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FBI Delayed Telling the Gang of Four about Trump-Related Investigation Because It Is So Serious

As every newspaper in town has reported, at today’s hearing into Russia’s hack of the DNC, Jim Comey confirmed that the FBI has a counterintelligence investigation into the hack that includes whether Trump’s associates coordinated with Russian actors. Along the way, Comey refused to join in James Clapper’s statement that there was no evidence of collusion between Trump’s aides and Russia. When the now retired Director of National Intelligence said that, Clapper had emphasized that his statement only extended through the end of his service, January 20; he warned that some evidence may have been discovered after that.

A far more telling detail came close to the end of the hearing, during NY Congresswoman Elise Stefanik’s questioning. She started by asking what typical protocols were for informing the DNI, the White House, and senior Congressional leadership about counterintelligence investigations.

Stefanik: My first set of questions are directed at Director Comey. Broadly, when the FBI has any open counterintelligence investigation, what are the typical protocols or procedures for notifying the DNI, the White House, and senior congressional leadership?

Comey: There is a practice of a quarterly briefing on sensitive cases to the Chair and Ranking of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. The reason I hesitate is, thanks to feedback we’ve gotten, we’re trying to make it better. And that involves a briefing briefing the Department of Justice, I believe the DNI, and the — some portion of the National Security Council at the White House. We brief them before Congress is briefed.

Stefanik: So it’s quarterly for all three, then, senior congressional leadership, the White House, and the DNI?

Comey: I think that’s right. Now that’s by practice, not by rule or by written policy. Which is why, thanks to the Chair and Ranking giving us feedback, we’re trying to tweak it in certain ways.

Note that point: the practice has been that FBI won’t brief the Gang of Four until after they’ve briefed DOJ, the DNI, and the White House. Stefanik goes on to ask why, if FBI normally briefs CI investigations quarterly, why FBI didn’t brief the Gang of Four before the last month, at least seven months after the investigation started. Comey explains they delayed because of the sensitivity of the investigation.

Stefanik: So since in your opening statement you confirmed that there is a counterintelligence investigation currently open and you also referenced that it started in July, when did  you notify the DNI, the White House, or senior Congressional leadership?

Comey: Congressional leadership, sometime recently — they were briefed on the nature of the investigation and some details, as I said. Obviously the Department of Justice must have been aware of it all along. The DNI … I don’t know what the DNI’s knowledge of it was, because we didn’t have a DNI until Mr. Coats took office and I briefed him his first morning in office.

Stefanik: So just to drill down on this, if the open investigation began in July, and the briefing of Congressional leadership only occurred recently, why was there no notification prior to the recent — the past month.

Comey: I think our decision was it was a matter of such sensitivity that we wouldn’t include it in the quarterly briefings.

Stefanik: So when you state “our decision,” is that your decision, is it usually your decision what gets briefed in those quarterly updates?

Comey: No. It’s usually the decision of the head of our counterintelligence division.

Stefanik: And just again, to get the details on the record, why was the decision not to brief senior congressional leadership until recently, when the investigation had been open since July, a very serious investigation. Why was that decision made to wait months?

Comey: Because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Stefanik then got Comey to reconfirm what the IC report says: that Russia had hacked numerous entities, he would later say over a thousand, including Republican targets.

Stefanik then turned to the Yahoo investigation. She asked whether the FSB officers involved conducted the hack for intelligence purposes — a question Comey refused to answer. He also refused to answer what the FSB did with the information stolen.

Stefanik: Taking a further step back of what’s been in the news recently and I’m referring to the Yahoo hack, the Yahoo data breach, last week the Department of Justice announced it was charging hackers with ties to the FSB in the 2014 data breach. Was this hack done, to your knowledge, for intelligence purposes?

Comey: I can’t say in this forum.

Stefanik: Press reporting indicates the Yahoo hack targeted journalists, dissidents and government officials. Do you know what the FSB did with the information they obtained?

Comey: Same answer.

Stefanik: Okay, I understand that.

This is important for a number of reasons, including the evidence that the FSB was hiding their hacking from others in Russia.

Stefanik then turned to the sanctions, asking if Comey had any insight into how the Obama Administration chose who got sanctioned in December — which included Alexsey Belan but not the FSB officers involved (one of whom, Dmitry Dokuchaev, was already under arrest for treason by the time of the sanctions).

Stefanik: How did the Administration determine who to sanction as part of the election hacking? How familiar are [] with that decision process and how is that determination made?

Comey: I don’t know. I’m not familiar with the decision-making process. The FBI is a factual input but I don’t recall — I don’t have any personal knowledge about how the decisions were made about who to sanction.

Again, her interest in this is significant — I’ll explain why in a follow-up.

Stefanik then asked what the intelligence agencies would do going forward to keep entities safe from Russian hacking. As part of the response, Mike Rogers revealed (unsurprisingly) that NSA first learned of FSB’s hacking of those many targets in the summer of 2015.

Finally, Stefanik returned to her original point, when Congress gets briefed on CI investigations. Comey’s response was remarkable.

Stefanik: It seems to me, in my first line of questioning, the more serious a counterintelligence investigation is, that would seem to trigger the need to update not just the White House, the DNI, but also senior congressional leadership. And you stated it was due to the severity. I think moving forward, it seems the most severe and serious investigations should be notified to senior congressional leadership. And with that thanks for your lenience, Mr. Chairman, I yield back.

Comey could have been done with Stefanik yielding back. But instead, he interrupted, and suggested part of the delay had to do with the practice of briefing within the Executive Branch NSC before briefing Congress.

Comey: That’s good feedback, Ms. Stefanik, the challenge for is, sometimes we want to keep it tight within the executive branch, and if we’re going to go brief congressional leaders, the practice has been then we brief inside the executive branch, and so we have to try to figure out how to navigate that in a good way.

Which seems to suggest one reason why the FBI delayed briefing the Gang of Four (presumably, this is the Gang of Eight) is because they couldn’t brief all Executive Branch people the White House, and so couldn’t brief Congress without first having briefed the White House.

Which would suggest Mike Flynn may be a very central figure in this investigation.

Update: I’ve corrected my last observation to match Comey’s testimony that the delay had to do with keeping things on a close hold within the Executive Branch. That may be nothing, it may reflect the delay on confirming Dan Coats, it may be Flynn (if you normally brief the NSC, after all the National Security Advisor would be among the first to be briefed), but it also could be Jeff Sessions.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

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

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

The Friday Afternoon Massacre: Who Is Overseeing the Trump Investigation?

Update: After refusing to resign, Preet has now officially been fired. It remains to be seen whether there’s some underlying legal reason to force Trump to do this, or whether it’s press grand-standing.

Dana Boente, the US Attorney for Eastern District of VA and Acting Deputy Attorney General since Trump fired Sally Yates, just called the other US Attorneys and told them to submit their resignations effective immediately.

The press seems most interested in whether this order covers media hound Preet Bharara, US Attorney for Southern District of NY. Preet is leading an investigation into NY political scandals affecting key Democrats, and Trump had told him he would be kept on (Preet’s political godfather is Chuck Schumer, which may have had something to do with that).

But I’m far more interested in whether Boente himself is resigning to himself.

In addition to serving as Acting DAG, since Jeff Sessions recused himself from any investigation into Trump last week, Boente has been in charge of that investigation. So if Boente resigned to himself this afternoon, it would mean no one was in charge of the investigation. Plus, Boente also oversees several other interesting investigations, notably the long-standing investigation of Wikileaks.

Mind you, Rod Rosenstein, at least until this afternoon US Attorney for MD, is all teed up to be confirmed as DAG. Except Richard Blumenthal has said he would hold up that investigation until a special counsel was appointed to investigate Trump. With no DAG and no one in charge of the Trump investigation (the USAs in WDPA, DC, and NDCA, who also have a piece of the investigation presumably also just resigned), Blumenthal might be pressured to relent on that front.

Update: NBC finally got some clarity on Boente — he (and Rosenstein) will stay on. Which I guess means Preet is out.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

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

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

Jeff Sessions’ Narrow Recusal

Update: I was on Democracy Now on these issues today. Here’s the link.

As you know, after having two meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that he did not reveal in response to specific questions posed as part of his confirmation process exposed, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused from any investigation into the elections.

Contrary to much reporting on the recusal, it was nowhere near a complete recusal from matters pertaining to Trump’s administration and its’ ties to Russia. Here’s what Sessions said in his statement:

During the course of the confirmation proceedings on my nomination to be Attorney General, I advised the Senate Judiciary Committee that ‘[i]f a specific matter arose where I believed my impartiality might reasonably be questioned, I would consult with Department ethics officials regarding the most appropriate way to proceed.

During the course of the last several weeks, I have met with the relevant senior career Department officials to discuss whether I should recuse myself from any matters arising from the campaigns for President of the United States.

Having concluded those meetings today, I have decided to recuse myself from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States.

I have taken no actions regarding any such matters, to the extent they exist.

This announcement should not be interpreted as confirmation of the existence of any investigation or suggestive of the scope of any such investigation.

Consistent with the succession order for the Department of Justice, Acting Deputy Attorney General and U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia Dana Boente shall act as and perform the functions of the Attorney General with respect to any matters from which I have recused myself to the extent they exist.

As I emphasized, the only thing he is recusing from is “existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States.”

There are two areas of concern regarding Trump’s ties that would not definitively be included in this recusal: Trump’s long-term ties to mobbed up businessmen with ties to Russia (a matter not known to be under investigation but which could raise concerns about compromise of Trump going forward), and discussions about policy that may involve quid pro quos (such as the unproven allegation, made in the Trump dossier, that Carter Page might take 19% in Rosneft in exchange for ending sanctions against Russia), that didn’t involve a pay-off in terms of the hacking. There are further allegations of Trump involvement in the hacking (a weak one against Paul Manafort and a much stronger one against Michael Cohen, both in the dossier), but that’s in no way the only concern raised about Trump’s ties with Russians.

The concern about the scope of Sessions’ recusal is underscored by the way in which he narrowly addressed his lies to the Senate. Here is his answer to Al Franken, which was a question about campaign surrogates, but did not ask about communications about the campaign.

FRANKEN: CNN has just published a story and I’m telling you this about a news story that’s just been published. I’m not expecting you to know whether or not it’s true or not. But CNN just published a story alleging that the intelligence community provided documents to the president-elect last week that included information that quote, “Russian operatives claimed to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.” These documents also allegedly say quote, “There was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump’s surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.”

Now, again, I’m telling you this as it’s coming out, so you know. But if it’s true, it’s obviously extremely serious and if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?

SESSIONS: Senator Franken, I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have — did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.

His press conference and a (surprisingly good) interview with Tucker Carlson underscores that he is just addressing questions about the election, not conversations with Russians generally (conversations that might address those other two concerns, especially that of influencing policy on things like Ukraine). In the interview, Sessions denied having conversations with Russians “on a continuing basis to advance any kind of campaign agenda” and said “I never had any conversations with the Russians about the campaign.”

By Sessions’ own admission, the conversation with Kislyak concerned Ukraine; he said Kislyak was pushing back on what the Ukrainian Ambassador had said just the day before, though Sessions claims he himself pushed back as well.

That’s important because they key policy issue on which there have been concerns about undue influence is Ukraine.

It is not illegal to have meetings with an Ambassador, where the Ambassador makes a case for policies his country supports — precisely what appears to have gone on in the meeting Sessions did not disclose. But the (thus far unproven) allegations involving other Trump officials go beyond that, without necessarily pertaining to the election. That’s why Sessions’ recusal is far too narrow to be meaningful.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

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

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

Five Data Points on the Sessions News

As you no doubt have heard, Jeff Sessions met twice with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak last year, then told the Senate Judiciary Committee he had either not talked about the election with any Russians (a written response to Patrick Leahy’s question) or not talked with Russians as a surrogate of the campaign (an oral response to Al Franken).WSJ describes the probe as reviewing stuff in spring of last year, so before the July contact with Kislyak. Thus far, Sessions, his spox, and anonymous Trump official have offered three conflicting explanations for Sessions’ non-disclosure, including Sessions’ own, “I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false.”

Already, Democrats are demanding Sessions’ resignation and more Democrats and some Republicans are calling for him to recuse himself for the FBI counterintelligence investigation. The Twittersphere is calling for prosecution for perjury.

Update: WSJ had originally said Sessions and Kislyak spoke by phone, then corrected to in-person. According to this, he had one of each, with a phone followup several days after the in-person. Which means there’d be a transcript.

Jeff Sessions will almost certainly not be prosecuted for perjury

Which brings me to my first data point. Jeff Sessions is not going to be prosecuted for perjury. And that’s true for more reasons than that he is the AG.

First, it’s a hard crime to prove, because you have to prove that someone knowingly lied. Right now Sessions is all over the map, but he’s also dumb enough to be able to feign stupidity.

Plus, lying to Congress just doesn’t get prosecuted anymore. Remember, Alberto Gonzales lied in his own confirmation hearing in 2005, claiming there were no disagreements about Stellar Wind. It was always clear that was a lie, but even after Jim Comey confirmed that was the case with his May 2007 SJC hospital heroes performance, AGAG stuck around for another three months. And while his lie has often been cited as the reason for his departure in August 2007, I believe that the proximate reason is that he refused to do something Bush wanted him to do, at which point the White House threw him under the bus.

Plus, there are already at least three Trump officials who lied in their confirmation hearings — Mnuchin on his role in robosigning, DeVos on her role in the Prince family foundation, and Pruitt on his use of private emails. None of them are going anywhere.

Finally, in 2013, Holder’s DOJ went way out of its way to protect former DOJ official Scott Bloch from doing time after he lied to the House Oversight Committee. That precedent will make it all the harder to hold anyone accountable for lying to Congress in the future.

The timing of this roll-out gets more and more interesting

Now consider the timing of how all this rolled out.

In another blockbuster (revealing that the Obama Administration squirreled away information on Trump’s advisors to protect informants IDs from him, but also to ensure incriminating information would be available for others), NYT reveals that, after Putin’s non-response to Obama’s December 28 sanctions raised concerns, the FBI found Mike Flynn’s contacts with Kislyak on January 2.

On Jan. 2, administration officials learned that Mr. Kislyak — after leaving the State Department meeting — called Mr. Flynn, and that the two talked multiple times in the 36 hours that followed. American intelligence agencies routinely wiretap the phones of Russian diplomats, and transcripts of the calls showed that Mr. Flynn urged the Russians not to respond, saying relations would improve once Mr. Trump was in office, according to multiple current and former officials.

On January 10, the Trump dossier began to leak. Al Franken actually used that as the premise to ask Sessions about contacts with the Russians.

On January 12, David Ignatius published the first word of the Flynn-Kislyak calls, alerting anyone dumb enough not to already know that the FBI was going through Kislyak’s ties with Trump officials.

This had the effect of teeing up Flynn as a target, without giving Sessions (and other Trump officials) that their contacts with Kislyak were being scrutinized. And only after Flynn’s departure has this Sessions stuff come out.

I imagine someone in the White House Counsel’s office is now reviewing all the metadata and transcripts tied to Kislyak to see who else had curious conversations with him.

The claim Kislyak is the top spy recruiter

CNN’s version of this story and a separate profile of Kislyak insinuates that Session’s contact with Kislyak by itself is damning, because he “is considered by US intelligence to be one of Russia’s top spies and spy-recruiters in Washington.”

Current and former US intelligence officials have described Kislyak as a top spy and recruiter of spies, a notion that Russian officials have dismissed. Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said that “nobody has heard a single statement from US intelligence agencies’ representatives regarding our ambassador,” and attacked the “depersonalized assumptions of the media that are constantly trying to blow this situation out of proportion.”

Even aside from the fact that two Democrats — Joe Manchin of his own accord, and Claire McCaskill after she claimed never to have spoken with Kislyak — have also had contact with him, this seems like a red herring. No matter what Kislyak’s intention, it is still acceptable for someone to meet with a person presenting as a diplomat (for example, no one used to care that Saudi Arabia’s Bandar bin Sultan was running ops when he was Ambassador to the US).

Moreover, if current and former US intelligence officials are so sure Kislyak is the master spook in the US, why wasn’t he at the top of the Persona Non Grata list of 35 diplomats who got ejected at the end of December (though, as I’ve noted in the past, the Russian press was talking about him being replaced).

The delayed preservation request

Yesterday, AP reported that Don McGahn instructed White House officials on Tuesday to retain information relating to Russian contacts.

One official said McGahn’s memo instructs White House staff to preserve material from Trump’s time in office, and for those who worked on the campaign, relevant material from the election.

But the timing of this actually raises more questions. Preservation requests first went out February 17. Reince Priebus admitted knowing about it on the Sunday shows February 19. Sometime during the week of February 20-24, Sean Spicer with Don McGahn conducted a device check with White House staffers to see whether staffers were using Signal or Confide, the latter of which automatically deletes texts, the former of which can be set to do so (after Spicer warned everyone not to leak about the device check, it leaked).

And yet, McGahn only gave preservation instructions on February 28?

Now it’s possible the White House didn’t receive one of the letters sent on February 17 (which would raise other questions), which seems to be the implication of the AP report. But if it did, then McGahn sat on that preservation request for over 10 days, even while being involved in activities reflecting an awareness that staffers were using apps that thwarted retention rules.

Some things can’t be prosecuted

Contrary to what you may believe, thus far none of these reports have confirmed a smoking gun, and the NYT pointedly makes it clear that its sources are not claiming to have a smoking gun (which may not rule out that they have one they’re not yet sharing).

The nature of the contacts remains unknown. Several of Mr. Trump’s associates have done business in Russia, and it is unclear if any of the contacts were related to business dealings.

But consider that smoking guns may be different depending on what they are. That’s true because somethings may be perfectly legal — such as investments from shady Russians — that nevertheless pose a serious counterintelligence risk of compromise going forward.

Its all the more true when you factor in the role of Sessions and Trump. For some of this stuff (including the September meeting with Kislyak) Sessions will be protected by Speech and Debate. It’d be very hard for DOJ to prosecute Sessions for stuff he did as a Senator, even assuming you had someone else in charge of the investigation or department.

Likewise, other crimes may not rise to the level of criminal prosecution but would rise to the level of impeachment. Which is why this passage from the NYT is so interesting.

Obama White House officials grew convinced that the intelligence was damning and that they needed to ensure that as many people as possible inside government could see it, even if people without security clearances could not. Some officials began asking specific questions at intelligence briefings, knowing the answers would be archived and could be easily unearthed by investigators — including the Senate Intelligence Committee, which in early January announced an inquiry into Russian efforts to influence the election.

If FBI judged it could not prosecute Trump or his close associates for something but nevertheless believed the evidence constituted something disqualifying, what they’d want to do is preserve the evidence, make sure SSCI could find it, and provide tips — laid out in the NYT, if need be — about where to look.

And any things that did rise to the level of criminal charges would be a lot easier to charge if someone besides Sessions were in charge.

This seems to be very methodical.

Update: February for January preservation date requests corrected. h/t TN.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

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

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

Trump’s Muslim Ban Forces IC to Conduct Actual Assessment of Terror Threats

CNN reports that the Trump Administration has asked DHS and DOJ to come up with an intelligence report backing the selection of the seven Muslim banned countries. According to CNN, some of those working on the report feel they’re being asked to fit a report to a desired conclusion.

President Donald Trump has assigned the Department of Homeland Security, working with the Justice Department, to help build the legal case for its temporary travel ban on individuals from seven countries, a senior White House official tells CNN.

Other Trump administration sources tell CNN that this is an assignment that has caused concern among some administration intelligence officials, who see the White House charge as the politicization of intelligence — the notion of a conclusion in search of evidence to support it after being blocked by the courts. Still others in the intelligence community disagree with the conclusion and are finding their work disparaged by their own department.

This is another of those areas where I’m grateful for the incompetence of the Trump Administration. If it were me, I’d call the four Obama Administration officials who first named these seven countries a threat: former Deputy CIA Director Avril Haines, former Secretary of State John Kerry, former Homeland Security Czar Lisa Monaco, and former National Security Advisor Susan Rice. They’re already on a court declaration in this case, so even the ones who might have been able to dodge testifying normally, they wouldn’t be able to. Make them explain why Iran and Sudan are on this list. They would either have to admit the truth: that our notions of terrorism generally are utterly politicized, and that if we were to measure on actual threat, our close allies Saudi Arabia and Pakistan would lead the list. Or they’d have to invent something to justify their past politicized actions.

Instead, Trump is trying to politicize intelligence, which not only has elicited this backlash, but will never be able to accomplish its objective. Even after redefining terror attack down to include material support (something that is actually consistent with the last 15 years of FBI fluffing their terror prosecution numbers), it is still impossible to present Iran as a bigger terrorist threat than Saudi Arabia (plus, you’d have to acknowledge that the listing and delisting of MEK, which a number of Trump officials have supported for cash payments, is also totally politicized).

Hopefully, that will lead to a larger reassessment of how we think of terrorism, including the recognition that our allies are actually the problem, not our arch-enemy Iran. That’s obviously wildly optimistic. But it is the kind of possibility that Trump’s incompetence allows us to consider.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

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

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

Nevertheless, She Persisted

One of the most disgusting events recorded in U.S. Senate history occurred last night while Senate Democrats held the floor to debate Jeff Sessions’ nomination as U.S. Attorney General.

Senate Leader Mitch McConnell used a gag rule to stop Elizabeth Warren from reading Coretta Scott King’s 1986 letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee about Jeff Sessions’ efforts to suppress African American voters and his fitness to serve as a federal judge.

This is breathtakingly offensive.

A Senator denied a First Amendment right, unable to participate in speech and debate in their role on behalf of constituents.

The suppression of an historic written statement by an historic figure, presented decades ago to the Senate.

A woman Senator prevented from speaking as part of a governmental body whose composition is 79% men.

The quashing of fact regarding a cabinet nominee’s racist behavior as a former member of law enforcement, germane to their unsuitability as U.S. Attorney General.

And most horrifically, the use of a gag rule circa 1836, instituted by white supremacist members of Congress who prevented abolitionists from speaking about ending slavery.

The Party of Lincoln is dead. It is a zombie animated by hatred, intent on hurting any who pose a threat to its continued grasp on power. It doesn’t take seriously its oath of office, instead resurrecting archaic nonsense to deprive the people of their rights while encouraging corruption.

In summoning Rule XIX and cementing his wretchedness into Senate record, McConnell said about Warren, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

She will, indeed, persist, Senator McConnell. She and millions of Americans will persist in their rejection of white supremacy and fascism which relies on it. You have generously offered a rallying cry for our resistance.

And when your body finally relinquishes the venal energy which moves it daily, know that whatever memorial is mounted for you will be visited for the next hundred years by women and minorities who’ll paste it with mementos which read, “Nevertheless, she persisted.”

Blogger since 2002, political activist since 2003, geek since birth. Opinions informed by mixed-race, multi-ethnic, cis-female condition, further shaped by kind friends of all persuasions. Sci-tech frenemy, wannabe artist, decent cook, determined author, successful troublemaker. Mother of invention and two excessively smart-assed young adult kids. Attended School of Hard Knocks; Rather Unfortunate Smallish Private Business School in Midwest; Affordable Mid-State Community College w/evening classes. Self-employed at Tiny Consulting Business; previously at Large-ish Chemical Company with HQ in Midwest in multiple marginalizing corporate drone roles, and at Rather Big IT Service Provider as a project manager, preceded by a motley assortment of gigs before the gig economy was a thing. Blogging experience includes a personal blog at the original blogs.salon.com, managing editor for a state-based news site, and a stint at Firedoglake before landing here at emptywheel as technology’s less-virginal-but-still-accursed Cassandra.

On Sally Yates’ Stand and the Session’s Nomination

There are two funny details about the reporting on the stand then Acting Attorney General Sally Yates took against Donald Trump’s Muslim ban, which led to her firing. First, even in a story that explains the process by which Yates decided to order DOJ not to enforce the ban, there’s little consideration of timing.

[O]n Friday, Yates heard a media report that Trump had signed an executive order temporarily barring entry into the United States for citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries and refugees from around the world.

No one from the White House had consulted with Yates or any other senior leaders in the Justice Department. Yates had to decide whether her lawyers could defend Trump’s action in court. She did not even have a copy of the order, and her aides had to go online to find it.

“It was chaos,” said a senior Justice Department official.

[snip]

As acting attorney general Sally Yates struggled to figure out how or whether to defend President Trump’s immigration order last weekend — while protests erupted at airports nationwide, immigrants were denied entry to the United States and civil rights lawyers rushed to court — two events helped crystallize her decision.

The first was a television appearance by Trump on the Christian Broadcasting Network. In an interview, he said that Christians in the Middle East who were persecuted should be given priority to move to the United States because they had been “horribly treated.”

The second was late Saturday night when former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani appeared on Fox News. Giuliani said Trump wanted a “Muslim ban” and asked him to pull together a commission to show him “the right way to do it legally.”

“Those two things put the order in a very different light,” said a senior Justice Department official familiar with her decision. “Trump’s executive order appeared to be designed to make distinctions among different classes of people based on their religion.”

The article cites the CBN interview with Trump — the interview was done on Friday and clips started being released on Saturday — but doesn’t say when Yates saw the interview. But the Giuliani interview was later in the day on Saturday.

By that point, DOJ already was defending the EO, at least against motions for stays, with stories of DOJ attorneys getting calls late at night to contest ACLU and other civil liberties’ groups suits. Where was Yates during that period? Who was calling these attorneys and getting them to courtrooms?

Just as notably, though, such reports rarely raise how Yates’ actions on Monday that led to her firing might have been designed to impact Jeff Sessions’ confirmation process, even while everyone reported on the question Sessions posed to Yates during her own confirmation about refusing illegal orders. Yet that’s precisely what happened, as Democrats delayed the committee vote on Sessions a day, citing the Yates versus Sessions exchange and the Muslim ban.

None of that means Yates’ delayed decision wasn’t the right one to make, one made from a principled stand about the discriminatory impact of this ban. It just seems like a decision that also served to heighten the pressure on Sessions’ own complicity in this bigotry.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

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

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

McCain Has One Way to Prevent Torture under Trump — Oppose Pompeo and Sessions

The Saturday before Thanksgiving, John McCain made some strong statements about whether President Trump will be able to resume torture.

Republican Sen. John McCain issued a fiery warning to President-elect Donald Trump on the subject of torture Saturday.

“I don’t give a damn what the president of the United States wants to do. We will not waterboard,” McCain told an audience at the annual Halifax International Security Forum. “We will not torture people … It doesn’t work.”

McCain’s comments have gotten quite a lot of approving press since.

But that approving press is misplaced.

After all, tough words will not prevent Trump from resuming torture — no matter what NYT’s rather bizarre story claiming there are obstacles to doing so claims. As I laid out weeks ago, the bureaucratic work-arounds are already in place.

No. The single most effective way for Senator McCain to prevent Trump from resuming torture is to ensure the people he appoints are actually opposed to it.

Already, Trump has named two pro-torture Republicans to top positions: Trump’s Attorney General pick, Jeff Sessions, voted against the anti-torture amendment McCain wrote to try to codify the law. In response to the release of the Torture Report, Trump’s CIA Director pick, Mike Pompeo, declared the torturers “are not torturers, they are patriots.”

McCain — whose comment on torture came the day after Trump named these appointees — has not committed to opposing their nomination. Instead, he just wants to make strong statements that will do little to prevent Trump from ordering Pompeo to resuming the torture.

Maybe that’s why McCain is getting so touchy about the President-elect.

Today, he told two different reporters he didn’t want to answer questions about Trump. Here’s what he said to HuffPo’s Laura Barron-Lopez:

I will not discuss President-elect Donald Trump, ok? And that is my right as a Senator. I do not have an obligation ma’am to answer any question I don’t feel like answering. I’m responsible for the people of Arizona and they just [re-elected] me overwhelmingly.

He said something similar to CNN’s Manu Raju.

Cranky-as-fuck John McCain is ratcheting it up!

But he’s going to need to crank it up even more. McCain, with just two of his colleagues, has the power and moral authority to oppose pro-torture appointees. That would require confronting the leader of his party. But it is also one of the only real ways to prevent the US from resuming torture.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

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

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

The Sessions Nomination and the “Emergency Exception”

Donald Trump will nominate Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III to be Attorney General.

Most of the uproar over the appointment has, justifiably, focused on the fact that Sessions is such a racist he was denied confirmation to be a District Court Judge in the 1980s. We will also learn, going forward, about how deeply embedded in Alabama’s unique kind of corruption Sessions is.

But something more recent is as alarming, albeit for different reasons.

In June, Sessions proposed an amendment to ECPA reform that would mandate providers turn over communications content if a government official declared that it was an emergency.

(1) IN GENERAL.—A provider of electronic communication service or remote computing service shall disclose to a governmental entity a wire or electronic communication (including the contents of the communication) and a record or other information pertaining to a subscriber or customer if a representative of the governmental entity reasonably certifies under penalty of perjury that an emergency involving the danger of death or serious physical injury requires disclosure without delay.

As Al Gidari explained in a post on this provision, providers already can, at their discretion, turn over such communications in case of an emergency.

For the last 15 years, providers have routinely assisted law enforcement in emergency cases by voluntarily disclosing stored content and transactional information as permitted by section 2702 (b)(8) and (c)(4) of Title 18. Providers recently began including data about emergency disclosures in their transparency reports and the data is illuminating. For example, for the period January to June 2015, Google reports that it received 236 requests affecting 351 user accounts and that it produced data in 69% of the cases. For July to December 2015, Microsoft reports that it received 146 requests affecting 226 users and that it produced content in 8% of the cases, transactional information in 54% of the cases and that it rejected about 20% of the requests. For the same period, Facebook reports that it received 855 requests affecting 1223 users and that it produced some data in response in 74% of the cases. Traditional residential and wireless phone companies receive orders of magnitude more emergency requests. AT&T, for example, reports receiving 56,359 requests affecting 62,829 users. Verizon reports getting approximately 50,000 requests from law enforcement each year.

This amendment would have eliminated that discretionary review, which — as Gidari went on to explain — often serves to weed out requests for which there isn’t really an emergency or in which authorities are just fishing to further an investigation.

Remember, in an emergency, there is no court oversight or legal process in advance of the disclosure. For over 15 years, Congress correctly has relied on providers to make a good faith determination that there is an emergency that requires disclosure before legal process can be obtained. Providers have procedures and trained personnel to winnow out the non-emergency cases and to deal with some law enforcement agencies for whom the term “emergency” is an elastic concept and its definition expansive.

Part of the problem, and the temptation, is that there is no nunc pro tunc court order or oversight for emergency requests or disclosures. Law enforcement does not have to show a court after the fact that the disclosure was warranted at the time; indeed, no one may ever know about the request or disclosure at all if it doesn’t result in a criminal proceeding where the evidence is introduced at trial. In wiretaps and pen register emergencies, the law requires providers to cut off continued disclosure if law enforcement hasn’t applied for an order within 48 hours.  But if disclosure were mandatory for stored content, all of a user’s content would be out the door and no court would ever be the wiser. At least today, under the voluntary disclosure rules, providers stand in the way of excessive or non-emergency disclosures.

A very common experience among providers when the factual basis of an emergency request is questioned is that the requesting agency simply withdraws the request, never to be heard from again. This suggests that to some, emergency requests are viewed as shortcuts or pretexts for expediting an investigation. In other cases when questioned, agents withdraw the emergency request and return with proper legal process in hand shortly thereafter, which suggests it was no emergency at all but rather an inconvenience to procure process. In still other cases, some agents refuse to reveal the circumstances giving rise to the putative emergency.

In other words, if this amendment had passed, it would have created a black hole of surveillance, in which authorities could obtain content simply by declaring an emergency (remember, from 2002 until 2006, there was a highly abusive FBI phone metadata program that worked by invoking an emergency).

I raise this not to minimize the biggest reason Sessions is unsuitable to be AG: his racism and his regressive ideas on immigration.

Rather, I raise it to point out that in addition to selectively pursuing people of color (and delegitmizing those who defend their due process), Sessions would undoubtedly seek tools that would make it easier to do so without any oversight.

All Trump’s named nominees thus far save Reince Preibus couch their racism in terms of claims of “emergency.” Those claims, tied to Sessions’ views on legal process, would make for an unchecked executive.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

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

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

Why Is the Government Poison-Pilling ECPA Reform?

Back in 2009, the Obama Administration had Jeff Sessions gut an effort by Dianne Feinstein to gut an effort by Patrick Leahy to gut an effort by Russ Feingold to halt the phone and Internet dragnet programs (as well as, probably, some Post Cut Through Dialed Digit collections we don’t yet know about).

See what Jeff Sesssions–I mean Barack Obama–did in complete secrecy and behind the cover of Jeff Sessions’ skirts the other night?

They absolutely gutted the minimization procedures tied to pen registers! Pen registers are almost certainly the means by which the government is conducting the data mining of American people (using the meta-data from their calls and emails to decide whether to tap them fully). And Jeff Sesssions–I mean Barack Obama–simply gutted any requirement that the government get rid of all this meta-data when they’re done with it. They gutted any prohibitions against sharing this information widely. In fact, they’ve specified that judges should only require minimization procedures in extraordinary circumstances. Otherwise, there is very little limiting what they can do with your data and mine once they’ve collected it. [no idea why I was spelling Sessions with 3 ses]

At each stage of this gutting process, Feingold’s effort to end bulk collection got watered down until, with Sessons’ amendments, the Internet dragnet was permitted to operate as it had been. Almost the very same time this happened, NSA’s General Counsel finally admitted that every single record the agency had collected under the dragnet program had violated the category restrictions set back in 2004. Probably 20 days later, Reggie Walton would shut down the dragnet until at least July 2010.

But before that happened, the Administration made what appears to be — now knowing all that we know now — an effort to legalize the illegal Internet dragnet that had replaced the prior illegal Internet dragnet.

I think that past history provides an instructive lens with which to review what may happen to ECPA reform on Thursday. A version of the bill, which would require the government to obtain a warrant for any data held on the cloud, passed the House unanimously. But several amendments have been added to the bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee that I think are designed to serve as poison pills to kill the bill.

The first is language that would let the FBI resume obtaining Electronic Communication Transaction Records with just a National Security Letter (similar language got added to the Intelligence Authorization; I’ll return to this issue, which I think has been curiously reported).

The second is language that would provide a vast emergency exception to the new warrant requirement, as described by Jennifer Daskal in this post.

[T]here has been relatively little attention to an equally, if not more, troubling emergency authorization provision being offered by Sen. Jeff Sessions. (An excellent post by Al Gidari and op-ed by a retired DC homicide detective are two examples to the contrary.)

The amendment would allow the government to bypass the warrant requirement in times of claimed emergency. Specifically, it would mandate that providers turn over sought-after data in response to a claimed emergency from federal, state, or local law enforcement officials. Under current law, companies are permitted, but not required, to comply with such emergency — and warrantless — requests for data.

There are two huge problems with this proposal. First, it appears to be responding to a problem that doesn’t exist. Companies already have discretion to make emergency disclosures to governmental officials, and proponents of the legislation have failed to identify a single instance in which providers failed to disclose sought-after information in response to an actual, life-threatening emergency. To the contrary, the data suggest that providers do in fact regularly cooperate in response to emergency requests. (See the discussion here.)

Second, and of particular concern, the emergency disclosure mandate operates with no judicial backstop. None. Whatsoever. This is in direct contrast with the provisions in both the Wiretap Act and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that require companies to comply with emergency disclosure orders, but then also require subsequent post-hoc review by a court. Under the Wiretap Act, an emergency order has to be followed up with an application for a court authorization within 48 hours (see 18 U.S.C. § 2518(7)). And under FISA, an emergency order has to be followed with an application to the court within 7 days (see 50 U.S.C. § 1805(5)). If the order isn’t filed or the court application denied, the collection has to cease.

The proposed Sessions amendment, by contrast, allows the government to claim emergency and compel production of emails, without any back-end review.

Albert Gidari notes that providers are already getting a ton of emergency requests, and a good number of them turn out to be unfounded.

For the last 15 years, providers have routinely assisted law enforcement in emergency cases by voluntarily disclosing stored content and transactional information as permitted by section 2702 (b)(8) and (c)(4) of Title 18. Providers recently began including data about emergency disclosures in their transparency reports and the data is illuminating. For example, for the period January to June 2015, Google reports that it received 236 requests affecting 351 user accounts and that it produced data in 69% of the cases. For July to December 2015, Microsoft reports that it received 146 requests affecting 226 users and that it produced content in 8% of the cases, transactional information in 54% of the cases and that it rejected about 20% of the requests. For the same period, Facebook reports that it received 855 requests affecting 1223 users and that it produced some data in response in 74% of the cases. Traditional residential and wireless phone companies receive orders of magnitude more emergency requests. AT&T, for example, reports receiving 56,359 requests affecting 62,829 users. Verizon reports getting approximately 50,000 requests from law enforcement each year.

[snip]

Remember, in an emergency, there is no court oversight or legal process in advance of the disclosure. For over 15 years, Congress correctly has relied on providers to make a good faith determination that there is an emergency that requires disclosure before legal process can be obtained. Providers have procedures and trained personnel to winnow out the non-emergency cases and to deal with some law enforcement agencies for whom the term “emergency” is an elastic concept and its definition expansive.

Part of the problem, and the temptation, is that there is no nunc pro tunc court order or oversight for emergency requests or disclosures. Law enforcement does not have to show a court after the fact that the disclosure was warranted at the time; indeed, no one may ever know about the request or disclosure at all if it doesn’t result in a criminal proceeding where the evidence is introduced at trial. In wiretaps and pen register emergencies, the law requires providers to cut off continued disclosure if law enforcement hasn’t applied for an order within 48 hours.  But if disclosure were mandatory for stored content, all of a user’s content would be out the door and no court would ever be the wiser. At least today, under the voluntary disclosure rules, providers stand in the way of excessive or non-emergency disclosures.

[snip]

A very common experience among providers when the factual basis of an emergency request is questioned is that the requesting agency simply withdraws the request, never to be heard from again. This suggests that to some, emergency requests are viewed as shortcuts or pretexts for expediting an investigation. In other cases when questioned, agents withdraw the emergency request and return with proper legal process in hand shortly thereafter, which suggests it was no emergency at all but rather an inconvenience to procure process. In still other cases, some agents refuse to reveal the circumstances giving rise to the putative emergency. This is why some providers require written certification of an emergency and a short statement of the facts so as to create a record of events — putting it in writing goes a long way to ensuring an emergency exists that requires disclosure. But when all is in place, providers respond promptly, often within an hour because most have a professional, well-trained team available 7×24.

In other words, what seems to happen now, is law enforcement use emergency requests to go on fishing expeditions, some of which are thwarted by provider gatekeeping. Jeff Sessions — the guy who 7 years ago helped the Obama Administration preserve the dragnets — now wants to make it so these fishing expeditions will have no oversight at all, a move that would make ECPA reform meaningless.

The effort to lard up ECPA reform with things that make surveillance worse (not to mention the government’s disinterest in reforming ECPA since 2007, when it first started identifying language it wanted to reform) has my spidey sense tingling. The FBI has claimed, repeatedly, in sworn testimony, that since the 2010 Warshak decision in the Sixth Circuit, it has adopted that ruling everywhere (meaning that it has obtained a warrant for stored email). If that’s true, it should have no objection to ECPA reform. And yet … it does.

I’m guessing these emergency requests are why. I suspect, too, that there are some providers that we haven’t even thought of that are even more permissive when turning over “emergency” content than the telecoms.

 

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

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

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