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

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

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

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

[snip]

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

That much I can agree with him on.

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

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

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

Let’s unpack this passage closely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Grassley-Feinstein Dispute

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

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

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

Whitehouse And related documents, yes. The package.

Bharara: And you’ve gone to read them?

Whitehouse: I’ve gone to read them.

Bharara: You didn’t send Trey Gowdy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did Christopher Steele lie?

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

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

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

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

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

Did Christopher Steele lie to the FBI?

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

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

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

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

1023s are Confidential Human Source reports.

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

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

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

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

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

[snip]

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

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

Does it harm the viability of the FISA application?

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

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

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

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

[snip]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about the Michael Isikoff reference?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s do some math.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does this matter at all to the Mueller inquiry?

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

George Papadopoulos’ Social Media Call Records Were Not Subpoenaed Until After His Interviews

I’ve been tracking questions about how aggressively (or not) the FBI investigated George Papadopoulos after receiving a tip, in July 2016, that he had heard the Russians bragging about having dirt in the form of emails from Hillary Clinton in April 2016. In this post, I showed that, given that they didn’t know about Ivan Timofeev until after his interviews, they could not even have started pursuing a warrant until after the first interview, at best (and didn’t know about the existence communications over a Section 702 provider with Timofeev until after both). In this post, I suggested that it looked like the FBI first obtained a preservation order for the device GSA had on him on March 9, 21 days after his second interview.

Since then two details have come out. First, this Peter Strzok/Lisa Page SMS text highlighted by Matt Tait suggests that as late as June 6, 2017, the Special Counsel’s office was still debating whether searching Section 702 presented a litigation risk (meaning Trump’s buddies are getting far more protection than the rest of us might be).

Then there’s a point that Eric Swalwell made in Monday’s hearing debating whether or not to reveal the Schiff memo. In response to Michael Turner’s suggestion that there was no evidence of “collusion” between Trump and Russia, Swalwell pointed out that only after the FBI challenged Trump aide claims did the Bureau find evidence to support a conspiracy.

George Papadopoulos I think is the canary in the coal mine. He was interviewed January 27, 2017, by FBI. He lied about his contacts over in London with the professor. He was interviewed again in February, and he lied. Only when the FBI showed the willingness to subpoena his Skype and Facebook logs did he come around 6 months later.

This makes it clear that the FBI had not even obtained call records from Papadopoulos (via an NSL or a subpoena) before the second interview, the standard for which is really low.

Again, this shows that, at least during that phase of the investigation, the FBI was moving very conservatively. The GOP keep complaining that Carter Page, who had been a suspected foreign agent for years, was targeted under FISA. But they’re not acknowledging that the FBI appears to have treated the other Trump aides with kid gloves. for nine months after the period when they obtained a real tip about their involvement.

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

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

How the White House’s Tolerance for Wife-Beaters Exposed That It Was Harboring Counterintelligence Threats

There are a lot of important lessons about the White House’s protection and promotion of Rob Porter even after the FBI informed the White House about his serial wife beating: about White House’s tolerance for conflicts, about John Kelly’s overblown competence. If you haven’t read Dahlia Lithwick’s piece on what it says about society’s response to domestic abuse more generally, absolutely do.

There are also multiple theories about how this all came to light, whether the recent girlfriend who learned of the abuse after talking to the ex-wives about Porter’s philandering made it happen, or whether the FBI did so in the wake of White House involvement in the Devin Nunes saga.

Whatever the answers to those issues, it’s now clear what just or is about to happen.

Last night, the WaPo answered a question that should have been answered at yesterday’s presser. There are dozens of people working in the White House who, like Porter, have not yet received clearance. Starting with the son-in-law that has been remapping the world while under active counterintelligence investigation for shaping policy in a way that may stave off familial bankruptcy.

Dozens of White House employees are awaiting permanent security clearances and have been working for months with temporary approvals to handle sensitive information while the FBI continues to probe their backgrounds, according to U.S. officials.

People familiar with the security-clearance process said one of those White House officials with an interim approval is Jared Kushner — the president’s son-in-law and one of his most influential advisers.

Then Politico provided the other, even more critical piece of this puzzle: FBI already told the White House that Porter and others would not get security clearance. And there are witnesses that Kelly knew about these multiple White House aides and thought they should be fired.

White House chief of staff John Kelly was told several weeks ago that the FBI would deny full security clearances to multiple White House aides who had been working in the West Wing on interim security clearances.

Those aides, according to a senior administration official, included former White House staff secretary Rob Porter, who left the White House on Thursday after reports that he physically and verbally abused his two ex-wives.

The White House chief-of-staff told confidants in recent weeks that he had decided to fire anyone who had been denied a clearance — but had yet to act on that plan before the Porter allegations were first reported this week.

I figure around about noon we’ll learn Jared was one of the others.

Remember: according to Supreme Court precedent, the President has final authority on matters of clearance. So if Trump wants to override the FBI’s determination, he can. Which he might get away with so long as it remained secret, so long as the press didn’t know that a bunch of people were working with the country’s most sensitive information even though the FBI had told the White House it was a very bad idea to let them. And know which ones they were.

But whether through the coincidental timing of a bunch of women refusing to let a serial abuser go on with his life or through orchestration by the Bureau or both, any effort to keep secret that the White House was delaying the obvious counterintelligence choice or even perhaps planning to defy the FBI about it is in the process of being exposed.

Trump is reportedly consulting now with two of the most likely counterintelligence problems, Jared and (on her own right, because of her own dodgy business deals) Ivanka, on a staff shake-up to try to make this problem go away.

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

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

In Defense of Suspected Russian Agent Carter Page, Michael Mukasey Just Gave Defense Attorneys a Big Gift

In my post laying out the damage the Nunes memo might have caused, I predicted that defense attorneys would use the release of the memo — and the language Don McGahn used to claim its release served a public interest — to support their arguments that defendants should get to review the underlying application for a FISA warrant.

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

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

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

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

Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, fresh off trying to broker the release of sanctions violator Reza Zarrab, just gave defense attorneys another big gift.

In a WSJ op-ed that ignores all the holes in the Nunes memo and pretends two guilty pleas about lies about negotiations with Russians have nothing to do with an investigation into “collusion” with Russians, he says that Carter Page’s FISA application should be made public so we can figure out whether DOJ misled the FISA Court.

I believe that at a minimum, the public should get access to a carefully redacted copy of the FISA application and renewals, so we can see whether officials behaved unlawfully by misleading a court;

Remember: when defendants who’ve gotten FISA notice ask to see their own applications to see whether “officials behaved unlawfully by misleading a court,” one thing the government has to do to keep the application secret is submit a declaration from the Attorney General saying that FISA applications are so sensitive they can never be shared with defendants. In the declaration Eric Holder submitted in the Gartenlaub case, for example, he claimed,

Based on the facts and considerations set forth below, I hereby claim that it would harm the national security of the United States to disclose or hold an adversary hearing with respect to the FISA Materials.

[snip]

I certify that the unauthorized disclosure of the FISA Materials that are classified at the “TOP SECRET” level could reasonably be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security of the United States. I further certify that the unauthorized disclosure of the FISA materials that are classified at the “SECRET” level could be expected to cause serious damage to the national security of the United States. The FISA Materials contain sensitive and classified information concerning United States intelligence sources and methods and other information related to efforts of the United States to conduct national security investigations, including the manner and means by which those investigations are conducted. As a result, the unauthorized disclosure of the information could harm the national security interests of the United States.

I’m sure Holder was using boilerplate that Mukasey himself used, when he submitted similar declarations to courts.

Remember, Gartenlaub is awaiting a ruling from the Ninth Circuit on whether he should be able to access his FISA application to see whether officials misled the FISA Court. The government has been claiming over and over that accessing his FISA application to do so would be too dangerous.

And yet, here we have one of the most hawkish Attorneys General in recent history telling the world that even the public release of FISA applications to do just that would be useful.

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

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

Nunes Is So Dumb He Missed the Most Likely Way the Trump Campaign Might Have Been Wiretapped

Devin Nunes is so bad at his job overseeing the nation’s intelligence agencies that his memo alleging FISA abuses failed to mention the one way he might have legitimately argued that the Deep State was spying on the Trump campaign.

The memo, released Friday after a week of political drama, purports to show that the process by which the FBI applied for four individualized FISA orders targeting former Trump foreign policy advisor Carter Page, spanning from October 2016 through July 2017, failed to adequately explain to the court that the application included information obtained as part of paid opposition research. On that claim, the memo falls short of making the case. So too does Nunes’ claim that “top officials used unverified information [from the Title I warrants] to fuel a counter-intelligence investigation during an American political campaign,” since Carter Page had been gone from the Trump campaign for a month before he was targeted.

But the memo only deals with the request for traditional “probable cause” FISA orders approved by the FISA Court. The memo even says this surveillance at issue was “not under Title VII,” probably an effort to distinguish this surveillance practice, which Nunes claims is being abused, from collection under FISA’s Section 702, which is even more problematic from a privacy standpoint. Nunes wrote the bill that reauthorized Section 702 two weeks ago, a bill that included no reforms to the practice that allows the government to access the communications of Americans against whom the FBI has no evidence of wrong-doing without a warrant. That is, Nunes wants to make sure you know that only the FISA practice that actually requires probable cause is at issue in his claims of FISA abuse, not the practice that permits warrantless surveillance of Americans that he championed a few weeks ago.

The thing is, Nunes is probably wrong that the surveillance of Carter Page doesn’t involve any of the authorities he recently pushed through. That’s because, along with Section 702, Nunes’ bill extending FISA’s Title VII also reauthorized a section, 705(b), which the government uses to spy on Americans already under surveillance, like Carter Page, during the periods when they travel overseas.

Carter Page traveled to Russia and London in December 2016 and Abu Dhabi in January 2017; he told the House Intelligence Committee he met with a slew of interesting foreigners along the way. It would be malpractice for the government to halt surveillance on someone it suspected of spying for Russia when he went to Russia.

So assuming the NSA kept spying on Page when he was meeting with the Russians they suspected him of conspiring with while he was in Russia, then the government would have switched to 705(b) authority. That permits the NSA to use the different kinds of surveillance tools, more powerful tools like hacking someone’s computer or querying data collected in bulk, that it uses overseas, drawing from more kinds of collection.

The thing is, that kind of individualized overseas surveillance — far more than the domestic individual surveillance at issue in the memo — has been a problem in recent years. Indeed, in the months before the government obtained its first FISA order on Carter Page, the NSA’s Inspector General found that in the 8 years since Congress had passed 705(b), NSA had never set up a system to track surveillance conducted under it. Of particular concern, analysts were conducting surveillance under the authority outside the time frame permitted under the 705(b) order, meaning that analysts might collect data from a period before the 705(b) order, or even before the traditional FISA order underlying it, had been approved. Or, NSA might forget to turn off their hacking sensor in Page’s laptop or smart phone even after he returned to the US. By using overseas spying methods outside the time period when the person was overseas, then, NSA might have gotten what amounts to a time machine, letting the government (perhaps unknowingly) obtain stored communications from the period when Page was still working with the Trump campaign.

The discovery, in early 2016, that NSA hadn’t been following the rules for the kind of spying that would have been used with Page while he was in Russia led to a string of other discoveries, which in turn led to the termination of one kind of NSA spying, called “about” collection. But the process of fixing 705(b) and “about” collection continued well into the period when Page was under FISA surveillance, including the times when he was traveling overseas.

All that said, if the government obtained information from outside the time of Carter Page’s travels overseas improperly, Trump has only Trump to blame. That’s because, even after they did fix the problems with the program in April 2017, the Trump Administration didn’t do what the Obama Administration before it had done on numerous occasions: get rid of any data obtained improperly under such conditions. So while the underlying problems with 705(b) were never fixed under the Obama Administration (which is absolutely something that should be laid at his feet) Jeff Sessions and Dan Coats would be responsible for any lasting harm under the problems. The Trump Administration’s deviation from past practice in destroying improperly obtained data would be responsible for any harm to Trump.

Ultimately, Nunes’ failure to consider for his politicized memo the one FISA practice most likely to have affected Carter Page identifies the real source of any problems with FISA: a failure of oversight, including from people like Devin Nunes. With the Title VII reauthorization bill he authored, Nunes might have ensured some follow-up to make sure known overseas spying problems were fixed. He might have required the government to make sure it destroyed any data on the Trump campaign it collected while Page was overseas.

Instead, Nunes seems completely unaware that such problems existed.

 

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

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

Asha Rangappa Demands Progressive Left Drop Bad Faith Beliefs in Op-Ed Riddled with Errors Demonstrating [FBI’s] Bad Faith

It’s my fault, apparently, that surveillance booster Devin Nunes attacked the FBI this week as part of a ploy to help Donald Trump quash the investigation into Russian involvement in his election victory. That, at least, is the claim offered by the normally rigorous Asha Rangappa in a NYT op-ed.

It’s progressive left privacy defenders like me who are to blame for Nunes’ hoax, according to Rangappa, because — she claims — “the progressive narrative” assumes the people who participate in the FISA process, people like her and her former colleagues at the FBI and the FISA judges, operate in bad faith.

But those on the left denouncing its release should realize that it was progressive and privacy advocates over the past several decades who laid the groundwork for the Nunes memo — not Republicans. That’s because the progressive narrative has focused on an assumption of bad faith on the part of the people who participate in the FISA process, not the process itself.

And then, Ragappa proceeds to roll out a bad faith “narrative” chock full of egregious errors that might lead informed readers to suspect FBI Agents operate in bad faith, drawing conclusions without doing even the most basic investigation to test her pre-conceived narrative.

Rangappa betrays from the very start that she doesn’t know the least bit about what she’s talking about. Throughout, for example, she assumes there’s a partisan split on surveillance skepticism: the progressive left fighting excessive surveillance, and a monolithic Republican party that, up until Devin Nunes’ stunt, “has never meaningfully objected” to FISA until now. As others noted to Rangappa on Twitter, the authoritarian right has objected to FISA from the start, even in the period Rangappa used what she claims was a well-ordered FISA process. That’s when Republican lawyer David Addington was boasting about using terrorist attacks as an excuse to end or bypass the regime. “We’re one bomb away from getting rid of that obnoxious [FISA] court.”

I’m more peeved, however, that Rangappa is utterly unaware that for over a decade, the libertarian right and the progressive left she demonizes have worked together to try to rein in the most dangerous kinds of surveillance. There’s even a Congressional caucus, the Fourth Amendment Caucus, where Republicans like Ted Poe, Justin Amash, and Tom Massie work with Rangappa’s loathed progressive left on reform. Amash, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul, among others, even have their name on legislative attempts to reform surveillance, partnering up with progressives like Zoe Lofgren, John Conyers, Patrick Leahy, and Ron Wyden. This has become an institutionalized coalition that someone with the most basic investigative skills ought to be able to discover.

Since Rangappa has not discovered that coalition, however, it is perhaps unsurprising she has absolutely no clue what the coalition has been doing.

In criticizing the FISA process, the left has not focused so much on fixing procedural loopholes that officials in the executive branch might exploit to maximize their legal authority. Progressives are not asking courts to raise the probable cause standard, or petitioning Congress to add more reporting requirements for the F.B.I.

Again, there are easily discoverable bills and even some laws that show the fruits of progressive left and libertarian right efforts to do just these things. In 2008, the Democrats mandated a multi-agency Inspector General on Addington’s attempt to blow up FISA, the Stellar Wind program. Progressive Pat Leahy has repeatedly mandated other Inspector General reports, which forced the disclosure of FBI’s abusive exigent letter program and that FBI flouted legal mandates regarding Section 215 for seven years (among other things). In 2011, Ron Wyden started his thus far unsuccessful attempt to require the government to disclose how many Americans are affected by Section 702. In 2013, progressive left and libertarian right Senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee tried to get the Intelligence Community Inspector General to review how the multiple parts of the government’s surveillance fit together, to no avail.

Rangappa’s apparent ignorance of this legislative history is all the more remarkable regarding the last several surveillance fights in Congress, USA Freedom Act and this year’s FISA Amendments Act reauthorization (the latter of which she has written repeatedly on). In both fights, the bipartisan privacy coalition fought for — but failed — to force the FBI to comply with the same kind of reporting requirements that the bill imposed on the NSA and CIA, the kind of reporting requirements Rangappa wishes the progressive left would demand. When a left-right coalition in the House Judiciary Committee tried again this year, the FBI stopped negotiating with HJC’s staffers, and instead negotiated exclusively with Devin Nunes and staffers from HPSCI.

With USAF, however, the privacy coalition did succeed in a few reforms (including those reporting requirements for NSA and CIA). Significantly, USAF included language requiring the FISA Court to either include an amicus for issues that present “a novel or significant interpretation of the law,” or explain why it did not. That’s a provision that attempts to fix the “procedural loophole” of having no adversary in the secret court, though it’s a provision of law the current presiding FISC judge, Rosemary Collyer, blew off in last year’s 702 reauthorization. (Note, as I’ve said repeatedly, I don’t think Collyer’s scofflaw behavior is representative of what FISC judges normally do, and so would not argue her disdain for the law feeds a “progressive narrative” that all people involved in the FISA process operated in bad faith.)

Another thing the progressive left and libertarian right won in USAF is new reporting requirements on FISA-related approvals for FISC, to parallel those DOJ must provide. Which brings me to Rangappa’s most hilarious error in an error-ridden piece (it’s an error made by multiple civil libertarians earlier in the week, which I corrected on Twitter, but Rangappa appears to mute me so wouldn’t have seen it).

To defend her claim that the FISC judge who approved the surveillance of Carter Page was operating, if anything, with more rigor than in past years, Rangappa points to EPIC’s tracker of FISA approvals and declares that the 2016 court rejected the highest number of applications in history.

We don’t know whether the memo’s allegations of abuse can be verified. It’s worth noting, however, that Barack Obama’s final year in office saw the highest number of rejected and modified FISA applications in history. This suggests that FISA applications in 2016 received more scrutiny than ever before.

Here’s why this is a belly-laughing error. As noted, USAF required the FISA Court, for the first time, to release its own record of approving applications. It released a partial report (for the period following passage of USAF) covering 2015, and its first full report for 2016. The FISC uses a dramatically different (and more useful) counting method than DOJ, because it counts what happens to any application submitted in preliminary form, whereas DOJ only counts applications submitted in final form. Here’s how the numbers for 2016 compare.

Rangappa relies on EPIC’s count, which for 2016 not only includes an error in the granted number, but adopts the AOUSC counting method just for 2016, making the methodology of its report invalid (it does have a footnote that explains the new AOUSC numbers, but not why it chose to use that number rather than the DOJ one or at least show both).

Using the only valid methodology for comparison with past years, DOJ’s intentionally misleading number, FISC rejected zero applications, which is consistent or worse than other years.

It’s not the error that’s the most amusing part, though. It’s that, to make the FISC look good, she relies on data made available, in significant part, via the efforts of a bipartisan coalition that she claims consists exclusively of lefties doing nothing but demonizing the FISA process.

If anyone has permitted a pre-existing narrative to get in the way of understanding the reality of how FISA currently functions, it’s Rangappa, not her invented progressive left.

Let me be clear. In spite of Rangappa’s invocation (both in the body of her piece and in her biography) of her membership in the FBI tribe, I don’t take her adherence to her chosen narrative in defiance of facts that she made little effort to actually learn to be representative of all FBI Agents (which is why I bracketed FBI in my title). That would be unfair to a lot of really hard-working Agents. But I can think of a goodly number of cases, some quite important, where that has happened, where Agents chased a certain set of leads more vigorously because they fit their preconceptions about who might be a culprit.

That is precisely what has happened here. A culprit, Devin Nunes — the same guy who helped the FBI dodge reporting requirements Rangappa thinks the progressive left should but is not demanding — demonized the FISA process by obscuring what really happens. And rather than holding that culprit responsible, Rangappa has invented some other bad guy to blame. All while complaining that people ever criticize her FBI tribe.

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

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

The Harm Releasing the Nunes Memo Caused

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The memo provides other details about the investigation, too.

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

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

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

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

Makes it more likely defendants will get FISA review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Under Cover of the Nunes Memo, Russian Spooks Sneak Openly into Meetings with Trump’s Administration

On December 17, Vladimir Putin picked up the phone and called Donald Trump.

Ostensibly, the purpose of the call was to thank Trump for intelligence the US provided Russia that helped them thwart a terrorist attack. Here’s what the White House readout described.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia called President Donald J. Trump today to thank him for the advanced warning the United States intelligence agencies provided to Russia concerning a major terror plot in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Based on the information the United States provided, Russian authorities were able to capture the terrorists just prior to an attack that could have killed large numbers of people. No Russian lives were lost and the terrorist attackers were caught and are now incarcerated. President Trump appreciated the call and told President Putin that he and the entire United States intelligence community were pleased to have helped save so many lives. President Trump stressed the importance of intelligence cooperation to defeat terrorists wherever they may be. Both leaders agreed that this serves as an example of the positive things that can occur when our countries work together. President Putin extended his thanks and congratulations to Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Mike Pompeo and the CIA. President Trump then called Director Pompeo to congratulate him, his very talented people, and the entire intelligence community on a job well done!

Putin, of course, has a history of trumping up terrorist attacks for political purposes (which is not to say he’s the only one).

In Trump’s Russia, top spooks come to you

That call that Putin initiated serves as important background to an event (or several — the details are still uncertain) that happened earlier this week, as everyone was distracted with Devin Nunes’ theatrics surrounding his memo attacking the Mueller investigation into whether Trump has engaged in a conspiracy with Russia. All three of Russia’s intelligence heads came to DC for a visit.

The visit of the sanctioned head of SVR, Sergey Naryshkin — Russia’s foreign intelligence service — was ostentatiously announced by Russia’s embassy.

SVR is the agency that tried to recruit Carter Page back in 2013, and which has also newly been given credit for the hack of the DNC in some Dutch reporting (and a recent David Sanger article). It’s clear that SVR wanted Americans to know that their sanctioned head had been through town.

As the week went on, WaPo reported that FSB’s Alexander Bortnikov and GRU’s Colonel General Igor Korobov had also been through town (GRU has previously gotten primary credit for the hack and Korobov was also sanctioned in the December 2016 response, and FSB was described as having an assisting role).

Pompeo met with Sergey Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service or SVR, and Alexander Bortnikov, who runs the FSB, which is the main successor to the Soviet-era security service the KGB.

The head of Russia’s military intelligence, the GRU, also came to Washington, though it is not clear he met with Pompeo.

A senior U.S. intelligence official based in Moscow was also called back to Washington for the meeting with the CIA chief, said a person familiar with the events, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive meeting.

Treasury defies Congress on Russian sanctions

These visits have been associated with Trump’s decision not to enforce congressionally mandated sanctions, claiming that the threat of sanctions is already working even as Mike Pompeo insists that Russia remains a threat. In lieu of providing a mandated list of Russians who could be sanctioned, Treasury basically released the Forbes list of richest Russians, meaning that the sanction list includes people who’re squarely opposed to Putin. In my opinion, reporting on the Forbes list underplays the contempt of the move. Then, today, Treasury released a memo saying Russia was too systematically important to sanction.

Schumer’s questions and Pompeo’s non-answers

Indeed, Chuck Schumer emphasized sanctions in a letter he sent to Dan Coats, copied to Mike Pompeo, about the Naryshkin visit (the presence of the others was just becoming public).

As you are well aware, Mr. Naryshkin is a Specially Designated National under U.S. sanctions law, which imposes severe financial penalties and prohibits his entry into the U.S. without a waiver. Moreover, the visit of the SVR chief occurred only days before Congress was informed of the president’s decision not to implement sanctions authorized the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which was passed with near unanimous, bipartisan support. CAATSA was designed to impose a price on Russian President Vladimir Putin and his cronies for well-documented Russian aggression and interference in the 2016 election. However, the administration took little to no action, even as Russia continues its cyberattacks on the U.S.

Certainly, that seems a fair conclusion to draw — that by emphasizing Naryshkin’s presence, Russia was also boasting that it was immune from Congress’ attempts to sanction it.

But Mike Pompeo, who responded to Schumer, conveniently responded only to Schumer’s public comments, not the letter itself.

I am writing to you in response to your press conference Tuesday where you suggested there was something untoward in officials from Russian intelligence services meeting with their U.S. counterparts. Let me assure you there is not. [my emphasis]

This allowed Pompeo to dodge a range Schumer’s questions addressing Russia’s attacks on the US.

What specific policy issues and topics were discussed by Mr. Naryshkin and U.S. officials?

    1. Did the U.S. officials who met with Mr. Naryshkin raise Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections?  If not, why was this not raised? If raised, what was his response?
    2. Did the U.S. officials who met with Mr. Naryshkin raise existing and congressionally-mandated U.S. sanctions against Russia discussed? If not, why was this not raised? If raised, what was his response?
    3. Did the U.S. officials who met with Mr. Naryshkin raise ongoing Russian cyber attacks on the U.S. and its allies, including reported efforts to discredit the Federal Bureau of Investigation and law enforcement investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections? If not, why was this not raised? If raised, what was his response?
    4. Did the U.S. officials who met with Mr. Naryshkin make clear that Putin’s interference in the 2018 and 2020 elections would be a hostile act against the United States? If not, why was this not raised? If raised, what was his response?

Instead of providing responses to questions about Russian tampering, Pompeo instead excused the whole meeting by pointing to counterterrorism, that same purpose, indeed — the same attack — that Putin raised in his December phone call.

We periodically meet with our Russian intelligence counterparts — to keep America safe. While Russia remains an adversary, we would put American lives at greater risk if we ignored opportunities to work with the Russian services in the fight against terrorism. We are proud of that counterterror work, including CIA’s role with its Russian counterparts in the recent disruption of a terrorist plot targeting St. Petersburg, Russia — a plot that could have killed Americans.

[snip]

Security cooperation between our intelligence services has occurred under multiple administrations. I am confident that you would support CIA continuing these engagements that are aimed at protecting the American people.

The contempt on sanctions makes it clear this goes beyond counterterrorism

All this together should allay any doubt you might have that this meeting goes beyond counterterrorism, if, indeed, it even has anything to do with counterterrorism.

Just as one possible other topic, in November, WSJ reported that DOJ was working towards charging Russians involved in the hack after the new year.

The Justice Department has identified more than six members of the Russian government involved in hacking the Democratic National Committee’s computers and swiping sensitive information that became public during the 2016 presidential election, according to people familiar with the investigation.

Prosecutors and agents have assembled evidence to charge the Russian officials and could bring a case next year, these people said. Discussions about the case are in the early stages, they said.

If filed, the case would provide the clearest picture yet of the actors behind the DNC intrusion. U.S. intelligence agencies have attributed the attack to Russian intelligence services, but haven’t provided detailed information about how they concluded those services were responsible, or any details about the individuals allegedly involved.

Today, Russia issued a new warning that America is “hunting” Russians all over the world, citing (among others) hacker Roman Seleznev.

“American special services are continuing their de facto hunt for Russians all over the world,” reads the statement published on the ministry’s website on Friday. The Russian diplomats also gave several examples of such arbitrary detentions of Russian citizens that took place in Spain, Latvia, Canada and Greece.

“Sometimes these were actual abductions of our compatriots. This is what happened with Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was kidnapped in Liberia in 2010 and secretly taken to the United States in violation of Liberian and international laws. This also happened in 2014 with Roman Seleznyov, who was literally abducted in the Maldives and forcefully taken to American territory,” the statement reads.

The ministry also warned that after being handed over to the US justice system, Russian citizens often encounter extremely biased attitudes.

“Through various means, including direct threats, they attempt to coerce Russians into pleading guilty, despite the fact that the charges of them are far-fetched. Those who refuse get sentenced to extraordinarily long prison terms.”

And, as I noted earlier, Trey Gowdy — one of the few members of Congress who has seen where Mueller is going with this investigation — cited the import of the counterintelligence case against Russia in a Sunday appearance.

CHRIS WALLACE: Congressman, we’ll get to your concerns about the FBI and the Department of Justice in a moment. But — but let me begin first with this. Do you still trust, after all you’ve heard, do you still trust Special Counsel Robert Mueller to conduct a fair and unbiased investigation?

REP. TREY GOWDY, R-SC, OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: One hundred percent, particularly if he’s given the time, the resources and the independence to do his job. Chris, he didn’t apply for the job. He’s where he is because we have an attorney general who had to recuse himself. So Mueller didn’t raise his hand and say, hey, pick me. We, as a country, asked him to do this.

And, by the way, he’s got two — there are two components to his jurisdiction. There is a criminal component. But there’s also a counterintelligence component that no one ever talks about because it’s not sexy and interesting. But he’s also going to tell us definitively what Russia tried to do in 2016. So the last time you and I were together, I told my Republican colleagues, leave him the hell alone, and that’s still my advice.

Schumer and other Democrats demanding answers about this visit might think about any ways the Russians might be working to undermine Mueller’s investigation or transparency that might come of it.

Three weeks of oversight free covert action

The timing of this visit is particularly concerning for another reason. In the three week continuing resolution to fund the government passed on January 22, the House Appropriations Chair Rodney Frelinghuysen added language that would allow the Administration to shift money funding intelligence activities around without telling Congress. It allows funds to,

“be obligated and expended notwithstanding section 504(a)(1) of the National Security Act of 1947.”

Section 504(a)(1) is the piece of the law that requires intelligence agencies to spend money on the program the money was appropriated for. “Appropriated funds available to an intelligence agency may be obligated or expended for an intelligence or intelligence-related activity only if those funds were specifically authorized by the Congress for use for such activities; or …”

The “or” refers to the intelligence community’s obligation to inform Congress of any deviation. But without any obligation to spend funds as specifically authorized, there is no obligation to inform Congress if that’s not happening.

Since the only real way to prohibit the Executive is to prohibit them to spend money on certain things, the change allows the Trump Administration to do things they’ve been specifically prohibited from doing for the three week period of the continuing resolution.

Senators Burr and Warner tried to change the language before passage on January 22, to no avail.

This year’s Defense Authorization included a whole slew of limits on Executive Branch activity, including mandating a report if the Executive cooperates with Russia on Syria and prohibiting any military cooperation until such time as Russia leaves Ukraine. It’s possible the Trump Administration would claim those appropriations-tied requirements could be ignored during the time of the continuing resolution.

Which just happened to cover the period of the Russian visit.

Our friends are getting nervous

Meanwhile, both before and after the visit, our allies have found ways to raise concerns about sharing intelligence with the US in light of Trump’s coziness with Russia. A key subtext of the stories revealing that Netherlands’ AIVD saw Russian hackers targeting the Democrats via a hacked security camera was that Rick Ledgett’s disclosure of that operation last year had raised concerns about sharing with the US.

President elect Donald Trump categorically refuses to explicitly acknowledge the Russian interference. It would tarnish the gleam of his electoral victory. He has also frequently praised Russia, and president Putin in particular. This is one of the reasons the American intelligence services eagerly leak information: to prove that the Russians did in fact interfere with the elections. And that is why intelligence services have told American media about the amazing access of a ‘western ally’.

This has led to anger in Zoetermeer and The Hague. Some Dutchmen even feel betrayed. It’s absolutely not done to reveal the methods of a friendly intelligence service, especially if you’re benefiting from their intelligence. But no matter how vehemently the heads of the AIVD and MIVD express their displeasure, they don’t feel understood by the Americans. It’s made the AIVD and MIVD a lot more cautious when it comes to sharing intelligence. They’ve become increasingly suspicious since Trump was elected president.

Then, the author of a book on Israeli’s assassinations has suggested that the intelligence Trump shared with the Russians goes beyond what got publicly reported, goes to the heart of Israeli intelligence operations.

DAVIES: So if I understand it, you know of specific information that the U.S. shared with the Russians that has not been revealed publicly and that you are not revealing publicly?

BERGMAN: The nature of the information that President Trump revealed to Foreign Minister Lavrov is of the most secretive nature.

Finally, a piece on the Nunes memo out today suggests the British will be less likely to share intelligence with Trump’s administration after the release of the memo (though this is admittedly based on US congressional claims, not British sources).

Britain’s spy agencies risk having their intelligence methods revealed if Donald Trump releases a controversial memo about the FBI, congressional figures have warned.

The UK will be less likely to share confidential information if the secret memo about the Russian investigation is made public, according to those opposing its release.

Clearly, this meeting goes beyond counterterrorism cooperation. And given the way that both Treasury and CIA have acted contemptuously in the aftermath of the visit, Schumer and others should be far more aggressive in seeking answers about what this visit really entailed.

Update: I’ve added the section on Section 504.

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

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

The Trey Gowdy Retirement

I’ve had a busy few days at other sites. I did this piece (on the dossier) at Politico and had an enjoyable appearance on Democracy Now this morning.

I want to highlight something I discussed on DN that has gotten drowned out in the rest of the day’s news: Trey Gowdy’s decision to retire, taken even as he was raising money for his reelection.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, I meant to say progressive activists, not even Democratic congressmembers, when it came to being concerned about FBI and intelligence and NSA overreach. But you mentioned Trey Gowdy. And yesterday, the Republican congressman from South Carolina, a chair of the House Oversight Committee, announced he is not going to seek re-election. He was instrumental in crafting the Nunes memo. Can you talk about the significance of him leaving Congress, leader in the Benghazi investigation, attacking Hillary Clinton, etc.?

MARCY WHEELER: Yeah, Trey Gowdy, when he’s in front of a camera, is one of the most blustery Republican partisans. But you can tell, even, for example, from the Carter Page transcript, his interview with House Intelligence Committee, that behind closed doors he actually is a competent prosecutor, which is—you know, he’s got a background in that. And he can hammer Republican witnesses.

So, what’s interesting about Gowdy is that he—the underlying materials—this is another complaint the Democrats have. The only people who have read the underlying materials are Adam Schiff, four staffers—two of Adam Schiff’s and two of Devin Nunes’s—and Trey Gowdy. It would have been Devin Nunes, but Devin Nunes, probably because of the recusal you talked about earlier, had Gowdy do it instead. So, the only people who have actually looked at the underlying materials include Trey Gowdy. Now, he didn’t write the memo, Nunes’s staffers did. So there’s this game of telephone going on already.

On Sunday, on one of the Sunday shows, Trey—I think it was a Fox show—Trey Gowdy said, “You know, this memo should come out. It’s important. But my side should not use it to undermine the Mueller investigation.” And the reason he gave is that what is not being seen about the Mueller investigation is there’s a whole counterintelligence side to it. There’s a whole side of it investigating how the Russians tampered in our election. And according to Gowdy, who has seen these underlying documents, he thinks that’s an important and legitimate investigation.

Now, we don’t know fully why he decided not to run. He did cite yesterday that he’s sick of politics. But what’s interesting is, yesterday morning, he was still fundraising. So, as of yesterday morning, he was still planning on running. There’s also reports that Don McGahn, who is the White House counsel, who has been in this sort of obstructive role for Trump, as well, was discussing with Gowdy a position on the Fourth Circuit as a circuit court judge, which is something Gowdy has been interested in the past, and Gowdy turned that down. So, Gowdy, even though he is this fire-breathing partisan hack—you know, you go back to the Benghazi case—he seems to have seen something in the underlying investigation that troubles him, that his Republican partisan colleagues are not paying attention to. And so, Gowdy may surprise us, going forward. But I do think that that is an interesting development yesterday, that the one guy on the House Intelligence Committee who’s actually seen the underlying intelligence has decided to get out of the Republican partisan hackery rat race.

This piece in Politico emphasizes his disillusionment with the partisanship, especially around the Mueller inquiry. It sounds like he’s getting concerned that the GOP defense of Trump is beginning to threaten DOJ.

Gowdy has found himself butting heads in recent months with Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and other pro-Trump Republicans who have hinted at corruption at the FBI. He’s expressed concerns about anti-Trump texts by some FBI officials, and he has said on TV that Congress has a duty to oversee the agency. But behind the scenes he’s had to rein in some of his conservative colleagues who want to undercut the entirety of the Justice Department, which he views as essential to American life.

I know we’ve been trained to consider Gowdy the worst kind of partisan, but in some witness transcripts it’s clear he’s seeing the GOP bullshit (and, like I said on DN, he’s the one guy who has seen what Mueller is looking at).

Gowdy is trusted by many of his colleagues. And if he begins to defend the Mueller inquiry, things may begin to shift under Trump.

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

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