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The Hack or Attack Debate: Answer Old Questions While Waiting to Learn Enough to Answer That One

As people in government, particularly members of Congress posturing for the cameras, start responding to the SolarWinds compromise, some have adopted a bellicose language unsupported by the facts, at least those that are public. Dick Durbin, for example, called it, “virtually a declaration of war.” That has led to some necessary pushback noting that as far as we know, this is an act of espionage, not sabotage. It’s the kind of thing we do as well without declaring war.

As usual, I substantially agree with Jack Goldsmith on these issues.

The lack of self-awareness in these and similar reactions to the Russia breach is astounding. The U.S. government has no principled basis to complain about the Russia hack, much less retaliate for it with military means, since the U.S. government hacks foreign government networks on a huge scale every day. Indeed, a military response to the Russian hack would violate international law. The United States does have options, but none are terribly attractive.

[snip]

The larger context here is that for many reasons—the Snowden revelations, the infamous digital attack on Iranian centrifuges (and other warlike uses of digital weapons), the U.S. “internet freedom” program (which subsidizes tools to circumvent constraints in authoritarian networks), Defend Forward, and more—the United States is widely viewed abroad as the most fearsome global cyber bully. From our adversaries’ perspective, the United States uses its prodigious digital tools, short of war, to achieve whatever advantage it can, and so adversaries feel justified in doing whatever they can as well, often with fewer scruples. We can tell ourselves that our digital exploits in foreign governmental systems serve good ends, and that our adversaries’ exploits in our systems do not, and often that is true. But this moral judgment, and the norms we push around it, have had no apparent influence in tamping down our adversaries’ harmful attacks on our networks—especially since the U.S. approach to norms has been to give up nothing that it wants to do in the digital realm, but at the same time to try to cajole, coerce, or shame our adversaries into not engaging in digital practices that harm the United States.

Goldsmith’s point about the Defend Forward approach adopted under Trump deserves particular focus given that, purportedly in the days since the compromise became known, Kash Patel is taking steps to split NSA and CyberCommand, something that would separate the Defend Forward effort from NSA.

Trump administration officials at the Pentagon late this week delivered to the Joint Chiefs of Staff a proposal to split up the leadership of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command. It is the latest push to dramatically reshape defense policy advanced by a handful of key political officials who were installed in acting roles in the Pentagon after Donald Trump lost his re-election bid.

A U.S. official confirmed on Saturday that Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley — who along with Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller must certify that the move meets certain standards laid out by Congress in 2016 — received the proposal in the last few days.

With Miller expected to sign off on the move, the fate of the proposal ultimately falls to Milley, who told Congress in 2019 that the dual-hat leadership structure was working and should be maintained.

As Reuters has reported, General Nakasone was pretty hubristic about NSA’s recent efforts to infiltrate our adversaries (Nakasone has, in unprecedented fashion, also chosen to officially confirm efforts CyberCom has made, which he must think has a deterrent effect that, it’s now clear, did not).

Speaking at a private dinner for tech security executives at the St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco in late February, America’s cyber defense chief boasted how well his organizations protect the country from spies.

U.S. teams were “understanding the adversary better than the adversary understands themselves,” said General Paul Nakasone, boss of the National Security Agency (NSA) and U.S. Cyber Command, according to a Reuters reporter present at the Feb. 26 dinner. His speech has not been previously reported.

Yet even as he spoke, hackers were embedding malicious code into the network of a Texas software company called SolarWinds Corp, according to a timeline published by Microsoft and more than a dozen government and corporate cyber researchers.

A little over three weeks after that dinner, the hackers began a sweeping intelligence operation that has penetrated the heart of America’s government and numerous corporations and other institutions around the world.

The failures of Defend Forward to identify this breach may raise questions about the dual hatting of NSA and CyberCommand, but there’s no good reason for these Trump flunkies to take any substantive steps in the last month of a Lame Duck period while it is serially refusing briefings to President Elect Biden’s team. All the more so because the more pressing issue, it seems, is giving CISA, the government’s defensive agency, more resources and authority.

More importantly, while it is too early to determine whether this goes beyond traditional espionage, there are questions that we can identify. For example, one detail that might suggest this was intended to do more than espionage is that the hackers stole FireEye’s Red Team tools. There are information gathering purposes for doing so, but they’re probably not important enough to risk blowing this entire operation, as happened. So we should at least consider whether the SolarWinds compromise aimed to pair intelligence (including that gathered from FERC, one of the agencies targeted) with the means to launch deniable sabotage on key critical infrastructure using FireEye’s tools.

Measurements of whether this is a hack or attack must also consider that the hackers are in a position where they could alter data. Consider what kind of mayhem Russia could do to our economy or world markets by altering data from Treasury. That is, the hackers are in a position where it’s possible, at least, to engage in sabotage without engaging in any kinetic act.

Finally, adopting the shorthand the industry uses for such things, there’s a bit of sloppiness about attribution. The working assumption this is APT 29, and the working reference is that APT 29 works for SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence agency (even though when it was implicated in key hacks in 2016, it was assumed to work for FSB). I’ve been told by someone with more local knowledge that the relationship between these hackers and the intelligence agencies they work for may be more transactional. The people who’ve best understood the attack, including FireEye, think this may be a new “group.”

While intelligence officials and security experts generally agree Russia is responsible, and some believe it is the handiwork of Moscow’s foreign intelligence service, FireEye and Microsoft, as well as some government officials, believe the attack was perpetrated by a hacking group never seen before, one whose tools and techniques had been previously unknown.

Which brings me to a question we should be able to answer, one I’ve been harping on since the DNC leak first became public: what was the relationship between the hackers, APT 28 (the ones who stole files and shared the with WikiLeaks) and APT 29 (who then, and still, have been described as “just” spying). From the very first — and even in March 2017, after which discussions of the hack have become irredeemably politicized beyond recovery — there was some complexity surrounding the issue.

I have previously pointed to a conflict between what Crowdstrike claimed in its report on the DNC hack and what the FBI told FireEye. Crowdstrike basically said the two hacking groups didn’t coordinate at all (which Crowdstrike took as proof of sophistication). Whereas FireEye said they did coordinate (which it took as proof of sophistication and uniqueness of this hack). I understand the truth is closer to the latter. APT 28 largely operated on its own, but at times, when it hit a wall of sorts, it got help from APT 29 (though there may have been some back and forth before APT 29 did share).

When I said I understood the truth was closer to the latter — that there was some cooperated between APT 28 and 29, it was based on what a firsthand witness, who had been involved in defending a related target in 2016, told me. He said, in general, there was no cooperation between the two sets of hackers, but on a few occasions APT 29 seemed to assist APT 28. That’s unsurprising. The attack in 2016 was ambitious, years in planning, and Putin was personally involved. He would obviously have the ability to demand coordination for this operation, so intelligence collected by APT 29 may well have dictated choices made in where to throw GRU’s efforts.

The point is important now, especially as people like CrowdStrike’s former CTO Dmitri Alperovitch recommends responses based on the assumption that this is SVR and therefore that dictates what Russia intends.

So we should assume this is espionage and therefore avoid escalating language for the moment. But having had our assess handed to us already, with a sophisticated campaign launched as we were busy looking for election hackers, it would be a big mistake IMO to rely on easy old categories to try to understand this.

Update: Corrected to reflect that Alperovitch is no longer with CrowdStrike.

On Rod Rosenstein’s Professed Unfamiliarity with the Mueller Report

Something happened in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing earlier this month that is interesting background to some of the details about the Mueller Investigation that have come out of late.

The guy who oversaw the Mueller Report appears unfamiliar with the Mueller Report

In the hearing, Dick Durbin tried to get Rod Rosenstein to defend the investigation he had overseen. Early on in the exchange, Rosenstein claimed that,

I do not consider the investigation to be corrupt, Senator, but I certainly understand, I understand the President’s frustration given the outcome, which was in fact that there was no evidence of conspiracy between Trump campaign advisors and Russians.

That’s of course not what the Report said at all. Rather, it said that,

[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.

[snip]

A statement that the investigation did not establish particular facts does not mean there was no evidence of those facts.

Had Durbin been prepared for this answer, he might have invited Rosenstein to quote where the Report says that there was no evidence of conspiracy, which he would have been unable to do. Instead, Durbin asked Rosenstein whether he agreed with several other things that (he claimed) the report said:

  • The Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome
  • There were more than 120 contacts between the Trump campaign and individuals linked to Russia
  • The Trump campaign “knew about, welcomed, and expected to benefit electorally from Russia’s interference”
  • The Trump campaign planned a messaging strategy around the WikiLeaks releases

In response to the first, Rosenstein claimed he didn’t know what the government (of Russia, apparently) was thinking, but could only say what their conduct was. To the second, Rosenstein said he had no reason to dispute the finding, though did not acknowledge directly that that’s what the report said.

In response to the third, Rosenstein asked Durbin what page he was referring to. Durbin claimed, incorrectly, it appeared on pages 1 to 2. Rosenstein made a great show of paging through the report, seemingly reading the passage in question, and said, “I’m not sure whether you were quoting from the Report or not Senator, but I have it in front of me … I apologize sir, I’m not seeing those words in the report if you could direct me to where it is in the report.”

In response to the fourth assertion, Rosenstein noted that that specific point says, “according to Mr. Gates, that’s attributed to Mr. Gates, I don’t think that’s a finding of the, Mueller, it’s what one of the … witnesses said.”

To be fair to Rosenstein, the exact words Durbin read do not appear in the report, just as “there was no evidence of conspiracy” does not appear in the report. Just the phrase, “the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts,” appears on pages 1 and 2 — though even that, Rosenstein was too cowardly to acknowledge. But unlike Rosenstein’s claim that the report showed no evidence of conspiracy, the rest of Durbin’s statement is backed by the report. On page 5, for example, the report explains that Trump showed interest in and welcomed the releases.

The presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump (“Trump Campaign” or “Campaign”) showed interest in WikiLeaks’s releases of documents and welcomed their potential to damage candidate Clinton.

And as for only Rick Gates describing a focused campaign effort to prepare for the WikiLeaks release, other witnesses, including campaign manager Paul Manafort, described similar obsession with the emails. At least five different witnesses gave testimony consistent with Gates’, and not all the people involved in such discussions were quoted in the Mueller Report.

Given Mueller’s own need to refer to the report and strict adherence to the specific language in the report when he testified before Congress, I can’t complain that Rosenstein seemed even less familiar with the contents of the report than Mueller (and elsewhere Rosenstein confessed he was uncertain about other key details). But my big takeaway from his testimony — aside from the fact that he seems intent on saying what Bill Barr, Donald Trump, and Lindsey Graham want him to say, whether or not it accords with reality — is that he exhibited none of the familiarity with the report I expected he would have.

It seems an important lesson. Rod Rosenstein, with no apparent familiarity with the report’s actual content, instead adopted the false lines that Trump and Barr have about the investigation, incorporating the ones on Barr’s four-page memo misrepresenting the findings, including where the memo neglected to provide the lead-up to the quotation that, “the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

Ed O’Callaghan (and Steve Engel) wrote Barr’s declination, not Rosenstein

That’s one reason I think the memo that Steven Engel and Ed O’Callaghan wrote Billy Barr on March 24, 2019 recommending he decline to prosecute the President is probably the most interesting Mueller-related release from Friday. In actuality, DOJ released just the first and last page of the memo, and redacted all the justifications. But the first page shows that Engel — who as OLC head should have absolutely zero input into the specifics of a criminal declination, particularly regarding a report that presumed OLC had ruled out such prosecutions categorically — and O’Callaghan wrote the actual declination of Trump. The memo only went “through” Rosenstein (though Rosenstein definitely initialed it).

About half that first page is redacted, but not a footnote that says,

Given the length and detail of the Special Counsel’s Report, we do not recount the relevant facts here. Our discussion and analysis assumes familiarity with the Report as well as much of the background surrounding the Special Counsel’s investigation.

I have every reason to believe that O’Callaghan, unlike Rosenstein, is reasonably familiar with the workings of the Mueller Report (but Rosenstein must have gotten his misunderstandings of what it showed from O’Callaghan).

But whatever logic is laid out in that memo, the discussion apparently does not tie closely to the actual facts.

That means both Barr and Rosenstein could well have approved it without any familiarity with the actual facts.

In spite of Rosenstein’s ignorance, DOJ had to read about Roger Stone’s cover-up closely to redact it

Rosenstein’s professed lack of familiarity with Trump’s enthusiasm to exploit the WikiLeaks release is interesting given how important it had to have been in March 2019, when Mueller was publishing his conclusions. That’s because it was the one ongoing proceeding treated as such in the report release. So a great deal of the report got redacted — properly — in the interest of protecting Roger Stone’s right to a fair trial. Someone at DOJ — and the process may have been overseen by O’Callaghan — had to have read the Stone details closely if only to make sure none of the rest of us could.

That said, even before DOJ released the report, it was immediately clear how inconsistent the Stone findings were with Billy Barr’s public statements. Barr’s categorical comments about conspiracy pertained only to conspiring directly with Russia, which allowed him to make assertions that completely ignored Stone’s attempts — via means that have not yet been made public — to optimize the WikiLeaks releases.

On Friday, all the things that Barr was covering up became public in one narrative.

There was very little that had not been previously published in Friday’s release of the report. The details in the report showed up in Stone’s prosecution, the trial, and the warrants released in April. But the description of how many witnesses knew of Trump and Stone’s focus on the releases — including those like Paul Manafort and Steve Bannon who always tried to protect Trump in their testimony — sure does make Rosenstein’s denials look deliberate.

In debriefings with the Office, former deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates said that, before Assange’s June 12 announcement, Gates and Stone had a phone conversation in which Stone said something “big” was coming and had to do with a leak of information.195 Stone also said to Gates that he thought Assange had Clinton emails. Gates asked Stone when the information was going to be released. Stone said the release would happen very soon. According to Gates, between June 12, 2016 and July 22, 2016, Stone repeated that information was coming. Manafort and Gates both called to ask Stone when the release would happen, and Gates recalled candidate Trump being generally frustrated that the Clinton emails had not been found.196

Paul Manafort, who would later become campaign chairman, provided similar information about the timing of Stone’s statements about WikiLeaks.197 According to Manafort, sometime in June 2016, Stone told Manafort that he was dealing with someone who was in contact with WikiLeaks and believed that there would be an imminent release of emails by WikiLeaks.19

Michael Cohen, former executive vice president of the Trump Organization and special counsel to Donald J. Trump,199 told the Office that he recalled an incident in which he was in candidate Trump’s office in Trump Tower when Stone called. Cohen believed the call occurred before July 22, 2016, when WikiLeaks released its first tranche of Russian-stolen DNC emails.200 Stone was patched through to the office and placed on speakerphone. Stone then told the candidate that he had just gotten off the phone with Julian Assange and in a couple of days WikiLeaks would release information. According to Cohen, Stone claimed that he did not know what the content of the materials was and that Trump responded, “oh good, alright” but did not display any further reaction.201 Cohen further told the Office that, after WikiLeaks’s subsequent release of stolen DNC emails in July 2016, candidate Trump said to Cohen something to the effect of, “I guess Roger was right.”202

After WikiLeaks’s July 22, 2016 release of documents, Stone participated in a conference call with Manafort and Gates. According to Gates, Manafort expressed excitement about the release and congratulated Stone.203 Manafort, for his part, told the Office that, shortly after WikiLeaks’s July 22 release, Manafort also spoke with candidate Trump and mentioned that Stone had predicted the release and claimed to have access to WikiLeaks. Candidate Trump responded that Manafort should stay in touch with Stone.204 Manafort relayed the message to Stone, likely on July 25, 2016.205 Manafort also told Stone that he wanted to be kept apprised of any developments with WikiLeaks and separately told Gates to keep in touch with Stone about future WikiLeaks releases.206

According to Gates, by the late summer of 2016, the Trump Campaign was planning a press strategy, a communications campaign, and messaging based on the possible release of Clinton emails by WikiLeaks.207 Gates also stated that Stone called candidate Trump multiple times during the campaign.208 Gates recalled one lengthy telephone conversation between Stone and candidate Trump that took place while Trump and Gates were driving to LaGuardia Airport. Although Gates could not hear what Stone was saying on the telephone, shortly after the call candidate Trump told Gates that more releases of damaging information would be coming.209

Stone also had conversations about WikiLeaks with Steve Bannon, both before and after Bannon took over as the chairman of the Trump Campaign. Bannon recalled that, before joining the Campaign on August 13, 2016, Stone told him that he had a connection to Assange. Stone implied that he had inside information about WikiLeaks. After Bannon took over as campaign chairman, Stone repeated to Bannon that he had a relationship with Assange and said that WikiLeaks was going to dump additional materials that would be bad for the Clinton Campaign.210

Rosenstein asserted there was no conspiracy in spite of ongoing investigations into a conspiracy

All of which leads me to something I’ve been pondering.

In this post, I analyzed what the Stone warrants suggest about the investigation into him. The investigation appeared to start as an effort to determine whether Stone’s efforts to optimize the hack-and-leak; the Mueller Report seems to explain that nothing Stone was known to have done was criminal. In August 2018, as Stone’s efforts to tamper with witnesses became clear from his press campaign, Mueller’s team obtained the warrants that would lead to his obstruction charges. On August 20, 2018, Mueller obtained warrants for Stone’s cell site location during the election and Guccifer 2.0’s second email account; while different FBI agents obtained those warrants, they got them within minutes of each other.

Then, on September 26 and 27, an FBI agent stationed in Pittsburgh obtained a bunch of warrants, most with gags citing 18 USC 951 and conspiracy, the descriptions of which were withheld in April, apparently because those investigations are ongoing.

*September 24, 2018: Warrant for Stone’s Liquid Web server

*September 26, 2018: Mystery Twitter Account

*September 27, 2018: Mystery Facebook and Instagram Accounts

*September 27, 2018: Mystery Microsoft include Skype

*September 27, 2018: Mystery Google

*September 27, 2018: Mystery Twitter Accounts 2

*September 27, 2018: Mystery Apple ends in R

The warrant targeting several Twitter accounts is sealed in part because, “It does not appear that Stone is fully aware of the full scope of the ongoing FBI investigation.”

In September 2018, Mueller’s team seems to have pursued a new line of investigation, one that the obstruction investigation into Stone may have provided cover for, one that may be ongoing. Mueller was specifically trying to hide that investigation from Stone.

But I’m struck by the date: September 26 and 27

In the wake of a September 21 NYT story, Trump almost fired Rosenstein when people close to Andrew McCabe leaked details of Rosenstein’s musing about wearing a wire to a meeting with Trump. Given Rosenstein’s apparent ignorance of even the public Stone related content — and O’Callaghan’s apparent misrepresentation of those details — I wonder whether Stone wasn’t the only person Mueller was hiding this from.

Rosenstein asserted, as fact, that the Mueller Report showed no evidence of a conspiracy between Trump and Russia (which is inaccurate by itself). He said that in spite of warrants in a still-pending investigation into conspiracy and Agent of a Foreign power involving Stone.

Mick Mulvaney Confesses OMB and DOD Are Withholding Evidence of a Crime from Congress

Amid the tsunami of alarming news Mick Mulvaney made at today’s press conference (Trump is holding the G-7 at Doral next year, he likely will invite Putin, Trump did engage in a quid pro quo with Volodymyr Zelensky on his July 25 call), one of the more important admissions got missed.

Mick Mulvaney admitted that the White House would have been breaking the law by withholding Ukrainian security funds because it did not have a “really really good reason not to do it.”

By the way, there was a report that we were worried that the money, that if we didn’t pay out the money it would be illegal. It would be unlawful. That is one of those things that has a little shred of truth in it, that makes it look a lot worse than it really is. We were concerned about — over at OMB, about an impoundment. And I know I’ve just put half you folks to bed, but there’s a, the Budget Control Act, Impound — the Budget Control Impoundment Act of 1974 says that if Congress appropriates money you have to spend it. At least, that’s how it’s interpreted by some folks. And we knew that that money either had to go out the door by the end of September, or we had to have a really really good reason not to do it. And that was the legality of the issue.

He’s referring, presumably, to a WSJ report that OMB — the agency Mulvaney is still officially in charge of — put a political appointee in charge of withholding duly appropriated security funds for Ukraine so that President Trump could extort concessions from Ukraine.

The White House gave a politically appointed official the authority to keep aid to Ukraine on hold after career budget staff members questioned the legality of delaying the funds, according to people familiar with the matter, a shift that House Democrats are probing in their impeachment inquiry.

President Trump’s order to freeze nearly $400 million in aid to Ukraine in mid-July is at the center of House Democratic efforts to investigate allegations that Mr. Trump used U.S. foreign policy powers to benefit himself politically.

[snip]

The president has the authority to delay the release of money in certain instances, according to the Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan research agency, including if there has been an unexpected change in circumstances for the program. But without being provided explanation or justification about why the administration was delaying the aid, some career officials at the Office of Management and Budget became worried they didn’t have the legal authority to hold up the funds, according to the people familiar.

While career civil servants put an initial hold on the aid, Michael Duffey, associate director of national security programs in OMB, was given the authority for continuing to keep the aid on hold after the career staff began raising their concerns to political officials at OMB, according to the people familiar with the matter. Mr. Duffey also began overseeing the process for approving and releasing funds, called apportionment, for other foreign aid and defense accounts, according to a public document indicating the change.

As noted by Mulvaney today, a law passed in the wake of Richard Nixon playing games with appropriations requires that if you withhold duly appropriated funds, you explain to Congress why you’re doing so, a decision that Congress then gets to veto simply by refusing to approve of the decision. The law makes it clear that the President can’t simply ignore the will of Congress on appropriations.

And yet, that’s what Trump did for the entirety of the summer.

Worse, in his press conference today, Mulvaney admitted that Trump didn’t have a “really really good reason not to” release the funds. Rather, he had a really bad reason: he was trying to extort a quid pro quo.

And that’s why the decision — reported in ho hum fashion on Tuesday as if it were just another case of the Administration refusing Congressional subpoenas — that OMB and DOD would not respond to subpoenas is actually really important.

The subpoena to those agencies lays out some of the evidence that Trump withheld the funds after DOD cleared them. Then it lays out the evidence that Trump was defying bipartisan Congressional will in doing so.

As you are aware, the Impoundment Control Act of 1974 authorizes the President to withhold the obligation of funds only “(1) to provide for contingencies; (2) to achieve savings made possible by or through changes in requirements or greater efficiency of operations; or (3) as specifically provided by law.” The President is required to submit a special message to Congress with information about the proposed deferral of funds.

On August 30, 2019, Chairman Adam Smith and Ranking Member Mac Thornberry of the House Committee on Armed Services wrote a letter to Mr. Mulvaney requesting information why military assistance to Ukraine was being withheld and when it would be released. They wrote: “This funding is critical to the accomplishment of U.S. national security objectives in Europe.”

On September 3, 2019, a bipartisan group of Senators–including Rob Portman, Jeanne Shaheen, Dick Durbin, Richard Blumenthal, and Ron Johnson–wore a letter requesting that OMB release the military assistance to Ukraine that the Trump Administration was withholding:

The funds designated for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative are vital to the viability of the Ukrainian military. It has helped Ukraine develop the independent military capabilities and skills necessary to fend off the Kremlin’s continued onslaughts within its territory. In fact, Ukraine continues to fight daily on its eastern border against Russia-backed separatists in the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, and over 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers and civilians have lost their lives in this war. U.S.-funded security assistance has already helped turn the tide in this conflict, and it is necessary to ensure the protection of the sovereign territory of this young country, going forward.

On September 5, 2019, Chairman Eliot L. Engel and Ranking Member Michael McCaul of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs wrote a letter to OMB urging the Trump Administration to lift its hold on security funds to support Ukraine, writing: “These funds, which were appropriated by Congress as Foreign Military Financing and as part of the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative and signed into law by the President, are essential to advancing U.S. national security interests.”

On September 9, 2019, the Committees on Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, and Oversight wrote to the White House requesting documents related to “the actual or potential suspension of security assistance to Ukraine.” The White House never responded to this request. However, two days later, on September 11, 2019, the White House released its hold on the military assistance to Ukraine.

On September 24, 2019, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stated that, although he was “very actively involved in advocating the aid,” he “was not given an explanation” about why it was being withheld, even though he talked to the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of State. He stated: “I have no idea what precipitated the delay.”

The enclosed subpoena demands documents that are necessary for the Committees to examine the sequences of these events and the reasons behind the White House’s decision to withhold critical military assistance to Ukraine that was appropriated by Congress to counter Russian aggression.

That’s the subpoena that Mulvaney’s agency and DOD (the latter, after initially saying it would cooperate) are defying. It’s a subpoena that goes to the zenith of Congress’ authority, whether it is issued within or outside of an impeachment inquiry. But within an impeachment inquiry, it illustrates that on one issue of fact at the core of the investigation, there is bipartisan agreement that the White House was in the wrong.

And today, Mulvaney admitted that the White House did not have a very very good reason to withhold those funds, even while confirming that Trump was withholding the funds, in part, to extort a quid pro quo.

Even if the White House had a very very good reason, the law obliges the White House to explain to Congress why it blew off Congress’ power of the purse. The White House didn’t do it in real time — not even to Mitch McConnell. And the White House is refusing to do it now.

Update: Jack Goldsmith did a review of this issue in Lawfare today, but before the Mulvaney comments.

Update: Lisa Murkowski complained about this issue to Tim Mak today.

Why Would Don McGahn (and His Lawyer) Cooperate in a Piece Claiming He Cooperated with Mueller (on Obstruction)?

As I laid out here, the latest NYT obstruct-a-palooza on Don McGahn “cooperating” with Robert Mueller spins what is probably a lawyer covering his own legal jeopardy with a claim of full cooperation.

But why did he (and his lawyer, William Burck) cooperate in it? Why spin a fanciful tale of being disloyal to your boss, even if it’s just to blame him for it before he blames you?

The most obvious answer is he’s trying to convince Mueller he’s not responsible for the legal shenanigans of (as the NYT continues to spin it) the obstruction of the investigation, or of the legal shenanigans of Trump generally.

There may well be an aspect of that, though I wouldn’t want to be (and hope I’m not) in a position where my legal jeopardy relied on how successfully I could spin Maggie and Mike, even if I were as expert at doing so as Don McGahn is.

A better answer may lie in this observation from my last post:

By far the most telling passage in this 2,225+ word story laying out Don McGahn’s “cooperation” with the Mueller inquiry is this passage:

Though he was a senior campaign aide, it is not clear whether Mr. Mueller’s investigators have questioned Mr. McGahn about whether Trump associates coordinated with Russia’s effort to influence the election.

Over two thousand words and over a dozen sources, and Maggie and Mike never get around to explaining whether Don McGahn has any exposure in or provided testimony for the investigation in chief, the conspiracy with Russia to win the election.

Consider: the story Maggie and Mike (and Don McGahn’s lawyer) spin is that Don McGahn let Trump bully him around on some issues in early 2017, which led to some things that might look like obstruction of justice. An unfortunate occurrence, surely. But McGahn might be forgiven for fucking things up in early January 2017. After all, he was new to the whole White House Counseling thing; he had never worked in a White House before. Beginner’s mistake(s), you might call the long list of things he fucked up at the beginning of his tenure, which Maggie and Mike nod to but don’t describe in full resplendent glory.

His relationship with the president had soured as Mr. Trump blamed him for a number of fraught moments in his first months in office, including the chaotic, failed early attempts at a ban on travelers from some majority-Muslim countries and, in particular, the existence of Mr. Mueller’s investigation.

Don McGahn’s skills, it turns out, lie elsewhere.

While he has bolloxed most of the things White House Counsels are supposed to do (like keeping the White House out of legal and ethical trouble), he has had unsurpassed success at stacking the courts. I doubt there’s an ideological Republican in the country who isn’t thrilled with McGahn’s success at stacking the courts.

Update: Case in point.

Indeed (this becomes important in just a bit), McGahn’s success at stacking the courts is one of the biggest reasons why Republicans in Congress put up with the rest of Trump’s shit. Being President, for many Republicans, isn’t about governing; it’s about stacking the courts.

It turns out, though, that McGahn had another job before he became an expert court-stacker. For decades, Don McGahn has been one of the Republican party’s key campaign finance lawyers.

That’s how he grew to be close to Trump when, as Maggie and Mike describe,

McGahn joined the Trump team as an early hire said to like the candidate’s outsider position.

Don McGahn had come to prominence in the party at the NRCC and was rewarded for it with a seat on the FEC, where he made campaign finance more slushy.

But probably not slushy enough.

Here’s where Maggie and Mike’s failure to get an answer for whether longtime Republican campaign finance expert Don McGahn has been questioned about his role in the conspiracy with Russians to win the election (not to mention their failure to pin down when his third interview with Mueller’s team took place, after he happily revealed when the first two did) becomes important.

Don McGahn might be forgiven for bolloxing up the White House Counsel job. He was new at that (and he was busy, anyway, stacking the courts).

But at least three of the areas where Mueller’s team might find a conspiracy with Russia (or other foreigners) to win the election involve campaign finance issues — Don McGahn’s expertise. Those are:

  • Whether knowingly employing British Cambridge Analytica employees without getting them proper visas constitutes illegal foreign influence?
  • Whether accepting a Trump Tower meeting with Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton constitutes accepting a thing of value?
  • Whether the campaign was sufficiently firewalled from the  dodgy shit Roger Stone was doing (which has been a focus of the last six months of Mueller’s time)?

My wildarse guess is that campaign finance expert Don McGahn might find a way to finesse hiring foreign Cambridge Analytica employees. My wildarse guess is that campaign finance expert Don McGahn could claim ignorance about the illegal details of the Trump Tower and other foreign influence peddling meetings.

My wildarse guess is that campaign finance expert Don McGahn did not sufficiently firewall Stone off from the campaign. Especially given that he was involved in both incarnations of Stop the Steal — the effort to stamp down a convention rebellion, and the effort (which worked in parallel to a Russian one) to use claims of a “rigged” election to suppress Democratic voters. Especially given that he was loved in the Republican party for leaning towards slush over legal compliance.

Given how central campaign finance violations are in any question of a conspiracy with Russia, it is malpractice for Maggie and Mike to publish a story without determining whether — after being grilled by Mueller’s team for two days last fall about whether he fucked up White House Counseling — McGahn has more recently been grilled extensively about whether he fucked up campaign finance, the thing he got hired for in the first place. The thing he’s supposed to be an expert in.

But Maggie and Mike believe Trump is only being investigated for obstruction, so seeding a big puff piece with them is a sure bet you won’t get asked about your obviously central role (or not) in any conspiracy involving campaign finance.

That’s just part of a potential explanation for why Don McGahn (and his lawyer) would seed a big puff piece with Maggie and Mike, making it look like McGahn had cooperated a lot on something he was never an expert in — White House Counseling — but remaining utterly silent on whether he cooperated on something he is undoubtedly an expert in (even if he tends to prefer slush to law). Better to get in trouble for cooperating on the stuff Trump and his lawyers have been successfully distracting with for the last six months rather than cooperating with prosecutors on a case about conspiring with Russian spies to win an election, the stuff that will elicit cries of Treason and with it badly tarnish the Republican party.

Then there’s this, the last great court-stack. Numerous people have noted, but Maggie and Mike did not, even while noting that McGahn is in the middle of a SCOTUS fight:

Mr. McGahn is still the White House counsel, shepherding the president’s second Supreme Court nominee, Brett M. Kavanaugh, through the confirmation process.

William Burck, McGahn’s lawyer, is his partner-in-crime in his last great court-stack.

When Trump (presumably based on the advice of his chief court-stacker, Don McGahn) nominated Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, people (including Mitch McConnell) warned him of the danger of nominating someone with such an extensive paper record. Nevertheless, Republicans started with an assumption that that record would be made public. Until July 24, when Republicans had a private meeting and realized they had to suppress Kavanaugh’s record as White House Staff Secretary.

It is not surprising then, that on July 19, 2018, while discussing preparations for Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing, Senator Cornyn — the Majority Whip and a senior member of the Judiciary Committee — said that the production of documents Judge Kavanaugh had “generated . . . authored…or contributed to” during his tenure as White House Staff Secretary should be produced to the Committee.  He stated that it “just seems to be common sense.”

However, less than a week later, following a White House meeting with you on the records production on July 24, the Republican position abruptly and inexplicably shifted.  Since that meeting, Senate Republicans refused to request any and all documents from Judge Kavanaugh’s three years as White House Staff Secretary, regardless of authorship.  Immediately after the meeting, Senator Cornyn described requesting any Staff Secretary records as “a bridge too far.”  Days later, Chairman Chuck Grassley submitted a records request to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and omitted any of Judge Kavanaugh’s records as Staff Secretary.

Since then, William Burck has taken time away from representing Don McGahn and Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon to personally suppress lots of Kavanaugh’s records as White House Staff Secretary. And Chuck Grassley has moved up Kavanaugh’s confirmation process to make sure that some of production being slow-rolled by Don McGahn’s lawyer will not be release before Kavanaugh gets a vote on a lifetime appointment.

There’s clearly something in Kavanaugh’s record as White House Staff Secretary that might lead Susan Collins or Lisa Murkowski to vote against Kavanaugh — or make the entire nomination toxic in time for the mid-terms.

Mind you, whether Don McGahn’s failures on the topic he is supposed to be an expert on, campaign finance, contribute to getting the President’s lackeys indicted for a conspiracy may not directly relate to his last great hurrah in stacking the courts, solidifying a regressive majority on SCOTUS for a generation and with it adding someone who will suppress this investigation.

Then again it might.

Most Republicans, I suspect, will one day become willing to jettison Trump so long as they can continue stacking the courts. Trump, one day, may be expendable so long as McGahn’s expertise at stacking the court holds sway. At that level, McGahn’s political fortunes may actually conflict with Trump’s.

But not if he (and his lawyer) fuck up the last great court-stack. Not if they get blamed for failing on McGahn’s area of expertise — campaign finance — and in so doing lead to a delay in and with it the demise of the Kavanaugh confirmation.

As I disclosed last month, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 

 

Graphic: Quino Al via Unsplash (mod by Rayne)

Three Things: Call, Call, Call!

[As always, note the byline — this isn’t Marcy’s post. / ~Rayne]

Dial (202) 224-3121.

If you don’t already have this number memorized or logged as a contact, have it tattooed on your body where you can see it. Afraid of needles? Use henna for a temporary tattoo. You’re going to need this number until Congress breaks before the mid-term elections.

~ 3 ~

The White House’s occupant was supposed to announce today the nominee to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy. Call your senators and tell them to refuse to hold hearings on this nomination.

If they are GOP, tell them it’s too close to the mid-term elections and the people deserve to have a say — in short, use the same argument Mitch “Turtlehead” McConnell used when he refused to hold a Judiciary Committee hearing to approve President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland.

If your senator(s) are Democrats or Independents, tell them they must deny a president who is under investigation any nominee to a lifetime seat as long as there is a cloud over the presidency. If they cannot fend off a Judiciary Committee hearing, insist they do not vote for any nominee who seeks to overturn Roe v. Wade. Nor should they confirm a justice who will not recuse themselves from any case against Trump or his campaign arising from Department of Justice investigations, nor should they approve a justice who believes the president is in any way above the law, immune in ways the public is not.

I’ve come to resist The Hill as it has become ridiculously biased, but this op-ed is worth a read: The ‘McConnell Rule’ is law, and Senate Democrats should sue to enforce it.

Live by Turtlehead’s rule, die by it.

Need a script for your calls? See Celeste Pewter at this link.

~ 2 ~

Your next call is again to your senators, this time on the nomination of Brian Benczkowski to the Department of Justice as Assistant Attorney General.

Senator Dick Durbin has already been working on this:

Read the letter’s text and the rest of his comments on Twitter at this link. Benczkowski’s nomination should be withdrawn; it is little more than another form of obstruction of justice.

This is another poisonous nomination; just as a president under investigation shouldn’t be permitted to appoint justices, neither should he be able to appoint nominees to the Justice Department with such serious conflicts related to the same investigation. Benckowski’s nomination is simply corrupt.

~ 1 ~

WHERE ARE THE CHILDREN?

Not the Thai students who’ve been trapped in cave but the thousands of children from infants to teens who have been separated from their asylum-seeking parents for no legal reason apart from institutionalized terror in the form of human trafficking.

The lack of a means to trace children as they were placed in camps, foster homes, gods know where else is a clear indication of intention: this administration meant for these children to be lost to their parents. This administration did not want to be held accountable by any tracking.

As I’ve said before, it’s criminal. Media shouldn’t expend one lick more time on scum like Alan Dershowitz (like The New York Times’ allocation of six journalists to his obstructionist ass) and instead should be hounding the government to find and unite these children with their parents, documenting application of immigration and asylum laws, and reporting on the creation of concentration camps (that’s exactly what they are).

Call your representatives in both houses of Congress and demand a legislative fix — Rep. Nadler’s Keep Families Together Act (HR 6135) and Sen. Schumer’s call for a Reunification Czar — to bar the executive branch from separating families. I also want to bar the use of military resources for this purpose.

See Celeste Pewter at this link if you need more overview and a script for calling.

Some of the children are being reunited under court order — like this one-year-old who appeared before a judge, alone — but if the government never had a plan in place to track children separated from families, how do we know all the children will be reunited?

~ 0 ~

Every Monday seems considerably worse, but I’m not going to face them on my knees. Instead I will be contacting Congress. What about you?

Chris Wray’s DodgeBall and Trump’s Latest Threats

Though I lived-tweeted it, I never wrote up Christopher Wray’s confirmation hearing to become FBI Director. Given the implicit and explicit threats against prosecutorial independence Trump made in this interview, the Senate should hold off on Wray’s confirmation until it gets far more explicit answers to some key questions.

Trump assails judicial independence

The NYT interview is full of Trump’s attacks on prosecutorial independence.

It started when Trump suggested (perhaps at the prompting of Michael Schmidt) that Comey only briefed Trump on the Christopher Steele dossier so he could gain leverage over the President.

Later, Trump called Sessions’ recusal “unfair” to the President.

He then attacked Rod Rosenstein by suggesting the Deputy Attorney General (who, Ryan Reilly pointed out, is from Bethesda) must be a Democrat because he’s from Baltimore.

Note NYT goes off the record (note the dashed line) with Trump in his discussions about Rosenstein at least twice (including for his response to whether it was Sessions’ fault or Rosenstein’s that Mueller got appointed), and NYT’s reporters seemingly don’t think to point out to the President that he appeared to suggest he had no involvement in picking DOJ’s #2, which would seem to be crazy news if true.

Finally, Trump suggested (as he has elsewhere) Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe is pro-Clinton.

Having attacked all the people who are currently or who have led the investigation into him (elsewhere in the interview, though, Trump claims he’s not under investigation), Trump then suggested that FBI Directors report directly to the President. In that context, he mentioned there’ll soon be a new FBI Director.

In other words, this mostly softball interview (though Peter Baker made repeated efforts to get Trump to explain the emails setting up the June 9, 2016 meeting) served as a largely unfettered opportunity for Trump to take aim at every major DOJ official and at the concept of all prosecutorial independence. And in that same interview, he intimated that the reporting requirements with Christopher Wray — who got nominated, ostensibly, because Comey usurped the chain of command requiring him to report to Loretta Lynch — would amount to Wray reporting directly to Trump.

Rosenstein does what he says Comey should be fired for

Close to the same time this interview was being released, Fox News released an “exclusive” interview with Rod Rosenstein, one of two guys who acceded to the firing of Jim Comey ostensibly because the FBI Director made inappropriate comments about an investigation. In it, the guy overseeing Mueller’s investigation into (in part) whether Trump’s firing of Comey amounted to obstruction of justice, Rosenstein suggested Comey acted improperly in releasing the memos that led to Mueller’s appointment.

And he had tough words when asked about Comey’s recent admission that he used a friend at Columbia University to get a memo he penned on a discussion with Trump leaked to The New York Times.

“As a general proposition, you have to understand the Department of Justice. We take confidentiality seriously, so when we have memoranda about our ongoing matters, we have an obligation to keep that confidential,” Rosenstein said.

Asked if he would prohibit releasing memos on a discussion with the president, he said, “As a general position, I think it is quite clear. It’s what we were taught, all of us as prosecutors and agents.”

While Rosenstein went on to defend his appointment of Mueller (and DOJ’s reinstatement of asset forfeitures), he appears to have no clue that he undermined his act even as he defended it.

Christopher Wray’s dodge ball

Which brings me to Wray’s confirmation hearing.

In fact, there were some bright spots in Christopher Wray’s confirmation hearing, mostly in its last dregs. For example, Dick Durbin noted that DOJ used to investigate white collar crime, but then stopped. Wray suggested DOJ had lost its stomach for such things, hinting that he might “rectify” that.

Similarly, with the last questions of the hearing Mazie Hirono got the most important question about the process of Wray’s hiring answered, getting Wray to explain that only appropriate people (Trump, Don McGahn, Reince Priebus, Mike Pence) were in his two White House interviews.

But much of the rest of the hearing alternated between Wray’s obviously well-rehearsed promises he would never be pressured to shut down an investigation, alternating with a series of dodged questions. Those dodges included:

  • What he did with the 2003 torture memo (dodge 1)
  • Whether 702 should have more protections (dodge 2)
  • Why did Trump fire Comey (dodge 3)
  • To what extent the Fourth Amendment applies to undocumented people in the US (dodge 4)
  • What we should do about junk science (dodge 5)
  • Whether Don Jr should have taken a meeting with someone promising Russian government help to get Trump elected (dodge 6)
  • Whether Lindsey Graham had fairly summarized the lies Don Jr told about his June 9, 2016 meeting (dodge 7)
  • Can the President fire Robert Mueller (dodge 8)
  • Whether it was a good idea to form a joint cyber group with Russia (dodge 9)
  • The role of tech in terrorist recruitment (dodge 9 the second)
  • Whether FBI Agents had lost faith in Comey (dodge 10)
  • Who was in his White House interview — though this was nailed down in a Hirono follow up (dodge 11)

Now, don’t get me wrong, this kind of dodge ball is par for the course for executive branch nominees in this era of partisan bickering — it’s the safest way for someone who wants a job to avoid pissing anyone off.

But at this time of crisis, we can’t afford the same old dodge ball confirmation hearing.

Moreover, two of the these dodges are inexcusable, in my opinion. First, his non-responses on 702. That’s true, first of all, because if and when he is confirmed, he will have to jump into the reauthorization process right away, and those who want basic reforms let Wray off the hook on an issue they could have gotten commitments on. I also find it inexcusable because Wray plead ignorance about 702 even though he played a key role in (not) giving defendants discovery on Stellar Wind, and otherwise was read into Stellar Wind after 2004, meaning he knows generally how PRISM works. He’s not ignorant of PRISM, and given how much I know about 702, he shouldn’t be ignorant of that, either.

But the big one — the absolutely inexcusable non answer that would lead me to vote against him — is his claim not to know the law about whether the President can fire Robert Mueller himself.

Oh, sure, as FBI Director, Wray won’t be in the loop in any firing. But by not answering a question the answer to which most people watching the hearing had at least looked up, Wray avoided going on the record on an issue that could immediately put him at odds with Trump, the guy who thinks Wray should report directly to him.

Add to that the Committee’s failure to ask Wray two other questions I find pertinent (and his answers on David Passaro’s prosecution either revealed cynical deceit about his opposition to torture or lack of awareness of what really happened with that prosecution).

The first question Wray should have been asked (and I thought would have been by Al Franken, who instead asked no questions) is the circumstances surrounding Wray’s briefing of John Ashcroft about the CIA Leak investigation in 2003, including details on Ashcroft’s close associate Karl Rove’s role in exposing Valerie Plame’s identity.

Sure, at some level, Wray was just briefing his boss back in 2003 when he gave Ashcroft details he probably shouldn’t have. The fault was Ashcroft’s, not Wray’s. But being willing to give an inappropriate briefing in 2003 is a near parallel to where Comey found himself, being questioned directly by Trump on a matter which Trump shouldn’t have had access to. And asking Wray to explain his past actions is a far, far better indication of how he would act in the (near) future than his rehearsed assurances he can’t be pressured.

The other question I’d have loved Wray to get asked (though this is more obscure) is how, as Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division under Bush, he implemented the July 22, 2002 Jay Bybee memo permitting the sharing of grand jury information directly with the President and his top advisors without notifying the district court of that sharing. I’d have asked Wray this question because it was something he would have several years of direct involvement with (potentially even with the Plame investigation!), and it would serve as a very good stand-in for his willingness to give the White House an inappropriate glimpse into investigations implicating the White House.

There are plenty more questions (about torture and the Chiquita settlement, especially) I’d have liked Wray to answer.

But in spite of Wray’s many rehearsed assurances he won’t spike any investigation at the command of Donald Trump, he dodged (and was not asked) key questions that would have made him prove that with both explanations of his past actions and commitments about future actions.

Given Trump’s direct assault on prosecutorial independence, an assault he launched while clearly looking forward to having Wray in place instead of McCabe, the Senate should go back and get answers. Trump has suggested he thinks Wray will be different than Sessions, Rosenstein, Comey, and McCabe. And before confirming Wray, the Senate should find out whether Trump has a reason to believe that.

Update: I did not realize that between the time I started this while you were all asleep and the time I woke up in middle of the night Oz time SJC voted Wray out unanimously, which is a testament to the absolute dearth of oversight in the Senate.

Every Senator Who Supports USA Freedom May Be Affirmatively Ratifying a Financial Dragnet

Now that I’ve finally got around to reading the so-called transparency provisions in Patrick Leahy’s USA Freedom Act, I understand that one purpose of the bill, from James Clapper’s perspective, is to get Congress to ratify some kind of financial dragnet conducted under Section 215.

As I’ve laid out in detail before, there’s absolutely no reason to believe USA Freedom Act does anything to affect non-communications collection programs.

That’s because the definition of “specific selection term” permits (corporate) persons to be used as a selector, so long as they aren’t communications companies. So Visa, Western Union, and Bank of America could all be used as the selector; Amazon could be for anything not cloud or communications-related. Even if the government obtained all the records from these companies — as reports say it does with Western Union, at least — that would not be considered “bulk” because the government defines “bulk” as collection without a selector. Here, the selector would be the company.

And as I just figured out yesterday, the bill requires absolutely no individualized reporting on traditional Section 215 orders that don’t obtain communications. Here’s what the bill requires DNI to report on traditional 215 collection.

(D) the total number of orders issued pursuant to applications made under section 501(b)(2)(B) and a good faith estimate of—
(i) the number of targets of such orders;
(ii) the number of individuals whose communications were collected pursuant to such orders; and
(iii) the number of individuals whose communications were collected pursuant to such orders who are reasonably believed to have been located in the United States at the time of collection;

The bill defines “individuals whose communications were collected” this way:

(3) INDIVIDUAL WHOSE COMMUNICATIONS WERE COLLECTED.—The term ‘individual whose communications were collected’ means any individual—
(A) who was a party to an electronic communication or a wire communication the contents or noncontents of which was collected; or
(B)(i) who was a subscriber or customer of an electronic communication service or remote computing service; and
(ii) whose records, as described in subparagraph (A), (B), (D), (E), or (F) of section 2703(c)(2) of title 18, United States Code, were collected.

Thus, the 215 reporting only requires the DNI to provide individualized reporting on communications related orders. It requires no individualized reporting at all on actual tangible things (in the tangible things provision!). A dragnet order collecting every American’s Visa bill would be reported as 1 order targeting the 4 or so terrorist groups specifically named in the primary order. It would not show that the order produced the records of 310 million Americans.

I’m guessing this is not a mistake, which is why I’m so certain there’s a financial dragnet the government is trying to hide.

Under the bill, of course, Visa and Western Union could decide they wanted to issue a privacy report. But I’m guessing if it would show 310 million to 310,000,500 of its customers’ privacy was being compromised, they would be unlikely to do that.

So the bill would permit the collection of all of Visa’s records (assuming the government could or has convinced the FISC to rubber stamp that, of course), and it would hide the extent of that collection because DNI is not required to report individualized collection numbers.

But it’s not just the language in the bill that amounts to ratification of such a dragnet.

As the government has argued over and over and over, every time Congress passes Section 215’s “relevant to” language unchanged, it serves as a ratification of the FISA Court’s crazy interpretation of it to mean “all.” That argument was pretty dodgy for reauthorizations that happened before Edward Snowden came along (though its dodginess did not prevent Clare Eagan, Mary McLaughlin, and William Pauley from buying it). But it is not dodgy now: Senators need to know that after they pass this bill, the government will argue to courts that it ratifies the legal interpretations publicly known about the program.

While the bill changes a great deal of language in Section 215, it still includes the “relevant to” language that now means “all.” So every Senator who votes for USAF will make it clear to judges that it is the intent of Congress for “relevant to” to mean “all.”

And it’s not just that! In voting for USAF, Senators would be ratifying all the other legal interpretations about dragnets that have been publicly released since Snowden’s leaks started.

That includes the horrible John Bates opinion from February 19, 2013 that authorized the government to use Section 215 to investigate Americans for their First Amendment protected activities so long as the larger investigation is targeted at people whose activities aren’t protected under the First Amendment. So Senators would be making it clear to judges their intent is to allow the government to conduct investigations into Americans for their speech or politics or religion in some cases (which cases those are is not entirely clear).

That also includes the John Bates opinion from November 23, 2010 that concluded that, “the Right to Financial Privacy Act, … does not preclude the issuance of an order requiring the production of financial records to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) pursuant to the FISA business records provision.” Given that Senators know (or should — and certainly have the ability to — know) about this before they support USAF, judges would be correct in concluding that it was the intent of Congress to permit the government to collect financial records under Section 215.

So Senators supporting this bill must realize that supporting the bill means they are supporting the following:

  • The interpretation of “relevant to” to permit the government to collect all of a given kind of record in the name of a standing FBI terrorism investigation.
  • The use of non-communication company corporate person names, like Visa or Western Union, as the selector “limiting” collection.
  • The use of Section 215 to collect financial records.
  • Not requiring the government to report how many Americans get sucked up in any financial (or any non-communications) dragnet.

That is, Senators supporting this bill are not only supporting a possible financial dragnet, but they are helping the government hide the existence of it.

I can’t tell you what the dragnet entails. Perhaps it’s “only” the Western Union tracking reported by both the NYT and WSJ. Perhaps James Cole’s two discussions of being able to collect credit card records under this provision means they are. Though when Leahy asked him if they could collect credit card records to track fertilizer purchases, Cole suggested they might not need everyone’s credit cards to do that.

Leahy: But if our phone records are relevant, why wouldn’t our credit card records? Wouldn’t you like to know if somebody’s buying, um, what is the fertilizer used in bombs?

Cole: I may not need to collect everybody’s credit card records in order to do that.

[snip]

If somebody’s buying things that could be used to make bombs of course we would like to know that but we may not need to do it in this fashion.

We don’t know what the financial dragnet is. But we know that it is permitted — and deliberately hidden — under this bill.

Below the rule I’ve put the names of the 18 Senators who have thus far co-sponsored this bill. If one happens to be your Senator, it might be a good time to urge them to reconsider that support.


Patrick Leahy (202) 224-4242

Mike Lee (202) 224-5444

Dick Durbin (202) 224-2152

Dean Heller (202) 224-6244

Al Franken (202) 224-5641

Ted Cruz (202) 224-5922

Richard Blumenthal (202) 224-2823

Tom Udall (202) 224-6621

Chris Coons (202) 224-5042

Martin Heinrich (202) 224-5521

Ed Markey (202) 224-2742

Mazie Hirono (202) 224-6361

Amy Klobuchar (202) 224-3244

Sheldon Whitehouse (202) 224-2921

Chuck Schumer (202) 224-6542

Bernie Sanders (202) 224-5141

Cory Booker (202) 224-3224

Bob Menendez (202) 224-4744

Sherrod Brown (202) 224-2315

 

 

Dick Durbin’s Obscure Transparency Bid

Steven Aftergood notes that the Senate Appropriations Committee has included a reporting requirement on NSA on its “bulk collection” programs.

That’s all well and good, if the language isn’t stripped before final passage. But there are a couple of limits to the language.

First, the reporting requirements on Section 215 only go back to 2009.

For the last 5 years, on an annual basis, the number of records acquired by NSA as part of the bulk telephone metadata program authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, pursuant to section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, and the number of such records that have been reviewed by NSA personnel in response to a query of such records;

Of course, the program changed significantly in 2009; the collection scope may have narrowed at that point. And many of the abuses were ended in that year.

And there are two problems with the requirement to provide a list of all “bulk collection” programs.

A report, unclassified to the greatest extent possible, and with a classified annex if necessary, describing all NSA bulk collection activities, including when such activities began, the cost of such activities, what types of records have been collected in the past, what types of records are currently being collected, and any plans for future bulk collection.

We know the intelligence community only includes programs that use no discriminator as “bulk collection.” So the report would list what the IC considers bulk collection, not what normal human beings do.

In addition, only NSA would have to report its bulk programs. We know, for example, that the FBI has a Pen Register program that presumably involves some bulk. That would not show up in this list.

So, great! Transparency!

But not transparency that will tell us what we need to know.

The Scandal of Lying about “Thwarted” “Plots” Started 4 Years Ago

As predicted, one big takeaway from yesterday’s NSA hearing (the other being the obviously partial disclosure about location tracking) is Keith Alexander’s admission that rather than 54 “plots” “thwarted” in the US thanks to the dragnet, only one or maybe two were. Here are some examples.

But they’re missing this real scandal about the government’s lies about the central importance of Section 215.

That scandal started 4 years ago, when an example the FBI now admits had limited import played a critical role in the reauthorization of Section 215 without limits on the dragnet authority.

First, note that even while Leahy got Alexander to back off his “54 plots” claim, the General still tried to insist Section 215 had been critical in two plots, not just one.

SEN. LEAHY: Let’s go into that discussion, because both of you have raised concerns that the media reports about the government surveillance programs have been incomplete, inaccurate, misleading or some combination of that. But I’m worried that we’re still getting inaccurate and incomplete statements from the administration.

For example, we have heard over and over again the assertion that 54 terrorist plots were thwarted by the use of Section 215 and/or Section 702 authorities. That’s plainly wrong, but we still get it in letters to members of Congress; we get it in statements. These weren’t all plots, and they weren’t all thwarted. The American people are getting left with an inaccurate impression of the effectiveness of NSA programs.

Would you agree that the 54 cases that keep getting cited by the administration were not all plots, and out of the 54, only 13 had some nexus to the U.S. Would you agree with that, yes or no?

DIR. ALEXANDER: Yes.

SEN. LEAHY: OK. In our last hearing, Deputy Director Inglis’ testimony stated that there’s only really one example of a case where, but for the use of Section 215, bulk phone records collection, terrorist activity was stopped. Is Mr. Inglis right?

DIR. ALEXANDER: He’s right. I believe he said two, Chairman; I may have that wrong, but I think he said two, and I would like to point out that it could only have applied in 13 cases because of the 54 terrorist plots or events, only 13 occurred in the U.S. Business Record FISA was only used in (12 of them ?).

SEN. LEAHY: I understand that, but what I worry about is that some of these statements that all is — all is well, and we have these overstatements of what’s going on — we’re talking about massive, massive, massive collection. We’re told we have to do that to protect us, and then statistics are rolled out that are not accurate. It doesn’t help with the credibility here in the Congress; doesn’t help with the credibility with us, Chairman, and it doesn’t help with the credibility with the — with the country. [my emphasis]

Here’s the transcript at I Con the Record from the previous hearing, where Inglis in fact testified that Section 215 was only critical in the Basaaly Moalin case (which was not a plot against the US but rather funding to defeat a US backed invasion of Somalia).

MR. INGLIS: There is an example amongst those 13 that comes close to a but-for example and that’s the case of Basaaly Moalin.

 

That is, in fact, Inglis said it had been critical in just one “plot.”

After he did, FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce piped in to note the phone dragnet also “played a role” by identifying a new phone number of a suspect we already knew about in the Najibullah Zazi case.

MR. JOYCE: I just want to relate to the homeland plots. So in Najibullah Zazi and the plot to bomb the New York subway system, Business Record 215 played a role; it identified specifically a number we did not previously know of a —

SEN. LEAHY: It was a — it was a critical role?

MR. JOYCE: What I’m saying — what it plays a

SEN. LEAHY: (And was there ?) some undercover work that was — took place in there?

MR. JOYCE: Yes, there was some undercover work.

SEN. LEAHY: Yeah —

MR. JOYCE: What I’m saying is each tool plays a different role, Mr. Chairman. I’m not saying that it is the most important tool —

SEN. LEAHY: Wasn’t the FBI — wasn’t the FBI already aware of the individual in contact with Zazi?

MR. JOYCE: Yes, we were, but we were not aware of that specific telephone number, which NSA provided us. [my emphasis]

So, when pressed, Joyce admitted that Section 215 wasn’t critical to finding Adis Medunjanin, one of Zazi’s conspirators. (And if you read Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman’s Enemies Within, you see just how minor a role it played.)

That’s important, because the Administration’s use of Section 215 in the Zazi case was crucially important to the defeat of two efforts to rein in the dragnet in 2009.

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Dianne Feinstein Suggests President Obama Personally Violating Our Treaty Obligations

As I noted the other day, in her ruling that she could not halt the force-feeding at Gitmo, Gladys Kessler described the treatment as “degrading,” potentially invoking our obligations under Article 16 of the Convention again Torture to prevent degrading treatment. Kessler actually explicitly invoked International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which includes a similar prohibition on degrading treatment.

Dianne Feinstein and Dick Durbin sent Obama a letter yesterday, using Kessler’s ruling to connect the two explicitly.

U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Judge Gladys Kessler also expressed concern about the force-feeding of Guantanamo Bay detainees. The Court denied detainee Jihad Dhiab’s motion for a preliminary injunction to stop force-feeding due to lack of jurisdiction, but in her order, Judge Kessler noted that Dhiab has set out in great detail in his court filings “what appears to be a consensus that force-feeding of prisoners violates Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which prohibits torture or cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment.” The United States has ratified the ICCPR and is obligated to comply with its provisions. Judge Kessler also wrote, “it is perfectly clear from the statements of detainees, as well as the statements from the [medical] organizations just cited, that force-feeding is a painful, humiliating, and degrading process.” (emphasis added).

The judge concluded by correctly pointing out that you, as Commander in Chief, have the authority to intercede on behalf of Dhiab, and other similarly-situated detainees at Guantanamo. The court wrote: “Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution provides that ‘[t]he President shall be the Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States. …’ It would seem to follow, therefore, that the President of the United States, as Commander-in-Chief, has the authority—and power—to directly address the issue of force-feeding of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay.”

Feinstein only by association makes the next part of her argument. We comply with these treaties by complying with our Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel or unusual punishment. And the government has long said that if we can do something elsewhere in a our gulag system, we can do it in Gitmo.

In a letter to Chuck Hagel last month — which Feinstein noted in yesterday’s letter but did not quote from — she laid out how our force-feeding at Gitmo differs from that used in the Bureau of Prisons.

In addition to the allegation that the Department of Defense’s force-feeding practices are out of sync with international norms, they also appear to deviate significantly from U.S. Bureau of Prison practices. Based on a review by Intelligence Committee staff, the significant differences between force-feedings at Guantanamo Bay and within the U.S. Bureau of Prisons relate to the manner in which the detainees are force-fed, how often detainees are force-fed, and the safeguards and oversight in place during force-feedings.

Within the Bureau of Prisons, force-feeding is exceedingly rare. The Intelligence Committee staff has been told that no inmate within the Bureau of Prisons has been force-fed in more than six months. When force-feedings do occur within the Bureau of Prisons, we have been told that nearly 95% of the time they are conducted with a fully compliant inmate requiring no restraints. At Guantanamo Bay, on the other hand, all detainees being force-fed–regardless of their level of cooperation–are placed in chairs where they are forcibly restrained. The visual impression is one of restraint: of arms, legs, and body. Further, at Guantanamo Bay, detainees are fed twice a day in this manner, potentially over a substantial period of time. This also is inconsistent with the practice of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

Additionally, the U.S. federal prison guidelines for force-feedings include several safeguards and oversight mechanisms that are not in place at Guantanamo Bay. These guidelines require the warden to notify a sentencing judge of the involuntary feeding, with background and an explanation of the reasons for involuntary feeding. Further, the Bureau of Prisons requires an individualized assessment of an inmate’s situation to guide how force-feedings are administered, a practice that I found largely absent at Guantanamo Bay. Finally, all force-feedings must be videotaped within the Bureau of Prisons.

It’s almost as if DiFi knows or suspects there’s an OLC memo that — parallel to the ones that found torture to be legal because it vaguely resembled practices elsewhere (as when they noted that members of the military undergo SERE training, so reverse-engineered SERE techniques used in different situations were legal) — finds our force-feeding at Gitmo to be legal because judges have approved the way we force-feed people in federal prisons. In any case, Gitmo officials have said their treatment is similar with BOP treatment.

Between these two letters, she has laid out why that is not the case. Indeed, that’s the import of Kessler’s language, a federal judge finding the treatment we use in Gitmo to violate our obligations under ICCPR.

Say what you will about DiFi (lord knows I’ve often said the same, where I thought it appropriate), but she has just told a President from her own party that he’s breaking the law.