Iran-Contra Cover-Up King Doesn’t Address Sessions’ Other Lies, or Conspiracy-in-Chief

Fresh off several witnesses revealing that Jeff Sessions wasn’t as offended by George Papadopoulos’ plan to pitch meetings with Putin as he claims he was, ABC reported that, Andrew McCabe approved an investigation into whether Jeff Sessions lied to Congress about his ties with Russia.

Nearly a year before Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired senior FBI official Andrew McCabe for what Sessions called a “lack of candor,” McCabe oversaw a federal criminal investigation into whether Sessions lacked candor when testifying before Congress about contacts with Russian operatives, sources familiar with the matter told ABC News.

An anonymous source tried to claim that Sessions would not have known that McCabe briefly oversaw an investigation into Sessions’ own perjury, but Sessions’ lawyer pointedly refused to confirm that.

One source told ABC News that Sessions was not aware of the investigation when he decided to fire McCabe last Friday less than 48 hours before McCabe, a former FBI deputy director, was due to retire from government and obtain a full pension, but an attorney representing Sessions declined to confirm that.

Sessions’ lawyer is Chuck Cooper. Most recently, he got famous failing spectacularly to defend Prop 8. But years and years ago, he played a key role in excusing Iran-Contra, notably by inventing the concept of pixie dusting executive orders.

Given his past as a great cover-up artist, take note of how carefully he words his more general denial.

Two months ago, Sessions was interviewed by Mueller’s team, and the federal inquiry related to his candor during his confirmation process has since been shuttered, according to a lawyer representing Sessions.

“The Special Counsel’s office has informed me that after interviewing the attorney general and conducting additional investigation, the attorney general is not under investigation for false statements or perjury in his confirmation hearing testimony and related written submissions to Congress,” attorney Chuck Cooper told ABC News on Wednesday.

The AG is not under investigation for any lies in his confirmation hearing testimony, Cooper said.

Here’s what that leaves out:

  • Obstruction charges for inventing the reason to fire Comey, pretending to be involved in the firing of US Attorneys including Preet Bharara, and for firing McCabe
  • False statements charges tied to Sessions’ later testimony before Congress
  • False statements charges tied to his Mueller testimony about whether he opposed the Russian outreach (we now know Mueller has gotten conflicting statements on this point)
  • Implication in the Russian conspiracy directly

It’s the last one that is most interesting (and where all these false statements charges are headed anyway). We now know some of the people at the March 31, 2016 meeting believe Sessions was not opposed to the Russian outreach. We know that Sessions’ close aide, Stephen Miller, was in the thick of things.

And then there’s this bizarre exchange from a November exchange with Patrick Leahy (who seems to have known that Sessions was then under investigation for lying to Congress).

Leahy asked about each item in turn.

Leahy: Let’s take this piece by piece. Did you discuss any of the following: Emails?

Sessions: Repeat the question again about emails.

Leahy: Since the 2016 campaign, have you discussed with any Russian connected official anything about emails?

Sessions: Discuss with them. I don’t recall having done any such thing.

Right after this exchange, Sessions totally balks when Leahy asks him if he has been interviewed or asked for an interview by Mueller, saying he should clear it with the Special Counsel.

Now, there was some imprecision in this questioning. It’s clear that Sessions believed he was answering the question about during the campaign, not since it.

But of the things Leahy asked about — emails, Russian interference, sanctions, or any policies or positions of the Trump campaign or presidency — Sessions ultimately not-recalled in response to just one question: the emails.

Based on the past practice Leahy had just laid out, Sessions claimed to not recall issues that he had actually done. Which would suggest Sessions is worried that there’s evidence he has discussed emails — with someone. It’s just not clear how he interpreted that question.

Sessions refused to deny he had discussed emails with a “Russian connected official” since the election.

None of these potential ties in the conspiracy are included in Cooper’s carefully worded denial (nor is Sessions’ knowing that McCabe had okayed an investigation into him for failing to meet his duty of candor, the same thing Sessions just fired McCabe for).

That speaks volumes.

In any case, it seems we’ll be hearing a lot more about Sessions’ implication in all this, in the wake of his firing of McCabe.

“What Did the President Do and What Do His Lawyers Claim He Was Thinking?”

Ever since Richard Nixon, the big question one asks of presidential involvement in scandals is about the cover-up: “what did the president know and when did he know it?” Not so Trump in the investigation into his campaign’s conspiracy with Russia.

Robert Mueller’s prosecutors are already asking about the president’s actions: “What did the president do and what was he thinking when he did it?” WaPo describes the Trump team’s effort to dodge such questions by offering a summary of what his lawyers claim he did and was thinking.

The written materials provided to Mueller’s office include summaries of internal White House memos and contemporaneous correspondence about events Mueller is investigating, including the ousters of national security adviser Michael Flynn and FBI Director James B. Comey. The documents describe the White House players involved and the president’s actions.

Special counsel investigators have told Trump’s lawyers that their main questions about the president fall into two simple categories, the two people said: “What did he do?” and “What was he thinking when he did it?”

Trump’s lawyers expect Mueller’s team to ask whether Trump knew about Flynn’s communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the presidential transition, for example, and what instructions, if any, the president gave Flynn about the contact, according to two advisers.

Trump said in February that he fired Flynn because he had misled Vice President Pence about his contact with Kislyak. He said he fired Comey because he had mishandled an investigation of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

CNN’s version of the same story seems to suggest such a summary is something they’ve already done, that what was new about last week was a sit-down with Watergate lawyer James Quarles.

As President Donald Trump’s reaction to special counsel Robert Mueller grows more irate by the day, attorneys on both sides sat down last week in a rare face-to-face discussion about the topics investigators could inquire of the President. It was the first in-person meeting after several weeks of informal discussions between the two sides, according to two sources familiar with the talks.

Mueller’s team added granularity to the topics it originally discussed with the defense team months ago, like the firing of FBI Director James Comey, according to one of the sources.


The President’s attorneys sent the special counsel a summary of evidence they had turned over to prosecutors already, a practice they’ve followed multiple times throughout the investigation. Mueller himself didn’t attend the meeting. But prosecutors including former Watergate prosecutor James Quarles III gave Trump’s lawyers enough detail that the President’s team wrote a memo with possible questions they expect to be asked of him.

In addition to Trump’s involvement in directing Mike Flynn to ask Sergey Kislyak to defer any response to the new sanctions imposed in December 2016, CNN says that Jeff Sessions’ involvement in firing Comey is also on the list of questions they have for the president.

This time around, for instance, the prosecutors said they would ask about Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ involvement in the Comey dismissal and what Trump knew about national security adviser Michael Flynn’s phone calls with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in late December 2016.


CNN reported in January that Mueller’s team had given the President’s lawyers general topics for an interview, such as Trump’s request that Comey drop the investigation into Flynn, his reaction to Comey’s May 2017 testimony on Capitol Hill, and Trump’s contact with intelligence officials about the Russia investigation.

A source familiar with the talks said more recent discussions about Trump’s interview also touched on Sessions and Flynn. Sessions previously spoke to Mueller’s team while investigators looked into possible obstruction of justice. And during the transition, Flynn had spoken to Kisklyak about sanctions and the United Nations, then lied to investigators about the calls before Trump fired him. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to investigators and agreed to cooperate with Mueller in December.

The questions about Sessions and Flynn are both interesting because of recent events.

First, CNN’s story reporting an interest in Sessions’ role in Comey’s firing came out after the report that Sessions and the president traveled separately yesterday to the opioid event they appeared at together. I found that odd at first — Trump should be happy that Sessions fired Andy McCabe for him last Friday. Perhaps Trump is mad that by firing McCabe, Sessions and Rod Rosenstein have taken one excuse he could use to fire both of them off the table. Or perhaps Sessions has realized that he needs to avoid talking to Trump about his own conversations with prosecutors. But if Sessions has become a witness against Trump and the discussions last week made that clear, then it puts the president in a particularly exquisite bind, because the Senate would not take kindly if Trump fired one of their own after he went to such lengths to fire McCabe.

The separate flight is all the more interesting given the news that three witnesses have testified that Sessions was actually more supportive of Trump’s outreach to Russia than he himself (and JD Gordon) has claimed.

And given Mueller’s apparent efforts to confirm what has long been obvious — that KT McFarland was relaying Trump’s orders to Flynn on what to say to Kislyak back in December 2016, consider Mike Flynn’s odd campaign appearance last Friday. Amid stories that he’s beginning to rebuild his life, Flynn started a campaign speech for a right wing nut job attempting to unseat Maxine Waters by alluding to his unfair treatment in an unfair process.

“I’m not here to complain about who has done me wrong or how unfair I’ve been treated or how unfair the entire process has been,” Flynn said to a small audience, which laughed at his remark, though Flynn did not.

Flynn then went on to reflect his role in getting Trump elected.

“All of us are imperfect,” he said. “Heck, I used to introduce … Trump during our various campaign stops as an imperfect candidate. I mean, clearly, he’s not a traditional politician. But his ‘Make America Great Again’ philosophy energized the country enough to get him overwhelmingly elected.”

“Whether we like it or not, that’s what happened,” Flynn added.

Particularly given the others who’ve endorsed Omar Navarro, like Roger Stone and Alex Jones, you’d think this was all a dig at Mueller, and it may well be. Except that Jared Kushner had an opportunity to exonerate Flynn last fall; his failure to do so is what led Flynn to flip, leading to these questions about whether Trump ordered Flynn to ask the Russians to delay their response to sanctions.

Now, any confirmation that the president ordered Flynn to ask Kislyak to delay his response on one level makes Flynn’s effort less damning: it’s one thing for an incoming National Security Advisor to freelance in trying to undermine the incumbent’s policies. It’s another thing for the incoming president to do so.

But contrary to the obstruction narrative that every fool has been repeating, Mueller is not just interested in how and why Jim Comey got fired. He’s also interested in why Trump fired Flynn. That question becomes more pressing if the president ordered Flynn to chat up Kislyak, and if the president ordered Flynn to lie to hide what he had done (leading to his lie to the FBI). Why not just admit that that was incoming policy? Why not just admit to the FBI that Flynn was acting on Trump’s orders? Instead of doing that, Flynn lied and Trump tried instead to thwart the investigation into Flynn, up to and including firing Comey.

Why fire Comey just before the meeting with the Russians and then brag about it to them?

For months, credulous journalists have been distinguishing between the president’s presumed obstruction and the substantive conspiracy others were being accused of, as if no Trump flunkies were involved in the cover-up and Trump was walled off from the conspiracy. But that distinction has never held up, especially not given the interest in why Trump fired Flynn.

“What did the president do and what the fuck was he thinking when he did it?” are questions not about the cover-up, but about the substantive crime.

And that’s the question Mueller’s Watergate prosecutor has now posed to the president’s lawyers.

Duty of Candor: The Timing of the Sessions News

Since Jeff Sessions fired Andy McCabe Friday night and Trump started ratcheting up his attacks on Robert Mueller, few Republicans have vocally supported Mueller (Jeff Flake, Trey Gowdy, and John McCain are exceptions; all are retiring).

There was, however, this story, reporting that three sources say Jeff Sessions was not as dismissive of George Papadopoulos’ plan to reach out to Russians as JD Gordon has claimed.

Three people who attended the March campaign meeting told Reuters they gave their version of events to FBI agents or congressional investigators probing Russian interference in the 2016 election. Although the accounts they provided to Reuters differed in certain respects, all three, who declined to be identified, said Sessions had expressed no objections to Papadopoulos’ idea.

One person said Sessions was courteous to Papadopoulos and said something to the effect of “okay, interesting.”

The other two recalled a similar response.

“It was almost like, ‘Well, thank you and let’s move on to the next person,’” one said.

As the story notes, this conflicts with Jeff Sessions’ November 14 sworn testimony to the House Judiciary Committee.

So in the wake of the Attorney General firing McCabe for violating his duty of candor, three current or former Trump associates leaked that he lied to the House.

The thing is, there can’t be that many people who these sources could be. I’m not sure the annotations from Seth Abramson (above) are all correct, but here’s what it looks like.

Sessions and Gordon are on the record stating Sessions pushed back. Trump hasn’t testified yet.

One may well be Papadopoulos.

That leaves, starting with Abramson’s guesses (here’s a later list of Trump’s national security advisors, which should round out Abramson’s):

  • Joseph Schmitz, who left his job as DOD IG amid some scandal
  • Bert Mizusawa, who is running for VA Senate and presumably wants some national help, but he is himself a lawyer
  • Jim Hoskins, who’s career military (including a lot of time working in intelligence)
  • Walid Phares, appears to still be pitching Trump’s foreign policy adventurism
  • Gary Harrell, who is career special operations
  • Charles Kubic, who even contemporaneously was raising legal concerns about such outreach (and who would be a likely candidate to have been interviewed by Mueller since he showed up in email chains raising such concerns)
  • James Carafano may be the balding man in the foreground (though he’s not in Trump’s list of advisors) — he’s still running interference for Trump’s crazy foreign policy
  • Sam Clovis, who is not identifiable in the picture, raised concerns about legal issues and NATO concerns, but elsewhere was clearly involved in the effort to reach out to Russia, even per Carter Page; he’s in the news because of the potential conflict Joe Di Genova’s reported representation of Trump poses
  • Keith Kellogg is another possible candidate; he remains part of Trump’s foreign policy team and has been interviewed
  • James Woolsey is another candidate — we know he has spoken with Mueller and has been critical of the tension between the White House, Congress, and FBI of late
  • Stephen Miller was at the meeting and interviewed with Mueller last year; I would think he would be a Sessions loyalist, though

I raise all this because, while Republicans in Congress are largely dodging the issue of protecting Mueller from Trump, some people closer to the investigation are calling Sessions on his hypocrisy. That might be far more dangerous to the Trump administration in the near term.

On McCabe’s Firing

I’m going to refrain from making any conclusions about Andy McCabe’s firing until we have the Inspector General Report that underlies it. For now (update: I’ve now cleaned this up post-Yoga class), keep the following details in mind:

Michael Horowitz is a very good Inspector General

The allegations that McCabe lacked candor in discussions about his communications with Devlin Barrett all arise out of an investigation Democrats demanded in response to FBI’s treatment of the investigation into Hillary Clinton. It is being led by DOJ’s Inspector General, Michael Horowitz. Horowitz was nominated by Barack Obama and confirmed while Democrats still had the majority, in 2012.

I’ve never seen anything in Horowitz’ work that suggests he is influenced by politics, though he has shown an ability to protect his own department’s authority, in part by cultivating Congress. Of significant note, he fought with FBI to get the information his investigators needed to do the job, but was thwarted, extending into Jim Comey’s tenure (as I laid out in a fucking prescient post written on November 3, 2016).

As I’ve long covered, in 2010, the FBI started balking at the Inspector General’s proper investigative demands. Among other things, the FBI refused to provide information on grand jury investigations unless some top official in FBI said that it would help the FBI if the IG obtained it. In addition, the FBI (and DEA) have responded to requests very selectively, pulling investigations they don’t want to be reviewed. In 2014, the IG asked OLC for a memo on whether it should be able to get the information it needs to do its job. Last year, OLC basically responded, Nope, can’t have the stuff you need to exercise proper oversight of the FBI.

DOJ’s Inspector General, Michael Horowitz, has been trying for some time to get Congress to affirmatively authorize his office (and IGs generally, because the problem exists at other agencies) to receive the information he needs to do his job. But thus far — probably because Jim Comey used to be known as the world’s biggest Boy Scout — Congress has failed to do so.

I care about how FBI’s misconduct affects the election (thus far, polling suggests it hasn’t done so, though polls are getting closer as Republican Gary Johnson supporters move back to supporting the GOP nominee, as almost always happens with third party candidates). But I care even more about how fucked up the FBI is. Even if Comey is ousted, I can’t think of a likely candidate that could actually fix the problems at FBI. One of the few entities that I think might be able to do something about the stench at FBI is the IG.

Except the FBI has spent 6 years making sure the IG can’t fully review its conduct.

So while I don’t think he’d be motivated by politics, he has had a running fight with top FBI officials about their willingness to subject FBI to scrutiny for the entirety of the Comey tenure.

McCabe has suggested that the investigation into him was “accelerated” only after he testified to the House Intelligence Committee that he would corroborate Jim Comey’s version of his firing.

I am being singled out and treated this way because of the role I played, the actions I took, and the events I witnessed in the aftermath of the firing of James Comey. The release of this report was accelerated only after my testimony to the House Intelligence Committee revealed that I would corroborate former Director Comey’s accounts of his discussions with the President. The OIG’s focus on me and this report became a part of an unprecedented effort by the Administration, driven by the President himself, to remove me from my position, destroy my reputation, and possibly strip me of a pension that I worked 21 years to earn. The accelerated release of the report, and the punitive actions taken in response, make sense only when viewed through this lens.

I’m not sure this timeline bears out (the investigation was supposed to be done last year, but actually got extended into this year). The statement stops short of saying that he was targeted because his testimony — presumably already delivered to Robert Mueller by the time of his HPSCI testimony — corroborated Comey’s.

What we’ve seen of the other personnel moves as a result of this investigation — the reassignment of Peter Strzok and Lisa Page for texts that really did raise conflict issues (to say nothing of operational security problems), and the reassignment of James Baker — seem reasonable. McCabe’s firing was reviewed by a whole bunch of people who have been around DOJ a long time.

So it’s possible the underlying claim has merit. It’s also possible that McCabe is getting the same punishment that a line agent would get if he did not answer the IG honestly.

Trump’s comments matter

Obviously, all that cannot be taken out of context of Trump’s own statements and Jeff Sessions’ efforts to keep his job.

We will get these details in upcoming days, and almost all the details will come from people who’ve got a big stake in the process.

Michael Bromwich — McCabe’s lawyer — says they didn’t get a review of the allegations against McCabe until very recently, and were still trying to contest the firing two days ago (as was publicly reported). I find his claim that this was “cleaved off” from the larger investigation unconvincing: so were Strzok and Page, but that was done to preserve the integrity of the Mueller investigation, and Chris Wray had said publicly that he wanted to act on problems as they found them. Bromwich curiously is not saying that McCabe’s firing violates any agreement McCabe made when he took leave to await retirement.

Undoubtedly, Jeff Sessions did this in the most cowardly way possible. While I think it’s likely, I’m not 100% convinced that the timing was anything other than trying to make a real decision rather than let the retirement make it.

There’s no evidence, yet, that McCabe will lose all his pension

It has been said for over a month that McCabe was just waiting out his birthday so he could “get” his pension. That was so he could start drawing on it immediately. Josh Gerstein laid out the best thing I’ve seen on the implications (as well as what limited legal recourse McCabe has).

The financial stakes for McCabe could be significant. If he had made it to his 50th birthday on Sunday while still in federal service, he would have been eligible to begin drawing a full pension immediately under provisions that apply to federal law enforcement officers, said Kimberly Berry, a lawyer in Arlington, Virginia, who specializes in federal retirement issues.

Berry disputed reports, however, that McCabe would lose his pension altogether.

“He doesn’t lose his retirement,” she said. “It’s not all thrown out in the garbage.“

Even after his dismissal, McCabe will probably be eligible to begin collecting his pension at about age 57, although he would likely lose access to federal health coverage and would probably get a smaller pension than if he stayed on the federal payroll, experts said.

There have been claims McCabe could get hired by a member of Congress for a week so he can start drawing on it. But I’ve heard the finances aren’t even the issue, it’s the principle, which if you want to be a martyr, being fired works better.

This will have a far smaller impact on the Mueller probe than Comey-McCabe loyalists and John Dowd lay out

McCabe and others have suggested that there has been a successful effort to retaliate against Comey’s three corroborating witnesses, though that is least convincing with regards to Jim Rybicki, who was replaced as happens as a matter of course every time a new FBI Director comes in.

But the Comey-McCabe loyalists make far too much of their role in the Mueller probe, making themselves the central actors in the drama. Yes, if their credibility is hurt it does do some damage to any obstruction charges against Trump, which, as I keep repeating, will not be the primary thrust of any charges against Trump. Mueller is investigating Trump for a conspiracy with Russians; the obstruction is just the act that led to his appointment as Special Counsel and with that, a much more thorough investigation. Contrary to what you’re hearing, little we’ve seen thus far is fruit of the decisions Comey and his people made. While all were involved in the decision to charge Mike Flynn, he has already pled guilty and started spilling his guts to Mueller. There’s no reason to believe McCabe or Comey are direct witnesses in the conspiracy charges that will be filed against people close to Trump, if not against Trump himself.

For all those reasons, John Dowd’s claim that McCabe’s firing should end the investigation is equally unavailing.

I pray that Acting Attorney General Rosenstein will follow the brilliant and courageous example of the FBI Office of Professional Responsibility and Attorney General Jeff Sessions and bring an end to alleged Russia Collusion investigation manufactured by McCabe’s boss James Comey based upon a fraudulent and corrupt Dossier.

I mean, if this really is Dowd’s impression of why his client is being investigated, I almost feel sorry for Trump.

But the truth is the dossier has always been a distraction. The obstruction charge was probably used to distract Trump (and his NYT stenographers) while Mueller’s team collected the far more serious evidence on the conspiracy charges, though events of this week may well add to the conspiracy charges. And Comey didn’t manufacture any investigation; if anything, his people were not aggressive enough in the months he oversaw the investigation, particularly as it pertains to George Papadopoulos.

So if Dowd thinks McCabe’s firing will affect the core of the evidence Mueller has already developed (and, I suspect, started hanging on a sealed magnet indictment), he is likely to be very disappointed.

Regardless of the merits of the McCabe firing, it (and the related shit storm) may give Rosenstein and Mueller more time to work. It’s not clear they need that much more time to put together the conspiracy charges that are sitting right beneath the surface.

Finally — and I’m about to do a post on this — the far more important news from yesterday is that Facebook is cutting off Cambridge Analytica for violating its agreements about data use. That may well lead to some far more important changes, changes that Trump has less ability to politicize.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instead, Nunes seems completely unaware that such problems existed.


Dear JD Gordon [and Jared]: Mueller Has 17 Prosecutors; White House Obstruction Accounts for Just One

The WaPo has a piece reporting (with details about John Kelly’s “collusion” with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is supposed to be recused) what I noted here: Trump wants the Devin Nunes memo to come out, even in spite of the warnings about how releasing it will damage national security.

It rather absurdly claims that Mueller is “narrowing” his probe.

As Mueller narrows his probe — homing in on the ways Trump may have tried to impede the Russia investigation — a common thread ties many of the incidents together: a president accustomed to functioning as the executive of a private family business who does not seem to understand that his subordinates have sworn an oath to the Constitution rather than to him.

More amusing is this anonymous quote from JD Gordon.

A person who has spoken with Mueller’s team said investigators’ questions seemed at least partially designed to probe potential obstruction from Trump.

“The questions are about who was where in every meeting, what happened before and after, what the president was saying as he made decisions,” this person said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to recount a private session.

This person added that while it seemed unlikely Mueller’s team would yield any evidence of a coordinated effort to aid the Russians — “If you were on the campaign, you know we couldn’t even collude with ourselves,” he said — the investigators might find more details to support obstruction of justice. [my emphasis]

We know it was JD Gordon because he said precisely the same thing in an op-ed just after the George Papadopoulos plea made it clear Gordon and his buddies might be in a heap of trouble.

Trump camp too disorganized to collude

Criminalization of policy differences has descended upon America once again. The viciousness towards a sitting president and his team evokes memories of Bill Clinton’s 1998 impeachment. In the “witch hunt” Clinton was impeached for something unrelated to the Arkansas real estate deal which sparked the Whitewater investigation years earlier. Like a Soviet secret police chief once said: “Show me the man and I’ll find you the crime.” Indeed.

We’re seeing the same thing today. The Trump-Russia collusion story is a hoax and “witch hunt” of this century.

Like typical conspiracy theories, usually the simplest explanation is correct. The campaign was chaotic, understaffed and underpaid, if paid at all. We couldn’t collude amongst ourselves. [my emphasis]

Since JD Gordon is — by his own account — incompetent, I’m going to repeat the substance of this post I did even as he first rolled out this line, just to help him out.

Update: I’ve been informed that Jared Kushner has also used this “we couldn’t collude because we’re too incompetent” line, so perhaps he’s the one who believes he’s not at risk for engaging in a quid pro quo with Russians and others. 

Robert Mueller has 17 prosecutors. We’ve only seen what 10 of them are doing. And just one of them — Watergate prosecutor James Quarles — is known to be working on the White House obstruction case.

Here’s a census of Mueller’s prosecutors who’ve thus far shown what they’re working on:

Manafort docket:

  • Andrew Weismann (1)
  • Greg Andres (2)
  • Kyle Freeny (3)

Adam Jed (4), an appellate specialist, has appeared with these lawyers in grand jury appearances.

Papadopoulos docket:

  • Jeannie Rhee (5)
  • Andrew Goldstein (6)
  • Aaron Zelinsky (7)

Flynn docket:

  • Brandon L. Van Grack (8)
  • Zainab Ahmad (9)

Obstruction docket:

Even in these dockets, it’s clear Mueller is nowhere near done.

Flynn may have a status hearing scheduled for Thursday (though it’s not formally noted in the docket). I suspect, instead, we’ll get a joint status report like was submitted in Papadopoulos’ case on January 17, which basically said, “we’re very busy cooperating, don’t bug us until April 23.”

And CNN just reported that Mueller’s team has drafted superseding indictments against Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, and Gates appears to be prepping to flip.

Former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates has quietly added a prominent white-collar attorney, Tom Green, to his defense team, signaling that Gates’ approach to his not-guilty plea could be changing behind the scenes.

Green, a well-known Washington defense lawyer, was seen at special counsel Robert Mueller’s office twice last week. CNN is told by a source familiar with the matter that Green has joined Gates’ team.

Green isn’t listed in the court record as a lawyer in the case and works for a large law firm separate from Gates’ primary lawyers.

Green’s involvement suggests that there is an ongoing negotiation between the defendant’s team and the prosecutors.


Superseding indictments, which would add or replace charges against both Gates and Manafort, have been prepared, according to a source close to the investigation. No additional charges have been filed so far. When there is a delay in filing charges after they’ve been prepared, it can indicate that negotiations of some nature are ongoing.

So even where we have some visibility, that visibility suggests there is plenty of work trying to see if there was any conspiracy tied to the election.

That leaves the following prosecutors, listed with their specialities:

  • Aaron Zebley (11): probably working on coordination
  • Michael Dreeben (12): appellate wizard
  • Elizabeth Prelogar (13): appellate specialist and Russian speaker
  • Scott Meisler (14): appellate specialist
  • Rush Atkinson (15): fraud prosecutor
  • Ryan Dickey (16): Cybersecurity (just added in November)
  • Mystery prosecutor (17)

I mean, Mueller hasn’t even revealed all his prosecutors yet, much less what they’re all working on.

But JD Gordon would have you believe the prosecutors’ attention to what meetings he and his buddies were in means Mueller is only investigating obstruction.

How Did Don McGahn Threaten to Quit without Telling Trump?

There’s something funny about the story — first broken by NYT tonight, then confirmed by WaPo — that Trump wanted to fire Robert Mueller last June but backed off after White House Counsel Don McGahn threatened to quit.

Oh sure, the NYT version has all the trappings of the classic principled stand. McGahn threatened to quit which led Trump to back down.

After receiving the president’s order to fire Mr. Mueller, the White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, refused to ask the Justice Department to dismiss the special counsel, saying he would quit instead, the people said.

But the WaPo lays out something that’s only hinted at in the NYT version: McGahn never told Trump himself he was going to quit.

McGahn did not deliver his resignation threat directly to Trump, but was serious about his threat to leave, according to a person familiar with the episode.


Trump decided to assert that Mueller had unacceptable conflicts of interest and moved to remove him from his position, according to the people familiar with internal conversations.

In response, McGahn said he would not be at the White House if Trump went through with the move, according to a senior administration official.

Described that way, it sounds more like McGahn wasn’t going to take yet another action that exposed him, personally, to obstruction charges. After all, McGahn had already nudged close to that line on several occasions, though it’s not something foregrounded in either of these stories.

While the NYT admits that McGahn was just months off of trying to persuade Jeff Sessions to ignore DOJ ethics advice and not recuse, it doesn’t mention that McGahn helped orchestrate getting Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein to provide cover for a Jim Comey firing that he knew, because he had insisted Trump rewrite his firing letter, was ultimately an effort to end the Russian investigation.

The other funny thing about both these stories is how they obscure one of the known sources of tension that led to John Dowd replacing Marc Kasowitz. Both stories describe Kasowitz’ efforts to discredit Mueller to make claims of partisanship — an effort that continues today, albeit largely though not entirely outsourced to the more venal Republican members of the House.

Around the time Mr. Trump wanted to fire Mr. Mueller, the president’s legal team, led then by his longtime personal lawyer in New York, Marc E. Kasowitz, was taking an adversarial approach to the Russia investigation. The president’s lawyers were digging into potential conflict-of-interest issues for Mr. Mueller and his team, according to current and former White House officials, and news media reports revealed that several of Mr. Mueller’s prosecutors had donated to Democrats.

But it doesn’t explain what Michael Wolff, at least, reports to be the precipitating cause of Kasowitz and Mark Corallo’s departure: their own concern that Trump’s July 7, 2017 lies about the June 9, 2016 meeting itself amounted to obstruction of justice.

An aggrieved, unyielding, and threatening president dominated the discussion, pushing into line his daughter and her husband, Hicks, and Raffel. Kasowitz—the lawyer whose specific job was to keep Trump at arm’s length from Russian-related matters—was kept on hold on the phone for an hour and then not put through. The president insisted that the meeting in Trump Tower was purely and simply about Russian adoption policy. That’s what was discussed, period. Period. Even though it was likely, if not certain, that the Times had the incriminating email chain—in fact, it was quite possible that Jared and Ivanka and the lawyers knew the Times had this email chain—the president ordered that no one should let on to the more problematic discussion about Hillary Clinton.


In Washington, Kasowitz and the legal team’s spokesperson, Mark Corallo, weren’t informed of either the Times article or the plan for how to respond to it until Don Jr.’s initial statement went out just before the story broke that Saturday.


Mark Corallo was instructed not to speak to the press, indeed not to even answer his phone. Later that week, Corallo, seeing no good outcome—and privately confiding that he believed the meeting on Air Force One represented a likely obstruction of justice—quit.

If this story is correct, then it wasn’t, just, the plan to attack Mueller that caused the break (and as I said, that plan has just been outsourced to people protected by Speech and Debate clause protections). Rather, it was also a subsequent incident of clear obstruction, one done in the wake of a meeting with Vladimir Putin.

Where was McGahn the principled attorney threatening to quit rather than permit obstruction to occur for that?

Several things may be contributing to the nonsensical parts of these stories. First, it may be that a number of these people are at some risk of obstruction charges themselves. To the extent they’re all trying to spin their activities in the best light (assisted, in McGahn’s case, because he shares a lawyer with Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon), they may have to blame others for their actions.

Add in the fact that some of this testimony might be surprising to others. While McGahn, with John Dowd and Ty Cobb, presumably has the most knowledge, it’s possible he didn’t know about Sessions’ testimony (and Sessions reportedly didn’t share details of his testimony with Trump).

So I don’t know what the truth is.

I do know, however, that threatening to quit but not telling Trump about it is a funny way of changing his behavior.

Update: The CNN confirmation of this emphasizes, like the WaPo does, that McGahn didn’t threaten to quit directly. It also quotes Anthony Scaramucci saying that the attempt to fire doesn’t matter because Trump backed off the decision — so it may be that’s how the leakers (all represented by the same lawyer, William Burck — spun this).

Also consider the possibility that NewsMax CEO Chris Ruddy, who is a Mike Schmidt source and who floated Trump’s plan to fire Mueller contemporaneously as a way of trying to get him to back down, is a key source for this. It may mean that Ruddy’s stance, far more than McGahn’s, is what led Trump to back down.

The Politico version of this emphasizes Ruddy’s June stance.

In mid-June, Chris Ruddy, a close Trump friend and Mar-a-Lago member, said after a visit to the White House that he’d overheard discussion about the president considering firing Mueller.

“It could trigger something well beyond anything they ever imagined,” he told POLITICO at the time. Later that day, Ruddy told PBS NewsHour anchor Judy Woodruff that Trump was “considering perhaps terminating the special counsel.”

Ruddy added during the interview he thought it would be “a very significant mistake” to oust Mueller. He noted Mueller had interviewed with Trump to succeed Comey as FBI director, though the president later went on to appoint former Justice Department official Chris Wray to the job.

Mueller should invite Ruddy in for a chat.

Politico also quotes an attorney representing someone else suggesting that it reflects an all-man-for-himself attitude among Trump’s associates.

“It’s one more brick in the wall,” said a Washington lawyer representing another senior Trump aide in the Russia probe who added that the most interesting aspect of the Trump-Mueller story to him was that “people are leaking this shit.”

“That is a sign to me people perceive this ship has sprung a leak and it’s time to make themselves look good,” the attorney said. “To some extent I think the fact of the leaking is almost the most significant, that we’ve reached an inflection point where people at the center of things feel the need to redeem themselves at the expense of the president.”

I do think the leaking of this is significant — and may have as much to do with news of Bannon or Sessions’ testimony as anything else — but given that at least two of the people involved here (McGahn and Reince Priebus) share a lawyer, it may only represent that particular lifeboat abandoning ship.

Update: The updated WaPo version of this makes it clear that Reince Priebus and Steven Bannon were both in the loop on this.

Trump’s ire at Mueller rose to such a level that then-White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon and then-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus grew “incredibly concerned” that he was going to fire Mueller and sought to enlist others to intervene with the president, according to a Trump adviser who requested anonymity to describe private conversations.

Both of the men were deeply worried about the possibility and discussed how to keep him from making such a move, this person said.

Priebus and Bannon did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In one meeting with other advisers, Bannon raised the concern that if Trump fired Mueller it could trigger a challenge to his presidency based on the 25th Amendment, which lays out the process of who succeeds a president in case of incapacitation.

Despite internal objections, Trump decided to assert that Mueller had unacceptable conflicts of interest and moved to remove him from his position, according to the people familiar with the discussions.

In response, McGahn said he would not remain at the White House if Trump went through with the move, according to a senior administration official.

The president, in turn, backed off.

So it seems this leakapalooza stems in part from Burck, the lawyer representing them all.

Update: As this Politico piece (linked by PINC below) notes, McGahn hired Burck in the wake of obstructing justice in the Comey firing, way before Mueller came calling.

So it wasn’t that McGahn took a principled stand in June. It’s that his lawyer told him to stop obstructing justice.

Update: CBS tells what feels like the real story. First, as noted, McGahn’s threat didn’t really make it to Trump. Indeed, the firing wasn’t really even an order. The response was more of an eye roll. And, as predicted, the other people involved were fellow Burck clients Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon.

Two sources directly involved in the deliberations tell CBS News chief White House correspondent Major Garrett that McGahn’s threat was not communicated directly to Mr. Trump, but adjudicated by senior staff, principally then-chief of staff Reince Priebus and then-chief strategist Steve Bannon.

Garrett reports that while Mr. Trump talked about firing Mueller, he never issued a direct “order” to do so in any written form, although he did say he favored it in the presence of senior staff.


White House senior staff viewed Mr. Trump’s talk of firing Mueller skeptically, as he frequently mentioned firing people in his administration, but often quickly forgets about it.

In the Mueller instance, as in other potential firing cases, senior staff acknowledged the president with nods, but did not take action, in hopes Mr. Trump would simmer down or forget, sources tell Garrett.

Because of this, discussion of firing Mueller was not acted upon or elevated from the White House to Department of Justice.

Moreover, McGahn’s threat went beyond the Mueller firing to his own compromised position.

McGahn threatened to resign over an accumulation of stresses and frustrations with the president, rather than leaving for issues related to Mueller’s potential firing.

McGahn’s primary stress was being a “no” voice for Mr. Trump.

Suddenly, this looks not so much like McGahn heroically defending the Constitution as McGahn trying to fix a shitty work situation.

On the Sessions and Trump Interviews: It’s Not Just Obstruction of Justice

There are two stories out (in addition to this piece I did for TNR) renewing the frenzy around the Mueller investigation.

First, NYT reveals that Mueller interviewed Jeff Sessions for a few hours last week.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions was questioned for several hours last week by the special counsel’s office as part of the investigation into Russia’s meddling in the election and whether the president obstructed justice since taking office, according to a Justice Department spokeswoman.

Then, WaPo reports that Mueller wants to interview Trump about the Mike Flynn and Jim Comey firings.

Within the past two weeks, the special counsel’s office has indicated to the White House that the two central subjects that investigators wish to discuss with the president are the departures of Flynn and Comey and the events surrounding their firings.

Commenters and the WaPo piece (which cites information that should only be available from a member of Trump’s legal team) suggest these developments mean Trump is looking at obstruction.

Mueller’s interest in the events that led Trump to push out Flynn and Comey indicates that his investigation is intensifying its focus on possible efforts by the president or others to obstruct or blunt the special counsel’s probe.

I’m sure obstruction absolutely is one of the things Mueller is assessing when interviewing Sessions and Trump.

But neither of these interviews, particularly not the Sessions one, is necessarily focused exclusively on obstruction.

Sessions, for example, was in a key early meeting where setting up a meeting between Putin and Trump was discussed (though Sessions claims he opposed the idea). I have noted, for example, how Sessions played dumb when asked whether he had any discussions about emails and that key Sessions aide Stephen Miller is a top candidate to have heard about emails from George Papadopoulos.

[I]t seems highly likely that on April 27 (or whenever Papadopoulos was next in DC), Miller learned that Russia had some kind of emails from Hillary.

[Stephen] Miller, recall, is Jeff Sessions’ close aide, his installment in the Administration. The NYT makes clear that Miller was interviewed by Mueller’s team recently, which means he was one of the people the government planned to interview just after locking in Papadopoulos’ plea.

Which makes this exchange from Jeff Sessions’ most recent congressional appearance, on October 18, all the more interesting. First, Patrick Leahy got the Attorney General to admit that there was a difference between not recalling something and affirmatively denying something. Leahy then pointed out that, once the meetings he had denied were disclosed, Sessions started not recalling certain things about the meetings that he had previous affirmatively denied.

Leahy: Later in March, when you did disclose such meetings, you said you could not recall what was said at the meetings. Your answer to my question was an emphatic no. It wasn’t, “I don’t recall.” You are a lawyer, I am a lawyer. You are, in fact, our nation’s top lawyer. Is there a difference between responding “no” and “I do not recall”?

Sessions: Yes.

Leahy: Thank you.

Sessions: Certainly it is, Senator Leahy.

Leahy: So if you could not recall, then you could not answer have answered my first question, yes or no, if later you said that you don’t recall what was discussed. The reason I ask is that, US intelligence intercepts reported in July that it would appear you did in fact discuss campaign issues with the Russian Ambassador.

Leahy then asked Sessions whether he had, since the election, had conversations with Russian officials about a slew of things, starting with emails. Sessions got even squirrelier than he normally is, and first attempted to answer a question Leahy didn’t ask.

Sessions: I have never had a meeting with any Russian officials to discuss any kind of coordinating campaign efforts.

So then Leahy asked about each item in turn.

Leahy: Let’s take this piece by piece. Did you discuss any of the following: Emails?

Sessions: Repeat the question again about emails.

Leahy: Since the 2016 campaign, have you discussed with any Russian connected official anything about emails?

Sessions: Discuss with them. I don’t recall having done any such thing.

Right after this exchange, Sessions totally balks when Leahy asks him if he has been interviewed or asked for an interview by Mueller, saying he should clear it with the Special Counsel.

Now, there was some imprecision in this questioning. It’s clear that Sessions believed he was answering the question about during the campaign, not since it.

But of the things Leahy asked about — emails, Russian interference, sanctions, or any policies or positions of the Trump campaign or presidency — Sessions ultimately not-recalled in response to just one question: the emails.

Based on the past practice Leahy had just laid out, Sessions claimed to not recall issues that he had actually done. Which would suggest Sessions is worried that there’s evidence he has discussed emails — with someone. It’s just not clear how he interpreted that question.

And while Trump’s firing of Comey after attempting him to drop the Flynn investigation is a key prong in any obstruction case, his role in Flynn’s non-firing is far more interesting, especially given the likelihood, given Republican efforts to claim privilege, that he was on the Mar-a-Lago side of orders directing Flynn to ask Sergey Kislyak to hold off on a response to Obama’s sanctions. While it’s certainly possible that Mueller may hold off on any examination of Trump’s personal role in any hypothetical quid pro quo with the Russians, there’s plenty of reason to believe Trump was in the loop.

And in early discussions about Sally Yates’ testimony, Adam Schiff had said she might explain why Trump waited so long to fire Mike Flynn after she warned Don McGahn he had been compromised. One obvious reason is that it allowed Flynn, who had helped set up a meeting days later, attend it. That might change the connotation of the timing of the Comey firing, just in time to report back to Russia that the firing had “taken off” the pressure created by the investigation.

President Trump told Russian officials in the Oval Office this month that firing the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, had relieved “great pressure” on him, according to a document summarizing the meeting.

“I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Mr. Trump said, according to the document, which was read to The New York Times by an American official. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

Mr. Trump added, “I’m not under investigation.”

It’s crystal clear that Trump fired Comey in an attempt to stave off investigation of Mike Flynn.

But the why behind that obstruction led to the rest of the guts of the Russia investigation. And the why may implicate both Trump (as unindicted co-conspirator) and Sessions (most likely as witness) more directly in any quid pro quo pertaining to the election.

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

Jack Goldsmith and Susan Hennessey Run Cover for Those Giving Jeff Sessions Unreviewable Authority to Criminalize Dissent

I’m used to Susan Hennessey partnering with Ben Wittes to write apologies for NSA and FBI that ignore known facts. I’m a bit surprised that Jack Goldsmith did so in this defense of Democrats — like Adam Schiff and Nancy Pelosi and nineteen Democratic Senators — who have voted to give Jeff Sessions unreviewable authority to criminalize dissent using certain privacy tools.

NSA did not fix “abouts” problems before the issues became public

There are numerous problems with this post. The one that irks me the most, however, is the claim that the “system itself” identified and addressed problems with “abouts” collection before they became public.

We acknowledge that the program has raised hard legal questions as well as difficult compliance issues, primarily involving “abouts” collection. But these problems were identified by the system itself, long before the issues became public, and the practices were fixed or terminated.

This claim, one I’ve corrected Hennessey for on numerous occasions on Twitter, is false, and should be retracted.

I say that with great confidence, because I wrote about the problems on August 11, 2016, well before NSA failed to disclose the full extent of the problems in an October 4, 2016 hearing, which led the worst FISC judge ever, Rosemary Collyer, to complain about NSA’s institutional “lack of candor.”

At the October 26, 2016 hearing, the Court ascribed the government’s failure to disclose those IG and OCO reviews at the October 4, 2016 hearing to an institutional “lack of candor” on NSA’s part and emphasized that “this is a very serious Fourth Amendment issue.”

As a reminder, the problem (the FISC has) with “abouts” collection is not so much that it collected entirely domestic communications — that’s the complaint of the rest of us. It’s that NSA never ever complied with John Bates’ 2011 requirement that NSA not conduct back door searches on upstream collection, because it might result in searches of those entirely domestic communications. In my August 2016 post, I noted that reviewers kept discovering that NSA continued to do back door searches on upstream data in violation of that prohibition, and kept refusing to implement technical fixes to avoid them.

I also raised concerns about the oversight of 704/705(b), which is how the NSA first realized how badly non-compliant their upstream searches were, on May 13, 2016, That’s about when NSA first reported to DOJ “in May and June 2016” that “approximately eighty-five percent of” queries using a tool the NSA employs with 704/705b queries “were not compliant with the applicable minimization procedures.”

I’ll grant that I’m remarkably attentive to documents that get declassified years after the fact. But I’m nevertheless “the public.” If I’m identifying these problems — and NSA’s refusal to make the technical fixes to avoid them — before they get fully briefed to DOJ or FISC, then it is absolutely false to claim that “the system” fixed or terminated the problem long before they became public.

Again, Lawfare should issue a retraction for that claim.

Update, January 19: On Twitter yesterday, Hennessey claimed I misread this quote, and that her proof that the system works was that the NSA had gotten away with ignoring Bates’ orders for five years, but finally shut it down before the public learned that NSA had been ignoring FISC’s orders.

This is still factually false — as I responded to her, the NSA was still identifying problems for eight months after I wrote about the problems, even assuming it had found all of them by April 2017, which was the last declassified reporting on it. But her explanation actually makes the comment downright damning for the NSA. It suggests a lawyer who was at NSA during the period it was not in compliance believes that getting away with violating the Fourth Amendment for five years, but fixing it before documents released on a three year delay (and only because of Snowden) is a sign of a law-abiding agency.

A portrait of a guy who doesn’t know key details as a rigorous overseer

The fact that I was harping on the “abouts” problems before any overseers of the program managed to fully investigate and fix them by itself disproves the claims that Hennessey and Goldsmith make in their hagiography of Adam Schiff.

He is the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee and one of the most knowledgeable and informed members of Congress on intelligence matters. Schiff has not hesitated to be  when he sees fit. He has watched the 702 program up close over many years in classified settings in his oversight role. He knows well its virtues and its warts. We suppose it is possible that Schiff would vote to give the president, whose integrity he so obviously worries about, vast powers to spy on Americans in an abusive way. Given everything Schiff has publicly said and done over the last year, however, a much more plausible inference is that he knows not only how valuable the 702 program is but also how law-constrained and carefully controlled and monitored it is.

Plus, I’m not sure why they think that Schiff’s attempt to fix the Section 215 phone dragnet only after Edward Snowden made it public proves that Schiff “never hesitated to be critical of intelligence community practices.” On the contrary, it proves that he did hesitate to do so before excessive programs became public.

The distinction is utterly critical given something I’ve pointed out about this bill. The bill itself is an admission that the intelligence community is out of control, and that congressional overseers can’t get information they need to adequately oversee the program without demanding it in legislation. That’s because it requires the IC to provide information on two practices that Congress cannot be deemed competent to legislate on without having answers about first.

For example, the bill requires an IG Report on how FBI queries raw data.

(b) MATTERS INCLUDED.—The report under subsection (a) shall include, at a minimum, an assessment of the following:

(1) The interpretations by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Division of the Department of Justice, respectively, relating to the querying procedures adopted under subsection (f) of section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (50 U.S.C. 1881a(f)), as added by section 101.


(6) The scope of access by the criminal division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to information obtained pursuant to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (50 U.S.C. 1801 et seq.), including with respect to information acquired under subsection (a) of such section 702 based on queries conducted by the criminal division.

(7) The frequency and nature of the reviews conducted by the National Security Division of the Department of Justice and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence relating to the compliance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation with such querying procedures.

I have explained (and I know Hennessey regards this as a problem too) that since 2012, FBI has devolved its access to raw 702 data to field offices. The FBI already conducted far, far less oversight of the back door searches it conducts than NSA does. But because the DOJ/DNI 702 review teams visit only a fraction of the FBI field offices with each review, and because FBI’s querying system doesn’t collect enough information to do oversight remotely, it is possible that the offices that are least familiar with 702 requirements are — for the smaller number of 702 queries they conduct — getting the least oversight.

You can’t pass a bill that effectively blesses FBI’s use of back door searches on Americans about whom it has no evidence of any wrongdoing, while admitting you don’t know how FBI conducts those back door searches, and make any claim to conduct adequate oversight. Rather, the bill permits FBI to continue practices it has stubbornly refused to brief Congress on, rather than demanding that FBI brief Congress first, so Congress can impose any restrictions that might be necessary to adequately protect Americans.

The bill also requires a briefing within six months to explain how DOJ complies with FISA’s legally mandated notice requirements (because notice under 702 is treated as notice under 106(c), this covers 702 surveillance as well).

Not later than 180 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Attorney General, in consultation with the Director of National Intelligence, shall provide to the Committee on the Judiciary and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence of the House of Representatives and the Committee on the Judiciary and the Select 10 Committee on Intelligence of the Senate a briefing with respect to how the Department of Justice interprets the requirements under sections 106(c), 305(d), and 405(c) of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (50 14 U.S.C. 1806(c), 1825(d), and 1845(c)) to notify an aggrieved person under such sections of the use of information obtained or derived from electronic surveillance, physical search, or the use of a pen register or trap and trace device. The briefing shall focus on how the Department interprets the phrase ‘‘obtained or derived from’’ in such sections.

The public treatment of DOJ’s serial, obvious failures to give notice to defendants is a nifty trick. When DOJ fails to give notice, it clearly violates the law, but notice is not included in minimization procedure review, so therefore is not reviewed by the FISC. When surveillance boosters like Hennessey and Goldsmith say there have never been any willful violations of the law, they manage to ignore the notice violations that have allowed some pretty problematic practices to avoid judicial oversight only because by breaking the law DOJ ensures no court will find them to be breaking the law.

Catch 22: Heads legal violations never get reviewed by a court, tails surveillance boosters can claim the surveillance has a clean bill of health.

Again, this is a known, egregious problem with the implementation of 702.

But rather than do the obvious thing as part of what this post dubs “robust democratic deliberation,” which is to demand answers about how notice is (not) given and require DOJ to fix it as part of the bill, the bill instead simply requires DOJ to provide the information that Congress needs to do basic oversight six months after reauthorization, which effectively punts fixing the problem six years down the road.

How many Chinese-American scientists will be improperly prosecuted because FBI is technically inane in those 6 years, because a bunch of California legislators like Nancy Pelosi, Adam Schiff, and Dianne Feinstein chose to punt on basic oversight?

The most egregious example of this, however, involves the government’s obstinate refusal to explain how many US persons are affected by 702. This bill also did not incorporate an HJC proposal requiring a count of how many Americans got referred for criminal prosecution off of 702 collection.

Letting Jeff Sessions criminalize dissent

That refusal — the refusal to even legislatively require the government to report on the impact of 702 surveillance on Americans, via incidental collection and/or criminal referral — brings us to the problem with this bill that opponents are all raising, but about which Hennessey and Goldsmith are inexcusably silent: the codification of giving Jeff Sessions unreviewable authority to determine what counts as a “criminal proceeding [that] affects, involves, or is related to the national security of the United States.”

Here’s how Hennessey and Goldsmith describe the impact of this program on Americans.

As Lawfare readers know, Section 702 authorizes the intelligence community to target the communications of non-U.S. persons located outside the United States for foreign intelligence purposes. It does not permit the intelligence community to target a U.S. person anywhere in the world. But it does permit incidental collection on U.S. persons, subject to strict rules about minimization and use.

Their silence about how the bill doesn’t deal with back door searches is problematic enough.

But they predictably, but problematically, make no mention of the way the bill codifies the use of 702 in domestic law enforcement under the Tor/VPN exception.

As I have laid out, in 2014 FISC created an exception to the rule that NSA must detask from a facility as soon as they learn that Americans are also using that facility. That exception applies to Tor and (though I understand this part even less) VPN servers — basically the kinds of privacy tools that criminals, spies, journalists, and dissidents might use to hide their online activities. NSA has to sort through what they collect on the back end, but along the way, they get to decide to keep any entirely domestic traffic they find has significant foreign intelligence purpose or is evidence of a crime, among other reasons. The bill even codifies 8 enumerated crimes under which they can keep such data. Some of those crimes — child porn and murder — make sense, but others — like transnational crime (including local drug dealers selling imported drugs) and CFAA (with its well-known propensity for abuse) pose more potential for abuse.

But it’s the unreviewable authority for Jeff Sessions bit that is the real problem.

We know, for example, that painting Black Lives Matter as a national security threat is key to the Trump-Sessions effort to criminalize race. We also know that Trump has accused his opponents of treason, all for making critical comments about Trump.

This bill gives Sessions unreviewable authority to decide that a BLM protest organized using or whistleblowing relying on Tor, discovered by collection done in the name of hunting Russian spies, can be referred for prosecution. The fact that the underlying data predicating any prosecution was obtained without a warrant under 702 would — in part because this bill doesn’t add teeth to FISA notice — ensure that courts would never learn the genesis of the prosecution. Even if a court somehow managed to do so, however, it could never deem the domestic surveillance unlawful because the bill gives Jeff Sessions the unreviewable authority to treat dissent as a national security threat.

This is such an obviously bad idea, and it is being supported by people who talk incessantly about the threat that Trump and Sessions present. Yet, rather than addressing the issue head on (which I doubt Hennessey could legally do in any case), they simply remain silent about what is the biggest complaint from privacy activists, that this gives a racist, vindictive Attorney General far more authority than he should have, and does so without fixing the inadequate protections for criminal defendants along the way.

I mean, I get that surveillance boosters who recognize the threat Trump and Sessions pose want to absolve themselves for giving Trump tools that can so obviously be abused.

But this attempt does so precisely by dodging the most obvious reasons for which boosters should be held to account.

Update: Changed post to note that just Trump has accused FBI Agents of treason, not Sessions, and not (yet) journalists.

Update: Here’s the roll call of the 65-34 vote passage of the bill. Democrats who voted in favor are:

  1. Carper
  2. Casey
  3. Cortez Masto
  4. Donnelly
  5. Duckworth
  6. Feinstein
  7. Hassan
  8. Heitkamp
  9. Jones
  10. Klobuchar
  11. Manchin
  12. McCaskill
  13. Nelson
  14. Peters
  15. Reed
  16. Schumer
  17. Shaheen
  18. Stabenow
  19. Warner
  20. Whitehouse


The 702 Capitulations: a Real Measure of the “Deep State”

There were two details of the Section 702 reauthorization in the House that deserve more attention, as the Senate prepares for a cloture vote today at 5:30.

First, in the Rules Committee hearing for the bill, Ranking House Judiciary Committee member Jerry Nadler revealed that the FBI stopped engaging with his staffers when the two sides reached a point on negotiations over the bill beyond which they refused to budge.

Effectively, FBI just used the dual HJC/House Intelligence jurisdiction over FISA to avoid engaging in the legislative process, to avoid making any concessions to representatives supposedly overseeing this program.

As a result, the final bill included only a sham warrant requirement — one that will give criminal suspects more protection against warrantless search than it gives people against whom the FBI has no suspicion — and provided an easy way for the NSA to turn “about” collection (which has been the source of repeated NSA violations of FISA over the years) back on.

Then there was the effort Nancy Pelosi made to use the President’s reactive FISA tweet to impose a few more limits on the warrant requirement. In a filibustering speech, she suggested that Trump’s tweet claiming his had been surveilled and abused under the law (in reality, Title I warrants were used during the campaign, but Section 702 has likely been part of the investigation as well) necessitated a motion to recommit instructing HPSCI to boost the protections for Americans.

Pelosi had to have know the motion would fail (it did, with just six of the most libertarian Republicans joining Democrats in support). She counts votes better than anyone.

What the vote was really about was an effort not to fix the real problems with the bill. Nor was it a meaningful effort to add anything but illusory protections to the bill. It was an effort to make a vote in support of the bill more politically palatable. Pelosi (and Adam Schiff, who worked closely with Pelosi on this front) appears to have known that there will be political costs for supporting this bill, perhaps especially in San Francisco where one-fifth of Pelosi’s constituents are Chinese-American, one of the groups most disproportionately affected by the spying program.

She knew she was going to have to vote for the bill, political cost and all, and was trying to use Trump’s tweet to minimize the costs of doing so.

These two events, in my opinion, show how dysfunctional legislation affecting the “Deep State,” the entrenched national security bureaucracy, is. There is a clear political recognition among the Democratic leaders cooperating in passing the bill that the bill goes too far. Probably, they worry about what will happen when we learn how Jeff Sessions will use the unreviewable authority to deem either warrantless back door searches for Americans’ names or retention of Tor and VPN domestic collection a “national security” issue to target Democratic constituencies.

But that recognition was not enough to muster the political will to oppose the bill.

Heads the “Deep State” wins, tails democratic oversight fails.