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Christopher Wray Was Doing Great Until He Accused Chad of Spewing Jihadist Propaganda

In his first House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing today, FBI Director Christopher Wray responded to questions about FBI Agent Peter Strzok by explaining there was an ongoing Inspector General investigation into Strzok’s role in the investigation into Hillary’s treatment of classified information more times (at least 16) than he dodged answers in his confirmation hearing (11).

At that level, it was a typical HJC hearing, as each side spent more time pitching their partisan spin (with Democrats asking a string of questions Wray was unable to answer about Russia) rather than — with a few exceptions — conducting much oversight.

That said, I really appreciated two aspects of Wray’s testimony today. First, with the very notable exception of FISA matters (specifically, any FISA applications tied to Trump’s associates, and whether they derived in any way from the Steele dossier), Wray seemed genuinely willing to accept HJC’s mandate to conduct oversight.

As I’ve already noted, I get that HJC can be full of partisan hacks. But it is also the case that the Executive branch, particularly something as powerful as the FBI, must be subject to the oversight requests of Congress. And under both the Bush and Obama Administrations, FBI and DOJ largely treated their oversight committees with (sometimes deserved, but often undeserved) contempt. Even where Wray was bullshitting members of Congress, such as when he pretended that moving Strzok to human resources wasn’t a demotion, he at least appeared to treat their inquiries with respect.

Perhaps, if it is treated with respect it sometimes doesn’t deserve, HJC will come to become the committee FBI and DOJ need as an oversight body.

The other thing I appreciated — particularly in the wake of Jim Comey’s treatment of everything as a fight between “good guys” and “bad guys” — was Wray’s repeated invocation of the humanness of FBI and its officials. For example, in what must have been a rehearsed response to a question about the reputation of the FBI, Wray said, “Do we make mistakes? You bet we make mistakes. Just like everyone who is human makes mistakes,” before describing how the IG (which is currently investigating Strzok) provides the opportunity to “hold our folks accountable, if that’s appropriate.” Somewhat less convincingly, in response to a question from Cedric Richmond, who cleverly noted that the FBI Headquarters is still named after the architect of COINTELPRO, J Edgar Hoover, Wray again stressed the humanity of FBI. “It’s something we’re not proud of but it is also something we’ve learned from … We’re human, we make mistakes. We have things that we’ve done well. We’ve had things we done badly, and when we’ve done badly we try to learn from them.”

Given FBI’s intransigence on back door searches and Wray’s own evolving understanding of the problems caused by the designation Black Identity Extremist (not to mention what appears to be undeserved self-congratulation about how many — or rather few — open investigation into white supremacist terrorists the FBI has) I’m not convinced the FBI really has learned those lessons. It is still too white and too male of an organization to understand how much it polices some of the same things COINTELPRO did, and with even more intrusive tools.

But I am heartened that the FBI Director, perhaps largely because of the focus on Strzok, publicly recognized that FBI is not always the good guy, contrary to what Comey internalized and evangelized over and over. In discussions with Karen Bass about the BIE designation, too, it sounded like he was at least able to listen, even if he refused to withdraw the intelligence report that created the designation.

That said, Wray made several outright errors that need to be corrected.

The first two, both about Section 702, came in response to questions by Ted Poe (who was one of just a few people to raise Section 702, in spite of the fact that I’ve heard from numerous staffers they can’t get answers about key aspects of how 702 works). First, addressing Poe’s claim that back door searches are abusive, Wray claimed that courts that had considered the querying had found it to be consistent with the Fourth Amendment.

Every court, every  court, to have looked at the way in which Section 702 is handled, including the querying, has concluded that it’s being done consistent with the Fourth Amendment.

As the EFF laid out, that’s not actually true. The Ninth Circuit punted on precisely the issue of back door searches.

When Wray mentions the Ninth Circuit, he is likely referencing a 2016 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. In the opinion for USA v. Mohamed Osman Mohamud, the appeals court ruled that, based on the very specific evidence of the lawsuit, data collected under Section 702 did not violate a U.S. person’s Fourth Amendment rights. But the judge explicitly wrote that this lawsuit did not involve some of the more “complex statutory and constitutional issues” potentially raised by Section 702.

Notably, the judge wrote that the Mohamud case did not involve “the retention and querying of incidentally collected communications.” That’s exactly what we mean when we talk about “backdoor searches.”

Wray is mischaracterizing the court’s opinion. He is wrong.

In addition, Wray claimed that,

The individuals that are incidentally collected — the US person information that is incidentally collected — are people that are in communication with foreigners who are the subject of foreign intelligence investigations, so like an ISIS recruiter, there’s a US person picked up, that person would have been in email contact, for example, with an ISIS recruiter.

While I’m not certain precisely what gets dumped into the FBI database that is queried, it is false to claim that every US person who has information collected would necessarily have been in communication with the target. That’s because PRISM providers are cloud storage providers and NSA gets anything a target stores and then some, and because people email very interesting stuff to each other all the time. That means there’s a whole bunch of other things that might implicate US persons swept up in the PRISM collection that gets shared, in raw form, with the FBI.

I wanted to point to an assumption virtually everyone has been making about PRISM collection and its suitability for back door searches that may not be valid. If you think about the hack-and-leak dumps in recent years, for example, often the most damaging, as well as the most ridiculous infringements on privacy, involve email attachments, such as the list of most Democratic members of Congress’ email many passwords for which were easily obtainable online, or phone conversations about routine housekeeping or illness. And that’s just attachments; most of the PRISM providers are actually cloud storage providers, in addition to being electronic communication providers, and from the very first requests to Yahoo there was mission creep of all the types of things the government might demand.

And while NSA and FBI aren’t supposed to keep stuff that doesn’t count as foreign intelligence or criminal information, it’s clear (from the WaPo report) that NSA, at least, does.

So as we talk about how inappropriate the upstream back door searches were and are because they can search on stuff that’s not foreign intelligence information, we should remember that the very same thing is likely true of back door searches of  the fruits of searches on a person’s cloud storage account.

Plus, while the example of an ISIS recruiter makes for good show, the targets will also include people like Chinese scientists and Russian businessmen, among other things. There are completely innocent reasons — like science!!! — to speak to such targets. And yet if FBI does a back door search on Americans who’ve engaged in such innocent discussions it can and almost certainly has led to innocent people being targeted unfairly.

It bothers me that me — a dirty fucking hippie blogger, though admittedly one who has become (as a Congressional staffer introduced me as earlier this year) as expert on FISA as anyone outside of government — knows these details better than the FBI Director (who, after all, was involved in not providing defendants adequate notice of this stuff during its illegal go-around under Stellar Wind).

But Wray’s biggest error, on a different topic, came later. After first dodging Pramila Jayapal’s questions about whether Trump’s tweets have contributed to the spike of hate crimes this year by suggesting the data was untrustworthy (!!!), Director Wray than answered her question about the Muslim ban this way.

An awful lot of our terror investigations do also involve immigration violations, so there is a close nexus between immigration violations and counterterrorism investigations, and an awful lot of the terrorist investigations we have involve global jihadist rhetoric, which is disproportionately concentrated in certain countries.

One reason terror investigations involve immigration violations is because that’s an easy way to punish someone who hasn’t actually committed any crime (and given that most terrorist attacks are not recent immigrants, sort of beside the point).

But the notion that immigration from Muslim majority countries — like the six included in the current Muslim ban: Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and Chad — is dangerous because global jihadist rhetoric arises from those countries is the height of nonsense. That’s because the most effective recruiter of Americans for almost a decade was a man, Anwar al-Awlaki, who wrote much of his propaganda here or in the UK; while his rhetoric subsequently did get published from Yemen, he’s been dead for 6 years, with far less jihadist rhetoric in English from there. And while Syria, Somalia, and Libya do export hateful rhetoric, so did Iraq and does Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, two countries we haven’t banned. Iran certainly exports a great deal of anti-American rhetoric, but it is not recruiting terrorists here and most of its anti-American actions are legitimate state-based opposition derived from power relations, not religion. And Awlaki is by no means the only producer of anti-American rhetoric in majority Christian countries, including but not limited to the US and UK.

Ultimately, of course, Jayapal was talking about Trump’s Muslim ban, the one that bans elite Venezuelans and North Koreans along with weaker Muslim ones. And while he didn’t go as far as to say that Kim Jong-Un was spewing jihadist rhetoric, that’s the logic here.

But by implication, he was talking about Chad, which in spite of its cooperation on terrorism, got added to the list because Trump is incompetent. To suggest Chad is a propaganda threat and the US and UK are not is the height of folly.

But that’s what the FBI Director claimed today to avoid criticizing Trump’s bigotry.

Update: For some reason I was writing Cedric Richmond’s last name wrong all day today. I’ve corrected my use of “Johnson” instead of “Richmond” here. My apologies to him for my still uncorrected tweets.

Curiouser: The Blindsiding of Sally Yates

Remember back in early May I noted the curious timing of events leading up to former Lt. General Michael Flynn’s departure from the Trump administration and the launch of Trump’s ‘travel ban’?

It looks like former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates was completely blindsided by the travel ban, according to The New Yorker.

Yates told McGahn that she would have the Flynn materials for him by Monday morning. She left the White House, stopped at the Justice Department to pick up some documents, and continued on to the airport. She was returning to Atlanta for a dinner honoring a camp for children with serious illnesses and disabilities, which her husband has supported for years. On the way to the airport, she received a call from her deputy, Matt Axelrod. “You’re not going to believe this, but I just read online that the President has executed this travel ban,” he said.

It was the first Yates had heard of the order. “I had been sitting in Don McGahn’s office an hour before that,” she said. “He didn’t tell me.” She later learned that lawyers in the Office of Legal Counsel, at the Justice Department, had reviewed the order, and that they had been instructed not to share it with her. A source familiar with the process said that even the most senior Trump aide assigned to Yates’s office didn’t know about the order until he saw the news on CNN.

Yates was in the White House meeting with the White House Counsel and the administration couldn’t bother to flag her and tell her, “By the way, we have something new for you to enforce”?

They couldn’t brief her on the order in advance?

The Office of Legal Counsel was  “instructed not to share it with her”?

They couldn’t call her directly and tell her about the order even after they signed and implemented it?

She had to look up the text of the order on the internet and read it. It doesn’t look as if the Trump administration ever bothered to contact Yates directly about the order, yet they expected her and the rest of federal law enforcement to blindly defend it.

Come Monday evening — after she told the Justice Department that afternoon it cannot enforce the travel ban — she was summarily fired. Trump called her “weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration” in her dismissal letter.

Either this administration was (is) completely out of its depth, unable to read organizational charts, understand how to administer operations changes, and muster basic team management skills, relying instead on media across the internet and television to disseminate information about executive orders throughout the executive branch…

Or they wanted to completely derail and swamp Yates from pulling together “underlying evidence” describing Flynn’s conduct for the following Monday morning after she left the White House on Friday evening, January 27.

Nor did they have any intention of successfully rolling out a legitimate ban on travel to thwart credible terrorist threats.

Curiouser and curiouser.

A Modest Proposal: Ban the Interstate Travel of Kansans

It may be that Kansas is actually one of the most dangerous hives of terrorist activity in the US today.

Consider the case of Adam Purinton, who allegedly shot three men on Wednesday night outside of Kansas City, believing two of them — who are actually engineers from India — were Middle Eastern.

Details are emerging of what happened in and around Austins when a man known to some bar staffers became disgruntled in the patio area, spouting racial slurs at two men of Indian descent and then shooting them and another regular who stood up for the two.

At least one witness reportedly heard the suspect yell “get out of my country” shortly before shooting men he reportedly thought were Middle Eastern. Both men, engineers at Garmin, appear to be originally from India.

[snip]

The suspect fled on foot as police descended onto his neighborhood just behind Austins. Purinton eventually left the Kansas City area.

About five hours later, he was having a drink at the Applebee’s at Clinton, Mo., when he told a bartender he needed a place to hide out because he had just killed two Middle Eastern men.

The bartender called police, and he was arrested without incident.

The FBI is investigating whether this is a hate crime, but it falls squarely into the kind of crime that Trump wants to treat as terrorism in order to defend his Muslim ban.

More serious still is the attack that three conspirators on the other side of the state plotted against Somali refugees — a plot the FBI broke up not long before Election Day last year. The men (at least one of whom is a Trump supporter) called themselves the Crusaders. They had already scoped out a mosque, churches that sponsored refugees, and an apartment complex where many Somalis live. They were both trying to make their own bombs, as well as trading drugs with an undercover officer to get help building a fertilizer bomb. They spoke of the Somalis as “cockroaches” and planned to launch a “bloodbath” to take “this country back.”

The only fucking way this country’s ever going to get turned around is it will be a bloodbath and it will be a nasty, messy motherfucker. Unless a lot more people in this country wake up and smell the fucking coffee and decide they want this country back…we might be too late, if they do wake up…I think we can get it done. But it ain’t going to be nothing nice about it.

In 2014, Frazier Glenn Miller killed three people at two Jewish sites near Kansas City. Like Purinton, Miller didn’t succeed in targeting his desired type of victim; all of his victims are Christians. A former Klan member, Miller had also previously conspired with MLK parade terrorist Kevin Harpham.

In 2009, Scott Roeder assassinated abortion provider George Tiller in his church in Wichita, Kansas. Roeder conspired with a network of other anti-abortion terrorists, and he continued to call for violence even after being imprisoned.

In 1994 and 1995, Tim McVeigh and Terry Nichols carried out most of their preparation for the Oklahoma City bombing in Kansas.

Under Trump’s logic, the best way to deal with spiking violence such as we see in Kansas is to wall it off, to prevent it from infecting the rest of the country.

I realize this will create a lot of undue hardship for the people of Kansas. I realize, too, it will prove to be a royal pain in the ass for anyone trying to drive across the vast expanse in the middle of the country, particularly long haul truckers.

But we have to keep our country safe.

So Kansans will have to be cooped up in their violent state, along with the dangerous whackjobs that mean to do them harm, until we can figure this out.

Update: Fixed spelling of Purinton. Thanks to DFDG for reminding me about the Tiller assassination. Thanks to KG for reminding me that McVeigh prepped the Oklahoma City attack in Kansas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Attempting to Justify Trump Muslim Ban, Propaganda Outlet Proves Inanity of Iran, Sudan Inclusion

WaPo did this fact check on Trump senior advisor Stephen Miller’s claim that, “72 individuals, according to the Center for Immigration Studies, have been implicated in terroristic activity in the United States who hail from those seven nations, point one.” It awards his claim three stars, stating,

[U]pon closer examination of the cases on the list, it becomes clear that his statement went too far. In fact, this is pretty thin gruel on which to make sweeping claims about the alleged threat posed to the United States by these seven countries, especially because the allegations often did not concern alleged terrorist acts in the United States.

[snip]

Regardless of the direct or tangential ties that investigators believe each individual may have to terrorist activities, these charges need to be proven in a court of law. Suspected or potential terror links involving these 72 individuals do not confirm Miller’s claim that they were “implicated in terrorist activity.”

Moreover, some people on this list entered the United States — many of them naturalized — decades before they were charged with any of the crimes. That makes Miller’s use of this list to defend Trump’s executive order quite questionable.

There are other methodological problems with the list Miller references that WaPo doesn’t consider. For example, it includes people, like Ahmed Warsame, who got extradited or rendered to the US, so it’s not like their presence in the US can be attributed to visa screening (though there is some concern that the Muslim ban will make it more difficult to extradite and coerce cooperation from similarly situated defendants, thus making it harder to round up threats overseas).

Just as strikingly, the list affirmatively undermines the claim that these seven countries are all a threat. Of the CIS’ list of 72 individuals, just four are from Iran, two from Libya, just one from Sudan. And the claims implicating these people mostly fall apart when you look closer. Most of them arise from the efforts in the early 2000s to prosecute Muslim charities, and several of those cases eventually fell apart, rather spectacularly in a case associated with Al-Haramain. Plus, in at least two cases, these defendants got caught in the middle of America’s changing views on which terrorists it criminalizes and which it partners with.

Sudan

Abdel Azim El-Siddig: CIS claims that El-Siddig was found guilty of conspiracy to fail to register as a foreign agent and was sentenced to 58 months. That’s an error. El-Siddig plead just to conspiracy to violate FARA. He was sentenced to probation and has served that sentence. El-Siddig was largely charged in an effort to coerce his cooperation in prosecuting former Congressman Mark Deli Siljander, who pursued the interests of the Islamic American Relief Agency. Ultimately, even Siljander was only sentenced to a year; it looks like this may have been one of the cases that fell apart based on crummy intelligence.

Libya

Ali Mohamed Bagegni: One of the Libyans listed is Ali Mohamed Bagegni, who was on the board of IARA and got wrapped up in the case against Siljander. He served 6 months of probation.

Emadeddin Muntasser: Muntasser was convicted in another charity case — for lying to get tax exempt status for Care International and also for lying about having met Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who has gone on and off America’s list of favored terrorists for twenty years now. Judge Dennis Saylor overturned the tax charge, finding it was not supported by the facts presented. The First Circuit reinstated guilty verdicts on tax charges, but Saylor just sentenced him to time served.

Iran

Siavosh Henareh: As WaPo notes, one of the Iranians listed is Siavosh Henareh. He was busted for conspiracy to import heroin that others allegedly were going to use to raise money for Hezbollah. But he was not charged with any ties to terrorism.

Pete Seda (Pirouz Sedaghaty): Seda’s case is a particularly problematic charity case, as we know the government illegally spied on him under Stellar Wind (though they probably did with all the other charity defendants as well). Ultimately, though, the charge that he tried to funnel money to Chechen fighters was overturned by the 9th Circuit, and he pled guilty to tax fraud. The case fell apart in part because the government had to pay off witnesses to implicate him and withheld other information. See this post for more details about how HSBC got off for a far bigger scale of crime associated with this case.

Zeinab Taleb-Jedi: Taleb-Jedi was prosecuted in 2006 for material support for MEK, the anti-Iranian group that a good chunk of DC has also materially supported, including Howard Dean, Elaine Chao, John Bolton, Fran Townsend, and Newt Gingrich, a group which had been a big source of often flimsy intelligence on Iran.  She stalled out that prosecution and in 2009 ultimately pled guilty to violating an executive order. Shewas sentenced to time served.

Manssor Arbabsiar: I’ve written about the Scary Iran Plot extensively (for example here, here, here, here). It is the one case where someone really was convicted of plotting an attack in the United States — in this case, to assassinate then Saudi Ambassador to the US Adel al-Jubeir. Arbabsiar plead guilty to the charges, so there’s no doubt he did act on his Revolutionary Guard cousin’s orders to find someone to kill the Saudi Ambassador. But most of the details about the plot — Arbabsiar’s likely prior role as an informant and his efforts to resume that role, DEA’s great craft in making the plot as scary as possible (even targeting a restaurant favored by Senators), the circumstances surrounding Arbabsiar’s interrogation and mental competence, and even hints that the cousin may have been a mole for another government — raise questions about how serious Iran was about actually conducting this attack.

In short, just one of these cases can really be construed as an attempted attack, and that was pretty remarkable for the fiction and other handiwork the DEA went into in making it a spectacular bust.

Don’t get me wrong. The overall list is bullshit too. If you look at CIS’ numbers, you see that most represented community, Somalia, also happens to be the one that has for years partnered closely with the FBI to alert them to concerns about radicalization. That basically means Trump’s Muslim ban punishes that community for affirmatively working to prevent terrorism.

But CIS’ efforts to pretend that Iran, Sudan, and Libya make sense here fall even further flat.

On Sally Yates’ Stand and the Session’s Nomination

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

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

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

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

[snip]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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