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How Twelve Years of Warning and Six Years of Plodding Reform Finally Forced FBI to Do Minimal FISA Oversight

Earlier this week, the government released the reauthorization package for the 2018 Section 702 certificates of FISA. With the release, they disclosed significant legal fights about the way FBI was doing queries on raw data, what we often call “back door searches.” Those fights are, rightly, being portrayed as Fourth Amendment abuses. But they are, also, the result of the FISA Court finally discovering in 2018, after 11 years, that back door searches work like some of us have been saying they do all along, a discovery that came about because of procedural changes in the interim.

As such, I think this is wrong to consider “FISA abuse” (and I say that as someone who was very likely personally affected by the practices in question). It was, instead, a case where the court discovered that FBI using 702 as it had been permitted to use it by FISC was a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

As such, this package reflects a number of things:

  • A condemnation of how the government has been using 702 (and its predecessor PAA) for 12 years
  • A (partial — but thus far by far the most significant one) success of the new oversight mechanisms put in place post-Snowden
  • An opportunity to reform FISA — and FBI — more systematically

This post will explain what happened from a FISA standpoint. A follow-up post will explain why this should lead to questions about FBI practices more generally.

The background

This opinion came about because every year the government must obtain new certificates for its 702 collection, the collection “targeted” at foreigners overseas that is, nevertheless, designed to collect content on how those foreigners are interacting with Americans. Last we had public data, there were three certificates: counterterrorism, counterproliferation, and “foreign government,” which is a too-broadly scoped counterintelligence function. As part of that yearly process, the government must get FISC approval to any changes to its certificates, which are a package of rules on how they will use Section 702. In addition, the court conducts a general review of all the violations reported over the previous year.

Originally, those certificates included proposed targeting (governing who you can target) and minimization (governing what you can do once you start collecting) procedures; last year was the first year the agencies were required to submit querying procedures governing the way agencies (to include NSA, CIA, National Counterterrorism Center, and FBI) access raw data using US person identifiers. The submission of those new querying procedures are what led to the court’s discovery that FBI’s practices violated the Fourth Amendment.

In the years leading up to the 2018 certification, the following happened:

  • In 2013, Edward Snowden’s leaks made it clear that those of us raising concerns about Section 702 minimization since 2007 were correct
  • In 2014, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (which had become operational for the first time in its existence almost simultaneously with Snowden’s leaks) recommended that CIA and FBI have to explain why they were querying US person content in raw data
  • In 2015, Congress passed the USA Freedom Act, the most successful reform of which reflected Congress’ intent that the FISA Court start consulting amicus curiae when considering novel legal questions
  • In 2015, amicus Amy Jeffress (who admitted she didn’t know much about 702 when first consulted) raised questions about how queries were conducted, only to have the court make minimal changes to current practice — in part, by not considering what an FBI assessment was
  • In the 2017 opinion authorizing that year’s 702 package, Rosemary Collyer approved an expansion of back door searches without — as Congress intended — appointing an amicus to help her understand the ways the legal solution the government implemented didn’t do what she believed it did; that brought some (though not nearly enough) attention to whether FISC was fulfilling the intent of Congress on amici
  • In the 2017 Reauthorization (which was actually approved in early 2018), Congress newly required agencies accessing raw data to submit querying procedures along with their targeting and minimization procedures in the annual certification process, effectively codifying the record-keeping suggestion PCLOB had made over two years earlier

When reviewing the reauthorization application submitted in March 2018, Judge James Boasberg considered that new 2017 requirement a novel legal question, so appointed Jonathan Cederbaum and Amy Jeffress, the latter of whom also added John Cella, to the amicus team. By appointing those amici to review the querying procedures, Boasberg operationalized five years of reforms, which led him to discover that practices that had been in place for over a decade violated the Fourth Amendment.

When the agencies submitted their querying procedures in March 2018, all of them except FBI complied with the demand to track and explain the foreign intelligence purpose for US person queries separately. FBI, by contrast, said they already kept records of all their queries, covering both US persons and non-US persons, so they didn’t have to make a change. One justification it offered for not keeping US person-specific records as required by the law is that Congress exempted it from the reporting requirements it imposed on other agencies in 2015, even though FBI admitted that it was supposed to keep queries not just for the public reports from which they argued they were exempted, but also for the periodical reviews that DOJ and ODNI make of its queries for oversight purposes. FBI Director Christopher Wray then submitted a supplemental declaration, offering not to fix the technical limitations they built into their repositories, but arguing that complying with the law via other means would have adverse consequences, such as diverting investigative resources. Amici Cedarbaum and Amy Jeffress challenged that interpretation, and Judge James Boasberg agreed.

The FBI’s querying violations

It didn’t help FBI that in the months leading up to this dispute, FBI had reported six major violations to FISC involving US person queries. While the description of those are heavily redacted, they appear to be:

  • March 24-27, 2017: The querying of 70K facilities “associated with” persons who had access to the FBI’s facilities and systems. FBI General Counsel (then run by Jim Baker, who had had these fights in the past) warned against the query, but FBI did it anyway, though did not access the communications. This was likely either a leak or a counterintelligence investigation and appears to have been discovered in a review of existing Insider Threat queries.
  • December 1, 2017: FBI conducted queries on 6,800 social security numbers.
  • December 7-11, 2017, the same entity at FBI also queried 1,600 queries on certain identifiers, though claimed they didn’t mean to access raw data.
  • February 5 and 23, 2018: FBI did approximately 30 queries of potential sources.
  • February 21, 2018: FBI did 45 queries on people being vetted as sources.
  • Before April 13, 2018: an unspecified FBI unit queried FISA acquired metadata using 57,000 identifiers of people who work in some place.

Note, these queries all took place under Trump, and most of them took place under Trump’s hand-picked FBI Director. Contrary to what some Trump apologists have said about this opinion, it is not about Obama abuse (though it reflects practices that likely occurred under him and George Bush, as well).

These violations made it clear that Congress’ mandate for better record-keeping was merited. Boasberg also used them to prove that existing procedures did not prevent minimization procedure violations because they had not in these instances.

As he was reviewing the violations, Boasberg discovered problems in the oversight of 702 that I had noted before, based off my review of heavily redacted Semiannual Reports (which means they should have been readily apparent to everyone who had direct access to the unredacted reports). For example, Judge Boasberg noted how few of FBI’s queries actually get reviewed during oversight reviews (something I’ve pointed out repeatedly, and which 702 boosters have never acknowledged the public proof of).

As noted above, in 2017 the FBI conducted over three million queries of FISA-acquired information on just one system, [redacted]. See Supplemental FBI Declaration at 6. In contrast, during 2017 NSD conducted oversight of approximately 63,000 queries in [redacted] and 274,000 queries in an FBI system [redacted]. See Gov’t Response at 36.

Personnel from the Office of Intelligence (OI) within the Department of Justice’s National Security Division (NSD) visit about half of the FBI’s field offices for oversight purposes in a given year. Id at 35 & n 42. Moreover OI understandably devotes more resources to offices that use FISA authorities more frequently, so those offices [redacted] are visited annually, id at 35 n. 42, which necessitates that some other offices go for periods of two years or more between oversight visits. The intervals of time between oversight visits at a given location may contribute to lengthy delays in detecting querying violations and reporting them to the FISC. See, e.g., Jan. 18, 2019, Notice [redacted] had been conducting improper queries in a training context since 2011, but the practice was not discovered until 2017).

He also noted that the records on such queries don’t require contemporaneous explanation from the Agent making the query, meaning any review of them will not find problems.

The FBI does not even record whether a query is intended to return foreign-intelligence information or evidence of crime. See July 13, 2018, Proposed Tr. at 14 (DOJ personnel “try to figure out” from FBI query records which queries were run for evidence of crime purposes). DOJ personnel ask the relevant FBI personnel to recall and articulate the bases for selected queries. Sometimes the FBI personnel report they cannot remember. See July 9, 2018, Notice.

Again, I noted this in the past.

In short, as Boasberg was considering Wray’s claim that the FBI didn’t need the record-keeping mandated by Congress, he was discovering that, in fact, FBI needs better oversight of 702 (something that should have been clear to everyone involved, but no one ever listens to my warnings).

FISC rules the querying procedures do not comply with the law or Fourth Amendment

In response to Boasberg’s demand, FBI made several efforts to provide solutions that were not really solutions.

The FBI’s first response to FISC’s objections was to require General Counsel approval before accessing the result of any “bulk” queries like the query that affected 70K people — what it calls “categorical batch queries.”

Queries that are in fact reasonably likely to return foreign-intelligence information are responsive the government’s need to obtain and produce foreign-intelligence information, and ultimately to disseminate such information when warranted. For that reason, queries that comply with the querying standard comport with § 1801 (h), even insofar as they result in the examination of the contents of private communications to or from U.S. persons. On the other hand, queries that lack a sufficient basis are not reasonably related to foreign intelligence needs and any resulting intrusion on U.S. persons’ privacy lacks any justification recognized by§ 1801 (h)(l). Because the FBI procedures, as implemented, have involved a large number of unjustified queries conducted to retrieve information about U.S. persons, they are not reasonably designed, in light of the purpose and technique of Section 702 acquisitions, to minimize the retention and prohibit the dissemination of private U.S. person information.

But Boasberg was unimpressed with that because the people who’d need to consult with counsel would be the most likely not to know they did need to do so.

He also objected to FBI’s attempt to give itself permission to use such queries at the preliminary investigation phase (before then, FBI was doing queries at the assessment stage).

The FBI may open a preliminary investigation with even less of a factual predicate: “on the basis of information or an allegation indicating the existence of a circumstance” described in paragraph a. orb. above. Id. § II.B.4.a.i at 21 (emphasis added). A query using identifiers for persons known to have had contact with any subject of a full or preliminary investigation would not require attorney approval under § IV.A.3, regardless of the factual basis for opening the investigation or how it has progressed since then.

Boasberg’s Fourth Amendment analysis was fairly cautious. Whereas amici pushed for him to treat the queries as separate Fourth Amendment events, on top of the acquisition (which would have had broad ramifications both within FISA practice and outside of it), he instead interpreted the new language in 702 to expand the statutory protection under queries, without finding queries of already collected data a separate Fourth Amendment event.

Similarly, both Boasberg and the amici ultimately didn’t push for a written national security justification in advance of an actual FISA search. Rather, they argued FBI had to formulate such a justification before accessing the query returns (in reality, many of these queries are automated, so it’d be practically impossible to do justifications before the fact).

Boasberg nevertheless required the FBI to at least require foreign intelligence justifications for queries before an FBI employee accessed the results of queries.

The FBI was not happy. Having been told they have to comply with the clear letter of the law, they appealed to the FISA Court of Review, adding apparently new arguments that fulfilling the requirement would not help oversight and that the criminal search requirements were proof that Congress didn’t intend them to comply with the other requirements of the law. Like Boasberg before them, FISCR (in a per curium opinion from the three FISCR judges, José Cabranes, Richard Tallman, and David Sentelle) found that FBI really did need to comply with the clear letter of the law.

The FBI chose not to appeal from there (for reasons that go beyond this dispute, I suspect, as I’ll show in a follow-up). So by sometime in December, they will start tracking their backdoor searches.

FBI tried, but failed, to avoid implementing a tool that will help us learn what we’ve been asking

Here’s the remarkable thing about this. Something like this has been coming for two years, and FBI is only now beginning to comply with the requirement. That’s probably not surprising. Neither the Director of National Intelligence (which treated its intelligence oversight of FBI differently than it did CIA or NSA) nor Congress had demanded that FBI, which can have the most direct impact on someone’s life, adhere to the same standards of oversight that CIA and NSA (and an increasing number of other agencies) do.

Nevertheless, 12 years after this system was first moved under FISA (notably, two key Trump players, White House Associate Counsel John Eisenberg and National Security Division AAG John Demers were involved in the original passage), we’re only now going to start getting real information about the impact on Americans, both in qualitative and quantitative terms. For the first time,

  • We will learn how many queries are done (the FISC opinion revealed that just one FBI system handles 3.1 million queries a year, though that covers both US and non US person queries)
  • We will learn that there are more hits on US persons than previously portrayed, which leads to those US persons to being investigated for national security or — worse — coerced to become national security informants
  • We will learn (even more than we already learned from the two reported queries that this pertained to vetting informants) the degree to which back door searches serve not to find people who are implicated in national security crimes, but instead, people who might be coerced to help the FBI find people who are involved in national security crimes
  • We will learn that the oversight has been inadequate
  • We will finally be able to measure disproportionate impact on Chinese-American, Arab, Iranian, South Asian, and Muslim communities
  • DOJ will be forced to give far more defendants 702 notice

Irrespective of whether back door searches are themselves a Fourth Amendment violation (which we will only now obtain the data to discuss), the other thing this opinion shows is that for twelve years, FISA boosters have been dismissing the concerns those of us who follow closely have raised (and there are multiple other topics not addressed here). And now, after more than a decade, after a big fight from FBI, we’re finally beginning to put the measures in place to show that those concerns were merited all along.

DOJ Holds Big Presser to Make It Clear It Will Use Title III Wiretaps to Prosecute Leaks

John Demers, the Assistant Attorney General who did not think Donald Trump’s extortion by using congressionally appropriated security funding to pressure Ukraine into providing him with campaign propaganda merited an investigation, just had a big press conference to announce the arrest of Henry Kyle Frese, a DIA counterterrorism analyst accused of leaking information about a specific country’s weapons systems to two journalists who work at related media outlets (NBC is one outlet that would fit the presumed arrangement, but there are surely others; Update–it appears this is one of the stories). It sounds like a journalist Freese lived with asked him first to help a more senior journalist from the related outlet, then published a story herself, based off the allegedly leaked materials.

The leak doesn’t sound all that serious, in the grand scheme of things.

What was serious is the warning this press conference was meant to send to journalists. Demers bragged about the sentence imposed on Reality Winner, and boasted of the 6 people the Trump DOJ has prosecuted for leaks. He raised the Jeff Sessions’ speech announcing DOJ would target leaks.

When asked if DOJ was considering prosecuting the two journalists, the speakers on the press conference deferred, as they did about any ongoing investigation. That is, they may well be intending to do so.

Perhaps one of the bigger pieces of news about this arrest is not that DOJ arrested an analyst trying to do a favor for his girlfriend. Rather, it’s that DOJ decided to use a Title III wiretap to intercept Freese’s calls to the journalists, something that would be more proportional to the mob, not journalists.

But that’s where the national security priorities of Trump’s DOJ are. Not investigating him, or at least his personal lawyer, for schemes that obviously make our country less safe. But instead to use wiretaps to go after journalism.

The CIA Affiliation of the Whistleblower Isn’t the Key, It’s CIA General Counsel’s Role in a Cover-Up

The second paragraph of the NYT story that identified that the Ukraine whistleblower as a CIA employee describes the CIA’s General Counsel, Courtney Simmons Elwood, telling first the White House and then DOJ about the complaint.

The officer first shared information about potential abuse of power and a White House cover-up with the C.I.A.’s top lawyer through an anonymous process, some of the people said. The lawyer shared the officer’s concerns with White House and Justice Department officials, following policy.

Starting on paragraph 15, the NYT provides more details about how and why Elwood responded to a whistleblower complaint by running to the people who were implicated by it (and note, it says this was proper, as it may well have been — I’m not saying Elwood has legal exposure here).

The week after the call, the officer delivered a somewhat broad accusation anonymously to the C.I.A.’s general counsel, Courtney Simmons Elwood, according to multiple people familiar with the events. The initial allegations reported only that serious questions existed about a phone call between Mr. Trump and a foreign leader.

As required by government policy, Ms. Elwood had to assess whether a “reasonable basis” for the accusation existed. During the preliminary inquiry, Ms. Elwood and a career C.I.A. lawyer learned that multiple people had raised concerns about Mr. Trump’s call.

Ms. Elwood also called John A. Eisenberg, a deputy White House counsel and her counterpart at the National Security Council, according to three people familiar with the matter. He was already aware of vague concerns about the call.

Ms. Elwood, Mr. Eisenberg and their deputies spoke multiple times the following week. They decided that the accusations had a reasonable basis.

Mr. Eisenberg and Ms. Elwood both spoke on Aug. 14 to John Demers, the head of the Justice Department’s national security division, according to three people familiar with the discussion. Ms. Elwood did not pass on the name of the C.I.A. officer, which she did not know because his concerns were submitted anonymously.

The next day, Mr. Demers went to the White House to read the transcript of the call and assess whether to alert other senior law enforcement officials. The deputy attorney general, Jeffrey A. Rosen, and Brian A. Benczkowski, the head of the department’s criminal division, were soon looped in, according to two administration officials.

Department officials began to discuss the accusations and whether and how to follow up, and Attorney General William P. Barr learned of the allegations around that time, according to a person familiar with the matter.

A CNN story provided the detail that NYT (and AP) missed: when and how Barr learned he was implicated personally.

Demers went to the White House to review the transcript of the call on August 15. His office then alerted other senior Justice officials that Barr was mentioned on the call.

Since they NYT story came out, a lot of people have attacked it for revealing where the whistleblower worked. Dean Baquet claimed they did so to lend credibility to the story, a thoroughly ridiculous explanation (especially in the wake of the transcript release, which made it clear the complaint was corroborated by the White House’s own record of the call).

What is, instead, the important detail is that everything Elwood did in the wake of receiving the report, whether intentionally or not, not only served a cover-up, but also put the whistleblower at heightened risk. We may not know the ID of the whistleblower, but the White House, which now includes all the former Devin Nunes aides who were so critical to blowing up the Russian investigation in 2017, would have been able to identify who was seconded to the White House as soon as Elwood brought the complaint to the White House. And Elwood is, in significant part, responsible for that. So it’s not the whistleblower’s affiliation, but Elwood’s, that’s important, and Elwood’s alone identifies where the whistleblower works (and did, for the White House, over a month ago).

The really important part of this story — which is clarified when adding the CNN detail that Demers and Brian Benczkowski and Jeffrey Rosen knew their boss was directly implicated when they decided to scope the prosecutorial analysis very narrowly, completely ignoring the kind of quid pro quo that the Constitution explicitly names as a reason to impeach the President — is that those implicated had the opportunity to cover-up the investigation even before the whistleblower filed his formal complaint. And once he did that, DOJ did things (may have felt forced to) that tried to further suppress their earlier decisions, most notably by getting an OLC opinion that ruled the proper resolution of the complaint — which OLC deemed not to be urgent because it ignored that Bill Barr, the State Department, and those who hid the communications on the covert server were also implicated, and by association Barr’s efforts to feed intelligence into John Durham’s investigation — was to have people at FBI reporting to Bill Barr investigate. Whether the implication of those others makes this an IC complaint (the most obvious way it does is in the abuse of classification authority to hide the transcript) is a matter requiring analysis, analysis that Bill Barr’s direct report, Steven Engel, did not do.

And that’s the point (or should have been): The NYT named a number the people who may be involved in this cover-up: John Eisenberg, John Demers, Brian Benczkowski, Jeffrey Rosen, and CIA General Counsel Courtney Simmons Elwood. Elwood is the one who first approached the problem in such a way that a cover-up would be possible.

Yes, by relaying that detail, the NYT told all of us that the whistleblower is a CIA employee. But the people involved in the cover-up, and the firebreathers at NSC, already knew that.

Bill Barr’s (Claimed) Surprise about Being in the Zelensky Transcript Is Irrelevant To His (Non) Recusal

Bill Barr continues to excel at placing carefully worded self-exonerations in the press. Consider this AP story, purportedly telling how helpless little Billy Barr has been put in an uncomfortable situation because Trump treats him the same way he does Rudy Giuliani, as his personal lawyer. You wouldn’t know, from reading it, that Barr is one of the most powerful cabinet members in government, and fairly unique among Trump’s appointees for the breadth of governmental experience he has.

Much of the story describes Barr as the passive object things happen to, not as the agent of his own circumstances. The AP describes him finding himself in a political firestorm and coming under scrutiny rather than acting in scandalous ways that merit such scrutiny.

As Washington plunges into impeachment, Attorney General William Barr finds himself engulfed in the political firestorm, facing questions about his role in President Donald Trump’s outreach to Ukraine and the administration’s attempts to keep a whistleblower complaint from Congress.

[snip]

Barr has come under the scrutiny of congressional Democrats who have accused him of acting on Trump’s personal behalf more than for the justice system. Democrats have also called on Barr to step aside from decisions on the Ukraine matter.

The article does affirmatively say what Barr (claims he) has not done. He has not spoken with Trump about Biden and he has not spoken to Rudy about anything related to Ukraine (which is, notably, different than saying he hasn’t hasn’t had inappropriate conversations with the President’s personal lawyer).

Barr has not spoken with Trump about investigating Biden or Biden’s son Hunter, and Trump has not asked Barr to contact Ukranian officials about the matter, the department said. Barr has also not spoken with Giuliani about anything related to Ukraine, officials have said.

As for Barr’s affirmative actions, they are (like the descriptions of what he did not do) always couched in claims made by some anonymous source. The department — not a named person in the department — “insists” that Barr wasn’t aware of the call until some vague point in mid-August.

The department insists Barr wasn’t made aware of the call with Zelenskiy until at least mid-August.

The money quote, the one everyone is tweeting about, is from someone identifiably close enough to Barr to know he was “surprised and angry” but who claims not to be authorized to speak “publicly.”

When Barr did learn of that call a few weeks later, he was “surprised and angry” to discover he had been lumped in with Giuliani, a person familiar with Barr’s thinking told The Associated Press. This person was not authorized to speak about the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

So, too, are the sources for the really important claims that tell us everything we don’t need to know pertaining to recusal. A person (likely the same one) not authorized to speak “publicly,” says the Department of Justice first learned of the call when CIA General Counsel Courtney Simmons Elwood brought the complaint to National Security Division head John Demers (as described in detail by the NYT). Other DOJ lawyers learned about the complaint after the whistleblower filed a complaint with the Intelligence Community Inspector General.

The Justice Department was first made aware of Trump’s call when a CIA lawyer mentioned the complaint from the unidentified CIA officer on Aug. 14, said a person familiar with the matter who wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke anonymously. Some Justice Department lawyers learned about the accusations after the whistleblower filed a complaint with the intelligence community’s internal watchdog.

The watchdog later raised concerns that Trump may have violated campaign finance law. The Justice Department said there was no crime and closed the matter.

Note what’s not described in that passage, or anywhere else in the story? Precisely when Bill Barr himself learned about the substance of the complaint. When Bill Barr himself learned he was named in the transcript. It does not matter at all whether Bill Barr was surprised to hear the President roping him into framing his opponent’s son (though we should not believe he was surprised until the Attorney General says that publicly himself, preferably under oath). It does not matter when Demers learned of the substance of the complaint, it matters when Barr did, and whether it preceded other actions he took.

What matters is whether Barr learned he was named in the transcript before the DOJ made the decision there was no crime there. What matters is whether Barr knew he was implicated before making the decision not to recuse in advance of a prosecutorial decision made while lacking all the facts. What matters is whether Barr knew he was named in the transcript before getting an OLC opinion justifying withholding the complaint. (h/t F for the last point)

The AP story doesn’t tell us that. Instead, it tells us everything we don’t need to know.

The Three Theories of Prosecution for Julian Assange

In this post, I laid out what the 17 new charges against Julian Assange are. In this, I’ll look more closely at three theories of criminalization here:

  • Theory One: Charging Assange for causing Chelsea Manning to leak classified information by soliciting it generally or specifically (and/or discussing its value before she obtained it)
  • Theory Two: Charging Assange for offering to help crack a password and attempting to obtain the documents that would have been available using it
  • Theory Three: Charging Assange for leaking the identities of US government informants in three different databases

Theory One: Obtaining and disclosing documents that were solicited (Counts 2-4 and 6-14)

Effectively, for three sets of documents, they’ve charged Assange for causing Chelsea Manning to obtain (Charges 2 through 4), Assange obtaining himself (Charges 6 through 8), causing Manning to disclose documents she did not have authorized possession of (Charges 9 through 11), and  causing Manning to disclose legally obtained documents (Charges 12 through 13) for three sets of documents: The Gitmo Detainee Assessment Briefs, the State Department Cables, and the Iraq Rules of Engagement.

Assange is not being charged for publishing anything under this theory (that’s not true under Theory Three). He’s being charged with causing Manning to obtain and disclose them to him.

To accuse Assange of causing Manning to do these things, they show how a Most Wanted Leaks list posted on WikiLeaks until September 2010 resembles what Manning looked for on DOD’s networks and what she sent to Assange.

In addition, they show that Manning and Assange discussed some of these leaks before she obtained them.

For example, on March 7, 2010, Manning asked ASSANGE how valuable the Guantanamo Bay detainee assessment briefs would be. After confirming that ASSANGE thought they had value, on March 8, 2010, Manning told ASSANGE that she was “throwing everything [she had] on JTF GTMO [Joint Task Force, Guantanamo] at [Assange] now.” ASSANGE responded, “ok, great!”

[snip]

Manning later told ASSANGE in reference to the Guantanamo Bay detainee assessment briefs that “after this upload, thats all i really have got left.” I

It argued that Manning downloaded the State Department cables in response to the request for bulk databases on the Wish List.

Further, following ASSANGE’s “curious eyes never run dry” comment, and consistent with WikiLeaks’s solicitation of bulk databases and classified materials of diplomatic significance, as described in paragraphs 2,4-5, between on or about March 28, 2010, and April 9, 2010, Manning used a United States Department of Defense computer to download over 250,000 U.S. Department of State cables, which were classified up to the SECRET level. Manning subsequently uploaded these cables to ASSANGE and WikiLeaks through an SFTP connection to a cloud drop box operated by WikiLeaks, with an X directory that WikiLeaks had designated for Marining’s use. ASSANGE and WikiLeaks later disclosed them to the public.

And it showed that the Iraq Rules of Engagement were on the Wish List.

As of November 2009, WikiLeaks’s “Most Wanted Leaks” for the United States included the following:

[snip]

b. “Military and Intelligence” documents, including documents that the list described as classified up to the SECRET level, for example, “Iraq and Afghanistan Rules of Engagement 2007-2009 (SECRET);”

[snip]

Following ASSANGE’s “curious eyes never run dry” comment, on or about March 22,2010, consistent with WikiLeaks’s “Most Wanted Leaks” solicitation of “Iraq and Afghanistan US Army Rules of Engagement 2007-2009 (SECRET),” as described in paragraphs 4-5, Manning downloaded multiple Iraq rules of engagement files from her Secret Internet Protocol Network computer and burned these files to a CD, and provided them to ASSANGE and WikiLeaks.

Thus, for each of these, the government is saying that soliciting specific classified (or protected) materials amounts to Espionage. This is the theory of prosecution I argued would criminalize people like Jason Leopold, who was clearly engaged in journalism when he specifically asked about a specific Suspicious Activity Report from a source.

Theory Two: Attempted hacking to attempt to obtain the documents available via the hack (Counts 5 and 18)

For one vaguely defined set of documents, DOJ has charged Assange for attempting to help Manning crack a password (which was the single previous charge, which is now Charge 18) in order to attempt to obtain unidentified documents on SIPRNet.

15. In furtherance of this scheme, ASSANGE agreed to assist Manning in cracking a password hash stored on United States Department of Defense computers connected to the Secret Internet Protocol Network, a United States government network used for classified documents and communications, as designated according to Executive Order No. 13526 or its predecessor orders.

I believe (though am not certain) that that’s what the documents charged in Count 5 are about.

Between in or about November 2009 and in or about May 2010, in an offense begun and committed outside of the jurisdiction of any particular state or district of the United States, the defendant, JULIAN PAUL ASSANGE, who will be first brought to the Eastern District of Virginia, and others unknown to the Grand Jury, knowingly and unlawfully attempted to receive and obtain documents, writings, and notes connected with the national defense—^namely, information stored on the Secret Internet Protocol Network classified up to the SECRET level— for the purpose of obtaining information respecting the national defense, knowing and having reason to believe, at the time that he attempted to receive and obtain them, that such materials would be obtained, taken, made, and disposed of by a person contrary to the provisions of Chapter 37 of Title 18 of the United States Code.

This theory also doesn’t charge Assange with publishing information. Rather than charging him for soliciting leaks (Theory One), it charges him with helping to obtain documents Manning was not authorized to obtain by attempting to crack a password to get Administrators privileges.

Releasing the names of informants (Counts 15-17)

For each of three sets of US government informants, there’s also a charge tied to the informants’ identities disclosed in bulk databases.

35. Also following Manning’s arrest, during 2010 and 2011, ASSANGE published via the WikiLeaks website the documents classified up to the SECRET level that he had obtained from Manning, as described in paragraphs 12, 21, and 27, including approximately 75,000 Afghanistan war-related significant activity reports, 400,000 Iraq war-related significant activities reports, 800 Guantanamo Bay detainee assessment briefs, £ind 250,000 U.S. Department of State cables.

36. The significant activity reports from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars that ASSANGE published included names of local Afghans and Iraqis who had provided information to U.S. and coalition forces. The State Department cables that WikiLeaks published included names of persons throughout the world who provided information to the U.S. government in circumstances in which they could reasonably expect that their identities would be kept confidential. These sources included journalists, religious leaders, human rights advocates, and political dissidents who were living in repressive regimes and reported to the United States the abuses of their own government, and the political conditions within their countries, at great risk to their own safety. By publishing these documents without redacting the human sources’ names or other identifying information, ASSANGE created a grave and imminent risk that the innocent people he named would suffer serious physical harm and/or arbitrary detention.

For each database, the indictment looks at several instances of the individuals whose identities were released. It then lays out evidence that Assange knew and did not care that by publishing these identities he would be endangering people.

This is the theory of prosecution that does criminalize the publication of true information. And it criminalizes something that journalists do, at times, do.

The government often tries to classify identities that should not be (as they did with Gina Haspel, to hide her role in torture, for example). When journalists learn these identities they sometimes do choose to ignore admonitions against publication, for good reason. That’s what Assange is accused of doing here, but only on a mass scale. But if this is successful, there’s nothing that will prevent the government from charging people for disclosing classified identities at a smaller scale.

I’m also not sure how, as a foreign citizen, this doesn’t invite retaliation against the US for identifying classified identities of other countries.

Two Trajectories: Sleazy Influence Peddler Paul Manafort and Foreign Agent Prosecutor Brandon Van Grack

Like many, while I expected TS Ellis to give Paul Manafort a light sentence, I’m shocked by just how light it was.

Ellis gave Manafort 47 months of prison time for crimes that the sentencing guidelines say should start at a 19 year sentence. Even if Amy Berman Jackson gives Manafort the stiffest sentence she can give him — 10 years — and makes it consecutive, he’ll still be facing less than the what sentencing guidelines recommend. Ellis even declined to fine Manafort beyond the $24 million he’ll have to pay in restitution (Zoe Tillman lays out the money issues here).

There are a number of reasons to be outraged by this.

Ellis explicitly suggested that Manafort’s crimes were less serious than similar organized crime that people of color would commit. In the wake of this sentence, any number of people (especially defense attorneys) have pointed to non-violent criminals facing more prison time than Manafort. That said, I agree with those who suggest we should aim to bring those other sentences down in line with what the civilized world imposes, and not instead bump white collar criminals up to the barbaric levels that come out of the drug war.

Ellis gave this sentence even though Manafort expressed no remorse. Ellis commented that “I was surprised that I did not hear you express regret for engaging in wrongful conduct. In other words, you didn’t say, ‘I really, really regret not doing what the law requires,'” but nevertheless sentenced him as if he had.

Perhaps most infuriating were the backflips Ellis did to spin Paul Manafort as a good man. He emphasized that Manafort was “not before the court for any allegation that he or anybody at his direction colluded with the Russian government to influence the 2016 presidential election,” which is true; but Ellis received the breach determination materials showing that at a time when Manafort was purportedly cooperating, he instead lied about sharing polling data with a suspected Russian asset while discussing a Ukrainian peace deal that he knew amounted to sanctions relief, a quid pro quo. Because those materials go to the issue of whether Manafort took responsibility and was a risk for recidivism, they were fair game for consideration, but Ellis didn’t consider them.

Indeed, because of time served, Ellis effectively sentenced Manafort to an equivalent sentence that Michael Cohen faces having committed an order of magnitude less financial fraud, pled guilty, and provided limited cooperation to the government. Effectively, then, Ellis has sanctioned Manafort’s successful effort to avoid cooperating in the case in chief, on how he and Trump conspired with Russia to exploit our democratic process.

Instead of referring to the materials on Manafort’s refusal to cooperate, Ellis instead just regurgitated defense materials and claimed that aside from stealing millions of dollars from taxpayers and whatever else went on before Amy Berman Jackson, Manafort had “lived an otherwise blameless life.”

And that’s where I step away from a generalized discussion of the barbaric nature of our criminal justice system to look specifically at the barbaric nature of what Paul Manafort has done with his life. I feel much the way Franklin Foer does.

In an otherwise blameless life, Paul Manafort lobbied on behalf of the tobacco industry and wangled millions in tax breaks for corporations.

In an otherwise blameless life, he helped Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos bolster his image in Washington after he assassinated his primary political opponent.

In an otherwise blameless life, he worked to keep arms flowing to the Angolan generalissimo Jonas Savimbi, a monstrous leader bankrolled by the apartheid government in South Africa. While Manafort helped portray his client as an anti-communist “freedom fighter,” Savimbi’s army planted millions of land mines in peasant fields, resulting in 15,000 amputees.

[snip]

In an otherwise blameless life, he spent a decade as the chief political adviser to a clique of former gangsters in Ukraine. This clique hoped to capture control of the state so that it could enrich itself with government contracts and privatization agreements. This was a group closely allied with the Kremlin, and Manafort masterminded its rise to power—thereby enabling Ukraine’s slide into Vladimir Putin’s orbit.

[snip]

In an otherwise blameless life, he produced a public-relations campaign to convince Washington that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was acting within his democratic rights and duties when he imprisoned his most compelling rival for power.

In an otherwise blameless life, he stood mute as Yanukovych’s police killed 130 protesters in the Maidan.

Paul Manafort invented the profession of sleazy influence peddler. His own daughter once acknowledged, “Don’t fool yourself. That money we have is blood money.” And our democracy, as well as more corrupt regimes around the globe where Manafort was happy to work, are much less just because of Manafort’s life’s work.

Which is why I take more solace in something that happened the night before Manafort’s sentencing: A CNN report that DOJ has put Brandon Van Grack — a prosecutor who, under Mueller, prosecuted Mike Flynn and his sleazy influence peddler business partners — in charge of a renewed effort to crack down on unregistered sleazy influence peddlers.

The initiative at the Justice Department to pursue violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires that an entity representing a foreign political party or government file public reports detailing the relationship, will be overseen by Brandon Van Grack, who left Mueller’s team in recent months to rejoin the national security division.

Van Grack’s appointment to the newly created position and the Justice Department’s interest in expanding its pursuit of foreign influence cases stemmed largely from the impact of Russian operations on the 2016 presidential election, John Demers, the head of the national security division, said Wednesday at a conference on white-collar crime.

With Van Grack’s new role, the Justice Department will shift “from treating FARA as an administrative obligation and regulatory obligation to one that is increasingly an enforcement priority,” Demers said.

He also pointed to the impact of a recent settlement with one of the country’s highest-profile law firms — Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP — on the department’s decision to escalate its enforcement in that area.

[snip]

Demers added that the Justice Department is considering seeking congressional authorization for administrative subpoena power to enforce the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which it currently lacks.

“That’s something that we’re taking a hard look at,” he said. Referencing Skadden, he added: “Do I think the firm would have behaved differently if they had received a subpoena versus they had just received a letter? Yes.”

This marks a decision to treat FARA violations — sleazy influence peddling that hides the ultimate foreign customer — as a real risk to our country. As I have laid out in my comparison of Manafort’s “otherwise blameless life” and Maria Butina’s efforts to infiltrate right wing politics, a venal insider with an already rich political network will be far more effective (and insidious) than even a beautiful woman backed by a mobbed up foreign government official and abetted by her own washed out Republican insider.

I don’t know what Mueller is doing with all the evidence of a conspiracy that he continues to protect. I don’t know that he’ll be able to deliver a prosecutorial conclusion that will deliver justice for the sleazy things that Trump did to win the election. Prosecuting very powerful people is very difficult, and we shouldn’t forget that.

But one other point of this entire investigative process was to learn lessons, to make it harder for hostile outsiders to hijack our democratic process going forward.

In letting Manafort off with a metaphorical wrist-slap, TS Ellis did nothing to deter others who, like Manafort, will sell out our country for an ostrich skin jacket. Even ABJ will face some difficult challenges in DC when she tries to sentence FARA crimes (particularly those of Sam Patten, who cooperated) without precedents to do so.

But the way to build those precedents — the way to establish a record that causes a Skadden Arps or a Rob Kelner to treat FARA registration as the official declaration to the government that it is — is to pursue more of these cases, against sleazy influence peddlers working for all foreign entities, not just the ones we despise.

So Manafort may get off easy for helping Russia interfere in our election in a bid to line up his next gig white-washing brutal oligarchs.

But along the way, our justice system may be adapting to the certainty that he did not live an otherwise blameless life

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

The Boente Resignation and the Reported Charge[s]/Indictment[s]

Back in May, I argued (based on the since proven incorrect assumption that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein would be unlikely to hire a non-DOJ employee like Robert Mueller as Special Counsel), Dana Boente might be the best solution to investigate the Comey firing.

[T]here’s no reason to believe he isn’t pursuing the investigation (both investigations, into Wikileaks and Trump’s associates) with real vigor. He is a hard ass prosecutor and if that’s what you want that’s what you’d get. His grand jury pool is likely to be full of people with national security backgrounds or at least a predisposition to be hawks.

But — for better and worse — Boente actually has more power than a Special Counsel would have (and more power than Fitz had for the Plame investigation), because he is also in charge of NSD, doing things like approving FISA orders on suspected Russian agents. I think there are problems with that, particularly in the case of a possible Wikileaks prosecution. But if you want concentrated power, Boente is a better option than any AUSA. With the added benefit that he’s The Last USA, which commands some real respect.

Yesterday, at about 6:30, WaPo reported Boente’s resignation. An hour or so later, CNN first reported that Robert Mueller has approved charges against at least one person who might be arrested on Monday. Not long after that, former DOJ spox Matt Miller revealed that Boente told friends this week he was looking forward to returning full time to his US Attorney post after John Demers takes over as the confirmed Assistant Attorney General for National Security.

Miller assumes that means Boente was forced out, rather than chose to announce his departure — he’ll stay until someone is confirmed in his place — after some things he started (such as the investigation into Mike Flynn) are coming to closure.

I don’t believe, contrary to what Rachel Maddow has floated, that Boente is stepping down solely or primarily to be a witness. Mueller already has a list of people who witnessed Trump’s obstruction. He doesn’t need Boente and he’d be better off with Boente at the helm of related investigations than sitting before a grand jury.

So if Boente was forced out, it suggests the charges announced have led to a Trump decision to get rid of Boente, perhaps yet another person he believed would protect him or his close associates.

Or perhaps there’s this. I pointed out two weeks ago that an 2002 OLC memo (one interpreting language that Viet Dinh, who’s a tangential player in this whole affair, wrote) held that the President could order lawyers to share grand jury information with him.

July 22, 2002, memo from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, written by Jay Bybee, the author of the infamous torture memos, held that, under the statute, the president could get grand jury information without the usual notice to the district court. It also found that the president could delegate such sharing without requiring a written order that would memorialize the delegation.

Bybee’s memo relies on and reaffirms several earlier memos. It specifically approves two rationales for sharing grand jury information with the president that would be applicable to the Russian investigation. A 1997 memo imagined that the president might get grand jury information “in a case where the integrity or loyalty of a presidential appointee holding an important and sensitive post was implicated by the grand jury investigation.” And a 2000 memo imagined that the president might need to “obtain grand jury information relevant to the exercise of his pardon authority.”

If you set aside Trump’s own role in obstructing the investigation—including the firing of former FBI Director James Comey—these rationales are defensible in certain cases. In fact, the Justice Department has already shared information (though not from a grand jury) with the White House for one of these very reasons. In January, acting Attorney General Sally Yates warned White House Counsel Don McGahn that Russians might be able to blackmail then-National Security Advisor Mike Flynn. As Yates explained in her congressional testimony in May, after Flynn’s interview with the FBI, “We felt that it was important to get this information to the White House as quickly as possible.” She shared it so the White House could consider firing Flynn: “I remember that Mr. McGahn asked me whether or not General Flynn should be fired, and I told him that that really wasn’t our call, that was up to them, but that we were giving them this information so that they could take action.”

A similar situation might occur now that the investigation has moved to a grand jury investigation, if someone remaining in the White House—the most likely candidate is the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner—were found to be compromised by Russian intelligence. In Kushner’s case, there are clear hints that he has been compromised, such as when he asked to set up a back channel with the Russians during the transition.

If Trump were to rely on the memo, he might order a Justice Department lawyer to tell him what evidence Mueller had against Kushner, or whether Mike Flynn or former campaign manager Paul Manafort were preparing to cooperate with Mueller’s prosecutors if they didn’t get an immediate pardon. Unlike Yates, Trump would have an incentive to use such information to undercut the investigation into Russia’s meddling.

I argued in that piece that those who currently have visibility onto the investigation — Rod Rosenstein and Boente — would be unlikely to share such information.

But that doesn’t prevent Trump (or Sessions, on his behalf) from asking.

So one possibility is that — as things move towards the next volatile state of affairs — Trump asked Boente to do something he refused.

Update: CNN had the Boente story mid-afternoon, and they say the resignation was long planned. Which may mean the indictment yesterday was something (or things) he had been working on at EDVA for some time.

Update: NBC has yet more conflicting details, reporting that Jeff Sessions’ Chief of Staff told Boente on Wednesday he should submit his resignation so Trump can start the replacement process.