher Steele shared three pieces of information with him (later in his interview he would add a fourth, Russian doping): Two details from what we now know to be the dossier, as well as a third — that Oleg Deripaska’s attorney had information about Paul Manafort stealing money from Deripaska.

And then the third item he mentioned was that Paul Hauser, who was an attorney working for Oleg Deripaska, had information about Paul Manafort, that Paul Manafort had entered into some kind of business deal with Oleg Deripaska, had stolen a large amount of money from Oleg Deripaska, and that Paul Hauser was trying to gather information that would show that, you know, or give more detail about what Paul Manafort had done with respect to Deripaska.

Byron York provided more background on Steele’s efforts to share information from Deripaska with Bruce Ohr. The IG Report done in response to GOP requests provided still more. For example, the IG Report revealed that Steele had set up a meeting between Ohr and Oligarch 1, whom we know to be Deripaska, in September 2015 (these claims are consistent with the heavily redacted Ohr 302s liberated by Judicial Watch).

Handling Agent 1 told the OIG that Steele facilitated meetings in a European city that included Handling Agent 1, Ohr, an attorney of Russian Oligarch 1, and a representative of another Russian oligarch. 209 Russian Oligarch 1 subsequently met with Ohr as well as other representatives of the U.S. government at a different location.

[snip]

Ohr and Steele also communicated frequently over the years regarding Russian Oligarch 1, including in 2016 during the time period before and after Steele was closed as an FBI CHS.409 Steele told us his communications with Ohr concerning Russian Oligarch 1 were the result of an outreach effort started in 2014 with Ohr and Handling Agent 1, to approach oligarchs about cooperating with the U.S. government. Ohr confirmed that he and Handling Agent 1 asked Steele to contact Russian oligarchs for this purpose. This effort resulted in Ohr meeting with Russian Oligarch 1 and an FBI agent in September 2015.

The IG Report also revealed that in September 23 (around the same time Deripaska was interviewed by the FBI), Steele passed on a claim that Deripaska wanted to share information about Manafort.

On September 23, 2016, at Steele’s request, Steele met with Ohr in Washington, D.C. Ohr told us they spoke about various topics related to Russia, including information regarding Russian Oligarch 1 ‘s willingness to talk with the U.S. government about Manafort.

Far more consistently than using Ohr as a channel for dossier reports (and for a longer period of time), Steele used his ties with Ohr to advance Oleg Deripaska’s interests. And for the entirety of the time that Steele was feeding the FBI dossier reports, that meant Steele was feeding Ohr claims that not only presented Deripaska as a trustworthy actor, but did so in part by promising Deripaska’s cooperation in a criminal investigation of Paul Manafort. The FBI (and Mueller after that) didn’t investigate Manafort primarily for the stuff Deripaska was trying to feed the FBI, but Deripaska was making great efforts to ensure that the FBI would investigate Manafort. In the aftermath of all this, Trump and Manafort blamed Democrats for all this, but in fact, Deripaska was at least as responsible.

According to footnotes that Graham, Grassley, and Johnson had declassified, before Deripaska first started offering to help DOJ criminally investigate Manafort — before that July 30, 2016 meeting between Steele and Ohr — a Deripaska associate likely learned about the dossier project (the same declassification revealed that two Russian intelligence officers had learned of the project before that meeting which, given the belief that several of Deripaska’s associates were Russian intelligence officers, may be the same report).

Ohr told the OIG that, based on information that Steele told him about Russian Oligarch 1, such as when Russian Oligarch 1 would be visiting the United States or applying for a visa, and based on Steele at times seeming to be speaking on Russian Oligarch l’s behalf, Ohr said he had the impression that Russian Oligarch 1 was a client of Steele. 210 We asked Steele about whether he had a relationship with Russian Oligarch 1. Steele stated that he did not have a relationship and indicated that he had met Russian Oligarch 1 one time. He explained that he worked for Russian Oligarch l’s attorney on litigation matters that involved Russian Oligarch 1 but that he could not provide “specifics” about them for confidentiality reasons. Steele stated that Russian Oligarch 1 had no influence on the substance of his election reporting and no contact with any of his sources. He also stated that he was not aware of any information indicating that Russian Oligarch 1 knew of his investigation relating to the 2016 U.S. elections. 211

210 As we discuss in Chapter Six, members of the Crossfire Hurricane team were unaware of Steele’s connections to Russian Oligarch 1. [redacted]

211 Sensitive source reporting from June 2017 indicated that a [person affiliated] to Russian Oligarch 1 was [possibly aware] of Steele’s election investigation as of early July 2016.

In fact, the IG Report completed in response to Republicans’ requests makes it clear: if the dossier was disinformation, that disinformation most likely involved Oleg Deripaska, with whom Manafort was using his position on the Trump campaign in an attempt to patch up financial and legal relations.

Priestap told us that the FBI “didn’t have any indication whatsoever” by May 2017 that the Russians were running a disinformation campaign through the Steele election reporting. Priestap explained, however, that if the Russians, in fact, were attempting to funnel disinformation through Steele to the FBI using Russian Oligarch 1, he did not understand the goal. Priestap told us that

what he has tried to explain to anybody who will listen is if that’s the theory [that Russian Oligarch 1 ran a disinformation campaign through [Steele] to the FBI], then I’m struggling with what the goal was. So, because, obviously, what [Steele] reported was not helpful, you could argue, to then [candidate] Trump. And if you guys recall, nobody thought then candidate Trump was going to win the election. Why the Russians, and [Russian Oligarch 1] is supposed to be close, very close to the Kremlin, why the Russians would try to denigrate an opponent that the intel community later said they were in favor of who didn’t really have a chance at winning, I’m struggling, with, when you know the Russians, and this I know from my Intelligence Community work: they favored Trump, they’re trying to denigrate Clinton, and they wanted to sow chaos. I don’t know why you’d run a disinformation campaign to denigrate Trump on the side. [brackets original]

Of course, for months before Deripaska first started offering (through Steele) to cooperate with the FBI against Manafort, Manafort had been trying to exploit his position on Trump’s campaign to ingratiate himself with (among others) Deripaska, in part in hopes to paper over precisely the financial dispute that Deripaska was, through Steele, trying to use to increase Manafort’s legal exposure. Weeks before the July 30 Steele-Ohr meeting, for example, Manafort had offered to brief Deripaska on the Trump campaign.

Immediately upon joining the Campaign, Manafort directed Gates to prepare for his review separate memoranda addressed to Deripaska, Akhmetov, Serhiy Lyovochkin, and Boris Kolesnikov,879 the last three being Ukrainian oligarchs who were senior Opposition Bloc officials. 880 The memoranda described Manafort’ s appointment to the Trump Campaign and indicated his willingness to consult on Ukrainian politics in the future. On March 30, 2016, Gates emailed the memoranda and a press release announcing Manafort’ s appointment to Kilimnik for translation and dissemination.881 Manafort later followed up with Kilimnik to ensure his messages had been delivered, emailing on April 11, 2016 to ask whether Kilimnik had shown “our friends” the media coverage of his new role. 882 Kilimnik replied, “Absolutely. Every article.” Manafort further asked: “How do we use to get whole. Has Ovd [Oleg Vladimirovich Deripaska] operation seen?” Kilimnik wrote back the same day, “Yes, I have been sending everything to Victor [Boyarkin, Deripaska’s deputy], who has been forwarding the coverage directly to OVD.”883

[snip]

The Office also obtained contemporaneous emails that shed light on the purpose of the communications with Deripaska and that are consistent with Gates’s account. For example, in response to a July 7, 20 I 6, email from a Ukrainian reporter about Manafort’ s failed Deripaskabacked investment, Manafort asked Kilimnik whether there had been any movement on “this issue with our friend.”897 Gates stated that “our friend” likely referred to Deripaska,898 and Manafort told the Office that the “issue” (and “our biggest interest,” as stated below) was a solution to the Deripaska-Pericles issue.899 Kilimnik replied:

I am carefully optimistic on the question of our biggest interest. Our friend [Boyarkin] said there is lately significantly more attention to the campaign in his boss’ [Deripaska’s] mind, and he will be most likely looking for ways to reach out to you pretty soon, understanding all the time sensitivity. I am more than sure that it will be resolved and we will get back to the original relationship with V. ‘s boss [Deripaska].900

Eight minutes later, Manafort replied that Kilimnik should tell Boyarkin’s “boss,” a reference to Deripaska, “that if he needs private briefings we can accommodate.”901

That is, per both Rick Gates and Manafort himself, how Manafort came to meet with Deripaska aide Konstantin Kilimnik on August 2, just three days after Deripaska tried to increase Manafort’s legal exposure via Steele. That’s how — and why! — he provided a briefing on campaign strategy amid a discussion of resolving the debt to Deripaska (as well as a plan to carve up Ukraine), as described by the SSCI Report completed under Chairs Richard Burr and Marco Rubio.

(U) At the meeting, Manafort walked Kilimnik through the internal polling data from Fabrizio in detail.453 According to Gates, Kilimnik wanted to know how Trump could win.454 Manafort explained his strategy in the battleground states and told Kilimnik about polls that identified voter bases in blue-collar, democratic-leaning states which Trump could swing.455 Manafort said these voters could be reached by Trump on issues like economics, but the Campaign needed to implement a ground game.456 Gates recalled that Manafort further discussed the “battleground” states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota.457 (U) The Committee sought to determine with specificity what information Kilimnik actually gleaned from Manafort on August 2, 2016. Information suggests Kilimnik understood that some of the polling data showed that Clinton’s negatives were particularly high; that Manafort’s plan for victory called for focusing on Clinton’s negatives as much as possible; and that given Clinton’s high negatives, there was a chance that Trump could win. (U) Patten’s debriefing with the SCO provides the most granular account of what information Kilimnik obtained at the August 2, 2016 meeting:

Kilimnik told Patten that at the New York cigar bar meeting, Manafort stated that they have a plan to beat Hillary Clinton which included Manafort bringing discipline and an organized strategy to the campaign. Moreover, because Clinton’s negatives were so low [sic]-if they could focus on her negatives they could win the election. Manafort discussed the Fabrizio internal Trump polling data with Kilimnik, and explained that Fabrizio ‘s polling numbers showed that the Clinton negatives, referred to as a ‘therm poll,’ were high. Thus, based on this polling there was a chance Trump could win. 458

(U) Patten relayed similar information to the Committee. In particular, he told the Committee that Kilimnik mentioned Manafort’s belief that “because or Clinton’s high negatives, there was a chance, only because her negatives were so astronomically high, that it was possible . to win.”459

[snip]

(U) In addition to Campaign strategy involving polling data and the Ukraine plan, Manafort and Kilimnik also discussed two financial disputes and debts at the meeting. (U) The first dispute involved Deripaska and Pericles.477 Gates recalled that Kilimnik relayed at the meeting that Deripaska’s lawsuit ha’d been dismissed.478 Gates also recalled that Kilimnik was trying to obtain documentation showing the dismissal.479

In short, even without confirmation the dossier was disinformation, it’s clear that Deripaska was playing a vicious double game, using Steele as a channel to increase Manafort’s legal exposure even while using that legal exposure as a way to get an inside track to Trump’s campaign. But if the dossier is disinformation (as Trumpsters seem to universally agree now), it might help explain the dodgy content of the dossier in ways that aren’t important to this post (for example, it might explain why Steele’s sources falsely claimed that Carter Page was Manafort’s liaison with Russia in the same days when Kilimnik flew to the US to offer a pitch to Manafort on Ukraine involving senior Russians).

Now consider one more detail, given that Trumpsters seem to universally agree the dossier was disinformation and the IG Report’s suggestion that the most likely architect of that disinformation was Oleg Deripaska.

On January 8, 2017, Manafort flew to Madrid to meet with a different Deripaska deputy, Georgiy Oganov. As the SSCI Report explained, while Manafort told investigators they discussed the Pericles lawsuit — the same lawsuit Deripaska was using to make Manafort legally insecure — they also discussed stuff that remains almost entirely redacted, but stuff that includes recreating their “old friendship” which (also per the SSCI Report) involved Manafort conducting influence campaigns for Deripaska.

On January 8, 2017, hours after returning to the United States from a trip to ~ to Madrid, Spain.598 Manafort met with Oganov in Madrid during what he claimed was a one-hour breakfast meeting.599 Manafort told the FBI that, at the meeting, Oganov told him that he needed to meet with Deripaska in person to resolve the Pericles matter.600 Manafort agreed but said he would not travel to Ukraine or Russia for the meeting.601

(U) Manafort provided false and misleading information about the purpose, content, and follow-up to the meeting with Oganov to both the Committee and the SCO. In particular, Manafort told the Committee in a written response through counsel that he attended a meeting on or around January 17, 2017, in Madrid with “Georgy Organov.”602 The written response claimed that the meeting was “regarding a private litigation matter involving Oleg Deripaska.”603 Despite admitting his attendance at the meeting to the Committee in May 2017, Manafort initially denied attending the meeting in his interviews with the SCO in the fall of 2018.604 He eventually admitted to attending the meeting with Oganov, and then repeated what he described in his letter to the Committee-that the meeting had been arranged by his lawyers and concerned only the Pericles lawsuit.605

Manafort’s claims about the meeting were false. As the above messages show, the meeting was not designed to be about Pericles, but was also about recreating the “old friendship” and “global politics.”

Manafort returned to the US on January 12 and, three days later, tried to set up an in-person meeting with KT McFarland.

She checked with Mike Flynn, who told her that the “perception” of meeting with Manafort, “especially now” (this was after Flynn’s own back channels with Russia were beginning to become public) would not be good, so to hold off until they were in the hot seats.

Manafort didn’t meet with Trump’s national security team, but around the same time, per reporting from Ken Vogel, he reached out to Reince Priebus and suggested the errors in the dossier not only discredited it, but also the FBI investigation.

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 person close 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. [my emphasis]

According to Rick Gates, at some point Manafort asked Kilimnik to obtain more information from his sources about it, including from Deripaska.

Since that suggestion to Priebus — which he made days after his return from a meeting with Deripaska’s associate — Trump has pursued precisely the strategy laid out by Manafort, using the errors in the dossier — the dossier that all Trumpsters now seem to believe was filled with errors by Russian intelligence and possibly by Deripaska associates — to discredit it and with it, the Russian investigation.

That’s the strategy that led Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller to report on the dossier full time — including forcing the opinion editor at the time to publish a Deripaska column attacking the dossier.

Fusion GPS’s Simpson, in a New York Times op-ed describing his own Judiciary Committee testimony, claimed a neoconservative website “and the Clinton campaign” were “the Republican and Democratic funders of our Trump research.” The Judiciary Committee’s Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) then unilaterally released, over the objection of committee chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Simpson’s testimony to “set the record straight.” Fusion GPS “commended Senator Feinstein for her courage.”

Yet on March 16, 2017, Daniel Jones — himself a team member of Fusion GPS, self-described former FBI agent and, as we now know from the media, an ex-Feinstein staffer — met with my lawyer, Adam Waldman, and described Fusion as a “shadow media organization helping the government,” funded by a “group of Silicon Valley billionaires and George Soros.” My lawyer testified these facts to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Nov. 3. Mr. Soros is, not coincidentally, also the funder of two “ethics watchdog” NGOs (Democracy 21 and CREW) attacking Rep. Nunes’ committee memo.

A former Obama State Department official, Nuland, has been recently outed as another shadow player, reviewing and disseminating Fusion’s dossier, and reportedly, hundreds of other dossiers over a period of years. “Deep State-proud loyalists” apparently was a Freudian slip, not a joke.

Invented narratives — not “of the people, by the people, for the people,” but rather just from a couple of people, cloaked in the very same hypocritical rhetoric of “freedom” and “democracy” that those are actively undermining — impede internationally shared efforts on the world’s most pressing, real issues, like global health, climate change and the future of energy. My own “Mother Russia” has many problems and challenges, and my country is still in transition from the Soviet regime — a transition some clearly wish us to remain in indefinitely.

And that’s the strategy that led Chuck Grassley, Lindsey Graham, and Ron Johnson to spend their time discrediting the dossier rather than conducting oversight of Donald Trump.

That’s the strategy that led Darrell Cooper to believe (or claim to believe) several false claims about the dossier and then use those false claims to excuse the way Trumpsters lost faith in institutions and so attacked the Capitol. In short, the likelihood that the dossier is disinformation — indeed, the likelihood that the guy twisting the nuts of Trump’s campaign manager fed the dossier full of disinformation even while using that pressure to obtain his cooperation — means that (at least if you believe Cooper’s narrative) that disinformation led, through a series of steps, Americans to attack the American Capitol.

Trumpsters appear to love Cooper’s narrative, I guess because it doesn’t hold them responsible for their own gullibility or betrayal of the country. There are other problems with it (including the replication of other claims that Republicans have agreed is Russian disinformation). But ultimately, even with Cooper’s errors, what his narrative amounts to (at least for all the Trumpsters who believe the dossier was disinformation) is a claim that Russia’s 2016 disinformation campaign led Trump supporters to attack the US Capitol.

Update: After I posted some folks in the thread questioned what the point of the disinformation would be. This post lays out a possible logic to it all.

Carter Page Believed James Wolfe Was Ellen Nakashima’s Source Disclosing His FISA Application Less than a Month After the Story

According to the Statement of Offense to which James Wolfe — the former Senate Intelligence Committee security official convicted of lying about his contacts with journalists — allocuted, Carter Page suspected Wolfe was the source for Ellen Nakashima’s story revealing Page had been targeted with a FISA order. When the former Trump campaign staffer wrote Nakashima to complain about the story less than four weeks after Washington Post published it, Page BCCed Wolfe. [Nakashima is Reporter #1 and Ali Watkins is Reporter #2.]

On May 8, 2017, MALE-1 emailed REPORTER #1 complaining about REPORTER #1’s reporting of him (MALE-1). According to the metadata recovered during the search of Wolfe’s email, Wolfe was blind-copied on that email by MALE-1.

That unexplained detail is important — albeit mystifying — background to two recent stories on leak investigations.

First, as reported last month, Nakashima was one of three journalists whose call records DOJ obtained last year.

The Trump Justice Department secretly obtained Washington Post journalists’ phone records and tried to obtain their email records over reporting they did in the early months of the Trump administration on Russia’s role in the 2016 election, according to government letters and officials.

In three separate letters dated May 3 and addressed to Post reporters Ellen Nakashima and Greg Miller, and former Post reporter Adam Entous, the Justice Department wrote they were “hereby notified that pursuant to legal process the United States Department of Justice received toll records associated with the following telephone numbers for the period from April 15, 2017 to July 31, 2017.” The letters listed work, home or cellphone numbers covering that three-and-a-half-month period.

The scope of the records obtained on the WaPo journalists last year started four days after the Page story, so while some May 11, 2017 emails between Nakashima and Wolfe would have been included in what got seized last year, any contacts prior to the FISA story would not have. And the public details on the prosecution of Wolfe show no sign that Nakashima’s records were obtained in that investigation (those of Ali Watkins, whom Wolfe was in a relationship, however, were). Indeed, the sentencing memo went out of its way to note that DOJ had not obtained deleted Signal texts from any journalists. “The government did not recover or otherwise obtain from any reporters’ communications devices or related records the content of any of these communications.”

That said, Nakashima’s reporting was targeted in two different leak investigations, covering sequential periods, three years apart.

It’s not clear how quickly the Page investigation focused on Wolfe. But it may have outside help. A CBP Agent unconnected to the FBI investigation grilled Watkins on her ties with Wolfe in June 2017.

The Sentencing Memorandum on Wolfe suggests the FBI came to focus on him — and excused their focus — after having learned of his affair with Watkins. They informed Richard Burr and Mark Warner, and obtained the first of several warrants to access his phone.

At the time the classified national security information about the FISA surveillance was published in the national media, defendant James A. Wolfe was the Director of Security for the SSCI. He was charged with safeguarding information furnished to the SSCI from throughout the United States Intelligence Community (“USIC”) to facilitate the SSCI’s critical oversight function. During the course of the investigation, the FBI learned that Wolfe had been involved in the logistical process for transporting the FISA materials from the Department of Justice for review at the SSCI. The FBI also discovered that Wolfe had been involved in a relationship with a reporter (referred to as REPORTER #2 in the Indictment and herein) that began as early as 2013, when REPORTER #2, then a college intern, published a series of articles containing highly sensitive U.S. government information. Between 2014 and 2017, Wolfe and REPORTER #2 exchanged tens of thousands of telephone calls and electronic messages. Also during this period, REPORTER #2 published dozens of news articles on national security matters that contained sensitive information related to the SSCI.

Upon realizing that Wolfe was engaged in conduct that appeared to the FBI to compromise his ability to fulfill his duties with respect to the handling of Executive Branch classified national security information as SSCI’s Director of Security, the FBI faced a dilemma. The FBI needed to conduct further investigation to determine whether Wolfe had disseminated classified information that had been entrusted to him over the past three decades in his role as SSCI Director of Security. To do that, the FBI would need more time to continue their investigation covertly. Typically, upon learning that an Executive Branch employee and Top Secret clearance holder had potentially been compromised in place – such as by engaging in a clandestine affair with a national security reporter – the FBI would routinely provide a “duty-to-warn” notification to the relevant USIC equity holder in order to allow the intelligence agencies to take mitigation measures to protect their national security equities. Here, given the sensitive separation of powers issue and the fact that the FISA was an FBI classified equity, the FBI determined that it would first conduct substantial additional investigation and monitoring of Wolfe’s activities. The FBI’s executive leadership also took the extraordinary mitigating step of limiting its initial notification of investigative findings to the ranking U.S. Senators who occupy the Chair and Vice Chair of the SSCI.2

The FBI obtained court authority to conduct a delayed-notice search warrant pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3103a(b), which allowed the FBI to image Wolfe’s smartphone in October 2017. This was conducted while Wolfe was in a meeting with the FBI in his role as SSCI Director of Security, ostensibly to discuss the FBI’s leak investigation of the classified FISA material that had been shared with the SSCI. That search uncovered additional evidence of Wolfe’s communications with REPORTER #2, but it did not yet reveal his encrypted communications with other reporters.

This process — as described by Jocelyn Ballantine and Tejpal Chawla, prosecutors involved in some of the other controversial subpoenas disclosed in the last month — is a useful lesson of how the government proceeded in a case that likely overlapped with the investigation into HPSCI that ended up seizing Swalwell and Schiff’s records. Given that Swalwell was targeted by a Chinese spy, it also suggests one excuse they may have used to obtain the records: by claiming it was a potential compromise.

Still, by the time FBI first informed Wolfe of the investigation, in October 2017, they had obtained his cell phone content showing that he was chatting up other journalists, in addition to Watkins — and indeed, he continued to share information on Page. By the time the FBI got Wolfe to perjure himself on a questionnaire about contacts with journalists in December 2017, they had presumably already searched Watkins’ emails going back years. Wolfe was removed from his position and stripped of clearance, making his indictment six months later only a matter of time.

All that said, the government never proved that Wolfe was the source for Nakashima. And Ballantine’s subpoena for HPSCI contacts, weeks later after FBI searched Wolfe’s phone, may have reflected a renewed attempt to pin the leak on someone, anyone (though it’s not clear whether investigators looked further than Congress, or even to Paul Ryan, who has been suspected of tipping Page off.

If the James Wolfe investigation reflects how they might have approached the HPSCI side, there’s one other alarming detail of this: The FBI alerted someone in Congress of the search, the Chair and Ranking Member of the Committee. But in HPSCI’s case, Schiff was the Ranking Member. Meaning it’s possible that, by targeting on Schiff, FBI gave itself a way to consult only with the Republican Chair of the Committee.

James Wolfe (and the investigation of Natalie Sours Edwards, who was sentenced to six months in prison last week) are an important lesson in leak investigations that serves as important background for Joe Biden’s promise that reporters won’t be targeted anymore. The way you conduct a leak investigation in this day and age is to seize the source’s phone, in part because that’s the only way to obtain Signal texts.

Timeline

March 2017: Exec Branch provides SSCI “the Classified Document,” which includes both Secret and Top Secret information, with details pertaining to Page classified as Secret.

March 2, 2017: James Comey briefs HPSCI on counterintelligence investigations, with a briefing to SSCI at almost the same time.

March 17, 2017: 82 text messages between Wolfe and Watkins.

April 3, 2017: Watkins confirms that Carter Page is Male-1.

April 11, 2017: WaPo reports FBI obtained FISA order on Carter Page.

June 2017: End date of five communications with Reporter #1 via Wolfe’s SSCI email.

June 2017: Using pretext of serving as a source, CBP agent Jeffrey Rambo grills Watkins about her travel with Wolfe.

October 2017: Wolfe offers up to be anonymous source for Reporter #4 on Signal.

October 16, 2017: Wolfe Signals Reporter #3 about Page’s subpoena.

October 17, 2017: NBC reports Carter Page subpoena.

October 24, 2017: Wolfe informs Reporter #3 of timing of Page’s testimony.

October 30, 2017: FBI informs James Wolfe of investigation.

November 15, 2017: 90 days before DOJ informs Ali Watkins they’ve seized her call records.

December 14, 2017: FBI approaches Watkins about Wolfe.

Prior to December 15, 2017 interview: Wolfe writes text message to Watkins about his support for her career.

December 15, 2017: FBI interviews Wolfe.

January 11, 2018: Second interview with Wolfe, after which FBI executes a Rule 41 warrant on his phone, discovering deleted Signal texts with other journalists.

February 6, 2018: Subpoena targeting Adam Schiff and others.

February 13, 2018: DOJ informs Watkins they’ve seized her call records.

June 6, 2018: Senate votes to make official records available to DOJ.

That the Chairman and Vice Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, acting jointly, are authorized to provide to the United States Department of Justice copies of Committee records sought in connection with a pending investigation arising out of allegations of the unauthorized disclosure of information, except concerning matters for which a privilege should be asserted.

June 7, 2018: Grand jury indicts Wolfe.

June 7, 2018: Richard Burr and Mark Warner release a statement:

We are troubled to hear of the charges filed against a former member of the Committee staff. While the charges do not appear to include anything related to the mishandling of classified information, the Committee takes this matter extremely seriously. We were made aware of the investigation late last year, and have fully cooperated with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice since then. Working through Senate Legal Counsel, and as noted in a Senate Resolution, the Committee has made certain official records available to the Justice Department.

June 13, 2018: Wolfe arraigned in DC. His lawyers move to prohibit claims he leaked classified information.

Some Perspective on the Politicized Leak Investigation Targeting Adam Schiff

The NYT reported the other day that DOJ obtained phone records of Adam Schiff, Eric Swalwell, and a bunch of House Intelligence Committee staffers in the guise of what it reports is a leak investigation (though given the specific form of Bill Barr’s prevarications about his knowledge, may have been repackaged as something else when the investigation was resuscitated in 2020).

Prosecutors subpoenaed Apple for data from the accounts of at least two Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee, aides and family members. One was a minor.

All told, the records of at least a dozen people tied to the committee were seized in 2017 and early 2018, including those of Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, then the panel’s top Democrat and now its chairman, according to committee officials and two other people briefed on the inquiry. Representative Eric Swalwell of California said in an interview Thursday night that he had also been notified that his data had subpoenaed.

Prosecutors, under the beleaguered attorney general, Jeff Sessions, were hunting for the sources behind news media reports about contacts between Trump associates and Russia. Ultimately, the data and other evidence did not tie the committee to the leaks, and investigators debated whether they had hit a dead end and some even discussed closing the inquiry.

But William P. Barr revived languishing leak investigations after he became attorney general a year later. He moved a trusted prosecutor from New Jersey with little relevant experience to the main Justice Department to work on the Schiff-related case and about a half-dozen others, according to three people with knowledge of his work who did not want to be identified discussing federal investigations.

The initial collection and especially the subsequent treatment were clearly politicized — and more importantly, stupid, from an investigative standpoint. But, especially because this involves Adam Schiff, some exactitude about what went on really is required.

This is not spying

First, this is not “spying.” If the use of informants to investigate members of the Trump campaign and Hillary Clinton’s Foundation during a political campaign is not spying, if the use of a lawful FISA to conduct both physical and electronic surveillance on recently departed campaign volunteer Carter Page is not spying — and Adam Schiff said they were not, and I agree — then neither is the use of a subpoena to collect the phone records of Democrats who had knowledge of information that subsequently leaked in a fully predicated (and very serious) leak investigation.

This is “just” metadata

According to all reports, the government obtained the iPhone metadata records of 73 phone numbers and 36 email addresses. Apple suggests other tech companies probably got subpoenas, too, which means that some of those email addresses probably weren’t Apple emails.

But it was — as Adam Schiff said many times when defending a program that aspired to collect “all” the phone records in the United States — “just” metadata.

I don’t mean to belittle the impact of that. As I and others argued (against Schiff), metadata is actually profoundly revealing.

But if this is a problem (it is!), then people like Adam Schiff should lead a conversation about whether the standard on collection of metadata — currently, it only needs to be “relevant to” an investigation — is what it should be, as well as the rules imposed on future access to the data once collected prevent abuse.

Apple (and other tech companies) wouldn’t have known this was Adam Schiff

Even people who understand surveillance seem to believe that Apple would have known these requests targeted Adam Schiff in a leak investigation and therefore should have done more to fight it, as if the actual subpoena would be accompanied with an affidavit with shiny flags saying “HPSCI Ranking Member.”

They wouldn’t have. They would have gotten a list of selectors (some of which, by its description, it probably did not service), a description of the crime being investigated (a leak), and a gag order. The one thing that should have triggered closer review from Apple was the number of selectors. But apparently it did not, and once Apple complied, the data was swept up into the FBI’s servers where it presumably remains.

The subpoena was overly broad and not tailored to limit damage to Schiff

All that said, there were aspects of the subpoena that suggest it was written without any consideration for limiting the damage to Congressional equities or reasonable investigative targets. Focusing on these details are important because they distinguish what is really problematic about this (and who is to blame). According to reports, the subpoena:

  • Obtained information from a minor, who would have had no access to classified information
  • Included a series of year-long gags
  • Obtained all the toll records from date of creation
  • May have focused exclusively on Democratic members and staffers

It’s conceivable that, after years of investigation, DOJ would have reason to believe someone was laundering leaks through a child. But given how broad this subpoena is, it’s virtually impossible the affidavit included that kind of specific knowledge.

With journalists, DOJ is supposed to use shorter gags–three months. The series of year-long gags suggests that DOJ was trying to hide the existence of these subpoenas not just to hide an investigation, but to delay the political embarrassment of it.

There’s no reason to believe that Adam Schiff leaked a FISA application targeting Carter Page first obtained in 2016 in 2009 (or whenever the Californian lawmaker first set up his Apple account). It’s a physical impossibility. So it is completely unreasonable to imagine that years-old toll records would be “relevant to” a leak investigation predicated off a leak in 2017. Mind you, obtaining all records since the inception of the account is totally normal! It’s what DOJ did, for example, with Antionne Brodnax, a January 6 defendant who got notice of subpoenas served on him, but whose attempt to limit the subpoena failed because those whose records are subpoenaed have no authority to do that. There are two appropriate responses to the unreasonable breadth of this request: both a focus on the failure to use special caution with Congressional targets, but also some discussion about how such broad requests are unreasonable regardless of the target.

Given the number of these selectors, it seems unlikely DOJ did more than ID the people who had access to the leaked information in question. Except if they only obtained selectors for Democrats, it would suggest investigators went into the investigation with the assumption that the leak was political, and that such a political leak would necessarily be partisan. That’s simply not backed by exhibited reality, and if that’s what happened, it should force some scrutiny on who made those assumptions. That’s all the more true given hints that Republicans like Paul Ryan may have tipped Page off that he had been targeted.

These kinds of limiting factors are where the most good can come out of this shit-show, because they would have a real impact and if applied broadly would help not just Schiff.

Barr continued to appoint unqualified prosecutors to do his political dirty work

I think it would be useful to separate the initial records request — after all, the leak of a FISA intercept and the target of a FISA order are virtually unprecedented — from the continued use of the records in 2020, under Billy Barr.

The NYT explains that the initial investigators believed that charges were unlikely, but Barr redoubled efforts in 2020.

As the years wore on, some officials argued in meetings that charges were becoming less realistic, former Justice Department officials said: They lacked strong evidence, and a jury might not care about information reported years earlier.

[snip]

Mr. Barr directed prosecutors to continue investigating, contending that the Justice Department’s National Security Division had allowed the cases to languish, according to three people briefed on the cases. Some cases had nothing to do with leaks about Mr. Trump and involved sensitive national security information, one of the people said. But Mr. Barr’s overall view of leaks led some people in the department to eventually see the inquiries as politically motivated.

[snip]

After the records provided no proof of leaks, prosecutors in the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington discussed ending that piece of their investigation. But Mr. Barr’s decision to bring in an outside prosecutor helped keep the case alive.

[snip]

In February 2020, Mr. Barr placed the prosecutor from New Jersey, Osmar Benvenuto, into the National Security Division. His background was in gang and health care fraud prosecutions.

Barr used this ploy — finding AUSAs who were unqualified to work on a case that others had found no merit to — on at least three different occasions. Every document John Durham’s team submitted in conjunction with the Kevin Clinesmith prosecution, for example, betrayed that investigators running it didn’t understand the scope of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation (and thereby also strongly suggested investigators had no business scrutinizing a counterintelligence investigation at all). The questions that Jeffrey Jensen’s team, appointed by Barr to review the DOJ IG investigation and the John Durham investigation to find conclusions they didn’t draw, asked Bill Barnett betrayed that the gun crimes prosecutors running it didn’t know fuckall about what they were doing (why Barnett answered as he did is another thing, one that DOJ IG should investigate). And now here, he appointed a health care fraud prosecutor to conduct a leak investigation after unbelievably aggressive leak investigators found nothing.

DOJ IG should include all of those investigations in its investigation, because they all reflect Barr’s efforts to force prosecutors to come to conclusions that the evidence did not merit (and because the Jensen investigation, at least, appears to have altered records intentionally).

FBI never deletes evidence

In an attempt to disclaim responsibility for yet more political abuse, Billy Barr issued a very interestingly worded disavowal.

Barr said that while he was attorney general, he was “not aware of any congressman’s records being sought in a leak case.” He added that Trump never encouraged him to zero in on the Democratic lawmakers who reportedly became targets of the former president’s push to unmask leakers of classified information.

There are two parts to this: One, that “while he was attorney general,” Congresspersons’ records were not sought, and two, sought in a leak case. The original subpoena for these records was in February 2018, so not during Barr’s tenure as Attorney General. He doesn’t deny asking for those previously-sought records to be reviewed anew while Attorney General.

But he also limits his disavowal to leak cases. Under Barr’s fervent imagination, however, these investigations may well have morphed into something else, what he may have imagined were political abuse or spying violation cases. DOJ can and often does obtain new legal process for already obtained records (which would be unnecessary anyway for toll records), so it is not outside the realm of possibility that Barr directed his unqualified prosecutor to use those already-seized records to snoop into some other question.

It’s a pity for Adam Schiff that no one in charge of surveillance in Congress imposed better trackability requirements on FBI’s access of its investigative collections.

Both an IG investigation and a Special Counsel are inadequate to this investigation

Lisa Monaco asked Michael Horowitz to investigate this investigation. And that’s fine: he can access the records of the investigation, and the affidavits. He can interview the line prosecutors who were tasked with this investigation.

But he can’t require Barr or Jeff Sessions or any of the other Trump appointees who ordered up this investigation to sit for an interview (he could move quickly and ask John Demers to sit for an interview).

Because of that, a lot of people are asking for a Special Counsel to be appointed. That would be nice, except thus far, there’s no evidence that a crime was committed, so there is no regulatory basis to appoint a Special Counsel. The standard for accessing records is very low, any special treatment accorded journalists or members of Congress are not written into law, and prosecutorial discretion at DOJ is nearly sacrosanct. The scandal is that this may all be entirely legal.

Mind you, there’s good reason to believe there was a crime committed in the Jeffrey Jensen investigation, the same crime (altering documents) that Barr used to predicate the Durham Special Counsel appointment. So maybe people should revisit that?

Luckily, Swalwell and Schiff know some members of Congress who can limit such abuses

If I learned that DOJ engaged in unreasonable surveillance on me [wink], I’d have no recourse, largely because of laws that Adam Schiff has championed for years.

But as it happens, Schiff and Swalwell both know some members of Congress who could pass some laws limiting the ability to do some of the things used against them that affect thousands of Americans investigated by the FBI.

Now that Adam Schiff has discovered, years after we tried to reason with him on this point, that “it’s just metadata” doesn’t fly in this day and age, maybe we can talk about how the FBI should be using metadata given how powerful it has become?

The renewed focus on Schiff’s metadata would have come after Schiff disclosed Nunes’ ties to Rudy Giuliani’s grift

Another factor of timing hasn’t gotten enough attention. In late December, Schiff released the Democrats’ impeachment report. Because Schiff obtained subpoenas (almost certainly targeting Lev Parnas and Rudy Giuliani), he included call records of calls implicating Devin Nunes and his staffer Derek

Over the course of the four days following the April 7 article, phone records show contacts between Mr. Giuliani, Mr. Parnas, Representative Devin Nunes, and Mr. Solomon. Specifically, Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Parnas were in contact with one another, as well as with Mr. Solomon.76 Phone records also show contacts on April 10 between Mr. Giuliani and Rep. Nunes, consisting of three short calls in rapid succession, followed by a text message, and ending with a nearly three minute call.77 Later that same day, Mr. Parnas and Mr. Solomon had a four minute, 39 second call.78

[snip]

On the morning of May 8, Mr. Giuliani called the White House Switchboard and connected for six minutes and 26 seconds with someone at the White House.158 That same day, Mr. Giuliani also connected with Mr. Solomon for almost six minutes, with Mr. Parnas, and with Derek Harvey, a member of Representative Nunes’ staff on the Intelligence Committee.159

69 AT&T Document Production, Bates ATTHPSCI _20190930_00848-ATTHPSCI_20190930_00884. Mr. Parnas also had an aborted call that lasted 5 seconds on April 5, 2019 with an aide to Rep. Devin Nunes on the Intelligence Committee, Derek Harvey. AT&T Document Production, Bates ATTHPSCI_20190930_00876. Call records obtained by the Committees show that Mr. Parnas and Mr. Harvey had connected previously, including a four minute 42 second call on February 1, 2019, a one minute 7 second call on February 4, and a one minute 37 second call on February 7, 2019. AT&T Document Production, Bates ATTHPSCI_20190930_00617, ATTHPSCI_20190930_00630, ATTHPSCI_20190930_00641. As explained later in this Chapter, Rep. Nunes would connect separately by phone on April 10, 11, and 12 with Mr. Parnas and Mr. Giuliani. AT&T Document Production, Bates ATTHPSCI_20190930_00913- ATTHPSCI_20190930_00914; ATTHPSCI_20190930-02125.

76 Specifically, between April 8 and April 11, phone records show the following phone contacts:

  • six calls between Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Parnas (longest duration approximately five minutes), AT&T Document Production, Bates ATTHPSCI_20190930-02115-ATTHPSCI_20190930-02131;
  • four calls between Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Solomon (all on April 8, longest duration approximately one minute, 30 seconds) AT&T Document Production, Bates ATTHPSCI_20190930-02114- ATTHPSCI_20190930-02115;
  • nine calls between Mr. Parnas and Mr. Solomon (longest duration four minutes, 39 seconds) AT&T Document Production, Bates ATTHPSCI_20190930-00885- ATTHPSCI_20190930- 00906; and
  • three calls between Mr. Parnas and Ms. Toensing (longest duration approximately six minutes), AT&T Document Production, Bates ATTHPSCI_20190930-00885- ATTHPSCI_20190930- 00905.

77 AT&T Document Production, Bates ATTHPSCI_20190930-02125, ATTHPSCI_20190930-03236.

78 AT&T Document Production, Bates ATTHPSCI_20190930-00902.

[snip]

158 AT&T Document Production, Bates ATTHPSCI_20190930_02313.

159 AT&T Document Production, Bates ATTHPSCI_20190930_02314; ATTHPSCI_20190930_02316; ATTHPSCI_20190930_02318; ATTHPSCI 20190930 01000.

Because Nunes doesn’t understand how phone records work, he — and most other Republicans in Congress — accused Schiff of subpoenaing the record of his colleagues. That’s not what happened. Instead, Nunes and a key staffer got involved in with Rudy’s efforts to solicit dirt from Russian assets and as a result they showed up in Rudy’s phone records.

But it’s the kind of thing that might lead Barr to intensify his focus on Schiff.

The last section of this was an update.

DOJ’s Failures to Follow Media Guidelines on the WaPo Seizure

I wanted to add a few data points regarding the report that DOJ subpoenaed records from three WaPo journalists.

This post is premised on three pieces of well-justified speculation: that John Durham, after having been appointed Special Counsel, obtained these records, that Microsoft challenged a gag, and that Microsoft’s challenge was upheld in some way. I’m doing this post to lay out some questions that others should be asking about what happened.

An enterprise host (probably Microsoft) likely challenged a gag order

The report notes that DOJ did obtain the reporters’ phone records, and tried, but did not succeed, in obtaining their email records.

The Trump Justice Department secretly obtained Washington Post journalists’ phone records and tried to obtain their email records over reporting they did in the early months of the Trump administration on Russia’s role in the 2016 election, according to government letters and officials.

In three separate letters dated May 3 and addressed to Post reporters Ellen Nakashima and Greg Miller, and former Post reporter Adam Entous, the Justice Department wrote they were “hereby notified that pursuant to legal process the United States Department of Justice received toll records associated with the following telephone numbers for the period from April 15, 2017 to July 31, 2017.” The letters listed work, home or cellphone numbers covering that three-and-a-half-month period.

[snip]

The letters to the three reporters also noted that prosecutors got a court order to obtain “non content communication records” for the reporters’ work email accounts, but did not obtain such records. The email records sought would have indicated who emailed whom and when, but would not have included the contents of the emails. [my emphasis]

What likely happened is that DOJ tried to obtain a subpoena on Microsoft or Google (almost certainly the former, because the latter doesn’t care about privacy) as the enterprise host for the newspaper’s email service, and someone challenged or refused a request for a gag, which led DOJ to withdraw the request.

There’s important background to this.

Up until October 2017, when the government served a subpoena on a cloud company that hosts records for another, the cloud company was often gagged indefinitely from telling the companies whose email (or files) it hosted. By going to a cloud company, the government was effectively taking away businesses’ ability to challenge subpoenas themselves, which posed a problem for Microsoft’s ability to convince businesses to move everything to their cloud.

That’s actually how Robert Mueller obtained Michael Cohen’s Trump Organization emails — by first preserving, then obtaining them from Microsoft rather than asking Trump Organization (which was, at the same time, withholding the most damning materials when asked for the same materials by Congress). Given what we know about Trump Organization’s incomplete response to Congress, we can be certain that had Mueller gone to Trump Organization, he might never have learned about the Trump Tower Moscow deal.

In October 2017, in conjunction with a lawsuit settlement, Microsoft forced DOJ to adopt a new policy that gave it the right to inform customers when DOJ came to them for emails unless DOJ had a really good reason to prevent Microsoft from telling their enterprise customer.

Today marks another important step in ensuring that people’s privacy rights are protected when they store their personal information in the cloud. In response to concerns that Microsoft raised in a lawsuit we brought against the U.S. government in April 2016, and after months advocating for the United States Department of Justice to change its practices, the Department of Justice (DOJ) today established a new policy to address these issues. This new policy limits the overused practice of requiring providers to stay silent when the government accesses personal data stored in the cloud. It helps ensure that secrecy orders are used only when necessary and for defined periods of time. This is an important step for both privacy and free expression. It is an unequivocal win for our customers, and we’re pleased the DOJ has taken these steps to protect the constitutional rights of all Americans.

Until now, the government routinely sought and obtained orders requiring email providers to not tell our customers when the government takes their personal email or records. Sometimes these orders don’t include a fixed end date, effectively prohibiting us forever from telling our customers that the government has obtained their data.

[snip]

Until today, vague legal standards have allowed the government to get indefinite secrecy orders routinely, regardless of whether they were even based on the specifics of the investigation at hand. That will no longer be true. The binding policy issued today by the Deputy U.S. Attorney General should diminish the number of orders that have a secrecy order attached, end the practice of indefinite secrecy orders, and make sure that every application for a secrecy order is carefully and specifically tailored to the facts in the case.

Rod Rosenstein, then overseeing the Mueller investigation, approved the new policy on October 19, 2017.

The effect was clear. When various entities at DOJ wanted records from Trump Organization after that, DOJ did not approve the equivalent request approved just months earlier.

If DOJ withdrew a subpoena rather than have it disclosed, it was probably inconsistent with media guidelines

If I’m right that DOJ asked Microsoft for the reporters’ email records, but then withdrew the request rather than have Microsoft disclose the subpoena to WaPo, then the request itself likely violated DOJ’s media guidelines — at least as they were rewritten in 2015 after a series of similar incidents, including DOJ’s request for the phone records of 20 AP journalists in 2013.

DOJ’s media guidelines require the following:

  • Attorney General approval of any subpoena for call or email records
  • That the information be essential to the investigation
  • DOJ has taken reasonable attempts to obtain the information from alternate sources

Most importantly, DOJ’s media guidelines require notice and negotiation with the affected journalist, unless the Attorney General determines that doing so would “pose a clear and substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation.”

after negotiations with the affected member of the news media have been pursued and appropriate notice to the affected member of the news media has been provided, unless the Attorney General determines that, for compelling reasons, such negotiations or notice would pose a clear and substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation, risk grave harm to national security, or present an imminent risk of death or serious bodily harm.

But a judge can review the justifications for gags before issuing them (for all subpoenas, not just media ones).

Just as an example, the government obtained a gag on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Google when obtaining Reality Winner’s cloud-based communications a week after they had arrested her (at a time when she was in no position to delete her own content). After a few weeks, Twitter challenged the gag. A judge gave DOJ 180 days to sustain the gag, but in August 2017, DOJ lifted it.

That was a case where DOJ obtained the communications of an accused leaker, with possible unknown co-conspirators, so the gag at least made some sense.

Here, by contrast, the government would have been asking for records from journalists who were not alleged to have committed any crime. The ultimate subject of the investigation would have no ability to destroy WaPo’s records. The records — and the investigation — were over three years old. Whatever justification DOJ gave was likely obviously bullshit.

Hypothetical scenario: DOJ obtains cell phone records only to have a judge rule a gag inappropriate

Let me lay out how this might have worked to show why this might mean DOJ violated the media guidelines. Here’s one possible scenario for what could have happened:

  • In the wake of the election, John Durham subpoenaed the WaPo cell providers and Microsoft, asking for a gag
  • The cell provider turned over the records with no questions — neither AT&T nor Verizon care about their clients’ privacy
  • Microsoft challenged the gag and in response, a judge ruled against DOJ’s gag, meaning Microsoft would have been able to inform WaPo

That would mean that after DOJ, internally — Billy Barr and John Durham, in this speculative scenario — decided that warning journalists would create the same media stink we’re seeing today and make the records request untenable, a judge ruled that that a media stink over an investigation into a 3-year old leak wasn’t a good enough reason for a gag. If this happened, it would mean some judge ruled that Barr and Durham (if Durham is the one who made the request) invented a grave risk to the integrity of their investigation that a judge subsequently found implausible.

It would mean the request itself was dubious, to say nothing of the gag.

Once again, DOJ failed to meet its own notice requirements

And with respect to the gag, this request broke another one of the rules on obtaining records from reporters: that they get notice no later than 90 days after the subpoena. The Justice Manual says this about journalists whose records are seized:

  • Except as provided in 28 C.F.R. 50.10(e)(1), when the Attorney General has authorized the use of a subpoena, court order, or warrant to obtain from a third party communications records or business records of a member of the news media, the affected member of the news media shall be given reasonable and timely notice of the Attorney General’s determination before the use of the subpoena, court order, or warrant, unless the Attorney General determines that, for compelling reasons, such notice would pose a clear and substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation, risk grave harm to national security, or present an imminent risk of death or serious bodily harm. 28 C.F.R. 50.10(e)(2). The mere possibility that notice to the affected member of the news media, and potential judicial review, might delay the investigation is not, on its own, a compelling reason to delay notice. Id.
  • When the Attorney General has authorized the use of a subpoena, court order, or warrant to obtain communications records or business records of a member of the news media, and the affected member of the news media has not been given notice, pursuant to 28 C.F.R. 50.10(e)(2), of the Attorney General’s determination before the use of the subpoena, court order, or warrant, the United States Attorney or Assistant Attorney General responsible for the matter shall provide to the affected member of the news media notice of the subpoena, court order, or warrant as soon as it is determined that such notice will no longer pose a clear and substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation, risk grave harm to national security, or present an imminent risk of death or serious bodily harm. 28 C.F.R. 50.10(e)(3). In any event, such notice shall occur within 45 days of the government’s receipt of any return made pursuant to the subpoena, court order, or warrant, except that the Attorney General may authorize delay of notice for an additional 45 days if he or she determines that for compelling reasons, such notice would pose a clear and substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation, risk grave harm to national security, or present an imminent risk of death or serious bodily harm. Id. No further delays may be sought beyond the 90‐day period. Id. [emphasis original]

Journalists are supposed to get notice if their records are seized. They’re supposed to get notice no later than 90 days after the records were obtained. AT&T and Verizon would have provided records almost immediately and this happened in 2020, meaning the notice should have come by the end of March. But WaPo didn’t get notice until after Lisa Monaco was confirmed as Deputy Attorney General and, even then, it took several weeks.

DOJ’s silence about an Office of Public Affairs review

While it’s not required by guidelines, in general DOJ has involved the Office of Public Affairs in such matters, so someone who has to deal with the press can tell the Attorney General and the prosecutor that their balance of journalist equities is out of whack. At the time, this would have been Kerri Kupec, who was always instrumental in Billy Barr’s obstruction and politicization.

But it’s not clear whether that happened. I asked Acting Director of OPA Marc Raimondi (the guy who has defended what happened in the press; he was in National Security Division at the time of the request), twice, whether someone from OPA was involved. Both times he ignored my question.

The history of Special Counsels accessing sensitive records and testimony

There’s a history of DOJ obtaining things under Special Counsels they might not have obtained without the Special Counsel:

  • Pat Fitzgerald coerced multiple reporters’ testimony, going so far as to jail Judy Miller, in 2004
  • Robert Mueller obtained Michael Cohen’s records from Microsoft rather than Trump Organization
  • This case probably represents John Durham, having been made Special Counsel, obtaining records that DOJ did not obtain in 2017

There’s an irony here: Durham has long sought ways to incriminate Jim Comey, who is represented by Pat Fitzgerald and others. In 2004, as Acting Attorney General, Comey approved the subpoenas for Miller and others. That said, given the time frame on the records request, it is highly unlikely that he’s the target of this request.

Whoever sought these records, it is virtually certain that the prosecutor only obtained them after making decisions that DOJ chose not to make when these leaks were first investigated in 2017, after Jeff Sessions announced a war on media leaks in the wake of having his hidden meeting with Sergey Kislyak exposed.

That suggests that DOJ decided these records, and the investigation itself, were more important in 2020 than Jeff Sessions had considered them in 2017, when his behavior was probably one of the things disclosed in the leak.

The dubious claim that these records could have been necessary or uniquely valuable

Finally, consider one more detail of DOJ’s decision to obtain these records: their claims, necessary under the media policy, that 3-year old phone and email records were necessary to a leak investigation.

When these leaks were first investigated in 2017, DOJ undoubtedly identified everyone who had access to the Kislyak intercepts and used available means — including reviewing the government call records of the potential sources — to try to find the leakers. If they had a solid lead on someone who might be the leaker, the government would have obtained the person’s private communication records as well, as DOJ did do during the contemporaneous investigation into the leak of the Carter Page FISA warrant that ultimately led to SSCI security official James Wolfe’s prosecution.

Jeff Sessions had literally declared war within days of one of the likely leaks under investigation here, and would approve a long-term records request from Ali Watkins in the Wolfe investigation and a WhatsApp Pen Register implicating Jason Leopold in the Natalie Edwards case. After Bill Barr came in, he approved the use of a Title III wiretap to record calls involving journalists in the Henry Frese case.

For the two and a half years between the time Sessions first declared war on leaks and the time DOJ decided these records were critical to an investigation, DOJ had not previously considered them necessary, even at a time when Sessions was approving pretty aggressive tactics against leaks.

Worse still, DOJ would have had to claim they might be useful. These records, unlike the coerced testimony of Judy Miller, would not have revealed an actual source for the stories. These records, unlike the Michael Cohen records obtained via Microsoft would not be direct evidence of a crime.

All they would be would be leads — a list of all the phone numbers and email addresses these journalists communicated with via WaPo email or telephony calls or texts — for the period in question. It might return records of people (such as Andy McCabe) who could be sources but also had legal authority to communicate with journalists. It would probably return a bunch of records of inquiries the journalists made that were never returned. It would undoubtedly return records of people who were sources for other stories.

But it would return nothing for other means of communication, such as Signal texts or calls.

In other words, the most likely outcome from this request is that it would have a grave impact on the reporting equities of the journalists involved, with no certainty it would help in the investigation (and an equally high likelihood of returning a false positive, someone who was contacted but didn’t return the call).

And if it was Durham who made the request, he would have done so after having chased a series of claims — many of them outright conspiracy theories — around the globe, only to have all of those theories to come up empty. Given that after years of investigation Durham has literally found nothing new, there’s no reason to believe he had any new basis to think he could solve this leak investigation after DOJ had tried but failed in 2017. Likely, what made the difference is that his previous efforts to substantiate something had failed, and Barr needed to empower him to keep looking to placate Trump, and so Durham got to seize WaPo’s records.

Billy Barr has been hiding other legal process against journalists

Given the disclosure that Barr approved a request targeting the WaPo about five months ago and that under Barr DOJ used a Title III wiretap in a leak investigation (albeit targeting the known leaker), it’s worth noting one other piece of oversight that has lapsed under Barr.

In the wake of Jeff Sessions declaring war on leaks in 2017 (and, probably, the leak in question here), Ron Wyden asked Jeff Sessions whether the war on leaks reflected a change in the new media guidelines adopted in 2015.

Wyden asked Sessions to answer the following questions by November 10:

  1. For each of the past five years, how many times has DOJ used subpoenas, search warrants, national security letters, or any other form of legal process authorized by a court to target members of the news media in the United States and American journalists abroad to seek their (a) communications records, (b) geo-location information, or (c) the content of their communications? Please provide statistics for each form of legal process.
  2. Has DOJ revised the 2015 regulations, or made any other changes to internal procedures governing investigations of journalists since January 20, 2017? If yes, please provide me with a copy.

In response, DOJ started doing a summary of the use of legal process against journalists for each calendar year. For example, the 2016 report described the legal process used against Malheur propagandist Pete Santilli. The 2017 report shows that, in the year of my substantive interview with FBI, DOJ obtained approval for a voluntary interview with a journalist before the interview because they, “suspected the journalist may have committed an offense in the course of newsgathering activities” (while I have no idea if this is my interview, during the interview, the lead FBI agent also claimed to know the subject of a surveillance-related story I was working on that was unrelated to the subject of the interview, though neither he nor I disclosed what the story was about). The 2017 report also describes obtaining Ali Watkins’ phone records and DOJ’s belated notice to her. The 2018 report describes getting retroactive approval for the arrest of someone for harassing Ryan Zinke but who claimed to be media (I assume that precedent will be important for the many January 6 defendants who claimed to be media).

While I am virtually certain the reports — at least the 2018 one — are not comprehensive, the reports nevertheless are useful guidelines for the kinds of decision DOJ deems reasonable in a given year.

But as far as anyone knows, DOJ stopped issuing them under Barr. Indeed, when I asked Raimondi about them, he didn’t know they existed (he is checking if they were issued for 2019 and 2020).

So we don’t know what other investigative tactics Barr approved as Attorney General, even though we should.

Kevin Clinesmith Sentenced to a Year of Probation

Judge James Boasberg just sentenced Kevin Clinesmith to a year of probation for altering a CIA email describing Carter Page’s prior relationship with the CIA.

Carter Page spoke at some length in his typical rambling style. Notably, he did not call for a harsh sentence for Clinesmith. And much of what he said was irrelevant to the sentencing (he seemed to be pitching to be a FISC amicus, as if the ties between him and Russian intelligence weren’t real concerns).

Anthony Scarpelli, arguing for the government, did not repeat a claim made in their sentencing memorandum, that Clinesmith may have made this alteration for political reasons. Judge Boasberg noted that the DOJ IG Report had found no evidence of such.

The government did suggest that Clinesmith had altered the email for more than just to avoid the work of correcting it. Boasberg didn’t see it that way. He found the argument of Clinesmith’s lawyer, Justin Shur, compelling that there was no personal benefit to Clinesmith because he wasn’t on the hook for the earlier mistakes in the application.

Boasberg also made a quip that, unlike certain politicians, Clinesmith had not chosen to be in the public limelight.

The hearing was perhaps most interesting for Boasberg’s comments, as the presiding FISA judge presiding over a criminal case pertaining to FISA, about the import of the FISA court’s role in checking Executive authority. I’ll return to those comments when a transcript is available.

Ultimately, then, this closes the most productive aspect of the Durham investigation, which has gone on almost as long as the investigation it is supposed to investigate.

The Mistaken Presumptions of Virtually All Discussions of a Future Trump Prosecution

Jack Goldsmith has written a piece arguing against a Trump prosecution under the Biden Administration. He’s wrong on a key point that many other people engaging in this discussion also are. He’s wrong about what crime might be prosecuted and whose DOJ investigated it.

Before I get to that, though, I want to critique two smaller issues in his post.

First, he links to the DOJ IG investigation on Carter Page, apparently suggesting it supports a claim that that report found there were inappropriate parts of the investigation into Donald Trump.

The first in this line was the investigation of the 2016 Trump campaign and presidential transition by the FBI and the Obama Justice Department, which continued with the Mueller investigation. Some elements of this investigation were clearly legitimate and some, clearly not.

Except that’s not what that report shows (even ignoring the report’s own problems). It shows that FBI followed the rules on informants and even on including an investigative agent in Trump’s first security briefing (after which Flynn promptly moved to cover up his secret relationship with Turkey). It shows that there were problems with the Carter Page FISA application. But the single solitary thing in the report that would not survive a Franks review is Kevin Clinesmith’s alteration of an email. Every single other thing would meet the Good Faith standard used in Fourth Amendment review. And all that’s separate from the question of whether Carter Page was a legitimate target for investigation, which the bipartisan SSCI investigation has said he was.

I also disagree with Goldsmith’s concerns about the status of the Durham investigation going forward.

But though Durham started out as a credible figure, the review was damaged from the beginning due to Trump’s and Barr’s ceaseless public prejudging of the case (and, for some, Durham’s response to one of Horowitz’s reports). And all of that was before Barr expanded the investigation into a criminal one and then later appointed Durham as a special counsel to ensure that his criminal investigation could continue into the Biden administration. Once again, the nation is divided on the legitimacy of all of this.

The third challenge, exacerbating the first two, is that these investigations—the FBI investigation of the Trump campaign and transition, the Durham investigation, and the Hunter Biden investigation—extended (or will extend) into an administration of a different party. That means that what began as a cross-party investigation where the worry was bias against political opponents will transform, in the middle of the investigation, into an intraparty investigation, where the worry will shift to one party’s desire for self-protection.

I think the Durham investigation is misunderstood by all sides. Even according to Billy Barr, Durham has debunked some conspiracy theories Republicans have floated and he appears to have moved beyond the question of whether the CIA wrongly concluded that Putin wanted to elect Trump. That means if he were to write a report, it would substantially consist of telling the frothy right that their conspiracy theories were just that, and that George Papadopoulos really did entertain recruitment by at least one Russian agent.

That said, the Durham investigation has, unfortunately, been hopelessly biased by Billy Barr’s work in at least two ways. Durham apparently believes that the treatment of partisan bias at DOJ has been equally applied, which is demonstrably false (which also means he’s relying on witnesses who have themselves committed the sins he has used to predicate his own investigation, using FBI devices to speak for or against a political candidate). More troublingly, every single legal document his prosecutors have filed thus far have betrayed that they don’t understand the most basic things about the counterintelligence investigations they’re focusing on. But because of that ignorance, I’m fairly confident that if Durham tried to prosecute people for the theories that Bill Barr has been pushing while micromanaging this, Durham’s prosecutors would get their ass handed to them. Plus, even without Biden’s AG doing anything, I think there’s a possibility that Durham’s independence can be put to good use to investigate the crimes that Barr’s DOJ may have committed in pushing these theories. And there’s an easy way to solve the political nastiness of Barr’s special counsel appointment: by swapping Durham for Nora Dannehy. In short, freed from the micromanaging and mistaken beliefs of Bill Barr, Durham may evolve into a totally useful entity, one that will debunk a lot of the bullshit that the frothy right has been spewing for years.

In any case, the only reason it would be perceived as a cross-party investigation was the micromanagement of Barr. The FBI is not a member of either party, and if Durham finds real crimes — like that of Clinesmith — by all means he should prosecute. Once he is freed of Barr’s micromanagement, though, he may discover that he was given a very partial view of the evidence he was looking at.

Which brings me to Goldsmith’s treatment of whether or not Trump should be prosecuted. Before giving three reasons why one shouldn’t investigate Trump, he lays out what he sees as the potential crime this way:

Many people have argued that the Biden Justice Department should continue this pattern by examining the criminal acts Trump might have committed while in office—some arguing for a full-blown broad investigation, others (like my co-author, Bob Bauer, in “After Trump”) for a measured, narrowly tailored one. I don’t think this is a good idea. I doubt Trump has committed prosecutable crimes in office (I am confident that obstruction of justice prosecution would fail), I doubt he will ever go to jail if he did commit criminal acts in office (which would make the effort worse than useless), Trump will thrive off the attention of such an investigation, and the Biden administration will be damaged in pursuing other elements of its agenda (including restoration of the appearance of apolitical law enforcement). But the main reason I am skeptical is that such an investigation would, in the prevailing tit-for-tat culture, cement the inchoate norm of one administration as a matter of course criminally investigating the prior one—to the enormous detriment of the nation. (I do not believe that federal investigations for Trump’s pre-presidential actions raise the same risk.

There are two problems inherent with Goldsmith’s logic here, problems that virtually all the other people who engage in this debate also make.

First, he assumes that any prosecution of Trump would have to engage in further investigation. Here’s just one of several places where he makes that assumption clear.

The investigation by one administration of the predecessor president for acts committed in office would be a politically cataclysmic event.

Goldsmith doesn’t consider the possibility that such an investigation was begun under Mueller and continued under Bill Barr, waiting for such time as Trump can be charged under DOJ guidelines. It’s odd that he doesn’t consider that possibility, because Mueller laid that possibility out clearly in the report, describing leaving grand jury evidence banked for such time as Trump could be charged (indeed, it’s fairly clear a January 2019 Steve Bannon grand jury appearance included such evidence). If Bill Barr’s DOJ conducted an investigation that shows Trump committed a crime, it would break out of the tit-for-tat that Goldsmith complains about.

Goldsmith also appears to believe, even in spite of Trump’s transactionalism, that any crime Trump committed in office would have begun and ended during his term of office.

Part of these two errors appear to stem from another one. Goldsmith clearly believes the only crime for which Mueller investigated Trump is obstruction and he dismisses the possibility that an obstruction prosecution would stick. I’m agnostic about whether that view of obstruction is true or not. Even just reviewing how the Mueller Report treated the Roger Stone investigation, though, I’m certain there are places where the Mueller Report protected investigative equities. That may be true of the obstruction case as well. If so, then it would suggest the obstruction case might be far stronger than we know.

But it is false that Mueller only investigated Trump for obstruction. That’s because Trump may have entered into a conspiracy with his rat-fucker. In addition to investigating Roger Stone for covering up who his tie to Wikileaks was, Mueller also investigated Roger Stone for entering the CFAA conspiracy with Russia, a part of the investigation that recently declassified information as well as the warrants in the case make clear continued after the close of the Mueller investigation. Not only did Mueller ask Trump about his contacts with Stone on the specific issue for which the rat-fucker remained under investigation after Mueller closed up shop, but Mueller’s last warrants listed Stone’s written record of his communications with Trump during the campaign among the items to be seized in the search of Stone’s homes. If Stone entered into the CFAA conspiracy with Russia and those contacts show that Trump entered into an agreement with Stone on his part of the conspiracy, then Mueller was investigating Trump himself in the conspiracy. There is no way you target Stone’s records of communications with Trump unless Trump, too, was under investigation for joining that conspiracy.

I know I’m the only one saying this, but that’s in significant part because — as far as I know — I’m the single solitary journalist who has read these documents (plus, the unsealed language showing the investigation into Stone on the CFAA charges got buried in the election). But the record makes this quite clear: by investigating Roger Stone, Mueller also investigated Donald Trump for joining the CFAA conspiracy with Russia that helped him get elected. And because Mueller did not complete the investigation into Roger Stone before he closed up shop, he did not complete the investigation into Donald Trump.

And while I’m less certain, abundant evidence tells us what Stone and Trump’s role in the conspiracy may have been: to enter into a quid pro quo trading advance access to select John Podesta files (and, possibly, optimizing their release to cover up the DHS/ODNI Russian attribution statement) for a pardon for Julian Assange.

Stone did something in August 2016 to obtain advance copies of the Podesta files that the frothy right believed would be particularly beneficial in attacking Podesta and Hillary. Days before the Podesta file release in October 2016, Stone and Credico appear to have started talking about a pardon for Julian Assange. After the release of the Podesta files, Trump discussed reaching out to Assange with more people, including Mike Flynn. And no later than 7 days after the election — and given Credico’s refusal to give a straight answer about this, probably before — Stone set out on an extended effort to deliver on that pardon. And Trump took an overt act, as President, to try to deliver on that quid pro quo when he ordered Corey Lewandowski to tell Jeff Sessions to shut down any investigation into the hack-and-leak (which would have shut down the investigation into Assange’s role in it).

I have no idea whether DOJ obtained enough evidence to charge a former president in conspiring with a hostile foreign power to get elected. The investigation into Stone’s role in the conspiracy may have shut down when Barr’s intervention in Stone’s sentencing led all four prosecutors to drop from the case, so it’s possible that a Biden DOJ would need to resume that investigation (and finish it up before statutes of limitation tolled). Still, as of October 1, when DOJ withheld almost the entirety of two interviews with Margaret Kunstler to protect an ongoing investigation, that part of the investigation was ongoing. So if you want to consider the possible universe of Trump charges, this is the possibility you’d need to consider: that after Mueller shut down but before the end of Barr’s tenure, DOJ acquired enough evidence to prosecute Donald Trump once he becomes available to prosecute under DOJ rules.

I think there are other instances where Trump cheated to win in criminal fashion (even ignoring the hush payments for which he got named in Cohen’s charging documents). For example, Barr very obviously violated DOJ guidelines in his treatment of the whistleblower complaint about the Volodymyr Zelenskyy call, and with the evidence that OMB, State, and DOD withheld from the impeachment inquiry and witnesses subject to subpoena (indeed, at least some of whom will likely have no Fifth Amendment privileges after a pardon), the impeachment case is likely far stronger than Goldsmith imagines. Plus, there is an obvious tie to the SDNY investigation into Lev Parnas (where the whistleblower complaint would have been referred had Barr not violated DOJ guidelines). So on that case, it might be a question of Biden shutting down an ongoing investigation, not one of starting a new investigation.

Perhaps the most difficult and controversial decision for a Biden AG will be whether to reopen the investigation into the Egyptian payment Trump may have gotten in 2016 that kept his campaign afloat, one that SCOTUS reviewed (for the Mystery Appellant challenge) and sustained a subpoena for. Per CNN, DOJ doesn’t yet have enough to prosecute that, but that’s because DOJ chose not to subpoena Trump Organization for documents. And a Biden Administration could sanction the Egyptian bank to require it to cooperate in a way they refused to do under Mueller.

But those two instances can’t be shown via the public evidence. The overt act that Trump took in response to Roger Stone’s request — one Stone documented in a DM to Julian Assange — is public. Importantly, this would be a conspiracy that started before Trump got elected and extended into his presidency.

If you want to imagine whether Biden would prosecute Trump, you have to consider the possibility that he would prosecute Trump for crimes Bill Barr investigated.

Republicans Push to Punish Eric Swalwell because He Didn’t Sell Out the Country Like They Did

I’d like to tell a story about how six different men responded when law enforcement approached them about possible compromise by foreign spies.

Carter Page knowingly shares non-public information with known Russian spies

When Carter Page learned that he had been named in an indictment of Russian spies, he called up a Russian minister at the UN to tell him, in the spirit of openness, he was the guy identified as the recruiting target in the indictment. When the FBI interviewed him about his relationships with those foreign spies, Page admitted he had called the Russian minister, but explained that his relationship with the Russian intelligence officer was positive for him. He later explained that sharing non-public information with people he knew to be foreign spies helped both the US and Russia. Page enthusiastically took a trip to Moscow to give two speeches that — witnesses observed — normally featured far more prominent speakers than Page. Page came back from that trip bragging about the “open checkbook” he had been offered to start a pro-Russian think tank. When Page was asked a year later whether he could see why people thought he was being recruited, he disagreed and — according to an FBI 302 — backed off his prior admission to the FBI that he had reached out to the Russian minister.

For three years, the GOP has claimed that Carter Page is a maligned victim of FBI overreach.

George Papadopoulos refuses to explain the back channel meeting with Putin he tried to schedule

When the FBI first interviewed George Papadopoulos about the suspicious job offers Sergei Millian offered him — an offer to pay him so long as he also worked at the White House, asked how he learned in advance that the Russians had dirt on Hillary that they planned to release to help Trump get elected, and told him they thought he was being recruited, he lied. Among other things, Papadopoulos hid his entire relationship with one Russian national, Ivan Timofeev, whom he had interacted with. After the interview, Papadopoulos called Trump’s personal lawyer and told him of the interview. As others did, Papadopoulos crafted a false statement to share with Congress. In subsequent interviews, even after he agreed to cooperate, Papadopoulos hid the existence of a phone he used to interact with Joseph Mifsud. When asked about notes planning a back channel meeting with Putin’s people in London in September that ultimately didn’t happen, Papadopoulos claimed he couldn’t read his notes to explain the plans.

The GOP not only claimed that Papadopoulos was a maligned hero, the Attorney General of the United States assigned a US Attorney, in part, to fly around the world chasing Papadopoulos’ conspiracy theories in an attempt to substantiate his denials that these were Russian assets trying to cultivate Papadopoulos.

Mike Flynn gets a defensive briefing then hides his Turkish clients

Shortly after the FBI sat down with Donald Trump and Mike Flynn to warn them, generally, about how foreign intelligence services would increase their focus on the two and those around them, Mike Flynn went back to his business partner and the go-between with his Turkish clients, and adopted a new name for the project for Turkey — Confidence rather than Truth — and a payment vehicle that would hide the true client, attempting to sever the prior discussions directly with Turkey’s ministers from the half-million dollar deal that resulted.

Trump just pardoned Flynn for his efforts to hide those ties.

Rather than cooperating with the FBI about Flynn’s suspect Russian calls, Trump fires them

When DOJ came to the White House on January 26, 2017 and told White House counsel Don McGahn that Mike Flynn — seemingly without any approval from Donald Trump himself and clearly without notifying the Vice President — had called up the Ambassador from Russia and, in a conversation where the Ambassador was addressing other issues, raised sanctions imposed to punish Russia and asked the Ambassador not to respond in kind, and then lied about that publicly, McGahn assigned lawyer John Eisenberg to figure out whether Flynn could be prosecuted. Chief of Staff Reince Priebus tried to find out what kind of surveillance Flynn had been and was under. Trump first asked the head of the FBI for loyalty, then asked him to let the investigation of Flynn go, and then fired him to end the investigation.

Trump just pardoned Mike Flynn claiming that it was wrong for the FBI to try to figure out why Flynn had secretly undermined sanctions and then lied about it.

Trump calls Paul Manafort “very brave” for hiding details about his Russian intelligence officer partner

When the government entered into a cooperation agreement with Paul Manafort in 2018, in part to learn what Manafort knew about his business partner Konstantin Kilimnik’s ties to Russian intelligence, and particularly to learn why Manafort had swapped campaign polling data and the campaign’s strategy to win swing states with a discussion of carving up Ukraine and payoffs from Ukranian and Russian oligarchs, the President’s defense attorney remained in regular contact with Manafort’s lawyer to learn about the interrogations. After prosecutors told Judge Amy Berman Jackson on November 26 that Manafort had been lying rather than cooperating — in significant part, it would become clear, to protect his Russian spy business partner — Rudy complained on the President’s behalf about “the un-American, horrible treatment of Manafort.” Not long later, Trump would call Manafort “very brave” for (among other things) lying to prosecutors to protect his Russian spy business partner.

Eric Swalwell cooperates with the FBI and cuts off the Chinese intelligence officer trying to recruit him

According to a recent Axios piece witten without context, when the FBI approach Eric Swalwell and told him a woman volunteering with his campaign was a Chinese spy, he cooperated with the FBI and cut off all contact with her.

A statement from Swalwell’s office provided to Axios said: “Rep. Swalwell, long ago, provided information about this person — whom he met more than eight years ago, and whom he hasn’t seen in nearly six years — to the FBI. To protect information that might be classified, he will not participate in your story.”

What happened: Amid a widening counterintelligence probe, federal investigators became so alarmed by Fang’s behavior and activities that around 2015 they alerted Swalwell to their concerns — giving him what is known as a defensive briefing.

Swalwell immediately cut off all ties to Fang, according to a current U.S. intelligence official, and he has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

For this, GOP Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and others argue, Swalwell should be kicked off the House Intelligence Committee.

McCarthy, however, is demanding answers from Pelosi and Rep. Adam Schiff, chair of that committee, after Swalwell said they knew about the report.

“This is a national security threat,” McCarthy said. “Now we have Eric Swalwell, who’s been swindled by the Chinese, but what’s even more interesting here is why did he attack the American Director of Intelligence John Ratcliffe’s report talking about the expansion of China spying throughout … just last week. He attacked … Ratcliffe defending China.”

“This man should not be in the intel committee. He’s jeopardizing national security,” he doubled down, adding, “When did Nancy Pelosi know of this and why did she maintain him on the committee? Adam Schiff, who has spent four years as chair worried about the foreign intervention into our country, knowingly keep an individual on the committee, if he knew, as Swalwell says, that he was with a Chinese individual who was a spy, who helped him run for Congress?”

I can only assume that McCarthy thinks that Swalwell cooperated too much with the FBI and should have lied or fired people instead.

 

The Clinesmith Sentencing Memos: Politically Biased Data In, Politically Biased Data Out

The government and Kevin Clinesmith — the FBI lawyer who altered a document relating to the Carter Page FISA application — submitted their sentencing memos in his case yesterday. The sentencing guidelines call for 0 to 6 months of prison time (as they did for the now pardoned Mike Flynn). Clinesmith asked for probation. The government asked for a sentence in the middle to top of that range — effectively calling for 3 to 6 months of prison time.

I think the government has the better argument on a key point, for reasons that I expect will be very persuasive to the judge in the case, James Boasberg, who is also the presiding FISA judge. The government argues that Clinesmith’s actions undermined the integrity of the FISA process.

The defendant’s conduct also undermined the integrity of the FISA process and struck at the very core of what the FISC fundamentally relies on in reviewing FISA applications: the government’s duty of candor. The FISC serves as a “check on executive branch decisions to conduct surveillance in order to protect the fourth amendment rights of U.S. persons[,]” but it can “serve those purposes effectively only if the applicant agency fully and accurately provides information in its possession that is material to whether probable cases exists.” Order, In Re Accuracy Concerns Regarding FBI Matters Submitted to the FISC, Docket No. Misc. 19-02, at 2 (FISA Ct. Dec. 17, 2019) (internal quotations and citations omitted). Accordingly, and particularly because FISA applications involve ex parte proceedings with no adverse party on the other side to challenge the facts, the government “has a heightened duty of candor to the [FISC].” Id. (internal quotations and citations omitted). In other words, “[c]andor is fundamental to [the FISC’s] effective operation[.]” Id. (citation omitted).

While I think the government’s case on Clinesmith’s understanding of the term “source” is not persuasive, this language is. It matters that Clinesmith did this within the context of the FISA process. Boasberg has a real incentive to ensure that those preparing FISA applications do think of Clinesmith as an object lesson about the duty of candor. I expect he’ll agree with the government and impose some prison term.

That said, the government sentencing memo goes off the rails on another point, one that badly discredits the John Durham investigation.

Both the government and Clinesmith provide the same explanation for why he did what he did: it was a shortcut to avoid filing a footnote with the FISA court.

Clinesmith explains it this way:

Kevin, however, reviewed the OGA email and realized that it did not specifically address the issue of whether Individual #1 had been a source. In a misguided attempt to save himself time and the embarrassment of having to backtrack on his assurance he had it in writing, Kevin forwarded the OGA’s response to the SSA (including the list of OGA reports) immediately after telling the SSA he would do so, but Kevin added the phrase notated in bold to reflect his understanding of Individual #1’s status:

[The OGA uses] the [digraph] to show that the encrypted individual . . . is a [U.S. person]. We encrypt the [U.S. persons] when they provide reporting to us. My recollection is that [Individual #1] was or is . . . [digraph] and not a “source” but the [documents] will explain the details.

OIG Report at 254-55.

And the government endorses that explanation in its sentencing memo (in language that further reinforces why Clinesmith should be treated sternly to preserve the integrity of the FISA process).

By his own words, however, it appears that the defendant falsified the email in order to conceal Individual #1’s former status as a source and to avoid making an embarrassing disclosure to the FISC. Such a disclosure would have likely drawn a strong and hostile response from the FISC for not disclosing it sooner since the FBI had the information in its possession before the first FISA application was filed. Indeed, in the June 19, 2017 instant message conversation with the SSA, the defendant wrote “at least we don’t have to have a terrible footnote” explaining that Individual #1 was a source. OIG Report at 253. While the defendant told OIG he was referring to how “laborious” it would be to draft a footnote explaining that Individual #1 had been an OGA source, see id., that reading is self-serving and absurd. Moreover, as a practical matter, how laborious would it have been to draft a single footnote to explain to the FISC that Individual #1 had been a source for the OGA. The SSA involved in the application understood the defendant to be referring to the terrible optic of just now, in the fourth application, disclosing to the Court that Individual #1 had been a source for another agency after failing to do so in all of the prior applications. See id. Such a disclosure would have undermined the probable cause in the FISA application and the overall investigation of Individual #1, which the defendant was able to avoid by altering the email.

That’s it. At that point, both sides have explained what happened as the kind of bureaucratic sloppiness that can be particularly dangerous where there’s no transparency. Case closed. Clinesmith may not have meant this maliciously but because it happened as part of the FISA process it was very problematic.

Except the government continues by suggesting, without evidence, that Clinesmith did what he did out of political bias.

The public record also reflects that political or personal bias may have motivated or contributed to his offense conduct. As noted in the OIG Report and PSR, the defendant was previously investigated, and ultimately suspended, for sending improper political messages to other FBI employees. See OIG Report at 256 n.400. For example, on the day after the 2016 presidential election, the defendant wrote “I am so stressed about what I could have done differently.” Id. When another FBI colleague asked the defendant “[i]s it making you rethink your commitment to the Trump administration[,]” the defendant replied, “Hell no,” and then added “Viva le resistance.” Id. The defendant was referred to the Office of Professional Responsibility for investigation for these and other related messages, and in July 2018 he was suspended, without pay, for 14 days. The defendant’s prior disciplinary infraction for expressing his political views in a work setting is a relevant aspect of his background. Indeed, it is plausible that his strong political views and/or personal dislike of the current President made him more willing to engage in the fraudulent and unethical conduct to which he has pled guilty. While it is impossible to know with certainty how those views may have affected his offense conduct, the defendant plainly has shown that he did not discharge his important responsibilities at the FBI with the professionalism, integrity, and objectivity required of such a sensitive job position. [my emphasis]

There are several reasons why this argument is not only problematic, but betrays an unbelievable stupidity about the investigation before Durham.

First, as prosecutors admit, they have no evidence that Clinesmith’s claimed bias influenced his actions. The bias “may have motivated” him, “it is plausible” that it did, “it is impossible to know with certainty how those views may have affected his offense conduct.” This kind of language has no place in a sentencing memo. They’re effectively admitting they have no evidence, but relying on their lack of evidence anyway. It’s the kind of shoddy unethical work they’re trying to send Clinesmith to prison for.

Worse still, as Lawfare has shown, the data the government is relying on here comes from a politically biased application of discipline within DOJ. Since 2011, the only cases of people being disciplined for expressing political views on their government devices involved people opposing Trump.

Five employees, the documents show, have been disciplined for private communications using government devices in which they have criticized President Trump. But none, at least not since 2011, has been disciplined for similar conduct with respect to presidential candidates Hillary Clinton or Mitt Romney, or President Barack Obama—or for praising Trump.

[snip]

The verdict is now in, at least for the past four major-party presidential candidates, one of whom served as president of the United States for eight full years. FBI employees who voiced political sentiments in favor of or opposed to Clinton, Obama and Romney did not face consequences—nor did those who praised Trump. Those who criticize the current president appear to be the only people subject to discipline.

Lawfare raises the example of an FBI agent who — unlike Clinesmith, Lisa Page, or Peter Strzok — was running informants targeting Hillary in the Clinton Foundation investigation during the campaign who expressed clear bias. That person — clearly identified as biased by the same Inspector General who identified Clinesmith’s bias — wasn’t disciplined. And there are reports that a key witness in the Durham probe, Bill Barnett, similarly expressed pro-Trump bias on his devices. No one has done an IG Report into whether Barnett’s self-described role in single-handedly preventing the Mueller team from concluding that Mike Flynn lied to protect President Trump reflected improper political bias, much less sent him home for two weeks without pay. You can’t treat OPR’s treatment of biased FBI employees as valid for sentencing because it has already been demonstrated to be itself biased in the same way it treats as discipline-worthy.

Most importantly, you’d have to be fucking stupid to believe that supporting the FISA application of Carter Page in June 2017 would inherently reflect any anti-Trump bias. Even on the first application, the claim that targeting Page would be a way to hurt Trump was a bit of a stretch. At that point, the Trump campaign had very publicly distanced themselves from him because of his embarrassing ties to Russia. Thus, if the FBI treated Trump’s public statements with any weight, then they would be right to view Trump as victimized by Page, someone pushing his pro-Russian views far beyond what the candidate supported, someone removed from the campaign for precisely that reason. That’s one of the potential problems arising from a suspected foreign agent working on a campaign, that the person will make policy commitments that the candidate doesn’t support on behalf of the foreign country in question. Still, you might argue (and Bill Barr has argued) that the FBI targeted Page as a way to collect campaign emails, so one might make some claim to support the case that by targeting Page the FBI was targeting Trump with the October 2016 application.

But Clinesmith wasn’t in the loop on the non-disclosure of Page’s ties with CIA on that first application.

Kevin was not aware of that information, however. When he assisted the FBI’s efforts to obtain the initial FISA warrant, Kevin knew of no prior relationship between Individual #1 and the OGA. And he was not involved in any discussions—including the one discussed above between the case agent and DOJ attorney—concerning whether or not to include information about that relationship in the FISA application. As was typical, the DOJ attorney worked primarily with the case agent to collect and develop information for the FISA application. The first time Kevin was asked to inquire into whether, and to what extent, Individual #1 had a relationship with the OGA was in connection with the fourth and final application.

To suggest that someone would target Page in June 2017 because of anti-Trump bias, though, takes gigantic flights of fancy. Already in October 2016, it was clear that Page (like every other person originally targeted under Crossfire Hurricane) was using Trump, attempting to monetize his access to Trump to get a plush deal to start a think tank that, in his case, would have been funded by the Russian government. Page boasted to Stefan Halper the Russians had offered him an “open checkbook.”

But even before the first renewal in January 2017, Page had victimized Trump in the way that is dangerous for counterintelligence cases. When he was in Russia in December 2016 — at a time when he was still hoping to get a think tank funded by the Russian government — Page claimed to speak on behalf of Trump with respect to Ukraine policy.

According to Konstantin Kilimnik, Paul Manafort’s associate, Page also gave some individuals in Russia the impression that he had maintained his connections to President-Elect Trump. In a December 8, 2016 email intended for Manafort, Kilimnik wrote, “Carter Page is in Moscow today, sending messages he is authorized to talk to Russia on behalf of DJT on a range of issues of mutual interest including Ukraine.”

There’s no record that Page made those representations with the approval of Trump. As such, Page’s representations risked undermining Trump’s ability to set his own foreign policy, whatever it was.

By June, moreover, Page had been totally marginalized by Trump’s people. The fourth warrant served significantly to obtain encrypted content from a phone Page had destroyed when he came under investigation. Tactically, there’s almost no way that that application would have generated new content involving Trump’s people because they were no longer talking to Page. So there’d be no political advantage to targeting him, neither based on the potential content the FBI might collect nor on any political taint from a guy the campaign had loudly dissociated from nine months earlier. Indeed, if your goal was to paint Trump as a pro-Russian asset, focusing on Page — the guy Trump himself had distanced himself from — is the last thing you’d do in June 2017. It’s just a profoundly stupid attack from Durham’s prosecutors, one with no basis in logic or (as the prosecutors admit) evidence.

In short, not only does the gratuitous, evidence-free insinuation that Clinesmith did what he did out of political bias misrepresent the biased quality of the targeting of those OPR investigations, but it fundamentally misunderstands why the FBI would investigate the infiltration of a campaign by a suspected foreign agent. Someone infiltrating Trump’s campaign on behalf of Russia could and — in Page’s misrepresentations in Moscow in December 2016 — did harm Trump. That’s a harm the FBI is paid to try to prevent. Here, prosecutors are trying to criminalize Clinesmith’s efforts to protect Trump from that kind of damage.

After making it clear in his first official filings that Durham’s team didn’t understand the investigation they were investigating, in this one, his prosecutors make it crystal clear they don’t understand how, if an agent of a foreign power were to hypothetically infiltrate a political campaign (which is what the FBI had good reason to believe in October 2016 and more evidence to believe by December 2016), it could be damaging to the campaign and to the President and to the country. That’s not just dangerous malpractice given their involvement in this case, but it betrays a really basic level of stupidity about how the world works.

The government is right that Clinesmith’s alteration of a document should be treated aggressively given that it occurred as part of the FISA process. But oh my goodness has the government discredited both this sentencing filing and the larger Durham investigation by betraying continued ignorance about the investigation, the politicized nature of the evidence they’re getting, and basic facts about counterintelligence investigations.

The Investigations into the Russian Investigation Have Lasted 69% Longer than the Russian Investigation Itself

The AP just broke the news that Bill Barr made John Durham a Special Counsel back in October so Durham can continue to investigate the Russian investigation after Joe Biden becomes President. Given the indications that Billy Barr had closed down the remaining aspects of the Russian investigation by September 18, and that Jeffrey Jensen closed his investigation by October 22, here are the presumed dates of the Russian investigation and some of the known investigations into the Russian investigation.

The investigations into the Russian investigation, combined, have lasted 2557 days. And this is not an inclusive list (for example, it doesn’t include John Bash’s investigation into the unmasking of Trump officials, which found no wrongdoing).

Even without all the investigations included, the investigations into the Russian investigation have, thus far, lasted 69% longer than the investigation itself.

And it’s still going.

 

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

The Frothy Right Proves Trump Buried 7 Details of Russian Outreach by Wailing about Carter Page

The other day, the government released a spreadsheet that the FBI used to validate the Steele dossier.

The spreadsheet shows that, if the Steele dossier included disinformation, the disinformation was really well crafted, because the disinformation was close enough to the truth to make known events — like Paul Manafort’s expanding corruption scandal — appear to confirm the dossier.

It also shows that when John Solomon claimed, in 2019, that the spreadsheet “was a sea of blanks,” he was wrong.

Multiple sources familiar with the FBI spreadsheet tell me the vast majority of Steele’s claims were deemed to be wrong, or could not be corroborated even with the most awesome tools available to the U.S. intelligence community. One source estimated the spreadsheet found upward of 90 percent of the dossier’s claims to be either wrong, nonverifiable or open-source intelligence found with a Google search.

In other words, it was mostly useless.

“The spreadsheet was a sea of blanks, meaning most claims couldn’t be corroborated, and those things that were found in classified intelligence suggested Steele’s intelligence was partly or totally inaccurate on several claims,” one source told me.

Given the redactions, it is unclear whether the redacted material affirmatively disproves claims from the dossier or provides partial corroboration. Since I’ve argued the dossier was problematic for longer than even the frothers, I don’t have a stake in that. But the spreadsheet in no way was full of blanks. There are relatively few blank entries in the spreadsheet.

Which means, if it was disinformation, it succeeded in wasting a lot of the FBI’s time.

But a potentially more important detail from the spreadsheet is that it shows the Carter Page FISA collection was useful in testing the dossier’s claims. Probably, given other soft corroboration and Igor Danchenko’s claims to have two independent sources backing the claim, the FISA collection produced evidence that made it harder to rule out a meeting between Igor Sechin and Page (which is what the Mueller Report ultimately concluded, that they couldn’t rule it out; 302s show there was time in Page’s schedule he didn’t account for).

And Trump has succeeded in burying that useful intelligence, even the intelligence collected during a period when — the bipartisan SSCI Report concluded — the FISA application targeting Page was appropriate.

In September, the FISA Court unsealed an opinion explaining its decision to sequester the intelligence collected under the Carter Page orders. The order reveals that, when the Court asked whether it should treat the first two applications targeting Page the same way it would treat the two for which DOJ had withdrawn probable cause determination, DOJ declined to do so.

In fact, in response to the Conrt’s directive to explain why retaining the Page FISA information “in the manner intended by the government, and any contemplated use or disclosure of it,” comport with§§ 1809(a)(2) and 1827(a)(2), Jan. 7, 2020, Order at 2, the government declined to argue, even alternatively, that those provisions do not apply ( or apply differently) to information obtained under the first two dockets. See Feb. 5, 2020, Resp. at 28-29. Under the circumstances, the Court will assume that§§ l 809(a)(2) and l 827(a)(2) apply to information acquired under color of the first and second dockets just as, per the government’s admission, they apply to information acquired under color of the third and fourth.

This had the result that, even though DOJ itself did not withdraw its probable cause determination, and even though a bipartisan committee at SSCI believed the initial applications were merited, all four applications targeting Page would be treated as if the applications were improper.

DOJ did not tell the FISC that it was (and probably still is) criminally investigating several people involved in these applications, meaning the FISC opinion sequestering case file information would be make necessary source information unavailable for anyone targeted in that investigation to show that the applications were reasonable.

That may have been part of the point.

And the Steele dossier spreadsheet shows in tangible form that useful information — whether it corroborated suspicions against Page or disproved them — has been sealed permanently as a result. The spreadsheet redacts information on the following topics because of FISC’s decision to sequester everything collected under the Page applications:

I get why the FISC would want to rule aggressively to protect Carter Page’s privacy, and I’m fine with the decision.

But this intelligence seems like it would be really useful to understanding the Russian operation, even if Page was targeted by Russian disinformation. Indeed, this intelligence would be really important to understand the nature of the disinformation Russia fed the US.

The decision by Trump’s DOJ not to stand by its earlier decision that the first two applications were appropriate had the effect, then, of burying intelligence on Trump and the Russian operation.

Which was likely part of the point.