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The Andrew McCabe Referral Is Unsurprising — and Probably Justified

I’ve been traveling a shit-ton in recent weeks (and still am, in a lovely gorgeous undisclosed location). So it wasn’t until a flight today that I read the DOJ IG Report on Andrew McCabe’s lack of candor about confirming an investigation into the Clinton Foundation. Having finally read it, though, I’m thoroughly unsurprised that DOJ made a criminal referral. Indeed, given the standards FBI holds subjects of investigation to, I think the referral was necessary to avoid the perception that the top FBI brass could get away with behavior that results in criminal charges (for people including George Papadopoulos and Mike Flynn) all the time.

Because boy did Deputy and Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe use a lot of the tricks that defendants (try, usually unsuccessfully) to use to get out of lying.

Andrew McCabe was investigated for screwing Hillary over

Before I get into the report, let’s make it clear what McCabe is accused of (because the right wing gets this wrong seemingly every time). As part of an investigation into several leaks, McCabe was interviewed repeatedly about this article by Devlin Barrett, specifically this passage.

According to a person familiar with the probes, on Aug. 12, a senior Justice Department official called Mr. McCabe to voice his displeasure at finding that New York FBI agents were still openly pursuing the Clinton Foundation probe during the election season. Mr. McCabe said agents still had the authority to pursue the issue as long as they didn’t use overt methods requiring Justice Department approvals.

The Justice Department official was “very pissed off,” according to one person close to Mr. McCabe, and pressed him to explain why the FBI was still chasing a matter the department considered dormant. Others said the Justice Department was simply trying to make sure FBI agents were following longstanding policy not to make overt investigative moves that could be seen as trying to influence an election. Those rules discourage investigators from making any such moves before a primary or general election, and, at a minimum, checking with anticorruption prosecutors before doing so.

“Are you telling me that I need to shut down a validly predicated investigation?” Mr. McCabe asked, according to people familiar with the conversation. After a pause, the official replied, “Of course not,” these people said.

The passage, coming in a story on the reopening of the investigation into Hillary’s emails, effectively confirmed the separate investigation into the Clinton Foundation.

After denying it in two interviews, he admitted in a third and fourth (though continued to lie about his transparency about the fact) that he had authorized Lisa Page to provide the background and the quote to Barrett.

Effectively, then, McCabe admitted to confirming 10 days before the election that there was a second investigation into Hillary Clinton. DOJ IG (and the FBI witnesses they consulted) concluded that McCabe did so to protect his own reputation, not to reassure the public that Hillary wasn’t above scrutiny. And they dismissed the notion it was a sanctioned confirmation, both because it was not discussed beforehand and carefully messaged, as such confirmations always are, and because it was anonymous.

So for all that Republicans, starting with Donald Trump, want to make this into a real scandal hurting Republicans, it’s the opposite. McCabe is accused of screwing over Hillary to protect his own reputation.

Signs the report was rushed

I find the report itself very credible; it makes a very damning case against McCabe.

But there are a few details of it that deserve mention, because they demonstrate that this report is just part of the larger report that will be released next month.

First, there is no methodology or request for comment from the bureau (though it includes rebuttals from McCabe), which are both standard features on IG Reports. The methodology would be really useful to see because it would provide a few more dates about when a draft was finalized, that might provide more information on how this came to be released early.

Then there’s a redaction in this passage.

Both public reporting and redaction matching suggests it has to be DAD — that is, Peter Strzok. Other references to him are not redacted. For some reason, and I suspect it’s an investigative one, the FBI didn’t want it known that he was party to the decision of forcing McCabe off the email investigation in late October, just days before the WSJ story in question.

That (and one other detail I get to below) suggests the FBI is protecting the details on Strzok and Page that will show up in the larger report.

So this report was, as public reporting has suggested, pulled out of the larger one and packaged up for February release.

That said, I’m not as convinced that served the nefarious purpose of serving up Andrew McCabe to Donald Trump’s voracious firing appetite. Rather, I suspect that’s when they reached the conclusion that McCabe’s behavior reached a level requiring criminal referral. And while I agree the circumstances surrounding McCabe’s firing still stink to high hell, if they had already made the decision to refer McCabe for criminal investigation, the timing, and the necessity of firing him, do make more sense.

This case really is about lying to FBI Agents

In the same way the Republican claim McCabe hurt Trump is bullshit, another public claim — one favored by some Democrats — is that this is simply a he-said he-said between McCabe and Comey.

While one conversation between them — an October 31, 2016 conversation where leaks came up and McCabe did not offer up that he was behind the WSJ passage — is included in the allegations, the other three, far more compelling, allegations include sworn conversations (the latter two taped) with FBI Inspection Division and Inspector General Agents.

And as I said, this is not — as McCabe has spun it — about an authorized confirmation of an investigation. It is true he gave permission for these conversations. But he did not go through the normal process before confirming an investigation (which wouldn’t have been approved but if it had would have resulted in an on-the-record comment). It’s likely McCabe, out of fury, just fucked up. But he did authorize the anonymous leak of stuff that shouldn’t have been released.

I won’t get into the evidence laid out (other than to say that it is convincing). But the report suggests McCabe didn’t come clean to Comey in October, and then in two subsequent interviews tried to create a cover story, only to discover that the investigation into Page and Strzok would reveal his deceit, at which point he tried to clean up his story in a way that wouldn’t put him in legal jeopardy.

Un-fucking-believably, as McCabe tried to get out of the problems he created he used three dodges often used by criminal defendants when complaining about FBI investigative tactics.

McCabe “can’t recall” diversion one

Along the way, McCabe  created two diversions to deflect blame (the IG Report doesn’t focus on this, but I find these actions to be among McCabe’s most reprehensible for the way they exposed others to disciplinary and legal jeopardy).

First, in the wake of the Barrett story that he was a second-hand anonymous source for, McCabe called the heads of the NY and DC office to bitch them out for leaking.

According to NY-ADIC’s contemporaneous October 30 calendar notes and testimony to the OIG, McCabe called NY-ADIC on Sunday, October 30, at 5:11 p.m., to express concerns over leaks from the FBI’s New York Field Office in the October 30 WSJ article. NY-ADIC told the OIG that McCabe was “ticked about leaks” in the article on the CF Investigation, but NY-ADIC “pushed back” a little to note that New York agents were not privy to some of the information in the article.

Also according to NY-ADIC’s calendar notes, as well as his testimony to the OIG, NY-ADIC spoke to EAD and other FBI managers after his call with McCabe to voice concerns “about getting yelled at about this stuff” when he was supposed to be dealing with EAD on Clinton Foundation issues because of his understanding that McCabe had recused himself from the matter.

W-ADIC told the OIG that he received a call from McCabe regarding the October 30 WSJ article and that McCabe admonished him regarding leaks in the article. According to W-ADIC, McCabe told him to “get his house in order.”

McCabe told us that he did not recall calling either NY-ADIC or W-ADIC to reprimand them for leaks in the October 30 WSJ article.

He did so with the NY-ADIC (probably justifiably) after a second Barrett story.

I believe the first of these scoldings served the purpose of creating a paper trail making it look like other offices were responsible for the Barrett leak.

With regards to both of these hypocritical conversations, in which McCabe pulled rank to yell at people for doing what he had himself done, he claimed afterwards not to recall the conversations in question (and bizarrely for a lifetime FBI Agent, didn’t take the notes that his counterparties did).

I think the first one is of particular concern, as by blaming the field offices, McCabe was deflecting from his own role. And like a long line of high level officials before him, he got away with it by claiming he didn’t recall these conversations.

McCabe blames diversion two on the perennial two-Agent, no recording complaint

McCabe also created a diversion in his first interview, with the Inspection Division (which, because of rank, he knew could not investigate him personally). He told them, falsely, that he had told a bunch of other people about the conversation described in the WSJ, leading INSD to believe there could be any number of suspects.

INSD-SSA1 further told the OIG that McCabe stated during the interview that he had related the account of the August 12 call to others numerous times, leaving INSD-SSA1 with the impression that INSD-SSA1 would “not get anywhere by asking” McCabe how many people could have known about what appeared to be a private conversation between him and PADAG. INSD-SSA1 told us that he didn’t need to take many notes during the interview because, at that point, he viewed McCabe as “the victim” of the leak and McCabe had told the INSD agents that he did not know how this happened. INSD-SSA1 also told us that the whole interaction was short, maybe 5 to 7 minutes, and flowing because McCabe was seemingly the victim and claimed he did not know who did it. INSD-SSA1 said that McCabe’s information could be summarized in one paragraph in his draft statement.

This led them to give up their investigation, for a period. When they sent him their version of the statements he had made to get him to sign and swear to them, he just blew off the request (he was Acting Director at this point, so he admittedly had tons of other things to do, but also real reason to believe his seniority would help him avoid any trouble for his actions).

When McCabe ultimately came clean about his role in this affair, he tried to suggest that the INSD version of what happened was not accurate (as defendants sometimes do, often for good reason, when an FBI 302 leaves out key details). Remarkably though, this guy who must have seen this ploy hundreds of times in his life and knew that FBI Agents always move in twos, suggested that the specific discussion involved just one of the Agents present.

McCabe also asserted that the May 9 meeting concerned an unrelated leak matter and that the discussion about the October 30 article occurred near the end of the meeting when “one of the people on that team pulled me aside and asked me a question about the Wall Street Journal article.” He elaborated by stating that as the INSD agents were “walking out of my office into the hallway, and [INSD Section Chief] kind of grabbed me by the arm and said, hey, let me ask you about something else.” McCabe said that he and INSD-Section Chief were still in his office, he thought standing, during the conversation but that the other two INSD agents (McCabe recalled there being three INSD agents present that day, not two) were outside his office. He said INSD-Section Chief showed him the October 30 WSJ article at that time and asked him “a question or two about it. And that was it. It was a very quick exchange.”

If it had indeed happened this way, it would have made the conversation other than investigative, and might have gotten him off the hook for lying.

Except that SSA-1 took notes, so was obviously present, and INSD made McCabe initial the WSJ article confirming he had read it.

Nevertheless, this is, ultimately, the same complaint criminal defendants make all the time about the FBI’s approach to interviews.

McCabe mounts a Miranda defense

Perhaps most un-fucking-believably, McCabe mounted a Miranda defense to excuse the fact that he lied when he was first asked about the Page-Strzok texts. Effectively, he said that he had an explicit agreement that OIG would not ask him any questions that might put him in legal jeopardy.

In response to review a draft of this report, counsel for McCabe argued that, in asking McCabe about the October 27-30 texts between Special Counsel and DAD regarding the WSJ article, the OIG engaged in improper and unethical conduct, and violated an allegedly explicit agreement with McCabe that when he was interviewed by the OIG on July 28 he would not be questioned outside the presence of counsel with respect to matters for which he was being investigated. McCabe provides no evidence in support of his claim, and based on the OIG’s review of the available evidence, including the transcript of McCabe’s recorded OIG interview on July 28 and the OIG’s contemporaneous notes, as described below, McCabe’s claim is contradicted by the investigative record.

As an initial matter, at the time of the July 28 interview, McCabe was not a subject of an OIG investigation of disclosures in the October 30 WSJ article, nor did the OIG suspect him of having been the source of an unauthorized disclosure of non-public information related to that article. The OIG did not open its investigation of McCabe concerning the WSJ article until August 31, after being informed by INSD that McCabe had provided INSD agents with information on August 18, 2017, that contradicted the information that he had provided to INSD agents on May 9.

Second, the OIG has no record that McCabe stated in advance of the July 28 interview that he was represented by counsel. Moreover, the recording of the July 28 interview shows that at no time did McCabe give any indication that he was represented by counsel. The transcript of the interview shows that the OIG informed McCabe, who has a law degree, that the interview was about “issues raised by the text messages” between Special Counsel and DAD, and that the OIG would not be asking McCabe questions about “other issues related to your recusal in the McAulliffe investigation . . . or any issues related to that.” McCabe responded “Okay” and did not articulate or request any further limitations on the questions he would answer. The OIG added that “This is a voluntary interview. What that means is that if you don’t want to answer a question, that’s fully within your rights.” That “will not be held against you . . . .” The recording of McCabe’s interview further demonstrates that the OIG was entirely solicitous of McCabe’s requests not to respond to certain questions. Towards the end of the interview, before beginning an area of questioning unrelated to Special Counsel/DAD texts or the WSJ article, the OIG prefaced his question to McCabe by stating “if you feel this is connected to the things that are making you uncomfortable, will you let me know?” McCabe responded, “Yes. Yeah, you can ask, I’ll let you . . . If I don’t feel comfortable going forward, I’ll let you know.” At a later point in the interview, after answering a number of questions unrelated to Special Counsel/DAD texts, McCabe expressed a preference for not answering further questions, and the OIG did not ask further questions on the topic. [my emphasis]

I mean, sure, OIG blew that excuse out of the water (and the rebuttal continued with further evidence this claim was bullshit). But when I was reading it I kept thinking “how many fucking times have you been the Agent giving the uneducated interviewee even less opportunity to invoke Miranda! Yet you fucked this up!?!?!”

Did McCabe coordinate his story with Page?

As noted, McCabe’s true undoing came when, in the course of the investigation into the treatment of Hillary, OIG discovered the Page-Strzok texts. McCabe was asked about them in the context of the Page-Strzok contacts, and realized (but lied in a sworn, recorded interview) that the texts disproved all his stories. That led him to correct his testimony to INSD, which then referred it to OIG so someone of the rank that could investigate McCabe could interview him.

Along the way, though, McCabe and Page had a conversation — one she subsequently copped to, but he did not.

McCabe denied that being shown the text messages on July 28 that indicated Special Counsel had spoken to Barrett caused him to change his account in order to protect Special Counsel. McCabe told the OIG that this “thinking process” was done “on my own” without talking to any FBI employees or reviewing past e-mails or text messages. He stated that he did not discuss the Devlin texts with Special Counsel after the July 28 interview. While Special Counsel told the OIG that following McCabe’s July 28 OIG interview, she and McCabe discussed her text messages, she said that McCabe did not discuss his OIG testimony about the WSJ article, or the WSJ article itself, at that time. Special Counsel stated that she and McCabe did not discuss “getting their stories straight” with respect to the WSJ article. Special Counsel told the OIG that the last time she spoke with McCabe about the WSJ article was in approximately October 2016 (when the article was published).

This was not included among the key lack of candor charges, but I suspect the prosecutor will test the veracity of this current operative story.

I get that the way McCabe was fired stinks. I get that McCabe may well be serving as cover for the Mueller interview.

But neither of those observations changes the fact that one of the most senior FBI executives tried all the tricks a lifetime of pursuing criminals would have familiarized him with, and he still blew it.

And because the FBI relies on false statements charges to conduct its interviews, I think the criminal referral is necessary.

On McCabe’s Firing

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

Michael Horowitz is a very good Inspector General

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump’s comments matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Papadopoulos’ Social Media Call Records Were Not Subpoenaed Until After His Interviews

I’ve been tracking questions about how aggressively (or not) the FBI investigated George Papadopoulos after receiving a tip, in July 2016, that he had heard the Russians bragging about having dirt in the form of emails from Hillary Clinton in April 2016. In this post, I showed that, given that they didn’t know about Ivan Timofeev until after his interviews, they could not even have started pursuing a warrant until after the first interview, at best (and didn’t know about the existence communications over a Section 702 provider with Timofeev until after both). In this post, I suggested that it looked like the FBI first obtained a preservation order for the device GSA had on him on March 9, 21 days after his second interview.

Since then two details have come out. First, this Peter Strzok/Lisa Page SMS text highlighted by Matt Tait suggests that as late as June 6, 2017, the Special Counsel’s office was still debating whether searching Section 702 presented a litigation risk (meaning Trump’s buddies are getting far more protection than the rest of us might be).

Then there’s a point that Eric Swalwell made in Monday’s hearing debating whether or not to reveal the Schiff memo. In response to Michael Turner’s suggestion that there was no evidence of “collusion” between Trump and Russia, Swalwell pointed out that only after the FBI challenged Trump aide claims did the Bureau find evidence to support a conspiracy.

George Papadopoulos I think is the canary in the coal mine. He was interviewed January 27, 2017, by FBI. He lied about his contacts over in London with the professor. He was interviewed again in February, and he lied. Only when the FBI showed the willingness to subpoena his Skype and Facebook logs did he come around 6 months later.

This makes it clear that the FBI had not even obtained call records from Papadopoulos (via an NSL or a subpoena) before the second interview, the standard for which is really low.

Again, this shows that, at least during that phase of the investigation, the FBI was moving very conservatively. The GOP keep complaining that Carter Page, who had been a suspected foreign agent for years, was targeted under FISA. But they’re not acknowledging that the FBI appears to have treated the other Trump aides with kid gloves. for nine months after the period when they obtained a real tip about their involvement.

The Timing of Mark Warner’s PseudoScandal Texts

By now, you’ve heard about Fox News’ scoop that Mark Warner made efforts last year to obtain testimony from two key figures in the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation into Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election via DC fixer Adam Waldman: Christopher Steele and Oleg Deripaska. (In my opinion, the news buried at the bottom of the story that Deripaska agreed to provide testimony if he could get immunity, but did not get it, is far more interesting than the rest of this, but I’m not a Fox News editor.)

“We have so much to discuss u need to be careful but we can help our country,” Warner texted the lobbyist, Adam Waldman, on March 22, 2017.

“I’m in,” Waldman, whose firm has ties to Hillary Clinton, texted back to Warner.

The story also includes this paragraph, which also has gotten less attention.

Warner began texting with Waldman in February 2017 about the possibility of helping to broker a deal with the Justice Department to get the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the United States to potentially face criminal charges. That went nowhere, though a Warner aide told Fox News that the senator shared his previously undisclosed private conversations about WikiLeaks with the FBI.

Interestingly, the Fox story relies on texts that Warner and Richard Burr jointly requested in June (targeting Waldman’s phone, not Warner’s, apparently), and then turned over to the committee in October. I look forward to seeing how the notoriously anti-leak Burr deals with the apparent leak of committee sensitive materials to the right wing press.

Even while the story links to texts from SSCI, it comes a week after a woman duped the famously paranoid Julian Assange into exchanging texts with her fake Sean Hannity account promising news on Mark Warner.

[Dell] Gilliam, a technical writer from Texas, was bored with the flu when she created @SeanHannity__ early Saturday morning. The Fox News host’s real account was temporarily deleted after cryptically tweeting the phrase “Form Submission 1649 | #Hannity” on Friday night. Twitter said the account had been “briefly compromised,” according to a statement provided to The Daily Beast, and was back up on Sunday morning.

[snip]

Just minutes after @SeanHannity disappeared, several accounts quickly sprung up posing as the real Hannity, shouting from Twitter exile. None were as successful as Gilliam’s @SeanHannity__ account, which has since amassed over 24,000 followers.

Gilliam then used her newfound prominence to direct message Assange as Hannity within hours.

“I can’t believe this is happening. I mean… I can. It’s crazy. Nothing can be put past people,” Gilliam, posing as Hannity, wrote to Assange. “I’m exhausted from the whole night. What about you, though? You doing ok?”

“I’m happy as long as there is a fight!” Assange responded.

Gilliam reassured Assange that she, or Hannity, was also “definitely up for a fight” and set up a call for 9:30 a.m. Eastern, about six hours later.

“You can send me messages on other channels,” said Assange, the second reference to “other channels” he made since their conversation began.

“Have some news about Warner.”

With that in mind, I want to look at the timing of some security issues last year.

While the texts turned over to Congress date to February 14, the conversation pertaining to Steele started around March 22. That puts it not long after news of a massive hack involving T-Mobile, first reported March 16.

An unusual amount of highly suspicious cellphone activity in the Washington, D.C., region is fueling concerns that a rogue entity is surveying the communications of numerous individuals, likely including U.S. government officials and foreign diplomats, according to documents viewed by the Washington Free Beacon and conversations with security insiders.

A large spike in suspicious activity on a major U.S. cellular carrier has raised red flags in the Department of Homeland Security and prompted concerns that cellphones in the region are being tracked. Such activity could allow pernicious actors to clone devices and other mobile equipment used by civilians and government insiders, according to information obtained by the Free Beacon.

It remains unclear who is behind the attacks, but the sophistication and amount of time indicates it could be a foreign nation, sources said.

I would hope to hell that former cell company mogul and current Ranking Member on the Senate Intelligence Committee running an important counterintelligence investigation Mark Warner would be aware of the security problems with mobile phones. But what do I know? [Update: Not much. Looking more closely it looks like he was using Signal.] In the last several months we’ve learned that FBI’s investigators discuss the even more sensitive aspects of the more important side of counterintelligence investigation on SMS texts on their Samsung cell phones.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

But who knows what Waldman (who apparently chats a lot with spies, mobbed up Russian oligarchs, and — as Mike Pompeo deemed Wikileaks — non-state hostile intelligence services) knows about cell phone security?

In any case, the day before that was reported publicly, Ron Wyden and Ted Lieu sent a letter to John Kelly (who, as a reminder, in spite of or because he ran DHS for a while, had his own cell phone compromised), stating in part,

We are also concerned that the government has not adequately considered the counterintelligence threat posed by SS7-enabled surveillance.

[snip]

What resources has DHS allocated to identifying and addressing SS7-related threats? Are these resources sufficient to protect U.S. government officials and the private sector.

If the government started considering such issues in March, they might have gotten around to discovering what kinds of problems were created by the T-Mobile hack in June, when Warner and Burr moved to get the texts for SSCI.

In any case, at around that point in time, APT 28 (one of the entities blamed for hacking the DNC the previous year) started a phishing campaign targeting the Senate’s email server.

Beginning in June 2017, phishing sites were set up mimicking the ADFS (Active Directory Federation Services) of the U.S. Senate. By looking at the digital fingerprints of these phishing sites and comparing them with a large data set that spans almost five years, we can uniquely relate them to a couple of Pawn Storm incidents in 2016 and 2017. The real ADFS server of the U.S. Senate is not reachable on the open internet, however phishing of users’ credentials on an ADFS server that is behind a firewall still makes sense. In case an actor already has a foothold in an organization after compromising one user account, credential phishing could help him get closer to high profile users of interest.

Reporting at the time suggested this was an effort in advance of the 2018 election (which aside from minimizing the damage Russia might do in the interim, ignores the fact that staffers are ostensibly prohibited from using Senate resources for election related activities). But it always seemed to me it would more profitably target policy.

Or, maybe the only reasonable work Congress is doing to investigate the Russians?

Whether there’s a connection between these two compromises last year or not, and Julian Assange, and this Mark Warner story, it’s clear that DC remains ill-prepared to address the counterintelligence problems they’re faced with.

The “Insurance” Text Explained: A Debate on How Urgently to Investigation Trump’s Russian Ties

WSJ has the fascinating explanation for Peter Strzok’s August 15, 2016 “insurance” text that Republicans have been spinning into a grand scandal. Effectively, Strzok and Lisa Page were debating about how aggressively FBI should investigate Trump’s Russian ties. Page figured they could do so deliberately, and therefore avoid any risk they’d burn sources, because he wasn’t going to win. Strzok disagreed, arguing they had to investigate more aggressively in case he did win.

The text came after a meeting involving Ms. Page, Mr. Strzok and FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, according to people close to the pair and familiar with their version of events. At the meeting, Ms. Page suggested they could take their time investigating the alleged collusion because Mrs. Clinton was likely to win, the people said.

If they move more deliberately, she argued, they could reduce the risk of burning sensitive sources.

Mr. Strzok felt otherwise, according to these people.

His text was meant to convey his belief that the investigation couldn’t afford to take a more measured approach because Mr. Trump could very well win the election, they said. It would be better to be aggressive and gather evidence quickly, he believed, because some of Mr. Trump’s associates could land administration jobs and it was important to know if they had colluded with Russia.

The investigation is telling for a number of reasons.

First, the comments came after just 7 of the 17 dossier reports — even assuming FBI got two reports dated August 10 immediately. Many of the most inflammatory ones — notably all the ones involving Michael Cohen — came after this. As WSJ notes, the text also comes four days after another Strozk one, dated August 11, exclaiming, “OMG I CANNOT BELIEVE WE ARE SERIOUSLY LOOKING AT THESE ALLEGATIONS AND THE PERVASIVE CONNECTIONS.” That’s probably not the dossier per se. But it may well be Paul Manafort’s burgeoning scandal; Manafort would resign August 19.

I’m also interested in how this plays with the report that Trump was warned Russians — and other countries — would try to infiltrate his campaign. The report is not that newsworthy; this kind of briefing is routine. But I wonder whether it’s coming out because the timing is of interest — perhaps in conjunction with Strzok’s increasing panic. I even wonder whether Strzok participated in the briefing.

All of which is to say that on this matter, Strzok and Page were not in agreement. Indeed, the text is actually a work debate about the tradeoff of guarding sources and methods and the urgency of excluding any compromised figures from joining Trump’s government.

How Does the Strzok Text Dump Differ from Jim Comey’s July 5, 2016 Speech?

I’m a bit bemused by the response to DOJ’s release of the texts between Peter Strzok and Lisa Page. As Rod Rosenstein testified before HJC yesterday, the release came after notice to Strzok and Page through their lawyers. The release of the texts came with the approval of DOJ IG Michael Horowitz — who says the investigation into the underlying conduct may last through spring. And Rosenstein strongly implied he wanted them released, taking responsibility for it (while claiming not to know whether Jeff Sessions had a role in their release).

As he explained to Trey Gowdy — who, like a number of Republicans, claimed to be at a loss of what to say to constituents who asked “what in the hell is going on with DOJ and the FBI” — the release of the texts proves that any wrongdoing will be met with consequences.

Gowdy: What happens when people who are supposed to cure the conflict of interest have even greater conflicts of interests than those they replace? That’s not a rhetorical question. Neither you nor I nor anyone else would ever sit Peter Strzok on a jury, we wouldn’t have him objectively dispassionately investigate anything, knowing what we now know. Why didn’t we know it ahead of time, and my last question, my final question — and I appreciate the Chairman’s patience — how would you help me answer that question when I go back to South Carolina this weekend?

Rosenstein: Congressman, first of all, with regard to the Special Counsel, Mr. Strzok was already working on the investigation when the Special Counsel was appointed. The appointment I made was of Robert Mueller. So what I’d recommend you tell your constituents is that Robert Mueller and Rod Rosenstein and Chris Wray are accountable and that we will ensure that no bias is reflected in any actions taken by the Special Counsel or any matter within the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice. When we have evidence of any inappropriate conduct, we’re going to take action on it. And that’s what Mr. Mueller did here as soon as he learned about this issue — he took action — and that’s what I anticipate the rest of our prosecutors, the new group of US Attorneys, our Justice Department appointees. They understand the rules and they understand the responsibility to defend the integrity of the Department. If they find evidence of improper conduct, they’re going to take action.

So Congressman, that’s the best assurance I can give you. But actually, there’s one other point, which is you should tell your constituents that we exposed this issue because we’re ensuring that the Inspector General conducts a thorough and effective investigation, and if there is any evidence of impropriety, he’s going to surface it and report about it publicly.

I actually think Rosenstein did a much better job than others apparently do, yesterday, at distinguishing between the Strzok texts (which apparently were on DOJ issued cell phones and, in spite of having Hillary investigation subject lines may not have been logged into Sentinel) and the political views of Andrew Weissmann or the past representation of Jeannie Rhee. Furthermore, he repeatedly said he would only fire Mueller for cause, and made it clear there had been no cause. Several times he talked about how closely he has worked with Mueller, such as on the scope of what gets included in his investigation (even while defending the charges against Manafort as appropriately included).

That said, I wonder how Rosenstein distinguishes, in his own mind, what he did in approving the release of the texts from an ongoing investigation and what Jim Comey did on July 5, 2016, when he gave a press conference about why Hillary Clinton had not been charged. While Rosenstein’s biggest complaint in his letter supporting the firing of Comey was that he substituted his decision for that of prosecutors, he also argued that the Department shouldn’t release derogatory information gratuitously.

Compounding the error, the Director ignored another longstanding principle: we do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation. Derogatory information sometimes is disclosed in the course of criminal investigations and prosecutions, but we never release it gratuitously. The Director laid out his version of the facts for the news media as if it were a closing argument, but without a trial. It is a textbook example of what federal prosecutors and agents are taught not to do.

In response to skeptical question at a congressional hearing, the Director defended his remarks by saying that his “goal was to say what is true. What did we do, what did we find, what do we think about it.” But the goal of a federal criminal investigation is not to announce our thoughts at a press conference. The goal is to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to justify a federal criminal prosecution, then allow a federal prosecutor who exercises authority delegated by the Attorney General to make a prosecutorial decision, and then – if prosecution is warranted – let the judge and jury determine the facts. We sometimes release information about closed investigations in appropriate ways, but the FBI does not do it sua sponte.

In some ways this is worse because of the off chance that Inspector General Michael Horowitz finds that these texts don’t merit some kind of response; the investigation is not finished yet.

That said, I actually do think there’s a difference: Strzok and Page are department employees, rather than subjects of an external investigation. DOJ exercises awesome power, and usually DOJ is releasing the texts of private citizens in this kind of embarrassing way.

Even former clearance holders seem surprised that these texts were discovered. It is unbelievable to me how few people understand the great liberty that counterintelligence investigators like Strzok can have in obtaining the communications of investigative targets like he has now become, particularly during leak or insider threat investigations. That may not be a good thing, but it is what other targets have been subjected to. So I think it reasonable to have FBI’s own subject to the same scrutiny, for better and worse.

I do think it worthwhile for DOJ to show that it will hold people accountable for improper actions.

Plus, aside from one August comment — which we may obtain more context on when Horowitz does finish this investigation — about an “insurance” policy against Trump, the texts simply aren’t that damning (though they do raise questions about Strzok’s role in the investigation). Strzok agrees with Rex Tillerson, after all, that Trump is an idiot.

So as far as that goes, I’m actually okay with Rosenstein’s release of these texts.

Except I worry about something else.

I actually worry less about Mueller getting fired than just about every other Trump opponent on the planet. Rosenstein seems intent to let him do his work, and (notably at several times during the hearing) seems to agree with the gravity of the investigation. Trump can’t get to Mueller without taking out Rosenstein (and Rachel Brand). And I actually think Rosenstein has thus far balanced the position of a Republican protecting a Republican from Republican ire fairly well. I expect the next shoes Mueller drops — whenever that happens — will change the tone dramatically.

What bothers me most about the release of these texts, however, is that they are a response to the same pressure that Comey was responding to (and which he thought he was smart enough to manage, just as Rosenstein surely thinks he can handle it here).

They are a response — from the same people who ran the Benghazi investigation then ignored DOJ’s prosecution of the Benghazi mastermind — to a willingness to challenge the very core of DOJ functionality, all in a bid to politicize it.

Perhaps Rosenstein is right to bide his time — to create space for Mueller to drop the next few shoes — with the release of the Strzok texts.

But at some point, Republicans need to start calling out Republicans for the damage they’re doing to rule of law with this constant playing of the refs, this demand for proof that Democrats aren’t getting some advantage through the rule of law. If those next shoes don’t have the effect I imagine, it may be too late.