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DOJ Put Someone Who Enabled Sidney Powell’s Lies — Jocelyn Ballantine — in Charge of Prosecuting the Proud Boys

Because of Joe Biggs’ role at the nexus between the mob that attacked Congress and those that orchestrated the mob, his prosecution is the most important case in the entire January 6 investigation. If you prosecute him and his alleged co-conspirators successfully, you might also succeed in holding those who incited the attack on the Capitol accountable. If you botch the Biggs prosecution, then all the most important people will go free.

Which is why it is so unbelievable that DOJ put someone who enabled Sidney Powell’s election season lies about the Mike Flynn prosecution, Jocelyn Ballantine, on that prosecution team.

Yesterday, at the beginning of the Ethan Nordean and Joe Biggs hearing, prosecutor Jason McCullough told the court that in addition to him and Luke Jones, Ballantine was present at the hearing for the prosecution. He may have said that she was “overseeing” this prosecution. (I’ve got a request for clarification in with the US Attorney’s office.)

Ballantine has not filed a notice of appearance in the case (nor does she show on the minute notice for yesterday’s hearing). In the one other January 6 case where she has been noticeably involved — electronically signing the indictment for Nick Kennedy — she likewise has not filed a notice of appearance.

Less than a year ago when she assisted in DOJ’s attempts to overturn the Mike Flynn prosecution, Ballantine did three things that should disqualify her from any DOJ prosecution team, much less serving on the most important prosecution in the entire January 6 investigation:

  • On September 23, she provided three documents that were altered to Sidney Powell, one of which Trump used six days later in a packaged debate attack on Joe Biden
  • On September 24, she submitted an FBI interview report that redacted information — references to Brandon Van Grack — that was material to the proceedings before Judge Emmet Sullivan
  • On October 26, she claimed that lawyers for Peter Strzok and Andrew McCabe had checked their clients’ notes to confirm there were no other alterations to documents submitted to the docket; both lawyers refused to review the documents

After doing these things in support of Bill Barr’s effort to undermine the Flynn prosecution (and within days of the Flynn pardon), Ballantine was given a confidential temporary duty assignment (it may have been a CIA assignment). Apparently she’s back at DC USAO now.

Three documents got altered and another violated Strzok and Page’s privacy

As a reminder, after DOJ moved to hold Mike Flynn accountable for reneging on his plea agreement, Billy Barr put the St. Louis US Attorney, Jeffrey Jensen, in charge of a “review” of the case, which DOJ would later offer as its excuse for attempting to overturn the prosecution.

On September 23, Ballantine provided Powell with five documents, purportedly from Jensen’s investigation into the Flynn prosecution:

I outlined the added date on the first set of Strzok notes here:

There was never any question that the notes could have been taken no earlier than January 5, because they memorialized Jim Comey’s retelling of a meeting that other documentation, including documents submitted in the Flynn docket, shows took place on January 5. Even Chuck Grassley knows what date the meeting took place.

But DOJ, while using the notes as a central part of their excuse for trying to overturn the Flynn prosecution, nevertheless repeatedly suggested that there was uncertainty about the date of the notes, claiming they might have been taken days earlier. And then, relying on DOJ’s false representations about the date, Sidney Powell claimed they they showed that Joe Biden — and not, as documented in Mary McCord’s 302, Bob Litt — was the one who first raised the possibility that Flynn may have violated the Logan Act.

Strzok’s notes believed to be of January 4, 2017, reveal that former President Obama, James Comey, Sally Yates, Joe Biden, and apparently Susan Rice discussed the transcripts of Flynn’s calls and how to proceed against him. Mr. Obama himself directed that “the right people” investigate General Flynn. This caused former FBI Director Comey to acknowledge the obvious: General Flynn’s phone calls with Ambassador Kislyak “appear legit.” According to Strzok’s notes, it appears that Vice President Biden personally raised the idea of the Logan Act.

During the day on September 29, Powell disclosed to Judge Sullivan that she had spoken to Trump (as well as Jenna Ellis) about the case. Then, later that night, Trump delivered a prepared attack on Biden that replicated Powell’s false claim that Biden was behind the renewed investigation into Flynn.

President Donald J. Trump: (01:02:22)
We’ve caught them all. We’ve got it all on tape. We’ve caught them all. And by the way, you gave the idea for the Logan Act against General Flynn. You better take a look at that, because we caught you in a sense, and President Obama was sitting in the office.

In a matter of days, then, what DOJ would claim was an inadvertent error got turned into a campaign attack from the President.

When DOJ first confessed to altering these notes, they claimed all the changes were inadvertent.

In response to the Court and counsel’s questions, the government has learned that, during the review of the Strzok notes, FBI agents assigned to the EDMO review placed a single yellow sticky note on each page of the Strzok notes with estimated dates (the notes themselves are undated). Those two sticky notes were inadvertently not removed when the notes were scanned by FBI Headquarters, before they were forwarded to our office for production. The government has also confirmed with Mr. Goelman and can represent that the content of the notes was not otherwise altered.

Similarly, the government has learned that, at some point during the review of the McCabe notes, someone placed a blue “flag” with clear adhesive to the McCabe notes with an estimated date (the notes themselves are also undated). Again, the flag was inadvertently not removed when the notes were scanned by FBI Headquarters, before they were forwarded to our office for production. Again, the content of the notes was not otherwise altered.

There are multiple reasons to believe this is false. For example, when DOJ submitted notes that Jim Crowell took, they added a date in a redaction, something that could in no way be inadvertent. And as noted, the January 5 notes had already been submitted, without the date change (though then, too, DOJ claimed not to know the date of the document).

But the most important tell is that, when Ballantine sent Powell the three documents altered to add dates, the protective order footer on the documents had been removed in all three, in the case of McCabe’s notes, actually redacted. When she released the re-altered documents (someone digitally removed the date in the McCabe notes rather than providing a new scan), the footer had been added back in. This can easily be seen by comparing the altered documents with the re-altered documents.

The altered January 5, 2017 Strzok notes, without the footer:

The realtered January 5, 2017 Strzok notes, with the footer:

The second set of Strzok notes (originally altered to read March 28), without the footer:

The second set of Strzok notes, with the footer.

The altered McCabe noteswith the footer redacted out:

The realtered McCabe notes, with the footer unredacted:

This is something that had to have happened at DOJ (see William Ockham’s comments below and this post for proof in the metadata that these changes had to have been done by Ballantine). The redaction of the footers strongly suggests that they were provided to Powell with the intention of facilitating their further circulation (the other two documents she shared with Powell that day had no protective order footer). In addition, each of these documents should have a new Bates stamp.

DOJ redacted Brandon Van Grack’s non-misconduct

On September 24, DOJ submitted a report of an FBI interview Jeffrey Jensen’s team did with an Agent who sent pro-Trump texts on his FBI-issued phone, Bill Barnett. In the interview, Barnett made claims that conflicted with actions he had taken on the case. He claimed to be unaware of evidence central to the case against Flynn (for example, that Flynn told Sergey Kislyak that Trump knew of something said on one of their calls). He seemed unaware of the difference between a counterintelligence investigation and a criminal one. And he made claims about Mueller prosecutors — Jeannie Rhee and Andrew Weissmann — with whom he didn’t work directly. In short, the interview was obviously designed to tell a politically convenient story, not the truth.

Even worse than the politicized claims that Barnett made, the FBI or DOJ redacted the interview report such that all reference to Brandon Van Grack was redacted, substituting instead with the label, “SCO Atty 1.” (References to Jeannie Rhee, Andrew Weissmann, and Andrew Goldstein were not redacted; there are probable references to Adam Jed and Zainab Ahmad that are not labeled at all.)

The result of redacting Van Grack’s name is that it hid from Judge Sullivan many complimentary things that Barnett had to say about Van Grack:

Van Grack’s conduct was central to DOJ’s excuse for throwing out the Flynn prosecution. Powell repeatedly accused Van Grack, by name, of engaging in gross prosecutorial misconduct. Yet the report was submitted to Judge Sullivan in such a way as to hide that Barnett had no apparent complaints about Van Grack’s actions on the Flynn case.

I have no reason to believe that Ballantine made those redactions. But according to the discovery letter she sent to Powell, she sent an unredacted copy to Flynn’s team, while acknowledging that the one she was submitting to the docket was redacted. Thus, she had to have known she was hiding material information from the Court when she submitted the interview report.

Ballantine falsely claimed Strzok and McCabe validated their notes

After some of these alterations were made public, Judge Sullivan ordered DOJ to authenticate all the documents they had submitted as part of their effort to overturn the Flynn prosecution. The filing submitted in response was a masterpiece of obfuscation, with three different people making claims while dodging full authentication for some of the most problematic documents. In the filing that Ballantine submitted, she claimed that Michael Bromwich and Aitan Goelman, lawyers for McCabe and Strzok, “confirmed” that no content was altered in the notes.

The government acknowledges its obligation to produce true and accurate copies of documents. The government has fully admitted its administrative error with respect to the failure to remove three reviewer sticky notes containing estimated date notations affixed to three pages of undated notes (two belonging to former Deputy Assistant Director Peter Strzok, and one page belonging to former Deputy Director Andrew McCabe) prior to their disclosure. These dates were derived from surrounding pages’ dates in order to aid secondary reviewers. These three sticky notes were inadvertently not removed when the relevant documents were scanned by the FBI for production in discovery. See ECF 259. The government reiterates, however, that the content of those exhibits was not altered in any way, as confirmed by attorneys for both former FBI employees. [underline original]

According to an email Bromwich sent Ballantine, when Ballantine asked for help validating the transcripts DOJ did of McCabe’s notes, McCabe declined to do so.

I have spoken with Mr. McCabe and he declines to provide you with any information in response to your request.

He believes DOJ’s conduct in this case is a shocking betrayal of the traditions of the Department of the Justice and undermines the rule of law that he spent his career defending and upholding. If you share with the Court our decision not to provide you with assistance, we ask that you share the reason.

We would of course respond to any request that comes directly from the Court.

And according to an email Goelman sent to Ballantine, they said they could not check transcriptions without the original copies of documents.

Sorry not to get back to you until now.  We have looked at the attachments to the email you sent yesterday (Sunday) afternoon.  We are unable to certify the authenticity of all of the attachments or the accuracy of the transcriptions.  To do so, we would need both more time and access to the original notes, particularly given that U.S. Attorney Jensen’s team has already been caught altering Pete’s notes in two instances.  However, we do want to call your attention to the fact that Exhibit 198-11 is mislabeled, and that these notes are not the notes of Pete “and another agent” taken during the Flynn interview.

Additionally, we want to register our objection to AUSA Ken Kohl’s material misstatements to Judge Sullivan during the September 29, 2020, 2020, [sic] telephonic hearing, during which Mr. Kohl inaccurately represented that Pete viewed himself as an “insurance policy” against President Trump’s election.

I have no reason to believe the content was altered, though I suspect other things were done to McCabe’s notes to misrepresent the context of a reference in his notes to Flynn. But not only had McCabe and Strzok not validated their notes, but they had both pointedly refused to. Indeed, during this same time period, DOJ was refusing to let McCabe see his own notes to prepare for testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Nevertheless, Ballantine represented to Judge Sullivan that they had.

It baffles me why DOJ would put Ballantine on the most important January 6 case. Among other things, the conduct I’ve laid out here will make it easy for the defendants to accuse DOJ of similar misconduct on the Proud Boys case — and doing just that happens to be Nordean’s primary defense strategy.

But I’m mindful that there are people in DC’s US Attorney’s Office (not Ballantine) who took actions in the past that may have made the January 6 attack more likely. In a sentencing memo done on Barr’s orders, prosecutors attempting to minimize the potential sentence against Roger Stone suggested that a threat four Proud Boys helped Roger Stone make against Amy Berman Jackson was no big deal, unworthy of a sentencing enhancement.

Second, the two-level enhancement for obstruction of justice (§ 3C1.1) overlaps to a degree with the offense conduct in this case. Moreover, it is unclear to what extent the defendant’s obstructive conduct actually prejudiced the government at trial.

Judge Jackson disagreed with this assessment. In applying the enhancement, she presciently described how dangerous Stone and the Proud Boys could be if they incited others.

Here, the defendant willfully engaged in behavior that a rational person would find to be inherently obstructive. It’s important to note that he didn’t just fire off a few intemperate emails. He used the tools of social media to achieve the broadest dissemination possible. It wasn’t accidental. He had a staff that helped him do it.

As the defendant emphasized in emails introduced into evidence in this case, using the new social media is his “sweet spot.” It’s his area of expertise. And even the letters submitted on his behalf by his friends emphasized that incendiary activity is precisely what he is specifically known for. He knew exactly what he was doing. And by choosing Instagram and Twitter as his platforms, he understood that he was multiplying the number of people who would hear his message.

By deliberately stoking public opinion against prosecution and the Court in this matter, he willfully increased the risk that someone else, with even poorer judgment than he has, would act on his behalf. This is intolerable to the administration of justice, and the Court cannot sit idly by, shrug its shoulder and say: Oh, that’s just Roger being Roger, or it wouldn’t have grounds to act the next time someone tries it.

The behavior was designed to disrupt and divert the proceedings, and the impact was compounded by the defendant’s disingenuousness.

The people at DOJ who claimed that this toxic team was not dangerous in the past may want to downplay the critical role that Stone and the Proud Boys played — using the same kind of incendiary behavior — in the January 6 assault.

Whatever the reason, though, it is inexcusable that DOJ would put someone like Ballantine on this case. Given Ballantine’s past actions, it risks sabotaging the entire January 6 investigation.

DOJ quite literally put someone who, less than a year ago, facilitated Sidney Powell’s lies onto a prosecution team investigating the aftermath of further Sidney Powell lies.

Update: DC USAO’s media person refused to clarify what Ballantine’s role is, even though it was publicly acknowledged in court.

We are not commenting on cases beyond what is stated or submitted to the Court. We have no comment in response to your question.

Update: Added links to William Ockham’s proof that Ballantine made the realteration of the McCabe notes.

Update: One more point on this. I am not claiming here that anyone at DOJ is deliberately trying to sabotage the January 6 investigation, just that putting someone who, less than a year ago, made multiple representations to a judge that could call into question her candor going forward could discredit the Proud Boys investigation. I think it possible that supervisors at DC USAO put her on the team because they urgently need resources and she was available (possibly newly so after the end of her TDY). I think it possible that supervisors at DC USAO who are also implicated in Barr’s politicization, perhaps more closely tied to the intervention in the Stone case, put her there with corrupt intent.

But it’s also important to understand that up until February 2020, she was viewed as a diligent, ruthless prosecutor. I presume she buckled under a great deal of pressure after that and found herself in a place where competing demands — her duty of candor to the Court and orders from superiors all the way up to the Attorney General — became increasingly impossible to square.

Importantly, Lisa Monaco’s chief deputy John Carlin, and probably Monaco herself, would know Ballantine from their past tenure in the National Security Division as that heretofore ruthless national security prosecutor. The only mainstream outlet that covered anything other than DOJ’s admission they had added post-its to the notes was Politico. And the instinct not to punish career employees like Ballantine would mean what she would have avoided any scrutiny with the transition. So her assignment to the case is not itself evidence of an attempt to sabotage the prosecution.

On the Upcoming Sentencing for the First January 6 Felony Defendant, Paul Hodgkins

On Monday, Paul Hodgkins will become the first felony defendant to be sentenced for his role in the January 6 riot.

Before I explain what the parties have said about that sentencing, some background is in order. The government has used obstruction, 18 USC §1512(c)(2), to charge virtually every January 6 defendant who in one way or another (often on social media before and after the riot), expressed the intent to prevent the certification of the vote, as distinct from simply wandering into the Capitol to express some support for Trump. Such an approach has a lot of upsides: it (thus far) avoids the inflammatory step of charging defendants with seditious conspiracy or insurrection (though that remains a possibility, particularly for militia defendants), while accessing the same kind of steep sentences for the most serious defendants. Because of sentencing enhancements built into obstruction, including “substantial interference,” “extensive scope or planning,” and “threatening injury or violence,” using it allows DOJ to make clear distinctions even among the defendants found guilty of obstruction. Just as an example, while Hodgkins’ sentencing range treated his occupation of the Senate Chamber as substantial interference (which resulted in a sentencing range of 15-21 months), he did not get dinged with enhancements that Graydon Young did for all his pre-planning, the Oath Keepers’ threats of violence, and Young’s attempt to destroy his Facebook account (which resulted in a sentencing range, for obstruction and conspiracy, of 63-78 months).

That said, it is an unprecedented application of the obstruction statute (of course, the January 6 insurrection was an unprecedented event). And a number of defendants have active, non-frivolous challenges to that application, some of which I explained here. Hodgkins pled guilty before all that litigation plays out, giving DOJ a significant first endorsement of this charging approach (which may be why Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco sat in on Hodgkins’ guilty plea).

But Monday will be overdetermined because Hodgkins’ sentence, whatever it is, will be taken as setting some kind of standard that over a hundred defendants may be able to point to when it comes to their own sentencing (if DOJ’s application of 1512 is upheld through what is sure to be a number of decisions and appeals). Just as three hypotheticals, Judge Randolph Moss might explain that he finds Hodgkins’ behavior to be a grave threat to democracy and say that with any other similarly situated defendant, he would sentence him to the maximum sentence in his guideline, 21 months, but because Hodgkins went first, Moss will give him a significant downward variance; that would allow him and all other DC judges to sentence hold-outs more severely than Hodgkins. Alternately, Moss might decide that the “significant interference” enhancement shouldn’t apply to Hodgkins and on that basis sentence Hodgkins using a lower guideline (it would give Hodgkins a sentencing range of 8 to 14 months), a judgment that would likely be invoked by a wide range of similar defendants and so would be more binding to other judges and Moss himself in the future. Finally, Moss might rule that what Hodgkins did is barely distinguishable from what he is seeing in some of the trespass cases before him, and so sentence Hodgkins to what would be the max range for one of those trespass charges, six months; such a decision might or might not extend to other obstruction defendants based on factors like whether they told the truth about their actions. Again, those are all just hypotheticals intended to illustrate that why Moss sentences Hodgkins to a particular sentence will be as important going forward as what he sentences him to.

The possibility that Moss might be thinking about what distinguishes Hodgkins from misdemeanor trespass defendants or other defendants charged with obstruction would not be surprising. Because all DC judges have a bunch of January 6 cases, they often express a comparative understanding of them in hearings. So, as Moss prepares to sentence Hodgkins, he might be comparing Hodgkins’ conduct with what has been charged against other defendants over whose cases he is presiding. Moss has a wide range of defendants before him (the Klein brothers, who have ties to the Proud Boys, are his only militia defendants), but the most useful comparisons with other defendants charged with obstruction include:

  • Brady Knowlton and Patrick Montgomery, who were also in the Senate Chamber and who are among the defendants challenging the application of 1512; Montgomery was charged with resisting a police officer after having claimed on Facebook not to have stormed the Capitol violently
  • Bruno Cua, who was charged with assault and civil disorder on top of obstruction and sat in Pence’s chair in the Senate Chamber even as others there told him not to
  • Ryan Suleski, who is also charged with stealing some papers from a member of Congress, who hinted at more to come in an interview after the riot, and who may not have been entirely forthright when interviewed by the FBI
  • Melody Steele-Smith, who boasted of entering Nancy Pelosi’s office and storming the Capitol on Facebook before she deleted those posts

In other words, Judge Moss’ sentencing decision may be as influenced by what he thinks of Knowlton’s similar conduct and fully-briefed challenge to 1512 as it will be by the memoranda before him. It may be influenced by a belief that Hodgkins didn’t do what other defendants did — including misrepresenting their own behaviors either to the FBI or in his own courtroom — while getting charged for the same crime.

That comparative approach may be Hodgkins’ best argument for a lenient sentence. Hodgkins’ sentencing memo makes a sustained and not very convincing pitch for the effort to forgive sedition after the Civil War and throws in some bullshit language about “cancel” culture, then asks for probation (as most defense attorneys do for obstruction). But it then argues that, given how little separates Hodgkins from defendants charged with misdemeanor trespass (significantly, that he entered the Senate Chamber itself), he should benefit from a minimal participation variance.

We contend that when one’s role is similar to the several hundred Defendant’s found inside the same building as Mr. HODGKINS who are being offered misdemeanors, and whose conduct is the same as the totality of the misconduct that is alleged in the instant case, as noted in the PSR paragraphs 10-19, that Mr. HODGKINS’ role was only minimal and deserving of a variance. Because Mr. HODGKINS is accepting a felony, giving him the minimal role variance creates a just result for sentencing purposes. Importantly, this argument is about sentencing. The Defendant has pled to a felony offense because of his presence on the Senate floor. Those being offered misdemeanors offense for being inside the Capitol could also arguably have been compelled to plead to the same felony count as Mr. HODGKINS, but for the distinction of their location within the building. While for findings purposes, Mr. HODGKINS presence inside the Senate chambers vice the Rotunda is an important consideration, for purposes of sentencing there is zero space between Mr. HODGKINS conduct and that of the several hundred others who entered the United States Capitol who are being sentenced for a misdemeanor offense. Mr. HODGKINS should be treated likewise. One surmises that had Mr. HODGKINS simply stopped at the Senate door, he also would be facing a misdemeanor charge rather than this felony offense.

This is a fairly convincing argument, not least because of the defendants who were in the Senate Chamber (notably including Cua), Hodgkins engaged in far less obstructive behavior while there.

The government, meanwhile, seems to have taken an approach that hopes to leave itself maximal flexibility after this first January 6 obstruction sentencing, one that really doesn’t credit Hodgkins all that much for being the first to plead guilty.

The defendant, Paul Hodgkins, participated in the January 6, 2021, attack on the United States Capitol—a violent attack that forced an interruption of the certification of the 2020 Electoral College vote count, threatened the peaceful transfer of power after the 2020 Presidential election, injured more than one hundred law enforcement officers, and resulted in more than a million dollars’ worth of property damage. Hodgkins entered the Capitol wearing a backpack containing protective eye goggles, rope, and white latex gloves, among other items. He made his way to the heart of the proceeding that he has pleaded guilty to obstructing – the Senate chamber – where he took “selfie-style” photographs and saluted others who were shouting and cheering from a nearby raised platform in the well of the chamber. The government nonetheless recognizes that Hodgkins did not personally engage in or espouse violence or property destruction, he accepted responsibility early and in a fulsome manner, and he has taken significant steps toward his rehabilitation. Accordingly, the government recommends that the Court sentence Hodgkins to 18 months in custody, which is the mid-point of the Sentencing Guidelines as calculated by the U.S. Probation Office and as contemplated in the parties’ plea agreement. An 18-month, within Guidelines sentence is also supported by the U.S. Probation Office’s conclusion that neither a downward departure nor a downward variance is warranted in this case.

[snip]

The government recognizes that Hodgkins did not personally destroy property or engage in any violence against law enforcement officers. But he was surrounded by others who were doing both, and he entered the Capitol as others had paved the way with destruction and violence. Time and time again, rather than turn around and retreat, Hodgkins pressed forward until he walked all the way down to the well of the Senate chamber. Hodgkins came to D.C. preparing to encounter violence around him. He was a rioter, not a protester, and his conduct shows that he was determined to interfere with the vote count and the peaceful transition of power in the 2020 Presidential election. Hodgkins entered the Senate chamber, where he joined the chanting and ranting at the dais. This was precisely where, only 40 minutes earlier, the Vice President had been sitting at the desk on the elevated platform, surrounded by Senators who were considering a procedural issue related to the certification of the Electoral College vote.

In the end, Hodgkins, like each rioter, contributed to the collective threat to democracy, physical safety, emotional well-being, and property on January 6, 2021.

Keep in mind, the same way defense attorneys always ask for probation, prosecutors always ask for harsh sentences, knowing the judge will usually find some happy medium, and in doing so here, they’re not starting at the top of the sentencing range. But ultimately, by asking Judge Moss to apply a medium range sentence to a defendant facing a range that a large number of defendants might likewise face, they’re trying to set a standard sentence and have it start reasonably high. They’re really not fully accounting for what it took Hodgkins to decide to be the first to plead guilty; they seem to be thinking as much about the over a hundred defendants coming down the pike and so trying to frame how they’re conceiving of this obstruction crime generally as they’re thinking about Hodgkins himself.

Curiously, Judge Moss (possibly with the input of other DC District judges) afforded himself an extra range of flexibility by inviting the Sentencing Commission to review average sentences for the sentencing guidelines that Hodgkins faces. Significantly, the Sentencing Commission found that of those facing the same guidelines sentence as Hodgkins, almost a quarter — 22.6% — got a probation sentence, though it appears all but one of those probation sentences involved a defendant who provided prosecutors “substantial assistance,” and a goodly number got closer to six months after variances below range.

MINUTE ORDER as to PAUL ALLARD HODGKINS (1): In connection with the sentencing of Defendant, the Court has requested and obtained, via email, from the U.S. Sentencing Commission the following information regarding the sentencing of offenders with similar records who have been found guilty of similar conduct to Defendant in this case. The Sentencing Commission reports as follows:

“In the case before you the defendant pled guilty to obstruction of an official proceeding in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1512(c)(2). The guideline that applies is USSG 2J1.2. Your Probation Office has calculated the guideline range as follows: BOL 14, a 3-level increase for substantial interference with the administration of justice, and a 3-level adjustment for acceptance of responsibility, resulting in a final offense level (FOL) of 14. The offender is assigned to Criminal History Category I. The applicable guideline range is 15-21 months.

“We examined our records from fiscal year 2014 through 2020, and found 31 cases that match this guideline calculation. None of these cases were reported from the District of Columbia. In only nine cases was 18 U.S.C. § 1512(c)(2) a statute of conviction.

“For the 31 cases matching the guideline calculation under USSG § 2J1.2, in 16 cases (51.6%) the offender received a prison only sentence, in six cases (19.4%) the offender received prison with an alternative, in two cases (6.4 %) the sentences was probation with some condition of confinement, and in seven cases (22.6%) the sentence was probation only.

“Of the 31 cases, in seven (22.6%) the sentence was within the guideline range. The average sentence in those cases was 19 months (median = 21 months). Two cases (6.5%) were above range: one upward departure to 36 months and one upward variance to 48 months. The remaining 21 cases (71.0%) were below range. Thirteen cases were below range variances. The average sentence in those cases was seven months (median = six months). One case was downward departure to 14 months, another was a government departure to probation, and the remaining case was a government variance to six months. The remaining six cases were substantial assistance cases.

“In order to provide a more narrowly-tailored analysis, we then limited our analysis to the nine cases in which section 1512(c)(2) was one of the statutes (or the only statute) of conviction. Of those nine cases, in two the sentence was within the guideline range. The sentences were 15 and 21 months. There was one upward departure to 36 months. Three cases were below range variances. The average sentence in those cases was 10 months (median = 12 months). One case was a downward departure to 14 months. The remaining two cases were substantial assistance cases.” Signed by Judge Randolph D. Moss on 07/13/2021. (lcrdm3)

While this table is a rough estimation of what this language says, basically it says a group of people were sentenced to a guidelines sentence, another bigger group were sentenced to around six months, and a third group were sentenced to probation — but never without government agreement (either for a departure or for cooperation).

What Moss has done by obtaining this information and publishing it was, first, to go into Monday’s sentencing hearing with proof that whatever he does will be fair as compared to what has happened to others. Obtaining the guidelines also gives Moss some flexibility. He could, to recognize Hodgkins’ first guilty plea, give him a significant downward variance (and/or sentence him to some alternative to prison, such as weekend confinement), pointing out that the largest group of defendants similarly situated to him got around six months. Alternately, he could explain why he wasn’t giving Hodgkins the probation he requested by pointing out that almost everyone who got a probation sentence in recent history cooperated with prosecutors against others.

Whatever Judge Moss decides (I would be unsurprised by a four to six month sentence, possibly with the opportunity to serve it on weekends or something similar), Hodgkins went first because he has a legitimate argument to make that, aside from his presence on the Senate floor, his behavior really was less culpable than many of the defendants charged with the same crime. Which means — again assuming this novel application of obstruction is upheld going forward — this is just the beginning of a long series of similar horse trading over sentences going forward.

Update: Josh Gerstein reminded me that Judge Moss used a similar approach to George Papadopoulos’ sentencing and — believing that Papadopoulos felt remorse — sentenced him to fourteen days rather than the thirty days he had been considering. Papadopoulos’ guidelines were 0 to 6 months.

PCLOB: The Essential Oversight Link Designed to Be Inadequate

Last year, there were a couple of measures that purported to respond to the problems with the Carter Page FISA application but which would not have helped him at all. In February, House Judiciary Committee rolled out a bill to replace the now-lapsed Section 215 of FISA that included a Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board review of the impact that tradition FISA had on First Amendment Activities.

SEC. 303. REPORT ON USE OF FISA AUTHORITIES REGARDING PROTECTED ACTIVITIES AND PROTECTED CLASSES.

(a) REPORT.—Not later than one year after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board shall make publicly available, to the extent practicable, a report on—

(1) the extent to which the activities and protected classes described in subsection (b) are used to support targeting decisions in the use of authorities pursuant to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (50 U.S.C. 1801 et seq.); and

(2) the impact of the use of such authorities on such activities and protected classes.

As I noted at the time, because PCLOB’s mandate is limited to counterterrorism, it would not be able to look at counterintelligence targeting. This is not the first time that PCLOB’s mandate made its work less useful than it could be. Because its Section 702 report was necessarily limited to the counterterrorism uses of the law, PCLOB’s report did not address problems with the cybersecurity and counterproliferation uses of Section 702, both of which have far more unexpected impact on US person’s privacy than the counterterrorism use.

Then, in May, PCLOB’s Chair, Adam Klein, announced PCLOB was going to review traditional FISAs.

Adam I. Klein, the chairman of the privacy board, said that the issues Horowitz surfaced were precisely those that the board was established to examine.

“This is at the heartland of our jurisdiction,” said Klein, a lawyer and prominent researcher of FISA and other national security laws. “The IG found systemic compliance problems. At a minimum, we have a duty to inform ourselves.”

I again noted that PCLOB’s mandate would limit the value of such a review, and indeed, would prevent PCLOB from even reviewing the precipitating application, Page’s counterintelligence application.

Last week, Klein released the results of that review, billed and released not as a PCLOB report, but as a Chairperson’s White Paper (Klein has said he’d step down once Joe Biden replaced him). He makes clear,

I provide several observations and recommendations based on this review. These views are provided in my individual capacity as Chairman and should not be attributed to the Board as a whole or to other members of the Board.

Its recommendations are not obviously supported by the described scope of the review. His White Paper generally argues for more efficiency, a recommendation that conflicts with virtually all other conclusions that came out of the Carter Page review (though some of his recommendations to achieve efficiency, such as making the authorization period for non-US person FISA applications one year, make sense). He makes two recommendations (that the Woods file not require repeated documentation for repeated facts and that DOJ distinguish between information known at the time and information learned subsequent to an initial application) that would undercut some of the results of the DOJ IG Report on Carter Page.

Klein’s White Paper does recommend that a summary memo submitted with the application which highlights novel privacy, legal, or technological issues. If the FBI Director or his delegate were required to sign off on that summary as well as the current certification (that doesn’t address the probable cause content of the application in the least), it might provide a level of accountability that (Congress doesn’t yet understand) FISA currently lacks. Other than that, Klein’s White Paper reads as much like a valedictory trying to guide future PCLOB plans as it does a report to improve FISA. Almost two pages of the 26-page report constitutes a recommendation to reauthorize Section 215 of FISA.

But, as predicted, the review did not consider anything remotely pertinent to what happened to Carter Page.

To conduct its review of applications themselves, PCLOB asked for and received the subset of the 29 FISA files that DOJ IG is conducting a review of that pertain to counterterrorism as well as the backup exchange between FBI and DOJ regarding those applications. That included:

  • 19 total applications (out of 29 reviewed by DOJ IG)
  • All counterterrorism targets
  • Most located in United States at time of targeting

These details help us understand the two reports DOJ IG wrote about the full set of 29 files, which I wrote about here. Of the 29, ten must be counterintelligence files like Carter Page’s.

Because PCLOB did not review the counterintelligence applications, it only reviewed one of the two for which DOJ IG found a material error.  The second was a CI application that showed a worse error rate than the Carter Page file (which was measured using a different methodology than the Carter Page one).

It also didn’t review any Sensitive Investigative Matters — applications which, like Carter Page’s, involve someone who is a political, journalistic, or religious figure whose targeting should get extra scrutiny. That seems to suggest that DOJ IG did not include any counterterrorism applications targeting SIMs in its review (it would seem SIMs would be more likely to be targeted on the counterintelligence side, but we know of religious and political figures targeted under counterterrorism FISA applications). These would be the applications that pose the greatest privacy and civil liberties concern.

In lieu of that, FBI Office of General Counsel provided PCLOB with,

The number of “sensitive investigative matters” pertaining to U.S. persons in which FBI sought a FISA probable cause order in each year between 2015 and 2019, a summary of each matter (including the type of investigation and the features resulting in its classification as a “sensitive investigative matter”), and whether each request was granted.

That’s presumably how PCLOB learned that there aren’t all that many SIMs targeted under FISA.

[I]nformation received by the Board indicates that relatively few FISA applications are obtained each year in SIMs.

Still, this is the core of what you’d need to review to serve the function of PCLOB. Klein even appears not to have reviewed Page’s significantly declassified public applications, which would have been simple to do, would have provided him something to compare the counterterrorism applications he reviewed with, but which would have been outside the scope of PCLOB’s mandate.

This matters because PCLOB has been reasonably effective. Indeed, in a book published in April in recognition of the 50th Anniversary of the Pentagon Papers, Lisa Monaco (in a contribution submitted before she became Deputy Attorney General) pointed to PCLOB’s contributions after the Snowden releases as an important way forward to balance security and secrecy in the age of mass leaks. Monaco even recommended that PCLOB consult with the Director of National Intelligence prior to the implementation of certain policies. (Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines also contributed a chapter to the book, which was far more intriguing that Monaco’s.)

Another would be to institute a practice of DNI consultation with the PCLOB before the adoption of certain collection programs. The PCLOB served an important function after disclosures precisely because it is charged with considering privacy and civil liberties implications as well as the national security implications of counter-terrorism programs.82 It could be a valuable addition to the consideration and review of some intelligence programs for a standing body with the infrastructure to handle classified information to work with privacy officers in each agency to assess privacy concerns and conduct privacy impact assessments that are reported to the DNI.

But as noted above, even PCLOB’s Section 702 review suffered because it couldn’t look at several of the applications of 702, applications implicated by the Snowden releases.

Last year, I was told that efforts to expand the jurisdiction of PCLOB would be a poison pill to any bill to which they were attached. I can only assume that means the Executive doesn’t want to expose to scrutiny they kinds of practices that were central to the Carter Page application.

But if Lisa Monaco believes PCLOB has a role to play in balancing national security and secrecy, she should ensure its mandate is sufficiently broad to do that job.

Charlie Savage’s Obfuscations in the Service of Claiming Julian Assange Is a Journalist

Everyone is fighting for press freedoms again, and therefore lots of people are misrepresenting the facts about Julian Assange’s prosecution in purported defense of press freedom again.

These are the paragraphs with which UK Judge Vanessa Baraitser distinguished what Julian Assange is accused of from what “ordinary investigative journalists” entitled to protection in the UK or European Union do.

99. As part of his assistance to Ms. Manning, [Assange] agreed to use the rainbow tools, which he had for the purpose of cracking Microsoft password hashes, to decipher an alphanumeric code she had given him. The code was to an encrypted password hash stored on a Department of Defence computer connected to the SIPRNet. It is alleged that had they succeeded, Ms. Manning might have been able to log on to computers connected to the network under a username that did not belong to her. This is the conduct which most obviously demonstrates Mr. Assange’s complicity in Ms. Manning’s theft of the information, and separates his activity from that of the ordinary investigative journalist.

100. At the same time as these communications, it is alleged, he was encouraging others to hack into computers to obtain information. This activity does not form part of the “Manning” allegations but it took place at exactly the same time and supports the case that Mr. Assange was engaged in a wider scheme, to work with computer hackers and whistle blowers to obtain information for Wikileaks. Ms. Manning was aware of his work with these hacking groups as Mr. Assange messaged her several times about it. For example, it is alleged that, on 5 March 2010 Mr. Assange told Ms. Manning that he had received stolen banking documents from a source (Teenager); on 10 March 2010, Mr. Assange told Ms. Manning that he had given an “intel source” a “list of things we wanted” and the source had provided four months of recordings of all phones in the Parliament of the government of NATO country-1; and, on 17 March 2010, Mr. Assange told Ms. Manning that he used the unauthorised access given to him by a source, to access a government website of NATO country-1 used to track police vehicles. His agreement with Ms. Manning, to decipher the alphanumeric code she gave him, took place on 8 March 2010, in the midst of his efforts to obtain, and to recruit others to obtain, information through computer hacking.

101. Mr. Assange, it is alleged, had been engaged in recruiting others to obtain information for him for some time. For example, in August 2009 he spoke to an audience of hackers at a “Hacking at Random” conference and told them that unless they were a serving member of the US military they would have no legal liability for stealing classified information and giving it to Wikileaks. At the same conference he told the audience that there was a small vulnerability within the US Congress document distribution system stating, “this is what any one of you would find if you were actually looking”. In October 2009 also to an audience of hackers at the “Hack in the Box Security Conference” he told the audience, “I was a famous teenage hacker in Australia, and I’ve been reading generals’ emails since I was 17” and referred to the Wikileaks list of “flags” that it wanted captured. After Ms. Manning made her disclosures to him he continued to encourage people to take information. For example, in December 2013 he attended a Chaos computer club conference and told the audience to join the CIA in order to steal information stating “I’m not saying don’t join the CIA; no, go and join the CIA. Go in there, go into the ballpark and get the ball and bring it out”.

Assange is not an “ordinary investigative journalist,” according to the judge who ruled that his extradition would not violate journalistic protections, because he allegedly:

  • Tried to help Manning hack a password
  • Solicited hacks of Iceland
  • Identified a vulnerability in a US server and encouraged people to use it
  • In a speech invoking WikiLeaks’ role in helping Edward Snowden to flee to what ended up being Russia, allegedly encouraged people to join the CIA with the express intent of stealing files from it

A key point for Baraitser is this was all happening at the same time, Assange was allegedly soliciting hacks in Iceland even as he attempted to help Manning crack a password, and Manning knew about the other hacking.

Charlie Savage mentions none of this in a story explaining that Julian Assange’s extradition and prosecution, “raised the specter of prosecuting reporters.” He doesn’t even mention the second superseding indictment at all, the one that lays out (among other things) the allegation that Assange entered in a conspiracy to hack Stratfor, a hack that at least six people on both sides of the Atlantic already did time for.

But the specter of prosecuting reporters returned in 2019, when the department under Attorney General William P. Barr expanded a hacking conspiracy indictment of Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, to treat his journalistic-style acts of soliciting and publishing classified information as crimes.

From there, Charlie tells a narrative that WikiLeaks has been pushing as part of Assange’s extradition defense, a claim that because DOJ Public Affairs head Matthew Miller said, in November 2013, that DOJ could not distinguish Julian Assange from what the NYT does, that means that the Obama Administration continued to face that challenge for the remaining three years of the Obama Administration, long after Miller left, and right through the time WikiLeaks played a key role in a Russian intelligence-led attack on American democracy. As Charlie presents it — citing no sources or public records, and I asked him if he was relying on any and he didn’t respond — the decision to prosecute Julian Assange arose not so much from a subsequent investigation that came to distinguish Assange’s actions from those of journalists, but instead because the Trump Administration “was undeterred” about the prospect of damaging “mainstream news outlets.”

Obama-era officials had weighed charging Mr. Assange for publishing leaked military and diplomatic files, but worried about establishing a precedent that could damage mainstream news outlets that sometimes publish government secrets, like The Times. The Trump administration, however, was undeterred by that prospect.

For now, the First Amendment issues are on hold as Mr. Assange fights extradition from Britain. Soon after the Biden administration took office, the Justice Department pressed forward with that extradition effort in British court, leaving the charges in place.

But that was before Mr. Garland was sworn in — and before the latest uproar about the escalating aggression of the Justice Department’s leak investigation tactics prompted him to focus on drafting a new approach that, he testified, will be “the most protective of journalists’ ability to do their jobs in history.”

It’s Trump’s doing, not the result of further investigation, Charlie reports, as news.

The WikiLeaks narrative that Charlie repeats unquestioningly is inconsistent with an April 2017 report — one Assange’s journalism professor expert witness claims to have been unable to find with the magic of Google — that what came to distinguish Assange from other journalists was his role in helping Edward Snowden.

The US view of WikiLeaks and Assange began to change after investigators found what they believe was proof that WikiLeaks played an active role in helping Edward Snowden, a former NSA analyst, disclose a massive cache of classified documents.

We now know, four years later, that not just DOJ but even “mainstream news outlets” considered what WikiLeaks did to help Snowden something other than journalism.

Bart Gellman’s book (which was published before the most recent superseding indictment) not only lays out how WaPo’s lawyers told Gellman that he and Laura Poitras could not safely, under the law, play the role (which is referenced in the superseding indictment against Assange that Charlie doesn’t mention) that WikiLeaks would end up playing, helping Snowden get asylum in what ended up be an adversarial nation. Gellman even cites communications he and Poitras sent to Snowden in real time explaining that taking steps to help Snowden get asylum in what might be, and as it happens turned out to be, a hostile country was not journalism.

We had lawyered up and it showed. “You were clear with me and I want to be equally clear with you,” I wrote. “There are a number of unwarranted assumptions in your email. My intentions and objectives are purely journalistic, and I will not tie them or time them to any other goal.” I was working hard and intended to publish, but “I cannot give you the bottom line you want.”

Poitras wrote to him separately.

There have been several developments since Monday (e.g., your decision to leave the country, your choice of location, possible intentions re asylum), that have come as a surprise and make [it] necessary to be clear. As B explained, our intentions and objectives are journalistic. I believe you know my interest and commitment to this subject. B’s work on the topic speaks for itself. I cannot travel to interview you in person. However, I do have questions if you are still willing to answer them. [my emphasis]

In other words, WaPo’s own lawyers made it clear that helping an intelligence source obtain asylum in another country is not journalism and might, instead, be viewed by the US government as abetting espionage.

Given Charlie’s focus on the transition from the Trump to Biden Administration, there’s something else glaringly absent from his story: the official record on the government response to WikiLeaks’ role in the 2016 election attack. Admittedly, great swaths of that discussion remain redacted (which suggests there’s stuff we may not know), but the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report the Obama Administration’s response to the 2016 Russian interference campaign discussed how part of that process involved “develop[ing] a complete understanding of WikiLeaks.”

The executive branch struggled to develop a complete understanding of WikiLeaks. Some officials viewed WikiLeaks as a legitimate news outlet, while others viewed WikiLeaks as a hostile organization acting intentionally and deliberately to undermine U.S. or allies’ interests.

In other words, in 2016 — three years after the Miller quote that WikiLeaks has trained obedient journalists to parrot unquestioningly — the government came to some new “complete” understanding of WikiLeaks. One of the most important players in this process was then White House Homeland Security Advisor, Lisa Monaco. Her interview with the committee is cited repeatedly in the unredacted passages of the report.

Admittedly, Monaco’s views on how or whether her own understanding of WikiLeaks changed as part of that process do not appear in the report. The SSCI report redacts what those Obama officials came to understand about WikiLeaks in the waning days of the Obama Administration. But, in a story presented as “news,” it seems important to consider how that process might influence Monaco’s understanding of the case against Assange, given that one of the last things she did when last in government was struggle to respond to an attack on American democracy in part because the government treated WikiLeaks as a journalistic outlet for far too long during the attack. Whatever she believes, Monaco knows far more than Matthew Miller, or us, for that matter. We might not agree with her thus far non-public understanding of WikiLeaks, but even the four year old understanding of WikiLeaks she brought to her position as Deputy Attorney General surely will have a bigger influence on DOJ’s decisions about Assange going forward than what the Public Affairs guy said eight years ago.

It’s not that I disagree that some of the charges against Assange — particularly for publishing the names of US and Coalition informants — present a dangerous precedent. They do, and those risks are important to talk about, accurately and honestly. On that note, though, it’s again worthwhile to see how Baraitser distinguishes Assange (note, the circumstances of the release of the informant names is the area where Assange presented the most evidence to challenge the government’s evidence).

The defence submits that, by disclosing Ms. Manning’s materials, Mr. Assange was acting within the parameters of responsible journalism. The difficulty with this argument is that it vests in Mr. Assange the right to make the decision to sacrifice the safety of these few individuals, knowing nothing of their circumstances or the dangers they faced, in the name of free speech. In the modern digital age, vast amounts of information can be indiscriminately disclosed to a global audience, almost instantly, by anyone with access to a computer and an internet connection. Unlike the traditional press, those who choose to use the internet to disclose sensitive information in this way are not bound by a professional code or ethical journalistic duty or practice. Those who post information on the internet have no obligation to act responsibly or to exercise judgment in their decisions. In the modern era, where “dumps” of vast amounts of data onto the internet can be carried out by almost anyone, it is difficult to see how a concept of “responsible journalism” can sensibly be applied.

[snip]

Free speech does not comprise a ‘trump card’ even where matters of serious public concern are disclosed (see Stoll above), and it does not provide an unfettered right for some, like Mr. Assange, to decide the fate of others, on the basis of their partially informed assessment of the risks.

[snip]

The New York Times published the following condemnation on 25 July 2012:

“The Times and the other news organizations agreed at the outset that we would not disclose —either in our articles or any of our online supplementary material — anything that was likely to put lives at risk or jeopardize military or antiterrorist operations. We have, for example, withheld any names of operatives in the field and informants cited in the reports. We have avoided anything that might compromise American or allied intelligence-gathering methods such as communications intercepts. We have not linked to the archives of raw material. At the request of the White House, The Times also urged WikiLeaks to withhold any harmful material from its Web site.”

This is a distinctly European decision. That’s true because in Europe, unlike the US, such protections are tied to being a journalist. Plus Baraitser argued that under EU law, Assange’s release violated privacy protections that simply don’t exist in the US. Mind you, it’s one thing to say the NYT won’t publish details that might endanger military operations and another thing to say such revelations shouldn’t be protected by the First Amendment. Even if WikiLeaks is a “hostile organization acting intentionally and deliberately to undermine U.S. or allies’ interests,” (as SSCI described), that should not, itself, surpass the First Amendment consideration.

But it underscores the point. There are First Amendment problems with the publication charges and, to a lesser extent, the other Manning-focused ones. But Assange actually wouldn’t be the first person extradited from the UK significantly for publication activities, the same thing happened to Minh Quang Pham for the few months he spent as AQAP’s graphic designer. That precedent has not only gone virtually unnoticed, but did little to harm the press freedom of others in the US. Not only are the First Amendment risks of Assange’s prosecution not tied to whether or not Assange is a journalist, but the effort to reinvent both the history of his prosecution and what he is accused of to turn him into a journalist has led a bunch of journalists and press freedom advocates to violate the principles that are supposed to distinguish journalism.

Some Perspective on the Politicized Leak Investigation Targeting Adam Schiff

The NYT reported the other day that DOJ obtained phone records of Adam Schiff, Eric Swalwell, and a bunch of House Intelligence Committee staffers in the guise of what it reports is a leak investigation (though given the specific form of Bill Barr’s prevarications about his knowledge, may have been repackaged as something else when the investigation was resuscitated in 2020).

Prosecutors subpoenaed Apple for data from the accounts of at least two Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee, aides and family members. One was a minor.

All told, the records of at least a dozen people tied to the committee were seized in 2017 and early 2018, including those of Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, then the panel’s top Democrat and now its chairman, according to committee officials and two other people briefed on the inquiry. Representative Eric Swalwell of California said in an interview Thursday night that he had also been notified that his data had subpoenaed.

Prosecutors, under the beleaguered attorney general, Jeff Sessions, were hunting for the sources behind news media reports about contacts between Trump associates and Russia. Ultimately, the data and other evidence did not tie the committee to the leaks, and investigators debated whether they had hit a dead end and some even discussed closing the inquiry.

But William P. Barr revived languishing leak investigations after he became attorney general a year later. He moved a trusted prosecutor from New Jersey with little relevant experience to the main Justice Department to work on the Schiff-related case and about a half-dozen others, according to three people with knowledge of his work who did not want to be identified discussing federal investigations.

The initial collection and especially the subsequent treatment were clearly politicized — and more importantly, stupid, from an investigative standpoint. But, especially because this involves Adam Schiff, some exactitude about what went on really is required.

This is not spying

First, this is not “spying.” If the use of informants to investigate members of the Trump campaign and Hillary Clinton’s Foundation during a political campaign is not spying, if the use of a lawful FISA to conduct both physical and electronic surveillance on recently departed campaign volunteer Carter Page is not spying — and Adam Schiff said they were not, and I agree — then neither is the use of a subpoena to collect the phone records of Democrats who had knowledge of information that subsequently leaked in a fully predicated (and very serious) leak investigation.

This is “just” metadata

According to all reports, the government obtained the iPhone metadata records of 73 phone numbers and 36 email addresses. Apple suggests other tech companies probably got subpoenas, too, which means that some of those email addresses probably weren’t Apple emails.

But it was — as Adam Schiff said many times when defending a program that aspired to collect “all” the phone records in the United States — “just” metadata.

I don’t mean to belittle the impact of that. As I and others argued (against Schiff), metadata is actually profoundly revealing.

But if this is a problem (it is!), then people like Adam Schiff should lead a conversation about whether the standard on collection of metadata — currently, it only needs to be “relevant to” an investigation — is what it should be, as well as the rules imposed on future access to the data once collected prevent abuse.

Apple (and other tech companies) wouldn’t have known this was Adam Schiff

Even people who understand surveillance seem to believe that Apple would have known these requests targeted Adam Schiff in a leak investigation and therefore should have done more to fight it, as if the actual subpoena would be accompanied with an affidavit with shiny flags saying “HPSCI Ranking Member.”

They wouldn’t have. They would have gotten a list of selectors (some of which, by its description, it probably did not service), a description of the crime being investigated (a leak), and a gag order. The one thing that should have triggered closer review from Apple was the number of selectors. But apparently it did not, and once Apple complied, the data was swept up into the FBI’s servers where it presumably remains.

The subpoena was overly broad and not tailored to limit damage to Schiff

All that said, there were aspects of the subpoena that suggest it was written without any consideration for limiting the damage to Congressional equities or reasonable investigative targets. Focusing on these details are important because they distinguish what is really problematic about this (and who is to blame). According to reports, the subpoena:

  • Obtained information from a minor, who would have had no access to classified information
  • Included a series of year-long gags
  • Obtained all the toll records from date of creation
  • May have focused exclusively on Democratic members and staffers

It’s conceivable that, after years of investigation, DOJ would have reason to believe someone was laundering leaks through a child. But given how broad this subpoena is, it’s virtually impossible the affidavit included that kind of specific knowledge.

With journalists, DOJ is supposed to use shorter gags–three months. The series of year-long gags suggests that DOJ was trying to hide the existence of these subpoenas not just to hide an investigation, but to delay the political embarrassment of it.

There’s no reason to believe that Adam Schiff leaked a FISA application targeting Carter Page first obtained in 2016 in 2009 (or whenever the Californian lawmaker first set up his Apple account). It’s a physical impossibility. So it is completely unreasonable to imagine that years-old toll records would be “relevant to” a leak investigation predicated off a leak in 2017. Mind you, obtaining all records since the inception of the account is totally normal! It’s what DOJ did, for example, with Antionne Brodnax, a January 6 defendant who got notice of subpoenas served on him, but whose attempt to limit the subpoena failed because those whose records are subpoenaed have no authority to do that. There are two appropriate responses to the unreasonable breadth of this request: both a focus on the failure to use special caution with Congressional targets, but also some discussion about how such broad requests are unreasonable regardless of the target.

Given the number of these selectors, it seems unlikely DOJ did more than ID the people who had access to the leaked information in question. Except if they only obtained selectors for Democrats, it would suggest investigators went into the investigation with the assumption that the leak was political, and that such a political leak would necessarily be partisan. That’s simply not backed by exhibited reality, and if that’s what happened, it should force some scrutiny on who made those assumptions. That’s all the more true given hints that Republicans like Paul Ryan may have tipped Page off that he had been targeted.

These kinds of limiting factors are where the most good can come out of this shit-show, because they would have a real impact and if applied broadly would help not just Schiff.

Barr continued to appoint unqualified prosecutors to do his political dirty work

I think it would be useful to separate the initial records request — after all, the leak of a FISA intercept and the target of a FISA order are virtually unprecedented — from the continued use of the records in 2020, under Billy Barr.

The NYT explains that the initial investigators believed that charges were unlikely, but Barr redoubled efforts in 2020.

As the years wore on, some officials argued in meetings that charges were becoming less realistic, former Justice Department officials said: They lacked strong evidence, and a jury might not care about information reported years earlier.

[snip]

Mr. Barr directed prosecutors to continue investigating, contending that the Justice Department’s National Security Division had allowed the cases to languish, according to three people briefed on the cases. Some cases had nothing to do with leaks about Mr. Trump and involved sensitive national security information, one of the people said. But Mr. Barr’s overall view of leaks led some people in the department to eventually see the inquiries as politically motivated.

[snip]

After the records provided no proof of leaks, prosecutors in the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington discussed ending that piece of their investigation. But Mr. Barr’s decision to bring in an outside prosecutor helped keep the case alive.

[snip]

In February 2020, Mr. Barr placed the prosecutor from New Jersey, Osmar Benvenuto, into the National Security Division. His background was in gang and health care fraud prosecutions.

Barr used this ploy — finding AUSAs who were unqualified to work on a case that others had found no merit to — on at least three different occasions. Every document John Durham’s team submitted in conjunction with the Kevin Clinesmith prosecution, for example, betrayed that investigators running it didn’t understand the scope of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation (and thereby also strongly suggested investigators had no business scrutinizing a counterintelligence investigation at all). The questions that Jeffrey Jensen’s team, appointed by Barr to review the DOJ IG investigation and the John Durham investigation to find conclusions they didn’t draw, asked Bill Barnett betrayed that the gun crimes prosecutors running it didn’t know fuckall about what they were doing (why Barnett answered as he did is another thing, one that DOJ IG should investigate). And now here, he appointed a health care fraud prosecutor to conduct a leak investigation after unbelievably aggressive leak investigators found nothing.

DOJ IG should include all of those investigations in its investigation, because they all reflect Barr’s efforts to force prosecutors to come to conclusions that the evidence did not merit (and because the Jensen investigation, at least, appears to have altered records intentionally).

FBI never deletes evidence

In an attempt to disclaim responsibility for yet more political abuse, Billy Barr issued a very interestingly worded disavowal.

Barr said that while he was attorney general, he was “not aware of any congressman’s records being sought in a leak case.” He added that Trump never encouraged him to zero in on the Democratic lawmakers who reportedly became targets of the former president’s push to unmask leakers of classified information.

There are two parts to this: One, that “while he was attorney general,” Congresspersons’ records were not sought, and two, sought in a leak case. The original subpoena for these records was in February 2018, so not during Barr’s tenure as Attorney General. He doesn’t deny asking for those previously-sought records to be reviewed anew while Attorney General.

But he also limits his disavowal to leak cases. Under Barr’s fervent imagination, however, these investigations may well have morphed into something else, what he may have imagined were political abuse or spying violation cases. DOJ can and often does obtain new legal process for already obtained records (which would be unnecessary anyway for toll records), so it is not outside the realm of possibility that Barr directed his unqualified prosecutor to use those already-seized records to snoop into some other question.

It’s a pity for Adam Schiff that no one in charge of surveillance in Congress imposed better trackability requirements on FBI’s access of its investigative collections.

Both an IG investigation and a Special Counsel are inadequate to this investigation

Lisa Monaco asked Michael Horowitz to investigate this investigation. And that’s fine: he can access the records of the investigation, and the affidavits. He can interview the line prosecutors who were tasked with this investigation.

But he can’t require Barr or Jeff Sessions or any of the other Trump appointees who ordered up this investigation to sit for an interview (he could move quickly and ask John Demers to sit for an interview).

Because of that, a lot of people are asking for a Special Counsel to be appointed. That would be nice, except thus far, there’s no evidence that a crime was committed, so there is no regulatory basis to appoint a Special Counsel. The standard for accessing records is very low, any special treatment accorded journalists or members of Congress are not written into law, and prosecutorial discretion at DOJ is nearly sacrosanct. The scandal is that this may all be entirely legal.

Mind you, there’s good reason to believe there was a crime committed in the Jeffrey Jensen investigation, the same crime (altering documents) that Barr used to predicate the Durham Special Counsel appointment. So maybe people should revisit that?

Luckily, Swalwell and Schiff know some members of Congress who can limit such abuses

If I learned that DOJ engaged in unreasonable surveillance on me [wink], I’d have no recourse, largely because of laws that Adam Schiff has championed for years.

But as it happens, Schiff and Swalwell both know some members of Congress who could pass some laws limiting the ability to do some of the things used against them that affect thousands of Americans investigated by the FBI.

Now that Adam Schiff has discovered, years after we tried to reason with him on this point, that “it’s just metadata” doesn’t fly in this day and age, maybe we can talk about how the FBI should be using metadata given how powerful it has become?

The renewed focus on Schiff’s metadata would have come after Schiff disclosed Nunes’ ties to Rudy Giuliani’s grift

Another factor of timing hasn’t gotten enough attention. In late December, Schiff released the Democrats’ impeachment report. Because Schiff obtained subpoenas (almost certainly targeting Lev Parnas and Rudy Giuliani), he included call records of calls implicating Devin Nunes and his staffer Derek

Over the course of the four days following the April 7 article, phone records show contacts between Mr. Giuliani, Mr. Parnas, Representative Devin Nunes, and Mr. Solomon. Specifically, Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Parnas were in contact with one another, as well as with Mr. Solomon.76 Phone records also show contacts on April 10 between Mr. Giuliani and Rep. Nunes, consisting of three short calls in rapid succession, followed by a text message, and ending with a nearly three minute call.77 Later that same day, Mr. Parnas and Mr. Solomon had a four minute, 39 second call.78

[snip]

On the morning of May 8, Mr. Giuliani called the White House Switchboard and connected for six minutes and 26 seconds with someone at the White House.158 That same day, Mr. Giuliani also connected with Mr. Solomon for almost six minutes, with Mr. Parnas, and with Derek Harvey, a member of Representative Nunes’ staff on the Intelligence Committee.159

69 AT&T Document Production, Bates ATTHPSCI _20190930_00848-ATTHPSCI_20190930_00884. Mr. Parnas also had an aborted call that lasted 5 seconds on April 5, 2019 with an aide to Rep. Devin Nunes on the Intelligence Committee, Derek Harvey. AT&T Document Production, Bates ATTHPSCI_20190930_00876. Call records obtained by the Committees show that Mr. Parnas and Mr. Harvey had connected previously, including a four minute 42 second call on February 1, 2019, a one minute 7 second call on February 4, and a one minute 37 second call on February 7, 2019. AT&T Document Production, Bates ATTHPSCI_20190930_00617, ATTHPSCI_20190930_00630, ATTHPSCI_20190930_00641. As explained later in this Chapter, Rep. Nunes would connect separately by phone on April 10, 11, and 12 with Mr. Parnas and Mr. Giuliani. AT&T Document Production, Bates ATTHPSCI_20190930_00913- ATTHPSCI_20190930_00914; ATTHPSCI_20190930-02125.

76 Specifically, between April 8 and April 11, phone records show the following phone contacts:

  • six calls between Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Parnas (longest duration approximately five minutes), AT&T Document Production, Bates ATTHPSCI_20190930-02115-ATTHPSCI_20190930-02131;
  • four calls between Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Solomon (all on April 8, longest duration approximately one minute, 30 seconds) AT&T Document Production, Bates ATTHPSCI_20190930-02114- ATTHPSCI_20190930-02115;
  • nine calls between Mr. Parnas and Mr. Solomon (longest duration four minutes, 39 seconds) AT&T Document Production, Bates ATTHPSCI_20190930-00885- ATTHPSCI_20190930- 00906; and
  • three calls between Mr. Parnas and Ms. Toensing (longest duration approximately six minutes), AT&T Document Production, Bates ATTHPSCI_20190930-00885- ATTHPSCI_20190930- 00905.

77 AT&T Document Production, Bates ATTHPSCI_20190930-02125, ATTHPSCI_20190930-03236.

78 AT&T Document Production, Bates ATTHPSCI_20190930-00902.

[snip]

158 AT&T Document Production, Bates ATTHPSCI_20190930_02313.

159 AT&T Document Production, Bates ATTHPSCI_20190930_02314; ATTHPSCI_20190930_02316; ATTHPSCI_20190930_02318; ATTHPSCI 20190930 01000.

Because Nunes doesn’t understand how phone records work, he — and most other Republicans in Congress — accused Schiff of subpoenaing the record of his colleagues. That’s not what happened. Instead, Nunes and a key staffer got involved in with Rudy’s efforts to solicit dirt from Russian assets and as a result they showed up in Rudy’s phone records.

But it’s the kind of thing that might lead Barr to intensify his focus on Schiff.

The last section of this was an update.

Tea Leaves on the Garland-Monaco DOJ and the Stay in Andrew McCabe’s Lawsuit

The effort to figure out precisely why moderate Merrick Garland and career DOJ employee Lisa Monaco are having the Department of Justice sustain shitty positions adopted under Bill Barr has reached a fever pitch. In my piece on Monaco, I noted one thing — her presumed approval, on her first day in the job, of a raid on Rudy Giuliani — that suggests some people are mistaking a likely effort to sustain DOJ as an institution for an effort to protect Trump.

I’d like to point to another tea leaf — something that happened (perhaps coincidentally) on Monaco’s third full day on the job. That’s when the two sides in Andrew McCabe’s lawsuit moved to stay discovery pending an effort to settle the case.

The parties jointly move this Court to stay all discovery in this proceeding, for 45 days after this motion is granted, and to extend all previously set case deadlines and events by 45 days. The parties request this relief so that they may explore the possibility of settlement.

Good cause exists for the requested relief, because the stay and extension would allow the parties to focus their efforts on discussing settlement expeditiously, free from any competing obligations and ongoing disputes related to discovery, and without burdening the Court with potentially unnecessary discovery disputes. The parties propose to update the Court two business days before the stay’s expiration about whether a further stay and extension is warranted.

On its face, a settlement with McCabe would look like a stark reversal of a Trump policy. Top levels of Trump’s DOJ signed declarations swearing that McCabe’s firing was for cause. At that level, the interest in settling the lawsuit looks like a pretty serious reversal.

That said, depending on how broadly Judge Randolph Moss ruled discovery must extend (an issue that is still pending), McCabe’s lawsuit could seriously embarrass DOJ. Even just his case in chief, in which DOJ IG and OPR ignored the testimony of key witness, FBI press person Michael Kortan (with whom McCabe’s office worked on the story that DOJ claims he was trying to hide), full discovery could badly embarrass DOJ. Still more so if the extent to which DOJ pushed to indict McCabe, allegedly after the grand jury rejected charges against him, became public. By the end of Barr’s tenure, DOJ had altered a McCabe document and submitted it to Emmet Sullivan, another potentially damaging revelation (though one probably outside any imaginable scope of discovery).

And that’s just what we know about. In the weeks leading up to McCabe’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, DOJ was refusing to share documents that McCabe needed to adequately prep for his appearance.

I’m not sure what this particular move suggests about DOJ. But I know that full exposure of the witch hunt against McCabe would badly damage DOJ, including some career employees who served Barr’s whims. But a settlement would also damage the Trump DOJ, because it would prove that Trump politicized his entire DOJ to take out perceived enemies.

That is, amid all the other tea leaves, what happens with the McCabe suit may indicate which damage to DOJ the Garland-Monaco DOJ seems most intent on avoiding.

Update: The two sides just filed an update: No settlement has been reached, but they remain in talks.

Consistent with their April 23, 2021 Joint Motion to Stay Discovery and Extend All Case Deadlines (Dkt. 56), the parties submit this joint notice regarding the current stay of litigation.

On April 27, 2021, this Court granted the parties’ joint motion for a 45-day stay of all discovery so that the Parties could focus on exploring the possibility of settlement. No settlement has been reached, but the parties are continuing their discussions. In the event that they agree that a further stay is warranted, they will so notify the Court by filing another joint motion to extend the stay and related deadlines.

Welcome to Lisa Monaco’s DOJ, E Jean Carroll Lawsuit Edition

During Lisa Monaco’s confirmation hearing, several people joked about how few questions she was getting. Because Vanita Gupta had been targeted by Republicans, Monaco was left for broad swaths of the hearing, a spectator to that effort.

There were some good exchanges. In addition to complaining about DOJ’s refusal to respond to questions from Democratic members of Congress, Sheldon Whitehouse asked about OLC, to which Monaco provided an anodyne answer that was enough for Whitehouse, who was going to vote for Monaco one way or another. Josh Hawley asked some legitimately good questions, including about end-to-end encryption. To those questions, Monaco hewed a middle ground and an adherence to the laws on the books. John Cornyn asked the same question Republicans harped on with Merrick Garland, whether she would let John Durham finish his work, to which she responded that her job is to make sure he has the resources to do so, which (while more nuanced that it sounded) shut down that line of questioning.

It was a testament to how shallowly Republican staffers interpreted Lisa Monaco’s long career that Chuck Grassley asked Monaco whether she had involvement in Crossfire Hurricane — the answer was obviously no, given her White House role at the time. But Grassley didn’t ask whether her position at the nexus of Mike Flynn’s efforts to obtain information from the Obama White House in advance of making calls with Sergey Kislyak that Flynn lied to hide would affect her view of the Russian investigation. Perhaps only Susan Rice was more personally betrayed by Mike Flynn’s outreach to Russia, and yet Republicans seemed to not even realize that Flynn and KT McFarland sent Tom Bossert to query Monaco in advance of Flynn’s covert call with Russia, making her the Obama person most directly victimized by Flynn’s underhandedness.

That blithe ignorance of how Monaco’s personal history might affect her tenure extended beyond the Senate Judiciary Committee. For example, while every Assange supporter has targeted Biden and Garland for their pleas to drop the Assange prosecution, none have thought about the fact that Monaco was in charge of the response to the 2016 Russian interference campaign that led even WikiLeaks sympathizers in the Obama Administration to completely reconsider Assange’s game and his longterm relationship with Russia (then again, Assange supporters, almost to a one, have convinced themselves to believe bullshit propaganda about that decision being made under Trump).

Most people have failed to ask these questions about Monaco’s career experiences, even though as Deputy Attorney General, Monaco runs DOJ on a day-to-day basis and makes a lot of these decisions and serves as a key advisor to Garland where she doesn’t.

As a result of the very surface approach to Monaco’s career, there were a whole slew of questions in her confirmation hearing that should have been asked (and should be asked before Monaco’s close associate Matt Olsen is confirmed as National Security Division head), but were not. When Lisa Monaco was Robert Mueller’s top advisor in 2006, for example, what role did she play legalizing the phone dragnet aspiring to collect the phone records of all Americans under FISA’s Section 215? Given her past failures to fulfill promises of transparency, specifically as it relates to FISA, what can she do to ensure she will deliver on such transparency as Deputy Attorney General? What was her role in the execution of Anwar al-Awlaki, and what does that say about her willingness to support unfettered executive authority? With the value of hindsight, does Monaco believe that she was suckered into continuing John Brennan’s permissive approach to drone strikes as White House Homeland Security Advisor, and if so what would she do to give herself the leverage to actually change bad policies baked in by her predecessors?

Don’t get me wrong: Monaco has almost unparalleled qualifications to be Deputy Attorney General, she brings a lot of great qualities to the job, and I’m sure she’s a lovely person. But there was almost no consideration about what affect her long tenure at DOJ and in National Security roles would have on her view towards Presidential authority and DOJ institutional precedent before she was confirmed.

Indeed, in perhaps the question that got closest to asking how she would treat initiatives from career DOJ officials already in place, Monaco explained to Amy Klobuchar that she viewed her job as to empower the people at DOJ she believed operated from an inherently unpartisan stance.

Klobuchar: After the last four years where civil servants withstood political interference, what do you see your role is as restoring the trust in the Department of Justice?

Monaco: Well Senator, as I said in my opening remarks, I think that the career men and women of the Justice Department are its backbone. They’re the people that enforce the law independently, faithfully, fairly, impartially, without any consideration of improper motive. I think they simply want to do their job. They want to do their job with the resources and the tools to keep the American people safe, to prosecute violent crime, to administer justice with compassion, and with humility, as Judge Garland talked about before this committee. And they want to see equal justice under law, and they want to do the work that this Committee has done on a bipartisan basis to administer criminal justice reform. And so I think my role is to ensure that they’ve got the tools and resources to do their job and to protect them from improper influence, any partisan motive, because I think they just want to do their job.

This is the belief system that leads Monaco to respond to a question about career DOJ prosecutor John Durham’s clearly politicized investigation by saying that her job is to make sure he has the resources he wants to continue that investigation.

In her role at DOJ, Monaco has overseen some key wins: with the announcement yesterday that FBI had seized much of the ransomware payment that Colonial pipelines had paid Dark Side hackers, with her quiet presence on the public line listening as Paul Hodgkins made the first pure guilty plea of the January 6 investigation, with the decision — on her first full day in office — to let SDNY resume its investigation into Rudy Giuliani’s foreign influence peddling.

But also under her leadership, DOJ has delayed notice to NYT about an effort to get their Internet records in a clearly politicized investigation. DOJ has moved to hide the contents of a Bill Barr memo that clearly abused his authority and the role of OLC (and with that decision, protected career employees who were making similarly dubious claims when Monaco ran the National Security Division). DOJ has defended a lot of legal stances that were obviously political on their face, most recently and egregiously by sustaining DOJ support to give Trump immunity from suit in his attack on alleged rape survivor, E. Jean Carroll. That is, as she did before with Cheney’s Stellar Wind and Brennan’s drone program, Monaco seems to have chosen not to make a clean break from the horrible policies of her predecessors, choosing instead to ensure the continuity of the institution.

Again, Lisa Monaco oozes intelligence and competence; she’s undeniably qualified to be where she’s at. But she also got where she’s at by cleaning up the messes left by Stellar Wind, the torture program, and John Brennan’s drone program by improving those shitty policies without demanding any accountability for the abuse of DOJ and presidential authority they entailed. Plus, as a career DOJ official, she’s going to defend professionals who did stupid things on the orders of a deeply politicized boss.

Particularly in the wake of the decision to defend Trump against Carroll’s suit, people are wondering how Merrick Garland could make such a horrible decision. My suspicion is they would be better asking what Lisa Monaco’s role was in the decision.

Paul Hodgkins Pleads Guilty to Obstruction

Paul Hodgkins just became the first January 6 defendant to enter into a straight up guilty plea. He pled guilty to one count of obstruction and faces a sentencing range of 15 to 21 months.

The plea provides a hint at how DOJ will deal with straight guilty pleas: Hodgkins got his trespass related crimes dismissed. But he will also face $2,000 restitution for the damage done to the Capitol, on top of whatever he is fined in conjunction with his obstruction charge. My rough count says 170 other January 6 defendants are facing that obstruction charge, many with other more serious crimes on top of it (though a few defendants are challenging it as applied).

The plea hearing also explained what I had noted was the one notable thing about him: that he put on latex gloves before he touched some papers on the Senate desks. In fact, he had them in a First Aid kit he always carries with him, and he put them on to offer Joshua Black — who had an open wound from a plastic bullet that kept bleeding all day — medical care. After Black declined his offer of help, Hodgkins took them back off.

Hodgkins explained that he didn’t know Black (or, it sounds like, anyone else he had stormed the Senate with).

Hodgkins’ statement of offense mentioned twice that he was wearing Trump garb at the time. Judge Randolph Moss repeated that when he was trying to clarify that the picture he was shown did depict Hodgkins.

Given some comments before the hearing started, it sounds like Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco listened in on the public line. This plea was a big deal, because it sets a pattern DOJ surely hopes others will follow.

DOJ’s Failures to Follow Media Guidelines on the WaPo Seizure

I wanted to add a few data points regarding the report that DOJ subpoenaed records from three WaPo journalists.

This post is premised on three pieces of well-justified speculation: that John Durham, after having been appointed Special Counsel, obtained these records, that Microsoft challenged a gag, and that Microsoft’s challenge was upheld in some way. I’m doing this post to lay out some questions that others should be asking about what happened.

An enterprise host (probably Microsoft) likely challenged a gag order

The report notes that DOJ did obtain the reporters’ phone records, and tried, but did not succeed, in obtaining their email records.

The Trump Justice Department secretly obtained Washington Post journalists’ phone records and tried to obtain their email records over reporting they did in the early months of the Trump administration on Russia’s role in the 2016 election, according to government letters and officials.

In three separate letters dated May 3 and addressed to Post reporters Ellen Nakashima and Greg Miller, and former Post reporter Adam Entous, the Justice Department wrote they were “hereby notified that pursuant to legal process the United States Department of Justice received toll records associated with the following telephone numbers for the period from April 15, 2017 to July 31, 2017.” The letters listed work, home or cellphone numbers covering that three-and-a-half-month period.

[snip]

The letters to the three reporters also noted that prosecutors got a court order to obtain “non content communication records” for the reporters’ work email accounts, but did not obtain such records. The email records sought would have indicated who emailed whom and when, but would not have included the contents of the emails. [my emphasis]

What likely happened is that DOJ tried to obtain a subpoena on Microsoft or Google (almost certainly the former, because the latter doesn’t care about privacy) as the enterprise host for the newspaper’s email service, and someone challenged or refused a request for a gag, which led DOJ to withdraw the request.

There’s important background to this.

Up until October 2017, when the government served a subpoena on a cloud company that hosts records for another, the cloud company was often gagged indefinitely from telling the companies whose email (or files) it hosted. By going to a cloud company, the government was effectively taking away businesses’ ability to challenge subpoenas themselves, which posed a problem for Microsoft’s ability to convince businesses to move everything to their cloud.

That’s actually how Robert Mueller obtained Michael Cohen’s Trump Organization emails — by first preserving, then obtaining them from Microsoft rather than asking Trump Organization (which was, at the same time, withholding the most damning materials when asked for the same materials by Congress). Given what we know about Trump Organization’s incomplete response to Congress, we can be certain that had Mueller gone to Trump Organization, he might never have learned about the Trump Tower Moscow deal.

In October 2017, in conjunction with a lawsuit settlement, Microsoft forced DOJ to adopt a new policy that gave it the right to inform customers when DOJ came to them for emails unless DOJ had a really good reason to prevent Microsoft from telling their enterprise customer.

Today marks another important step in ensuring that people’s privacy rights are protected when they store their personal information in the cloud. In response to concerns that Microsoft raised in a lawsuit we brought against the U.S. government in April 2016, and after months advocating for the United States Department of Justice to change its practices, the Department of Justice (DOJ) today established a new policy to address these issues. This new policy limits the overused practice of requiring providers to stay silent when the government accesses personal data stored in the cloud. It helps ensure that secrecy orders are used only when necessary and for defined periods of time. This is an important step for both privacy and free expression. It is an unequivocal win for our customers, and we’re pleased the DOJ has taken these steps to protect the constitutional rights of all Americans.

Until now, the government routinely sought and obtained orders requiring email providers to not tell our customers when the government takes their personal email or records. Sometimes these orders don’t include a fixed end date, effectively prohibiting us forever from telling our customers that the government has obtained their data.

[snip]

Until today, vague legal standards have allowed the government to get indefinite secrecy orders routinely, regardless of whether they were even based on the specifics of the investigation at hand. That will no longer be true. The binding policy issued today by the Deputy U.S. Attorney General should diminish the number of orders that have a secrecy order attached, end the practice of indefinite secrecy orders, and make sure that every application for a secrecy order is carefully and specifically tailored to the facts in the case.

Rod Rosenstein, then overseeing the Mueller investigation, approved the new policy on October 19, 2017.

The effect was clear. When various entities at DOJ wanted records from Trump Organization after that, DOJ did not approve the equivalent request approved just months earlier.

If DOJ withdrew a subpoena rather than have it disclosed, it was probably inconsistent with media guidelines

If I’m right that DOJ asked Microsoft for the reporters’ email records, but then withdrew the request rather than have Microsoft disclose the subpoena to WaPo, then the request itself likely violated DOJ’s media guidelines — at least as they were rewritten in 2015 after a series of similar incidents, including DOJ’s request for the phone records of 20 AP journalists in 2013.

DOJ’s media guidelines require the following:

  • Attorney General approval of any subpoena for call or email records
  • That the information be essential to the investigation
  • DOJ has taken reasonable attempts to obtain the information from alternate sources

Most importantly, DOJ’s media guidelines require notice and negotiation with the affected journalist, unless the Attorney General determines that doing so would “pose a clear and substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation.”

after negotiations with the affected member of the news media have been pursued and appropriate notice to the affected member of the news media has been provided, unless the Attorney General determines that, for compelling reasons, such negotiations or notice would pose a clear and substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation, risk grave harm to national security, or present an imminent risk of death or serious bodily harm.

But a judge can review the justifications for gags before issuing them (for all subpoenas, not just media ones).

Just as an example, the government obtained a gag on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Google when obtaining Reality Winner’s cloud-based communications a week after they had arrested her (at a time when she was in no position to delete her own content). After a few weeks, Twitter challenged the gag. A judge gave DOJ 180 days to sustain the gag, but in August 2017, DOJ lifted it.

That was a case where DOJ obtained the communications of an accused leaker, with possible unknown co-conspirators, so the gag at least made some sense.

Here, by contrast, the government would have been asking for records from journalists who were not alleged to have committed any crime. The ultimate subject of the investigation would have no ability to destroy WaPo’s records. The records — and the investigation — were over three years old. Whatever justification DOJ gave was likely obviously bullshit.

Hypothetical scenario: DOJ obtains cell phone records only to have a judge rule a gag inappropriate

Let me lay out how this might have worked to show why this might mean DOJ violated the media guidelines. Here’s one possible scenario for what could have happened:

  • In the wake of the election, John Durham subpoenaed the WaPo cell providers and Microsoft, asking for a gag
  • The cell provider turned over the records with no questions — neither AT&T nor Verizon care about their clients’ privacy
  • Microsoft challenged the gag and in response, a judge ruled against DOJ’s gag, meaning Microsoft would have been able to inform WaPo

That would mean that after DOJ, internally — Billy Barr and John Durham, in this speculative scenario — decided that warning journalists would create the same media stink we’re seeing today and make the records request untenable, a judge ruled that that a media stink over an investigation into a 3-year old leak wasn’t a good enough reason for a gag. If this happened, it would mean some judge ruled that Barr and Durham (if Durham is the one who made the request) invented a grave risk to the integrity of their investigation that a judge subsequently found implausible.

It would mean the request itself was dubious, to say nothing of the gag.

Once again, DOJ failed to meet its own notice requirements

And with respect to the gag, this request broke another one of the rules on obtaining records from reporters: that they get notice no later than 90 days after the subpoena. The Justice Manual says this about journalists whose records are seized:

  • Except as provided in 28 C.F.R. 50.10(e)(1), when the Attorney General has authorized the use of a subpoena, court order, or warrant to obtain from a third party communications records or business records of a member of the news media, the affected member of the news media shall be given reasonable and timely notice of the Attorney General’s determination before the use of the subpoena, court order, or warrant, unless the Attorney General determines that, for compelling reasons, such notice would pose a clear and substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation, risk grave harm to national security, or present an imminent risk of death or serious bodily harm. 28 C.F.R. 50.10(e)(2). The mere possibility that notice to the affected member of the news media, and potential judicial review, might delay the investigation is not, on its own, a compelling reason to delay notice. Id.
  • When the Attorney General has authorized the use of a subpoena, court order, or warrant to obtain communications records or business records of a member of the news media, and the affected member of the news media has not been given notice, pursuant to 28 C.F.R. 50.10(e)(2), of the Attorney General’s determination before the use of the subpoena, court order, or warrant, the United States Attorney or Assistant Attorney General responsible for the matter shall provide to the affected member of the news media notice of the subpoena, court order, or warrant as soon as it is determined that such notice will no longer pose a clear and substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation, risk grave harm to national security, or present an imminent risk of death or serious bodily harm. 28 C.F.R. 50.10(e)(3). In any event, such notice shall occur within 45 days of the government’s receipt of any return made pursuant to the subpoena, court order, or warrant, except that the Attorney General may authorize delay of notice for an additional 45 days if he or she determines that for compelling reasons, such notice would pose a clear and substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation, risk grave harm to national security, or present an imminent risk of death or serious bodily harm. Id. No further delays may be sought beyond the 90‐day period. Id. [emphasis original]

Journalists are supposed to get notice if their records are seized. They’re supposed to get notice no later than 90 days after the records were obtained. AT&T and Verizon would have provided records almost immediately and this happened in 2020, meaning the notice should have come by the end of March. But WaPo didn’t get notice until after Lisa Monaco was confirmed as Deputy Attorney General and, even then, it took several weeks.

DOJ’s silence about an Office of Public Affairs review

While it’s not required by guidelines, in general DOJ has involved the Office of Public Affairs in such matters, so someone who has to deal with the press can tell the Attorney General and the prosecutor that their balance of journalist equities is out of whack. At the time, this would have been Kerri Kupec, who was always instrumental in Billy Barr’s obstruction and politicization.

But it’s not clear whether that happened. I asked Acting Director of OPA Marc Raimondi (the guy who has defended what happened in the press; he was in National Security Division at the time of the request), twice, whether someone from OPA was involved. Both times he ignored my question.

The history of Special Counsels accessing sensitive records and testimony

There’s a history of DOJ obtaining things under Special Counsels they might not have obtained without the Special Counsel:

  • Pat Fitzgerald coerced multiple reporters’ testimony, going so far as to jail Judy Miller, in 2004
  • Robert Mueller obtained Michael Cohen’s records from Microsoft rather than Trump Organization
  • This case probably represents John Durham, having been made Special Counsel, obtaining records that DOJ did not obtain in 2017

There’s an irony here: Durham has long sought ways to incriminate Jim Comey, who is represented by Pat Fitzgerald and others. In 2004, as Acting Attorney General, Comey approved the subpoenas for Miller and others. That said, given the time frame on the records request, it is highly unlikely that he’s the target of this request.

Whoever sought these records, it is virtually certain that the prosecutor only obtained them after making decisions that DOJ chose not to make when these leaks were first investigated in 2017, after Jeff Sessions announced a war on media leaks in the wake of having his hidden meeting with Sergey Kislyak exposed.

That suggests that DOJ decided these records, and the investigation itself, were more important in 2020 than Jeff Sessions had considered them in 2017, when his behavior was probably one of the things disclosed in the leak.

The dubious claim that these records could have been necessary or uniquely valuable

Finally, consider one more detail of DOJ’s decision to obtain these records: their claims, necessary under the media policy, that 3-year old phone and email records were necessary to a leak investigation.

When these leaks were first investigated in 2017, DOJ undoubtedly identified everyone who had access to the Kislyak intercepts and used available means — including reviewing the government call records of the potential sources — to try to find the leakers. If they had a solid lead on someone who might be the leaker, the government would have obtained the person’s private communication records as well, as DOJ did do during the contemporaneous investigation into the leak of the Carter Page FISA warrant that ultimately led to SSCI security official James Wolfe’s prosecution.

Jeff Sessions had literally declared war within days of one of the likely leaks under investigation here, and would approve a long-term records request from Ali Watkins in the Wolfe investigation and a WhatsApp Pen Register implicating Jason Leopold in the Natalie Edwards case. After Bill Barr came in, he approved the use of a Title III wiretap to record calls involving journalists in the Henry Frese case.

For the two and a half years between the time Sessions first declared war on leaks and the time DOJ decided these records were critical to an investigation, DOJ had not previously considered them necessary, even at a time when Sessions was approving pretty aggressive tactics against leaks.

Worse still, DOJ would have had to claim they might be useful. These records, unlike the coerced testimony of Judy Miller, would not have revealed an actual source for the stories. These records, unlike the Michael Cohen records obtained via Microsoft would not be direct evidence of a crime.

All they would be would be leads — a list of all the phone numbers and email addresses these journalists communicated with via WaPo email or telephony calls or texts — for the period in question. It might return records of people (such as Andy McCabe) who could be sources but also had legal authority to communicate with journalists. It would probably return a bunch of records of inquiries the journalists made that were never returned. It would undoubtedly return records of people who were sources for other stories.

But it would return nothing for other means of communication, such as Signal texts or calls.

In other words, the most likely outcome from this request is that it would have a grave impact on the reporting equities of the journalists involved, with no certainty it would help in the investigation (and an equally high likelihood of returning a false positive, someone who was contacted but didn’t return the call).

And if it was Durham who made the request, he would have done so after having chased a series of claims — many of them outright conspiracy theories — around the globe, only to have all of those theories to come up empty. Given that after years of investigation Durham has literally found nothing new, there’s no reason to believe he had any new basis to think he could solve this leak investigation after DOJ had tried but failed in 2017. Likely, what made the difference is that his previous efforts to substantiate something had failed, and Barr needed to empower him to keep looking to placate Trump, and so Durham got to seize WaPo’s records.

Billy Barr has been hiding other legal process against journalists

Given the disclosure that Barr approved a request targeting the WaPo about five months ago and that under Barr DOJ used a Title III wiretap in a leak investigation (albeit targeting the known leaker), it’s worth noting one other piece of oversight that has lapsed under Barr.

In the wake of Jeff Sessions declaring war on leaks in 2017 (and, probably, the leak in question here), Ron Wyden asked Jeff Sessions whether the war on leaks reflected a change in the new media guidelines adopted in 2015.

Wyden asked Sessions to answer the following questions by November 10:

  1. For each of the past five years, how many times has DOJ used subpoenas, search warrants, national security letters, or any other form of legal process authorized by a court to target members of the news media in the United States and American journalists abroad to seek their (a) communications records, (b) geo-location information, or (c) the content of their communications? Please provide statistics for each form of legal process.
  2. Has DOJ revised the 2015 regulations, or made any other changes to internal procedures governing investigations of journalists since January 20, 2017? If yes, please provide me with a copy.

In response, DOJ started doing a summary of the use of legal process against journalists for each calendar year. For example, the 2016 report described the legal process used against Malheur propagandist Pete Santilli. The 2017 report shows that, in the year of my substantive interview with FBI, DOJ obtained approval for a voluntary interview with a journalist before the interview because they, “suspected the journalist may have committed an offense in the course of newsgathering activities” (while I have no idea if this is my interview, during the interview, the lead FBI agent also claimed to know the subject of a surveillance-related story I was working on that was unrelated to the subject of the interview, though neither he nor I disclosed what the story was about). The 2017 report also describes obtaining Ali Watkins’ phone records and DOJ’s belated notice to her. The 2018 report describes getting retroactive approval for the arrest of someone for harassing Ryan Zinke but who claimed to be media (I assume that precedent will be important for the many January 6 defendants who claimed to be media).

While I am virtually certain the reports — at least the 2018 one — are not comprehensive, the reports nevertheless are useful guidelines for the kinds of decision DOJ deems reasonable in a given year.

But as far as anyone knows, DOJ stopped issuing them under Barr. Indeed, when I asked Raimondi about them, he didn’t know they existed (he is checking if they were issued for 2019 and 2020).

So we don’t know what other investigative tactics Barr approved as Attorney General, even though we should.

In Request for Special Master, the Lev Parnas Prosecutors Hint at Prior Filter Team Searches on Rudy

The day after the search on Rudy Giuliani and a single Victoria Toensing phone, the prosecutors on the Lev Parnas case wrote a letter to the judge in that case, Paul Oetken, asking that he appoint a Special Master to review the content of their phones before turning that content over to prosecutors. It was unsealed yesterday after Rudy and Toensing’s lawyers got to review the redactions and add any they wanted. Oetken has ordered a briefing schedule about how this should proceed, which will extend through May 17.

The letter suggests certain things:

  • The participation of Oetken and the Parnas prosecution team (Rebekah Donalski, Nicolas Roos, and Aline Flodr) is consistent with this investigation arising out of the Parnas investigation, as has been reported.
  • These searches were approved on April 21, which was the day after Lisa Monaco was confirmed on April 20. That suggests she approved of this search. It’s normal for the Deputy Attorney General to sign off on controversial searches like this, and this suggests they waited to have the confirmed DAG sign off rather than have John Carlin, who had been acting DAG until Monaco was confirmed.
  • A court in Maryland signed off on the seizure of Toensing’s phone before SDNY signed off on the search of it.
  • The letter cites two exceptional circumstances when it might be appropriate to appoint a Special Master: when the attorney-client privilege would involve the President, and so implicate executive privilege, and when the attorney is involved in matters “adverse to the United States Attorney Office.” It’s not clear if prosecutors have something specific in mind with the latter reference, but it’s certainly possible that this concerns matters that one or the other lawyer has clients who are before SDNY.
  • Seemingly to explain why Rudy and Toensing aren’t making this request, the letter notes that defendants normally do but, in this case, “there is no pending criminal case against the subjects of the search.” Make of that what you will.
  • The government is basically asking for the same initial rules to be applied as were applied in the Michael Cohen case. They don’t, however, ask that any legal discussions be submitted to the public docket, which is something that happened in Cohen’s case that seemed to dissuade Trump from making frivolous claims of attorney-client privilege.

The most interesting bit of the letter, however, comes after a redacted passage with two redacted footnotes.

That introduces the following discussion:

The Government believes that its use of a filter team to conduct a review pursuant to established protocols is sufficient to protect applicable privileges and that [one line redacted] given that the searches [redacted] were done in an overt manner. [half line redacted] as well as the unusually sensitive privilege issues that the Warrants may implicate, the Government considers it appropriate for the Court to appoint a special master to make the privilege determinations as to materials seized pursuant to the Warrants. In particular, the overt and public nature of these warrants necessitates, as Judge Wood observed, the appointment of a special master under the “perception of fairness, not fairness itself.”

That is,  the government is explaining — in a letter that preempts any demand from Rudy and Toensing — that they don’t really need to do it this way, but partly because this search was public, it justifies doing so here.

But remember that the search of these devices is not the only one alleged. Rudy and his lawyer, Robert Costello, claim that SDNY also got a “covert” warrant for Rudy’s iCloud account sometime in late 2019.

A lawyer for former New York City mayor and Donald Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani said the Justice Department revealed on a Thursday conference call that the feds had penetrated Giuliani’s iCloud long before Wednesday’s search warrants were executed.

“I was told about it today in a conference call with the [U.S.] Attorney’s office,” attorney Robert Costello, a longtime friend of Giuliani’s, told The Daily Beast on Thursday night. “They told me they obtained a ‘covert warrant’ for Giuliani’s iCloud account in ‘late 2019.’ They have reviewed this information for a year and a half without telling us or [fellow Trump-aligned attorney] Victoria Toensing.”

During an appearance on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show on Thursday night, Giuliani himself briefly referenced the warrant to search his iCloud account. “In the middle of the impeachment defense, they invaded, without telling me, my iCloud,” the Trump confidant said. “They took documents that are privileged. And then they unilaterally decided what they could read and not read. So the prosecutors at the Justice Department spied on me.”

A year and a half would put the search in October 2019, quite possibly before impeachment had formally started, and around the time when Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman were first charged. It likely put it at a time when Trump had no overt defense needs, and so no acknowledged privilege here (unless you count John Dowd’s October 3 letter to Congress that effectively put Trump in a joint defense agreement with Parnas and Fruman and alleged Russian mobster Dmitro Firtash).

I had thought this earlier reference might have been to a preservation order served to Apple, but the redacted passages are consistent with there having been a real search, one for which SDNY used only a taint team to weed out what was genuinely privileged. And there was clearly probable cause: Rudy was the business partner of two people charged for their business doings.

According to the terms of this letter, in the case of a covert search like the one Rudy claims occurred, there would be less cause for a Special Master.

Which is to say this letter may be more about the searches that have already occurred rather than the forthcoming exploitation that will be done with the oversight of a Special Master.