Posts

After the Ad Hominem Approach to Surveillance Reauthorization Fails, Spooks Now Revert to Secrecy

As I have noted, thus far the surveillance boosters’ favored approach to Section 702 reauthorization has been to engage in ad hominem attacks against people engaging in good faith in the legislative process (even while they, themselves, make what would most charitably be called significant errors). Even when people make a concerted effort to avoid such sloppy attacks — as FBI Director Christopher Wray did at a recent appearance — they still accuse others of believing in myths while ignoring their own myth-making.

But now Richard Burr and the spooks he caters to are adopting another approach: legislating in secret.

The SSCI is reportedly moving to mark up their own version of Section 702 reauthorization this week — a bill crafted by Senators Burr, Warner, Feinstein, and Cornyn. The make-up of the team is key: because Cornyn and Feinstein are also on Senate Judiciary, they can sink any alternate bill that moves through that committee (something Feinstein has been doing since at least 2009).

As Wyden says in a letter objecting to the secret mark-up,

Section 702 has been the subject of extensive public testimony, while relevant FISA Court orders, minimization procedures and other documents have been declassified and released to the public. In this context, the public is right to expect that Congress debate the reauthorization of this authority in the open. Indeed, a transparent legislative process is a fundamental hallmark of our democracy.

A bunch of NGOs have also called on Burr to make this mark-up public.

There are several likely reasons why Burr and the spooks want to craft their legislation in secret.

Perhaps most importantly, by holding a closed session, you delay by about a month and a half what happened in the session, what the cleared Senators debated, and the tactical means the Chair (in this case Burr) used to shut down reform suggestions. That’s what happened in 2012, when Feinstein delayed the release of the bill report for about that long, hiding details about Ron Wyden’s attempt to get a count of US persons affected by 702 (see these three posts — one, two, three — for details, though Wyden did manage to call Feinstein out for lying about FISC always finding the collection to be constitutional).

Indeed, I’d bet a lot of money that one reason Burr wants to have a secret mark-up is to the very same thing Feinstein did four years ago: hide the government’s lies about their alleged inability to do a count of how many Americans get sucked up as part of 702, and how.

But the other reason Burr and the spooks likely want to have a mark-up in secret is precisely because of the transparency won since 2013, they don’t have winning arguments anymore. While courts, because of the secrecy reviewing cases without any adversarial process and often not getting a full picture of how 702 works, have found 702 itself constitutional (though the Ninth Circuit largely dodged the question of back door searches), as more and more people understand how it works (and as white men watching the Mike Flynn case come to understand how fragile life can get for those picked up incidentally), the program seems problematic.

And even those who believe 702 in its current form serves an irreplaceable role in our surveillance system can see the need for no-nonsense reforms, such as requiring an amicus help review yearly reauthorization.

In other words, by hiding this mark-up, Burr is conceding that he can’t win this legislative battle democratically. He, and the spooks, have to cheat. And they’re willing to do so, to codify parts of this program that likely wouldn’t pass court review if done in a real adversarial process.

We are at a critical tipping point with surveillance in this country, as the government chips away at the technologies that allow individuals to retain some kind of privacy. And to ensure we slide over that tipping point and down the dangerous slope on the other side, a bunch of spooks and their servants are cowering from democracy.

In Defense of Trump’s Steele Dossier Tweet

I can’t believe what I’m about to do.

I’m going to defend this tweet from Donald Trump as reasonable.

Before I do, let me say two things.

First, I have zero doubt that the Russians attempted to influence the election. I think it likely Robert Mueller will eventually show evidence that senior people in Trump’s camp attempted to and may have coordinated with people working for Russia, and people more tangential to the campaign sought out Russians for help. I think if the full story of the Russian involvement in the election comes out, it will be worse than what people currently imagine.

I also think Trump opponents have made a really grave error in investing so much in the Steele dossier. That’s true because, from the start, there were some real provenance questions about it, as leaked. Those questions have only grown, as I’ll explain below. The dossier was always way behind ongoing reporting on the hack-and-leak, meaning it is utterly useless for one of the most important parts of last year’s tampering. The dossier provides Trump officials a really easy way to rebut claims of involvement, even when (such as with Michael Cohen) there is ample other evidence to suggest inappropriate ties with Russia. Most importantly, the dossier is not needed for the most common reason people cling to it, to provide a framework to understand Trump’s compromise by Russia. By late January, WaPo’s reporting did a far better job of that, with the advantage that it generally proceeded from events with more public demonstrable proof. And (again, given the abundance of other evidence) there’s no reason to believe the Mueller investigation depends on it.

But because Trump opponents have clung to the damn dossier for months, like a baby’s blanket, hoping for a pee tape, it allows Trump, Republicans, and Russians to engage in lawfare and other means to discredit the dossier as if discrediting the dossier will make the pile of other incriminating evidence disappear.

I believe the Trump opponents’ investment in the Steele dossier will ultimately lead to a bad own goal.

All that said, I think Trump’s tweet today, while as typically douchey as all his tweets, is somewhat defensible (and the fact that it is defensible should serve as a warning to those still clinging to the Steele dossier).

Workers of firm … take the 5th

Trump is referring to the fact that two Fusion employees refused to testify before the House Intelligence Committee under a subpoena issued unilaterally by Devin Nunes. There is significant confusion, spread in part by their attorney, as to why they would not testify. Beforehand, their attorney said the First Amendment permitted them to blow off the committee (which wouldn’t even be true for a journalist, much less an oppo research firm pretending for convenience to be a journalistic enterprise). Since it happened, several credible journalists have said Fusion’s lawyer said they pled the Fifth (which would work, but would also mean they felt they had criminal exposure).

So the point it at least contested.

My guess is they’re just stalling, with the knowledge that if Nunes has to find a way to enforce his subpoena, the rest of the committee will get to weigh in and will refuse to back his effort.

Discredited and Fake

It is true that anonymous sources say that the FBI has corroborated some things in the dossier (and Andy McCarthy makes an uncharacteristically worthwhile argument for what the tea leaves say). It is also true that Dianne Feinstein confirmed during the summer that we only have part (and given the numbering, probably a very small part) of the dossier. So we can’t be sure whether the bits FBI has corroborated are public at all.

There are things, as I’ve noted, that totally discredit parts of the dossier, such as the fact that it reported Russia hadn’t succeeded in hacking top targets almost a year after it was widely reported FSB already had (in general, the dossier is awful on the hack, as I lay out in this post; Steele’s speciality is in following the money and it shows).

Then there’s the fact that the unnecessary report on Alfa bank misspells their name: it’s a minor point but one those engaging in lawfare always point out.

The one thing that most people focus on — a Prague meeting between Cohen and the Russians — is not backed by the US passport he showed BuzzFeed.

A number of people have claimed that the dossier reported, 11 days after it occurred, the June 9 Trump Tower meeting. But as I lay out in this post, the dossier says the kompromat in question is older stuff based off wiretaps of Hillary, and it actually claims that Russia had not yet shared the intelligence in question, meaning the dossier did not confirm the June 9 meeting.

That doesn’t mean it’s discredited. But it doesn’t mean we know what parts of it have been corroborated, and some parts are not true (as we should expect from raw intelligence).

Who paid for it: Russia

The most problematic thing Trump said is that Russia may have paid for the dossier. It’s true we don’t know who paid for the dossier (indeed, that is the chief reason why Fusion doesn’t want to testify, to hide who did pay for it). Rumors say that a Jeb Bush supporter paid for it up until June 2016 (meaning, for a bunch of reports that aren’t public at all), and a Hillary supporter paid for it until November. Steele has claimed in court filings that the reports that came after that, including the December 13 report that has the most incendiary claims (including that Trump paid hackers involved in the operation), that he worked for free after November and that his sources — who normally would be paid — also just dumped the intelligence that happened to be the most inflammatory parts into his lap.

The Defendants continued to receive unsolicited intelligence on the matters covered by the pre-election memoranda after the US Presidential election and the conclusion of the assignment for Fusion.

After receiving some such intelligence [Steele] prepared the confidential December memorandum, … on his own initiative on or around 13 December 2016.

That last claim — that Steele worked for free — is pretty sketchy, especially when you consider that (given the numbering in the dossier and Feinstein’s confirmation we’ve got just part of the dossier) there were likely 31 reports filed between October 19 and December 13.

Regardless of who really paid for the work, the fact that Steele claims he (and his sources) were working for free, the fact that the Russians would have known about the dossier at least by October 31, when David Corn wrote about it, and possibly by mid-September, when Steele started briefing journalists on it, the fact that Aleksej Gubarev quickly sued, the fact that a suspected dossier source died in mysterious circumstances in December, and the fact that the last report tied everything up in a neat little bow, suggests the Russians may have been feeding Steele disinformation by that last report.

Does that mean the Russians paid Steele? Absolutely not. It’s an outrageous insinuation. Does that mean that any disinformation in the dossier was ultimately paid for by Russia and that it is not crazy to imagine the later reports included at least some disinformation? Yup.

Then there’s another detail that makes the Russian accusation at least reasonable: the fact that Rinat Ahkmetshin had a relationship with Fusion (to work on anti-Magnitsky stuff) at precisely the same time as Fusion was working on the Trump dossier. Not only does that fact make it more likely Russians eventually learned of the dossier and fed Steele disinformation, but it also means Fusion was getting paid by Russians at the same time as or not long before it was producing free Steele dossier work.

Who paid for it: FBI

People seem most offended by Trump’s claim that FBI may have paid for the dossier. The reporting on this point conflicts, but note that CNN has said that Steele got paid by the FBI for expenses.

CNN:

The FBI reimbursed some expenses of the former British intelligence operative who produced a dossier containing allegations of President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia, people familiar with the matter said.

WaPo:

The former British spy who authored a controversial dossier on behalf of Donald Trump’s political opponents alleging ties between Trump and Russia reached an agreement with the FBI a few weeks before the election for the bureau to pay him to continue his work, according to several people familiar with the arrangement.

The agreement to compensate former MI6 agent Christopher Steele came as U.S. intelligence agencies reached a consensus that the Russians had interfered in the presidential election by orchestrating hacks of Democratic Party email accounts.

[snip]

Ultimately, the FBI did not pay Steele. Communications between the bureau and the former spy were interrupted as Steele’s now-famous dossier became the subject of news stories, congressional inquiries and presidential denials, according to the people familiar with the arrangement, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

NBC:

The FBI reached a deal in October to pay a former British spy who had compiled a dossier on Donald Trump’s alleged ties with Russia, an indication of how seriously the bureau was taking the allegations, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The deal for the former operative, Christopher Steele, to continue his work on behalf of the FBI fell apart when Steele pulled out, said the source, who has direct knowledge of the situation.

Given what Chuck Grassley has asked and said in response, my suspicion is the reality is that FBI paid Steele’s expenses for trips to explain sourcing and other details of the dossier to them, meaning their funds didn’t pay his sources or for his time, but did pay for him to meet with the FBI.

Who paid for it: Dems

This claim is a no-brainer. According to the public story, a Hillary supporter — who has always been presumed to be a Democrat though there’s no reason that has to be true (indeed, it is utterly conceivable that the same person paid for the work first in Jeb’s name and then in Hillary’s) — paid for all the reports we have, save the December 13 one.

(or all)?

Finally, people are especially offended that Trump, with his “or all,” insinuated that the FBI and Russians were colluding against Trump.

It’s certainly possible that’s what he intended. But the public record at least claims that three different entities paid for the dossier over time; that same record makes a reasonable claim that both the Dems and FBI paid some money to support the dossier.

All of which is to say the serial payment for the dossier does not require that “or all” to be a malicious insinuation of collusion (heh) between FBI and Russia.

I know this will be an unbelievably unpopular post. But the dossier simply isn’t as pristine as those clinging to it want it to be. Which is a good reason for Trump opponents to spend more time highlighting the great reporting of the WaPo or NYT, which often as not has been confirmed and is backed by public information.

Update: Made some tweaks in my argument that Trump opponents should stop clinging to the Steele dossier.

Senator Feinstein Confirms the Public Steele Dossier Is Not the Whole Thing

For something else, I’m rewatching the confirmation hearing for Brian Benczkowski to be Assistant Attorney General of the Criminal Division. (at 1:55)

Feinstein: Before you go on, do you have the whole dossier?

Benczkowski: I read the dossier online as it was published on BuzzFeed [raises two fingers]

Feinstein: The whole dossier is not online.

Benczkowski: The only thing that I have done, Senator, in that regard, was read the two pages as to Alfa Bank.

Feinstein: You have not seen the whole dossier?

Benczkowski: I have not.

The Senate Judiciary Committee had, by this point, been investigating the Steele Dossier for months (though this question preceded the Glenn Simpson testimony by a month). This is the classic Feinstein hearing disclosure, and past history suggests it would be accurate.

Which is to say what we’re seeing is just a fraction of the dossier — which is a point I’ve been making from the start (it also means the balance of the dossier may be more sensitive). It also means that someone made cherry picked the reports to first brief and then ultimately to leak to the press, which itself should be an issue for inquiry.

 

On the Lawfare over the Steele Dossier

October 25: For those looking for “Reasons Why Dems Have Been Fucking Stupid on the Steele Dossier, a Long Essay,” it’s here; I screwed up the link.

Say, did you know that Christopher Steele and his company, Orbis Business Intelligence, claim that Fusion GPS, the US-based intelligence firm that hired him to collect dirt on Donald Trump, did not share that dirt with its clients?

Steele’s curious claims made from the comfort of the UK

That’s the rather improbable claim made in a May 18 filing in the British lawsuit Webzilla CEO Alexej Gubarev filed against Steele and his company in the UK. In response to questions about who was contractually prohibited from disclosing Steele’s reports, Steele claimed that while Fusion was permitted to share the information he gave them with their clients, they did not.

In relation to the pre-election memoranda the duty not to disclose intelligence to third parties without the prior agreement of [Steele and his company, Orbis] did not extend to disclosure by Fusion to its client(s), although the Defendants understand that copies of the memoranda were not disclosed by Fusion to its client(s).

In response to a follow-up question on whether Fusion’s clients were allowed to disclose any reports they got, Steele claimed that Fusion’s clients weren’t supposed to release the information.

[Steele and his company] understood that the arrangement between Fusion and its client(s) was that intelligence would not be disclosed.

Yet, in spite of the claim that Fusion never shared Steele’s intelligence reports with its clients, Steele admits that he gave off the record briefings, in one form or another, to reporters from six different American outlets.

The journalists initially briefed at the end of September 2016 by [Steele] and Fusion at Fusion’s instruction were from the New York Times, the Washington Post, Yahoo News, the New Yorker and CNN. [Steele] subsequently participated in further meetings at Fusion’s instruction with Fusion and the New York Times, the Washington Post and Yahoo News, which took place in mid-October 2016. In each of those cases the briefing was conducted verbally in person. In addition, and again at Fusion’s instruction, in late October 2016 [Steele] briefed a journalist from Mother Jones by Skype. No copies of the pre-election memoranda were ever shown or provided to any journalists by, or with the authorization of, the Defendants. The briefings involved the disclosure of limited intelligence regarding indications of Russian interference in the US election process and the possible co-ordination of members of Trump’s campaign team and Russian government officials.

So the folks footing the bill for all this never saw the reports they paid for, and if you believe Steele no reporters ever actually looked at the dossier. Steele makes no mention (in a lawsuit in the UK targeting just him, not Fusion GPS) of the evolving claims of BBC’s Paul Wood.

Steele’s claim that he wasn’t sharing the dossier itself is dubious for several reasons. For example, the defense makes no mention of Steele sharing the dossier with the FBI, in spite of multiple reports of him doing so.

More damning, one of the reporters with whom the dossier was shared before the election, BBC’s Paul Wood, has changed a published story about receiving the dossier on two occasions. The original story appeared like this.

Sometime between the original publication and 14:06 GMT, the paragraph claiming the American oppo research company, Fusion, disseminated the document was removed from the story.

Then, by 15:32 GMT — roughly 20 minutes after I did a post noting the first change — that passage was again changed, this time to suggest the pages were shown, but not given, to journalists.

I’ve been told second-hand that actual pages were given, not shown, to at least one journalist, suggesting the middle story may be the accurate one. Moreover, the actual dossier would have had to have been shared for James Clapper’s claim that the dossier “was widely circulated … among the media, members of Congress and Congressional staff ” to be true.

Note, too, that in an April declaration, Steele claimed that the briefings took place in “late summer/autumn 2016;” while those briefings took place before September 23, that’s only late summer if you’re fairly strict about when the equinox falls.

Suffice it to say, I don’t find Steele’s claims that persuasive. Which may be why he tried to challenge Gubarev’s efforts — in his US lawsuit against Buzzfeed — to obtain a deposition. The judge in that suit denied Steele’s request, though Steele can still challenge the request in the UK, where he’ll likely get a far friendlier reception.

Let me interrupt and suggest the Russians — and probably the most partisan Republicans — know who’s behind Steele’s dossier. By all appearances Russian interests are fighting a multi-front legal effort to force those details out in public, on top of any damage it does to Buzzfeed.

In the suit against Steele in the UK, Steele has basically explained he disseminated the December 13 memo — which is the one that mentions Webzilla and so is the only one that matters in that suit — to just two people: a hard copy to a senior UK government official (believed to be someone at MI6), and an encrypted copy to Fusion to pass on to John McCain via a Senior Director of McCain’s Institute for International Leadership, David Kramer. Steele admits his instructions that the last report remain classified were given over a secure phone call, not in writing. Steele admits giving off-the-record briefings (though not to BuzzFeed), but not the materials themselves, on the earlier reports, but not the December 13 one. In any case, given that BuzzFeed was not one of those outlets, Steele argues he can’t be held responsible for any defamation of Webzilla in the UK. Steele also emphasizes that the December 13 memo “did not represent (and did not purport to represent) verified facts, but were raw intelligence which had identified a range of allegations that further investigation.” And since the December 13 memo was produced for free, from intelligence “not actively sought, … merely received,” Steele doesn’t have to reveal who paid for the other reports, which don’t mention Webzilla.

Barring greymail, the Florida suit permits Webzilla to compare Steele’s answers with Fusion’s

That’s all well and good, but in its Florida suit, Webzilla is pursuing a deposition from Fusion GPS as well as Steele (curiously, the joint status report says nothing about deposing McCain or Kramer).

For its part, Buzzfeed appears to be pursuing a graymail defense. Around July 7, Buzzfeed sent subpoenas to a bunch of national security witnesses who are not going to want to testify.

Six weeks ago, Defendants  served subpoenas for depositions and the production of documents on several third party witnesses, including several government agencies and their former officials. These include the FBI, DOJ, ODNI, CIA, and James Comey, James Clapper, and John Brennan.

Particularly Comey and the FBI are likely to invoke ongoing investigations to refuse to give a deposition.

Still, comparing the stories of Steele and Fusion may produce some discomfort, all the more so if Webzilla succeeds in making Steele attest to the things he said in the UK in the US.

Fusion was far less cooperative with the Senate Judiciary Committee than made out

Which brings us to efforts in Congress. As I’ve said before, I think Chuck Grassley’s efforts to understand Fusion’s role in the dossier are good faith efforts. While a key focus of that is on Steele’s relationship with the FBI, Grassley fought for five months to get Fusion to cooperate with the Committee, which Fusion head Glenn Simspon finally did in a 10 hour August 22 interview with the Senate Judiciary Committee (See release 1, release 2, release 3, hearing statement 1, release 4, release 5, hearing statement 2, release 6 for Grassley’s efforts). Democrats — apparently led by Rachel Maddow — made much about the appearance. But the main outcome was nothing more than a carefully crafted statement for the benefit of Fusion’s clients assuring them Simpson hadn’t revealed their names.

While Simpson’s attorney said his client provided significant details about his firm’s findings, he did not reveal the identities of those who paid for his research.

Simpson “kept the identities of Fusion GPS’ clients confidential,” Levy said in his statement. “Fusion GPS represents businesses, individuals and, occasionally, political clients on both the right and the left. When those clients want Fusion GPS to keep their identities confidential, Fusion GPS honors that commitment without exception – just as law firms and businesses do all over the country.”

A Grassley staffer offered a very different take than the celebratory one Democrats claimed to Fox News’ Catherine Herridge.

“Fusion’s initial production of documents consisted of solely of headlines from publicly available news reports and more than 7,500 pages of blank paper,” Grassley spokesman Taylor Foy said. “Fusion eventually provided a copy of the same unverified dossier that’s been publicly available since January, and a privilege log that raises more questions than it answers.”

Fox reported this week that Fusion GPS gave the committee 40,000 documents.

The records were finally provided by Simpson and his legal team after Grassley sent several letters raising questions about the dossier, moved a Judiciary Committee hearing to accommodate Simpson’s schedule, and withdrew a subpoena in return for a pledge of cooperation.

“I’d note that only after the subpoena did Simpson indicated any willingness to cooperate voluntarily, yet the documents produced by his legal team have not been responsive to the committee’s questions,” Foy said.

Effectively, Fusion is still refusing to cooperate, over five months after Grassley’s first request.

The other notable development from Congress is Devin Nunes’ efforts — even as people who haven’t recused from the Russian investigation are trying to negotiate an interview with Steele — to search out the spy directly. He sent two staffers to London to try to contact Steele, without informing the people on the House Intelligence Committee who are actually supposed to be conducting an investigation.

After getting Steele to commit to one Webzilla suit, Alfa sued

As noted, on May 18 effectively Steele made a set of claims in the UK that — while sketchy — nevertheless would bracket off questions about the circumstances of the larger dossier’s production by claiming that the last report, the one pertinent to Webzilla, basically had a virgin birth.

Which is why I find the timing of this suit — a  May 26 lawsuit by Alfa Bank against BuzzFeed — so interesting. As I noted here, the September 14 Steele dossier report on Alfa Bank isn’t all that damning. It alleges Alfa did some corrupt stuff for Putin back when he was Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg. Particularly given that report has nothing to do with Trump directly, I suspect the report appears in the dossier because of the allegations of weird communications between a Trump marketing server and the bank; the allegations had already been shared with the FBI and were beginning to be shared with journalists at about precisely that moment.

The suit nods to such a theory without mentioning it directly.

More than one defamatory meaning can be drawn from this passage. It suggests that Alfa and Messrs. Fridman and Aven use their knowledge of past bribery of President Putin as a means of criminally extorting continuing favorable treatment for their business interests from his government. Within the context ofthe entire Dossier, it also implies that Alfa and its three officials willingly maintain the close relationship with
President Putin based on the “kompromat” they hold on him by cooperating in some unspecified way in the Kremlin’s campaign to interfere in the U.S. election.

At the same time, in context, the whole of CIR 112 can also be understood to suggest that because oftheir past (and possibly current) relationship involving mutually beneficial corrupt practices, Alfa and its three officials are required to do President Putin’s bidding, which includes cooperating in the Kremlin efforts to influence the outcome of the recent U.$. election. The statements quoted from the Dossier are false

But one of the real points of the lawsuit is not just that Buzzfeed published the dossier, but called out Alfa bank, correcting its spelling, even while acknowledging that the spelling indicated an error.

The Article specifically refers to Alfa as having been named in the Dossier, while acknowledging that the Dossier “is not just unconfirmed: It includes some clear errors. The [Dossier] misspells the name of one company, ‘Alpha Group,’ throughout. It is Alfa Group.”

The Article, by explicitly referring to Alfa, increases the likelihood that persons interested in Alfa (including but not limited to government intelligence officials, regulatory authorities, financial institutions, print and online news media and journalists) would search the Dossier to find out what it says about Alfa.

In any case, because this report was part of the dossier before it got shared with journalists, and because it was among the reports paid for by yet-unknown sources, Alfa will have cause to ask all about those details — details which Steele worked so hard to hide with the sketchy story he told in the UK. And Alfa filed the suit just a week after Steele committed to those facts in the UK.

Even aside from the timing, however, the background to the suit is worth mention.

It came out as part of the confirmation process for Trump transition official and former Jeff Sessions staffer Brian Benczkowski to be Assistant Attorney General of DOJ’s Criminal Division. Days before his confirmation, he sent Chuck Grassley letters revealing that not only had his firm, Kirkland & Ellis, confidentially represented Alfa bank, but he personally had overseen one of the investigations into the weird communications data. It came out later that he also consulted on Alfa’s plan to sue Buzzfeed.

Dianne Feinstein described at length why she considered this problematic, particularly given Benczkowski’s refusal to recuse himself from the Mueller investigation and any cases involving Alfa Bank.

I very much appreciate that Mr. Benczkowski has agreed to speak publicly about his work for Alfa Bank and I think it’s an important topic to understand given the position he’s been nominated for.

As I understand it, Mr. Benczkowski participated in President Trump’s transition team from September of last year to January of this year. He led the transition team’s work at the Justice Department, which is now led by his former boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Mr. Benczkowski told the committee that the retention of former FBI Director James Comey was discussed by those on the transition team, including himself.

In March, within two months of leaving the transition team, Mr. Benczkowski agreed to represent Alfa Bank.

Specifically, his work for Alfa Bank went to the heart of the reported investigations. He worked with a computer forensics firm to determine any ties between servers of Alfa Bank and the Trump Organization, and also whether and how private server information had gotten out of the ban.

Additionally, he reviewed the “Steele dossier,” a private investigator’s file on alleged links between Russia and the Trump campaign. He did this for Alfa Bank to consider suing Buzz Feed for defamation over their online publication of the dossier. Alfa Bank, in fact, did sue Buzz Feed on May 26 of this year.

In April, while Mr. Benczkowski was working for Alfa Bank, Attorney General Sessions’s chief of staff asked him about his interest in leading the Criminal Division.

Mr. Benczkowski’s law firm then notified Alfa Bank of his potential nomination for the Trump administration. But the fact that Mr. Benczkowski continued representing Alfa Bank, until the day of his nomination, which was June 6, raises questions. After he found out about his potential nomination, why did he continue his representation of Alfa Bank?

It is clear to me that Mr. Benczkowski is knowledgeable about issues related to an ongoing investigation. So I asked before this hearing if he would commit himself to recusing—not only from cases involving Alfa Bank as his former client, but also matters within Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation.

He would not commit to recusing himself. I’m concerned with his refusal, especially given the position for which he has been nominated.

In other words, days before he got the offer to oversee all criminal investigations in the country, Alfa had sued Buzzfeed (though a different firm is representing Alfa in the suit. Benczkowski’s nomination hasn’t been considered in any of the confirmation votes the committee has considered since.

The lawsuit, even more than Nunes’ free-lance efforts in London, seems like an attempt to expose highly inconvenient information about the dossier.

It’s all perfectly legal. But taken altogether, it’s clear that some really well-connected businesses run by Russians are using British and US courts to try to expose information they all seem to know exists.

Remember: the Russians learned about this dossier by October 31, if not before. There are real questions about the provenance of the document as leaked to Buzzfeed. There are real questions about whether some of the material in it wasn’t offered to Steele’s sources as deliberate disinformation — something recently floated by British spy historian Ben Macintyre.

S.L.Do you think the Russians really have something on Trump?

B.M. I can tell you what the veterans of the S.I.S. [the British Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6] think, which is yes, kompromat was done on him. Of course, kompromat is done on everyone. So they end up, the theory goes, with this compromising bit of material and then they begin to release parts of it. They set up an ex-MI6 guy, Chris Steele, who is a patsy, effectively, and they feed him some stuff that’s true, and some stuff that isn’t true, and some stuff that is demonstrably wrong. Which means that Trump can then stand up and deny it, while knowing that the essence of it is true. And then he has a stone in his shoe for the rest of his administration.

It’s important to remember that Putin is a K.G.B.-trained officer, and he thinks in the traditional K.G.B. way.

Particularly given that the last report in the dossier came out after its existence became known, it would have been especially easy to include disinformation that can now be exploited for this campaign of lawfare.

And while Buzzfeed’s graymail is likely to be effective and Steele’s deposition in the US is in no way assured, thus far the lawfare has revealed a lot of data that doesn’t really make sense.

Update: WashEx reports the House Intelligence Committee subpoenaed FBI and DOJ for information on the dossier and, having not gotten a response, has now also subpoeaned Christopher Wray and Jeff Sessions (who of course should be recused).

The committee issued the subpoenas — one to the FBI, an identical one to the Justice Department — on August 24, giving both until last Friday, September 1, to turn over the information.

Neither FBI nor Justice turned over the documents, and now the committee has given them an extension until September 14 to comply.

Illustrating the seriousness with which investigators view the situation, late Tuesday the committee issued two more subpoenas, specifically to FBI Director Christopher Wray and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, directing them to appear before the committee to explain why they have not provided the subpoenaed information.

The subpoenas are the result of a months-long process of committee investigators requesting information from the FBI and Justice Department. Beginning in May, the committee sent multiple letters to the FBI and Justice requesting information concerning the Trump-Russia affair.

I actually have no problems with the questions Congress is asking about the dossier (though I do think Mueller’s investigation should be given deference, if he asks for it). What’s funny, though, is that none of the committees are asking CIA and ODNI for more information on when they learned about the dossier. As I’ve noted their answers about it have been laughable, to put it charitably. But that might risk committing oversight.

Timeline

February 3: Webzilla and Alexej Gubarev sue Buzzfeed

March 27: Grassley first submits questions to Fusion

April, unknown date: Sessions Chief of Staff inquires about Benczkowski’s interest in serving as Assistant Attorney General

April 3: Steele Defence in UK Webzilla suit

May 18: Steele’s response to claimants request for further information

May 22: Ursula Ungaro denies BuzzFeed request to move suit to NYC in US Webzilla suit

May 26: Alfa Bank sues Buzzfeed in NY

June 6: Brian Benczkowski offered Assistant Attorney General position

July 19-21: Kirkland & Ellis disclose Benczkowski’s ties to Alfa bank

July 25: Benczkowski confirmation hearing

August 10: Ungaro requests UK require Steele provide a deposition in this case

August 10: Steele fights deposition request in US Webzilla suit

August 15: Ungaro denies Steele request

August 22: Glenn Simpson submits to 10 hour transcribed interview with Senate Judiciary Committee

August 24: HPSCI subpoenas FBI and DOJ for information on dossier

September 14: Extended deadline for FBI and DOJ to comply with HPSCI subpoena

When NSA Talks about Unintended Consequences, You Need to Ask a Follow-Up Question

In yesterday’s hearing on Section 702 reauthorization, Dianne Feinstein asked all DOJ, FBI, and NSA whether they opposed a statutory prohibition on “about” searches.

DOJ’s Stuart Evans falsely claimed that the FISC has found “about” collection to be legal; that’s not true given the assumption — which has proven out in practice — that NSA would do back door searches on the resulting domestic communications that result. Indeed, both judges who considered whether collecting and searching MCTs including domestic communications was constitutional, John Bates and Rosemary Collyer, called it a Fourth Amendment problem.

But I’m more interested in NSA Deputy General Counsel for Operations Paul Morris’ answer.

Morris: NSA opposes a statutory change at this point because that would box us in and possibly have unintended consequences.

Feinstein: Are you saying you would oppose this?

Morris: Oppose, right, we don’t think it would be a good idea at this time.

Feinstein: Huh. Thank you. That answers my question.

When the NSA complains preemptively about being “boxed in” to prevent a practice the FISC has found constitutionally problematic, it ought to elicit a follow-up question. Why doesn’t the NSA want to be prohibited from an activity that is constitutionally suspect?

More importantly, especially given that “abouts” collection is currently not defined in a way that has any technical meaning, Feinstein should have followed up to ask about what “unintended consequences” Morris worried about. Morris’ comment leads me to believe my suspicion — that the NSA continues to do things that have the same effect as “abouts” collection, even if they don’t reach into the “content” of emails that are only a subset of the kinds of things that get collected using upstream collection — is correct. It seems likely that Morris wants to protect collection that would violate any meaningful technical description of “abouts.”

Which suggests the heralded “end” to “abouts” collection is no such thing, it’s just the termination of one kind of collection that sniffs into content layers of packets.


Links to all posts on yesterday’s 702 hearing:

NSA talks about unintended consequences … no one asks what they might be

NSA argues waiting 4 years before dealing with systematic violations is not a lack of candor

FBI’s can only obtain raw feeds on selectors “relevant to” a full investigation

Everyone claims an FBI violation authorized by MOU aren’t willful 

Even amicus fans neglect to mention Rosemary Collyer violated USAF in not considering one

 

The Compartments in WaPo’s Russian Hack Magnum Opus

The WaPo has an 8300 word opus on the Obama Administration’s response to Russian tampering in the election. The article definitely covers new ground on the Obama effort to respond while avoiding making things worse, particularly with regards to imposing sanctions in December. It also largely lays out much of the coverage the three bylined journalists (Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima, and Adam Entous) have broken before, with new details. The overall message of the article, which has a number of particular viewpoints and silences, is this: Moscow is getting away with their attack.

“[B]ecause of the divergent ways Obama and Trump have handled the matter, Moscow appears unlikely to face proportionate consequences.”

The Immaculate Interception: CIA’s scoop

WaPo starts its story about how Russia got away with its election op with an exchange designed to make the non-response to the attack seem all the more senseless. It provides a dramatic description of a detail these very same reporters broke on December 9: Putin, who was personally directing this effort, was trying to elect Trump.

Early last August, an envelope with extraordinary handling restrictions arrived at the White House. Sent by courier from the CIA, it carried “eyes only” instructions that its contents be shown to just four people: President Barack Obama and three senior aides.

Inside was an intelligence bombshell, a report drawn from sourcing deep inside the Russian government that detailed Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race.

[snip]

The material was so sensitive that CIA Director John Brennan kept it out of the President’s Daily Brief, concerned that even that restricted report’s distribution was too broad. The CIA package came with instructions that it be returned immediately after it was read.

[snip]

In early August, Brennan alerted senior White House officials to the Putin intelligence, making a call to deputy national security adviser Avril Haines and pulling national security adviser Susan Rice side after a meeting before briefing Obama along with Rice, Haines and McDonough in the Oval Office.

While the sharing of this information with just three aides adds to the drama, WaPo doesn’t consider something else about it. The inclusion of Rice and McDonough totally makes sense. But by including Avril Haines, Brennan was basically including his former Deputy Director who had moved onto the DNSA position, effectively putting two CIA people in a room with two White House people and the President. Significantly, Lisa Monaco — who had Brennan’s old job as White House Homeland Security Czar and who came from DOJ and FBI before that — was reportedly excluded from this initial briefing.

There are a number of other interesting details about all this. First, for thousands of wordspace, the WaPo presents this intelligence as irreproachable, even while providing this unconvincing explanation of why, if it is so secret and solid, the CIA was willing to let WaPo put it on its front page.

For spy agencies, gaining insights into the intentions of foreign leaders is among the highest priorities. But Putin is a remarkably elusive target. A former KGB officer, he takes extreme precautions to guard against surveillance, rarely communicating by phone or computer, always running sensitive state business from deep within the confines of the Kremlin.

The Washington Post is withholding some details of the intelligence at the request of the U.S. government.

If this intelligence is so sensitive, why is even the timing of its collection being revealed here, much less its access to Putin?

That seemingly contradictory action is all the more curious given that not all agencies were as impressed with this intelligence as CIA was. It’s not until much, much later in its report until WaPo explains what remains true as recently as Admiral Rogers’ latest Congressional testimony: the NSA wasn’t and isn’t as convinced by CIA’s super secret intelligence as CIA was.

Despite the intelligence the CIA had produced, other agencies were slower to endorse a conclusion that Putin was personally directing the operation and wanted to help Trump. “It was definitely compelling, but it was not definitive,” said one senior administration official. “We needed more.”

Some of the most critical technical intelligence on Russia came from another country, officials said. Because of the source of the material, the NSA was reluctant to view it with high confidence.

By the time this detail is presented, the narrative is in place: Obama failed to respond adequately to the attack that CIA warned about back in August.

The depiction of this top-level compartment of just Brennan, Rice, McDonough, and Haines is interesting background, as well, for the depiction of the way McDonough undermined a State Department plan to institute a Special Commission before Donald Trump got started.

Supporters’ confidence was buoyed when McDonough signaled that he planned to “tabledrop” the proposal at the next NSC meeting, one that would be chaired by Obama. Kerry was overseas and participated by videoconference.

To some, the “tabledrop” term has a tactical connotation beyond the obvious. It is sometimes used as a means of securing approval of an idea by introducing it before opponents have a chance to form counterarguments.

“We thought this was a good sign,” a former State Department official said.

But as soon as McDonough introduced the proposal for a commission, he began criticizing it, arguing that it would be perceived as partisan and almost certainly blocked by Congress.

Obama then echoed McDonough’s critique, effectively killing any chance that a Russia commission would be formed.

Effectively, McDonough upended the table on those (which presumably includes the CIA) who wanted to preempt regular process.

Finally, even after  these three WaPo journalists foreground their entire narrative with CIA’s super duper scoop (that NSA is still not 100% convinced is one), they don’t describe their own role in changing the tenor of the response on December 9 by reporting the first iteration of this story.

“By December, those of us working on this for a long time were demoralized,” said an administration official involved in the developing punitive options.

Then the tenor began to shift.

On Dec. 9, Obama ordered a comprehensive review by U.S. intelligence agencies of Russian interference in U.S. elections going back to 2008, with a plan to make some of the findings public.

The WaPo’s report of the CIA’s intelligence changed the tenor back in December, and this story about the absence of a response might change the tenor here.

Presenting the politics ahead of the intelligence

The WaPo’s foregrounding of Brennan’s August scoop is also important for the way they portray the parallel streams of the intelligence and political response. It portrays the Democrats’ political complaints about Republicans in this story, most notably the suggestion that Mitch McConnell refused to back a more public statement about the Russian operation when Democrats were pushing for one in September. That story, in part because of McConnell’s silence, has become accepted as true.

Except the WaPo’s own story provides ample evidence that the Democrats were trying to get ahead of the formal intelligence community with respect to attribution, both in the summer, when Clapper only alluded to Russian involvement.

Even after the late-July WikiLeaks dump, which came on the eve of the Democratic convention and led to the resignation of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) as the DNC’s chairwoman, U.S. intelligence officials continued to express uncertainty about who was behind the hacks or why they were carried out.

At a public security conference in Aspen, Colo., in late July, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. noted that Russia had a long history of meddling in American elections but that U.S. spy agencies were not ready to “make the call on attribution” for what was happening in 2016.

And, more importantly, in the fall, when the public IC attribution came only after McConnell refused to join a more aggressive statement because the intelligence did not yet support it (WaPo makes no mention of it, but DHS’s public reporting from late September still attributed the the threat to election infrastructure to “cybercriminals and criminal hackers”).

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) went further, officials said, voicing skepticism that the underlying intelligence truly supported the White House’s claims. Through a spokeswoman, McConnell declined to comment, citing the secrecy of that meeting.

Key Democrats were stunned by the GOP response and exasperated that the White House seemed willing to let Republican opposition block any pre-election move.

On Sept. 22, two California Democrats — Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Adam B. Schiff — did what they couldn’t get the White House to do. They issued a statement making clear that they had learned from intelligence briefings that Russia was directing a campaign to undermine the election, but they stopped short of saying to what end.

A week later, McConnell and other congressional leaders issued a cautious statement that encouraged state election officials to ensure their networks were “secure from attack.” The release made no mention of Russia and emphasized that the lawmakers “would oppose any effort by the federal government” to encroach on the states’ authorities.

When U.S. spy agencies reached unanimous agreement in late September that the interference was a Russian operation directed by Putin, Obama directed spy chiefs to prepare a public statement summarizing the intelligence in broad strokes.

I’m all in favor of beating up McConnell, but there is no reason to demand members of Congress precede the IC with formal attribution for something like this. So until October 7, McConnell had cover (if not justification) for refusing to back a stronger statement.

And while the report describes Brennan’s efforts to brief members of Congress (and the reported reluctance of Republicans to meet with him), it doesn’t answer what remains a critical and open question: whether Brennan’s briefing for Harry Reid was different — and more inflammatory — than his briefing for Republicans, and whether that was partly designed to get Reid to serve as a proxy attacker on Jim Comey and the FBI.

Brennan moved swiftly to schedule private briefings with congressional leaders. But getting appointments with certain Republicans proved difficult, officials said, and it was not until after Labor Day that Brennan had reached all members of the “Gang of Eight” — the majority and minority leaders of both houses and the chairmen and ranking Democrats on the Senate and House intelligence committees.

Nor does this account explain another thing: why Brennan serially briefed the Gang of Eight, when past experience is to brief them in groups, if not all together.

In short, while the WaPo provides new details on the parallel intelligence and political tracks, it reinforces its own narrative while remaining silent on some details that are critical to that narrative.

The compartments

The foregrounding of CIA in all this also raises questions about a new and important detail about (what I assume to be the subsequently publicly revealed, though this is not made clear) Task Force investigating this operation: it lives at CIA, not FBI.

Brennan convened a secret task force at CIA headquarters composed of several dozen analysts and officers from the CIA, the NSA and the FBI.

The unit functioned as a sealed compartment, its work hidden from the rest of the intelligence community. Those brought in signed new non-disclosure agreements to be granted access to intelligence from all three participating agencies.

They worked exclusively for two groups of “customers,” officials said. The first was Obama and fewer than 14 senior officials in government. The second was a team of operations specialists at the CIA, NSA and FBI who took direction from the task force on where to aim their subsequent efforts to collect more intelligence on Russia.

Much later in the story, WaPo reveals how, in the wake of Obama calling for a report, analysts started looking back at their collected intelligence and learning new details.

Obama’s decision to order a comprehensive report on Moscow’s interference from U.S. spy agencies had prompted analysts to go back through their agencies’ files, scouring for previously overlooked clues.

The effort led to a flurry of new, disturbing reports — many of them presented in the President’s Daily Brief — about Russia’s subversion of the 2016 race. The emerging picture enabled policymakers to begin seeing the Russian campaign in broader terms, as a comprehensive plot sweeping in its scope.

It’s worth asking: did the close hold of the original Task Force, a hold that appears to have been set by Brennan, contribute to the belated discovery of these details revealing a broader campaign?

The surveillance driven sanctions

I’m most interested in the description of how the Obama Admin chose whom to impose sanctions on, though it includes this bizarre claim.

But the package of measures approved by Obama, and the process by which they were selected and implemented, were more complex than initially understood.

The expulsions and compound seizures were originally devised as ways to retaliate against Moscow not for election interference but for an escalating campaign of harassment of American diplomats and intelligence operatives. U.S. officials often endured hostile treatment, but the episodes had become increasingly menacing and violent.

Several of the details WaPo presents as misunderstood (including that the sanctions were retaliation for treatment of diplomats) were either explicit in the sanction package or easily gleaned at the time.

One of those easily gleaned details is that the sanctions on GRU and FSB were mostly symbolic. WaPo uses the symbolic nature of the attack on those who perpetrated the attack as a way to air complaints that these sanctions were not as onerous as those in response to Ukraine.

“I don’t think any of us thought of sanctions as being a primary way of expressing our disapproval” for the election interference, said a senior administration official involved in the decision. “Going after their intelligence services was not about economic impact. It was symbolic.”

More than any other measure, that decision has become a source of regret to senior administration officials directly involved in the Russia debate. The outcome has left the impression that Obama saw Russia’s military meddling in Ukraine as more deserving of severe punishment than its subversion of a U.S. presidential race.

“What is the greater threat to our system of government?” said a former high-ranking administration official, noting that Obama and his advisers knew from projections formulated by the Treasury Department that the impact of the election-related economic sanctions would be “minimal.”

Three things that might play into the mostly symbolic targeting of FSB, especially, are not mentioned. First, WaPo makes no mention of the suspected intelligence sources who’ve been killed since the election, most credibly Oleg Erovinkin, as well as a slew of other suspect and less obviously connected deaths. It doesn’t mention the four men Russia charged with treason in early December. And it doesn’t mention DOJ’s indictment of the Yahoo hackers, including one of the FSB officers, Dmitry Dokuchaev, that Russia charged with treason (not to mention the inclusion within the indictment of intercepts between FSB officers). There’s a lot more spy vs. spy activity going on here that likely relates far more to retaliation or limits on US ability to retaliate, all of which may be more important in the medium term than financial sanctions.

Given the Yahoo and other indictments working through San Francisco (including that of Yevgeniey Nikulin, who claims FBI offered him a plea deal involving admitting he hacked the DNC), I’m particularly interested in the shift in sanctions from NY to San Francisco, where Nikulin and Dokuchaev’s victims are located.

The FBI was also responsible for generating the list of Russian operatives working under diplomatic cover to expel, drawn from a roster the bureau maintains of suspected Russian intelligence agents in the United States.

[snip]

The roster of expelled spies included several operatives who were suspected of playing a role in Russia’s election interference from within the United States, officials said. They declined to elaborate.

More broadly, the list of 35 names focused heavily on Russians known to have technical skills. Their names and bios were laid out on a dossier delivered to senior White House officials and Cabinet secretaries, although the list was modified at the last minute to reduce the number of expulsions from Russia’s U.N. mission in New York and add more names from its facilities in Washington and San Francisco.

And the WaPo’s reports confirm what was also obvious: the two compounds got shut down (and were a priority) because of all the spying they were doing.

The FBI had long lobbied to close two Russian compounds in the United States — one in Maryland and another in New York — on the grounds that both were used for espionage and placed an enormous surveillance burden on the bureau.

[snip]

Rice pointed to the FBI’s McCabe and said: “You guys have been begging to do this for years. Now is your chance.”

The administration gave Russia 24 hours to evacuate the sites, and FBI agents watched as fleets of trucks loaded with cargo passed through the compounds’ gates.

Finally, given Congress’ bipartisan fearmongering about Kaspersky Lab, I’m most interested that at one point Treasury wanted to include them in sanctions.

Treasury Department officials devised plans that would hit entire sectors of Russia’s economy. One preliminary suggestion called for targeting technology companies including Kaspersky Lab, the Moscow-based cybersecurity firm. But skeptics worried that the harm could spill into Europe and pointed out that U.S. companies used Kaspersky systems and software.

In spite of all the fearmongering, no one has presented proof that Kaspersky is working for Russia (there are even things, which I won’t go in to for the moment, that suggest the opposite). But we’re moving close to de facto sanctions against Kaspersky anyway, even in spite of the fact (or perhaps because) they’re providing better intelligence on WannaCry than half the witnesses called as witnesses to Congress. But discrediting Kaspersky undercuts one of the only security firms in the world who, in addition to commenting on Russian hacking, will unpack America’s own hacking. You sanction Kaspersky, and you expand the asymmetry with which security firms selectively scrutinize just Russian hacking, rather than all nation-state hacking.

The looming cyberattack and the silence about Shadow Brokers

Which brings me to the last section of the article, where, over 8000 words in, the WaPo issues a threat against Russia in the form of a looming cyberattack Obama approved before he left.

WaPo’s early description of this suggests the attack was and is still in planning stages and relies on Donald Trump to execute.

Obama also approved a previously undisclosed covert measure that authorized planting cyber weapons in Russia’s infrastructure, the digital equivalent of bombs that could be detonated if the United States found itself in an escalating exchange with Moscow. The project, which Obama approved in a covert-action finding, was still in its planning stages when Obama left office. It would be up to President Trump to decide whether to use the capability.

But if readers make it all the way through the very long article, they’ll learn that’s not the case. The finding has already been signed, the implants are already being placed (implants which would most likely be discovered by Kaspersky), and for Trump to stop it, he would have to countermand Obama’s finding.

The implants were developed by the NSA and designed so that they could be triggered remotely as part of retaliatory cyber-strike in the face of Russian aggression, whether an attack on a power grid or interference in a future presidential race.

Officials familiar with the measures said that there was concern among some in the administration that the damage caused by the implants could be difficult to contain.

As a result, the administration requested a legal review, which concluded that the devices could be controlled well enough that their deployment would be considered “proportional” in varying scenarios of Russian provocation, a requirement under international law.

The operation was described as long-term, taking months to position the implants and requiring maintenance thereafter. Under the rules of covert action, Obama’s signature was all that was necessary to set the operation in motion.

U.S. intelligence agencies do not need further approval from Trump, and officials said that he would have to issue a countermanding order to stop it. The officials said that they have seen no indication that Trump has done so.

Whatever else this article is designed to do, I think, it is designed to be a threat to Putin, from long gone Obama officials.

Given the discussion of a looming cyberattack on Russia, it’s all the more remarkable WaPo breathed not one word about Shadow Brokers, which is most likely to be a drawn out cyberattack by Russian affiliates on NSA. Even ignoring the Shadow Brokers’ derived global ransomware attack in WannaCry, Shadow Brokers has ratcheted up the severity of its releases, including doxing NSA’s spies and hacks of the global finance system, It has very explicitly fostered tensions between the NSA and private sector partners (as well as the reputational costs on those private sector partners). And it has threatened to leak still worse, including NSA exploits against current Microsoft products and details of NSA’s spying on hostile nuclear programs.

The WaPo is talking about a big cyberattack, but an entity that most likely has close ties to Russia has been conducting one, all in plain sight. I suggested back in December that Shadow Brokers was essentially holding NSA hostage in part as a way to constrain US intelligence retaliation against Russia. Given ensuing events, I’m more convinced that is, at least partly, true.

But in this grand narrative of CIA’s early warning and Obama’s inadequate response, details like that remain unsaid.

One Takeaway from the Five Takeaways from the Comey Hearing: Election 2016 Continues to Suffocate Oversight

The Senate Judiciary Committee had an oversight hearing with Jim Comey yesterday, which I live-tweeted in great depth. As you can imagine, most of the questions pertained either to Comey’s handing of the Hillary investigation and/or to the investigation into Russian interference in the election. So much so that The Hill, in its “Five Takeaways from Comey’s testimony,” described only things that had to do with the election:

  • Comey isn’t sorry (but he was “mildly nauseous” that his conduct may have affected the outcome)
  • Emotions over the election are still raw
  • Comey explains DOJ dynamic: “I hope someday you’ll understand”
  • The FBI may be investigating internal leaks
  • Trump, Clinton investigations are dominating FBI oversight

The Hill’s description of that third bullet doesn’t even include the “news” from Comey’s statement: that there is some still-classified detail, in addition to Loretta Lynch’s tarmac meeting with Bill Clinton and the intercepted Hillary aide email saying Lynch would make sure nothing happened with the investigation, that led Comey to believe he had to take the lead on the non-indictment in July.

I struggled as we got closer to the end of it with the — a number things had gone on, some of which I can’t talk about yet, that made me worry that the department leadership could not credibly complete the investigation and declined prosecution without grievous damage to the American people’s confidence in the — in the justice system.

As I said, it is true that most questions pertained to Hillary’s emails or Russia. Still, reports like this, read primarily by people on the Hill, has the effect of self-fulfilling prophecy by obscuring what little real oversight happened. So here’s my list of five pieces of actual oversight that happened.

Neither Grassley nor Feinstein understand how FISA back door searches work

While they primarily focused on the import of reauthorizing Section 702 (and pretended that there were no interim options between clean reauthorization and a lapse), SJC Chair Chuck Grassley and SJC Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein both said things that made it clear they didn’t understand how FISA back door searches work.

At one point, in a discussion of the leaks about Mike Flynn’s conversation with Sergey Kislyak, Grassley tried to suggest that only a few people at FBI would have access to the unmasked identity in those intercepts.

There are several senior FBI officials who would’ve had access to the classified information that was leaked, including yourself and the deputy director.

He appeared unaware that as soon as the FBI started focusing on either Kislyak or Flynn, a back door search on the FISA content would return those conversations in unmasked form, which would mean a significant number of FBI Agents (and anyone else on that task force) would have access to the information that was leaked.

Likewise, at one point Feinstein was leading Comey through a discussion of why they needed to have easy back door access to communication content collected without a warrant (so we don’t stovepipe anything, Comey said), she said, “so you are not unmasking the data,” as if data obtained through a back door search would be masked, which genuinely (and rightly) confused Comey.

FEINSTEIN: So you are not masking the data — unmasking the data?

COMEY: I’m not sure what that means in this context.

It’s raw data. It would not be masked. That Feinstein, who has been a chief overseer of this program for the entire time back door searches were permitted doesn’t know this, that she repeatedly led the effort to defeat efforts to close the back door loophole, and that she doesn’t know what it means that this is raw data is unbelievably damning.

Incidentally, as part of the exchange wit Feinstein, Comey said the FISA data sits in a cloud type environment.

Comey claims the government doesn’t need the foreign government certificate except to target spies

Several hours into the hearing, Mike Lee asked some questions about surveillance. In particular, he asked if the targeting certificates for 702 ever targeted someone abroad for purposes unrelated to national security. Comey seemingly listed off the certificates we do have — foreign government, counterterrorism, and counterproliferation, noting that cyber gets worked into other ones.

LEE: Yes. Let’s talk about Section 702, for a minute. Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act authorizes the surveillance, the use of U.S. signals surveillance equipment to obtain foreign intelligence information.

The definition includes information that is directly related to national security, but it also includes quote, “information that is relevant to the foreign affairs of the United States,” close quote, regardless of whether that foreign affairs related information is relevant to a national security threat. To your knowledge, has the attorney general or has the DNI ever used Section 702 to target individuals abroad in a situation unrelated to a national security threat?

COMEY: Not that I’m aware of. I think — I could be wrong, but I don’t think so, I think it’s confined to counterterrorism to espionage, to counter proliferation. And — those — those are the buckets. I was going to say cyber but cyber is fits within…

He said they don’t need any FG information except that which targets diplomats and spies.

LEE: Right. So if Section 702 were narrowed to exclude such information, to exclude information that is relevant to foreign affairs, but not relevant to a national security threat, would that mean that the government would be able to obtain the information it needs in order to protect national security?

COMEY: Would seem so logically. I mean to me, the value of 702 is — is exactly that, where the rubber hits the road in the national security context, especially counterterrorism, counter proliferation.

I assume that Comey said this because the FBI doesn’t get all the other FG-collected stuff in raw form and so isn’t as aware that it exists. I assume that CIA and NSA, which presumably use this raw data far more than FBI, will find a way to push back on this claim.

But for now, we have the FBI Director stating that we could limit 702 collection to national security functions, a limitation that was defeated in 2008.

Comey says FBI only needs top level URLs for ECTR searches

In another exchange, Lee asked Comey about the FBI’s continued push to be able to get Electronic Communication Transaction Records. Specifically, he noted that being able to get URLs means being able to find out what someone was reading.

In response, Comey said he thought they could only get the top-level URL.

After some confusion that revealed Comey’s lie about the exclusion of ECTRs from NSLs being just a typo, Comey said FBI did not need any more than the top domain, and Lee answered that the current bill would permit more than that.

LEE: Yes. Based on the legislation that I’ve reviewed, it’s not my recollection that that is the case. Now, what — what I’ve been told is that — it would not necessarily be the policy of the government to use it, to go to that level of granularity. But that the language itself would allow it, is that inconsistent with your understanding?

COMEY: It is and my understanding is we — we’re not looking for that authority.

LEE: You don’t want that authority…

(CROSSTALK)

COMEY: That’s my understanding. What — what we’d like is, the functional equivalent of the dialing information, where you — the address you e-mailed to or the — or the webpage you went to, not where you went within it.

This exchange should be useful for limiting any ECTR provision gets rushed through to what FBI claims it needs.

The publication of (US) intelligence information counts as intelligence porn and therefore not journalism

Ben Sasse asked Comey about the discussion of indicting Wikileaks. Comey’s first refusal to answer whether DOJ would indict Wikileaks led me to believe they already had.

I don’t want to confirm whether or not there are charges pending. He hasn’t been apprehended because he’s inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

But as part of that discussion, Comey explained that Wikileaks’ publication of loads of classified materials amounted to intelligence porn, which therefore (particularly since Wikileaks didn’t call the IC for comment first, even though they have in the past) meant they weren’t journalism.

COMEY: Yes and again, I want to be careful that I don’t prejudice any future proceeding. It’s an important question, because all of us care deeply about the First Amendment and the ability of a free press, to get information about our work and — and publish it.

To my mind, it crosses a line when it moves from being about trying to educate a public and instead just becomes about intelligence porn, frankly. Just pushing out information about sources and methods without regard to interest, without regard to the First Amendment values that normally underlie press reporting.

[snip]

[I]n my view, a huge portion of WikiLeaks’s activities has nothing to do with legitimate newsgathering, informing the public, commenting on important public controversies, but is simply about releasing classified information to damage the United States of America. And — and — and people sometimes get cynical about journalists.

American journalists do not do that. They will almost always call us before they publish classified information and say, is there anything about this that’s going to put lives in danger, that’s going to jeopardize government people, military people or — or innocent civilians anywhere in the world.

I’ll write about this more at length.

Relatedly (though technically a Russian investigation detail), Comey revealed that the investigation into Trump ties to Russia is being done at Main Justice and EDVA.

COMEY: Yes, well — two sets of prosecutors, the Main Justice the National Security Division and the Eastern District of Virginia U.S. Attorney’s Office.

That makes Dana Boente’s role, first as Acting Attorney General for the Russian investigation and now the Acting Assistant Attorney General for National Security, all the more interesting, as it means he is the person who can make key approvals related to the investigation.

I don’t have any problem with him being chosen for these acting roles. But I think it supremely unwise to effectively eliminate levels of oversight on these sensitive cases (Russia and Wikileaks) by making the US Attorney already overseeing them also the guys who oversees his own oversight of them.

The US is on its way to becoming the last haven of shell corporations

Okay, technically these were Sheldon Whitehouse and Amy Klobuchar comments about Russia. But as part of a (typically prosecutorial) line of questioning about things related to the Russian investigation, Whitehouse got Comey to acknowledge that as the EU tries to crack down on shell companies, that increasingly leaves the US as the remaining haven for shell companies that can hide who is paying for things like election hacks.

WHITEHOUSE: And lastly, the European Union is moving towards requiring transparency of incorporations so that shell corporations are harder to create. That risks leaving the United States as the last big haven for shell corporations. Is it true that shell corporations are often used as a device for criminal money laundering?

COMEY: Yes.

[snip]

WHITEHOUSE: What do you think the hazards are for the United States with respect to election interference of continuing to maintain a system in which shell corporations — that you never know who’s really behind them are common place?

COMEY: I suppose one risk is it makes it easier for illicit money to make its way into a political environment.

WHITEHOUSE: And that’s not a good thing.

COMEY: I don’t think it is.

And Klobuchar addressed the point specifically as it relates to high end real estate (not mentioning that both Trump and Paul Manafort have been alleged to be involved in such transactions).

There have been recent concerns that organized criminals, including Russians, are using the luxury real estate market to launder money. The Treasury Department has noted a significant rise in the use of shell companies in real estate transactions, because foreign buyers use them as a way to hide their identity and find a safe haven for their money in the U.S. In fact, nearly half of all homes in the U.S. worth at least $5 million are purchased using shell companies.

Does the anonymity associated with the use of shell companies to buy real estate hurt the FBI’s ability to trace the flow of illicit money and fight organized crime? And do you support efforts by the Treasury Department to use its existing authority to require more transparency in these transactions?

COMEY: Yes and yes.

It’s a real problem, and not just because of the way it facilitates election hacks, and it’d be nice if Congress would fix it.

Last Fall’s Efforts against Russia: Influence versus Tamper

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

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

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

[snip]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the full statement from Feinstein and Schiff:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dianne Feinstein Discovers Its Not “Just” Metadata

Over the course of years of defending the NSA’s bulk metadata programs, Dianne Feinstein made a series of statements to suggest that massive collection of metadata — including aspiring to collect the phone records of every American — was no big deal because it didn’t include content.

June 6, 2013:

[T]his is just metadata. There is no content involved.

October 20, 2013:

The call-records program is not surveillance. It does not collect the content of any communication,

May 18, 2014:

It’s not a surveillance program, it’s a data-collection program.

But it appears Senator Feinstein no longer believes that the bulk collection of metadata is a minor issue. In response to yesterday’s unsealing of the indictment against 4 Russian hackers for targeting Yahoo, Feinstein had this to say:

Today’s charges against hackers and Russian spies for the theft of more than 500 million Yahoo user accounts is the latest evidence of a troubling trend: Russia’s sustained use of cyber warfare for both intelligence gathering and financial crimes. The indictment shows that Russia used these cyberattacks to target U.S. and Russian government officials, Russian journalists and employees of cybersecurity, financial services and commercial entities.

500 million user accounts didn’t get hacked. Upwards of 6,500 accounts got hacked for content, and the contacts of another 30 million were harvested for spam marketing. The 500 million number refers to the theft of a database of metadata. The indictment made clear that this was non-content data:

21. Beginning no later than 2014, the conspirators stole non-content information regarding more than 500 million Yahoo user accounts as a result of their malicious intrusion. The theft of user data was part of a larger intrusion into Yahoo’s computer network, which continued to and including at least September 2016. As part of this intrusion, malicious files and software tools were downloaded onto Yahoo’s computer network, and used to gain and maintain further unauthorized access to Yahoo’s network and to conceal the extent of such access.

22. The user data referenced in the preceding paragraph was held in Yahoo’s User Database (“UDB”). The UDB was, and contained, proprietary and confidential Yahoo technology and information, including, among other data, subscriber information, such as: account users’ names; recovery email accounts and phone numbers, which users provide to webmail providers, such as Yahoo, as alternative means of communication with the provider; password challenge questions and answers; and certain cryptographic security information associated with the account, i.e. the account’s “nonce”, further described below. Some of the information in the UDB was stored in an encrypted form.

Feinstein has long insisted that so long as content is not collected, it doesn’t amount to surveillance.

Now, I’ll grant you: the Yahoo database included far richer metadata than NSA got under the bulk phone and Internet metadata programs that Feinstein long championed. It includes names, alternate contacts, password hints, and that nonce (which is what the Russians used to break into email accounts themselves).

But we know that NSA’s phone and Internet dragnet programs correlated collected metadata with other information it had to develop this kind of profile of targeted users. We know it has the ability (and so therefore, presumably does) collect such data — as metadata — overseas. The definition of EO 12333 collected metadata that can be shared freely between intelligence agencies remains silent on whether it includes things like names. And even the modified phone dragnet program rolled out under USA Freedom Act correlates data — meaning it will pull from all known instances of the identifier — even before requesting data from providers.

So NSA is still collecting metadata — in quantities greater than what Russia stole from Yahoo — including metadata on US persons.

Perhaps given Feinstein’s newfound discovery of how compromising such information can be, she’ll be a little more attentive to NSA and FBI’s own use of bulk metadata?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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