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As Richard Burr Rushes to Release Volume Five of SSCI’s Russian Investigation, the FBI Closes In

Update: As I was posting this, reports that Burr is stepping down as Chair of SSCI came out.

The LAT has a big scoop revealing that the FBI seized Richard Burr’s cell phone yesterday, having gotten a probable cause warrant incorporating information they obtained via a search of his iCloud.

Federal agents seized a cellphone belonging to a prominent Republican senator on Wednesday night as part of the Justice Department’s investigation into controversial stock trades he made as the novel coronavirus first struck the U.S., a law enforcement official said.

[snip]

Such a warrant being served on a sitting U.S. senator would require approval from the highest ranks of the Justice Department and is a step that would not be taken lightly. Kerri Kupec, a Justice Department spokeswoman, declined to comment.

A second law enforcement official said FBI agents served a warrant in recent days on Apple to obtain information from Burr’s iCloud account and said agents used data obtained from the California-based company as part of the evidence used to obtain the warrant for the senator’s phone.

[snip]

The same day Burr sold his stocks, Burr’s brother-in-law, Gerald Fauth, sold between $97,000 and $280,000 worth of six stocks, according to documents filed with the Office of Government Ethics. Fauth serves on the National Mediation Board, which provides mediation for labor disputes in the aviation and rail industries.

Burr has denied coordinating trading with his brother-in-law.

Given the progression from an iCloud warrant to the warrant for the cell phone, it’s likely the FBI is seeking out texts between Burr and his brother-in-law around the time of the stock sales. (The FBI often access iCloud to find out what apps someone has accessed, obtains a pen register to identify communications of interest using that app, then seizes the phone to get those encrypted communications.)

The public evidence again Burr is quite damning, so there’s no question that this is a properly predicated investigation.

Still, coming from a DOJ that has gone to great lengths to protect other looting (and has not taken similar public steps against Kelly Loeffler), the move does raise questions.

Particularly given the focus that Richard Burr gave, during the John Ratcliffe confirmation hearing, to getting the final volume of the SSCI Report on 2016 declassified and released by August.

Richard Burr: Congressman, over the course of the last three years this committee has issued four reports about Russia’s meddling in our elections covering Russia’s intrusions into state election systems, their use of social media to attempt to influence the election, and. most recently confirming the findings of the 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment. While being mindful of the fact that we’re, um, in an unclassified setting, what are your views on Russia’s meddling in our elections?

John Ratcliffe: Chairman, my views are that Russia meddled or interfered with Active Measures in 2016, they interfered in 2018, they will attempt to do so in 2018 [sic]. They have a goal of sowing discord, and they have been successful in sowing discord. Fortunately, based on the work–the good work of this committee, we know that they may have been successful in that regard but they have not been successful in changing votes or the outcome of any election. The Intelligence Community, as you know, plays a vital role on insuring we have safe, secure, and credible elections and that every vote cast by every American is done so properly and counted properly.

Burr: Will you commit to bringing information about threats to the election infrastructure and about foreign governments’ efforts to influence to Congress so we’re fully and currently informed?

Ratcliffe: I will.

Burr; Will you commit to testify at this committee’s annual worldwide threats hearing?

Ratcliffe: I will.

Burr: And last question, over the last three years we have issued four reports. Number five is finished. Number five will go for declassification. Do we have your commitment as DNI that you would expeditiously go through the declassification process?

Ratcliffe: You do.

Burr: Senator Warner.

Mark Warner: Thank you Mr. Chairman. You actually took some of my questions.

Burr: My eyesight is good.

Warner: Mr. Ratcliffe, good to see you again and I appreciated our time, um, um, last Friday. I want to follow-up on a couple of the Chairman’s questions first. As we discussed, we’re … Volume Five, and so far our first four volumes have all been unanimous. Or maybe with the exception of one dissenting vote. If we get this document to the ODNI we need your commitment not only that we do it expeditiously, but as much as possible to get that Volume Five reviewed, redacted, and released, ideally before the August, the August recess. Now, I know you’ve not seen the report yet. All I would ask is, aspirationally that you commit to that goal, because I think as we discussed, to have a document that could be [big pause] potentially significant come out in the midst of a presidential campaign isn’t good or fair on either side. So if I could clarify a bit, recognizing that you’ve not seen the document is a thousand pages, that you’d try to get this cleared prior to August.

Ratcliffe: Vice Chairman, I would again, commit that I would work with you to get that as expeditiously as possible.

During the 2018 election, Burr had — at a time when the committee assuredly did not have the ability to rule it out — twice said there was no evidence of “collusion.” Burr has made no such claims recently.

Even just the Roger Stone disclosures from his trial make it clear “collusion” happened, and that’s ignoring the ongoing Foreign Agent investigation involving Stone. And the Intelligence Committees have been briefed on the existence of — and possibly some details about — either that or other ongoing investigations.

If Richard Burr is prepping to reverse his prior public comments about “collusion,” it might explain why the Bill Barr DOJ, which has stopped hiding that it is an instrument used to enforce political loyalty to Trump, would more aggressively investigate Burr than others.

Again, there’s no question that this is a properly predicated investigation. But in the Barr DOJ, properly predicated investigations about political allies of Trump all get quashed. This one has, instead, been aggressively and overtly pursued.

Ric Grenell Declassified George Papadopoulos’ Brags about Fucking Older Women, but Not about Befriending Sergey Millian

In the name of exposing “FISA abuse,” Lindsey Graham got Ric Grenell to declassify details of George Papadopoulos bragging about fucking a woman who was 42.

CT: I was banging a 42-year-old. That’s the oldest I ever went. And she was the best sex I ever had in my life.

CHS: You know you can’t, uh, knock down them…

CT: But 42, that’s like borderline old, you know.

But Grenell left what DOJ IG treated as a reference to Sergey Millian living in Brooklyn classified (see page 66).

Grenell did so even though this reference to “Sergey” has already been formally declassified, for the DOJ IG Report (though I would argue that in places DOJ IG’s transcriptions are not always fair descriptions of what the transcripts show).

Papadopoulos did not say much about Russia during the first conversation with Source 3, other than to mention a “friend Sergey … [who] lives in … Brooklyn,” and invite Source 3 to travel with Papadopoulos to Russia in the summertime.

Perhaps this just stems from bureaucratic incompetence. But the Trump Administration made a fairly aggressive decision to declassify details about Sergey Millian for the DOJ IG Report because it served their narrative about Christopher Steele. But when it came time to claim–abundant evidence in the transcripts to the contrary–that George Papadopoulos wasn’t an obvious subject for a counterintelligence investigation, the Trump Administration treated one of the most damning details as classified.

This matters, because the frothy right has been ginning up a scandal over the delayed release of the House Intelligence transcripts, and the fact that, having been told everything is ready, Adam Schiff is taking a few days to review what Grenell has done to ensure the integrity of the redactions. They’re doing so even as both Mark Warner and Richard Burr spent the beginning of John Ratcliffe’s confirmation making sure the declassification of their report on the Russian operation would be quick and non-partisan.

But we’ve already got hints that Grenell is politicizing the declassification process. In a 90-page transcript, he redacted the detail that most undermined the frothy right narrative.

After Years of Squealing about “FISA Abuse,” Trump’s DNI Nominee Won’t Rule Out Warrantless Wiretapping

As I noted earlier, in his confirmation hearing to be Director of National Intelligence, John Ratcliffe made it crystal clear he will lie to protect Trump by stating that he believed Trump has always accurately conveyed the threat of COVID-19.

Ratcliffe made some other alarming comments. For example:

  • He repeatedly said that Russia had not changed any votes in 2016. The Intelligence Community did not review that issue and Ratcliffe has no basis to make that claim.
  • Ratcliffe also repeatedly refused to back SSCI’s unanimous conclusion that Russia intervened to help Trump.
  • He dodged when Warner asked him to promise to brief the committee even if Russia were trying to help Trump.
  • When asked whether he supported Inspectors General, Ratcliffe said that he supported Michael Horowitz when others attacked him but then suggested he disagreed with Horowitz’ “opinion,” making it clear he does not accept Horowitz’ conclusions that he found no evidence that bias affected the investigation into Trump’s flunkies.
  • Ratcliffe claimed he didn’t have enough information to address Michael Atkinson’s firing.
  • When Dianne Feinstein read his quotes about the Ukraine whistleblower to him, Ratcliffe pretended those quotes were about something they weren’t.
  • He might not provide intelligence on COVID-19 that showed how Trump blew it off.
  • He suggested that if only the IC had reviewed open source data, they might have warned of the dangers of COVID-19, which they did warn of using both OSINT and classified intelligence.
  • He refused to answer whether he thought there was a Deep State in the IC, and later suggested a few members of the IC were Deep State.
  • Ratcliffe refused to agree to release a report showing that Mohammed bin Salman had Jamal Khashoggi executed and chopped into bits, as required by last year’s Defense Authorization. He suggested that it might have been properly classified; as DNI, he would be the Original Classification Authority to make that decision.
  • He refused to answer clearly on whether Trump’s policies on North Korea and Iran have worked.
  • He later suggested he might not share intelligence if it were too sensitive, again ignoring that as OCA he gets to decide whether it’s really classified.
  • After saying he would appear for a Global Threats hearing, he then dodged when later asked whether he would appear before the committee generally.

Ratcliffe made several comments to make it clear he would side with expansive Unitary Executive interpretations holding that:

  • There are limits to whistleblower protection.
  • If torture were deemed legal it would okay to do it.
  • The executive can use warrantless wiretapping.

There were a few additional hints about stuff going on right now:

  • Mark Warner said that intelligence professionals have been pressured to limit information they share with Congress.
  • Warner also said that Ric Grenell was undermining the IC’s election security group.
  • Both Warner and Richard Burr seemed concerned that the DNI would not declassify their 1000-page Volume V of their Report on Russia’s 2016 election interference (I’m not sure whether this assess the Steele dossier or lays out whether and how Trump “colluded” during 2016).
  • Martin Heinrich made it clear that Grenell is reorganizing the IC, without any consultation or approval from Congress.

It’s not just unqualified, he’s a sycophant. But it seems like there’s so much that Grenell is already screwing up, Republicans on the committee, at least, prefer Ratcliffe.

Update: Here are Ratcliffe’s Questions for the Record. They’re particularly troubling on sharing with Congress.

He twice refused to say that he wouldn’t impose loyalty tests.

QUESTION 39: Personnel decisions can affect analytic integrity and objectivity. A. Would you consider an individual’s personal political preferences, to include “loyalty” to the President, in making a decision to hire, fire, or promote an individual?

Answer: Personnel decisions should be based on qualifications, skills, merit, and other standards which demonstrate the ability, dedication and integrity required to support the central IC mission of providing unvarnished intelligence to policymakers.

B. Do you commit to exclusively consider professional qualifications in IC personnel decisions, without consideration of partisan or political factors?

Answer: Personnel decisions should be based on qualifications, skills, merit, and other standards that demonstrate the ability, dedication and integrity required to support the central IC mission of providing unvarnished intelligence to policymakers.

He refused to promise to keep the Election Threats Executive Office open.

QUESTION 45: Would you commit to keep the Election Threats Executive Office in place to ensure continuity of efforts, and build on the successes of the 2018 midterms?

Answer: If confirmed, I will work with IC leaders and ODNI officials to ensure the IC is well-positioned to address the election security threats facing our Nation.

He refused to promise to notify Congress if Russia starts helping Trump again.

QUESTION 53: Do you commit to immediately notifying policymakers and the public of Russian attempts to meddle in U.S. democratic processes, to include our elections?

Answer: If confirmed, I would work with the Committee to accommodate its legitimate oversight needs while safeguarding the confidentiality interests of the Executive Branch, including the protection from unauthorized disclosure of classified intelligence sources and methods

He suggested he had no problem with Section 215 being used to access someone’s browsing records.

QUESTION 7: Do you believe that Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act should be used to collect Americans’ web browsing and internet search history? If yes, do you believe there are or should be any limitations to “digital tracking” of Americans without a warrant, in terms of length of time, the amount of information collected, or the nature of the information collected (e.g., whether particular kinds of websites raise special privacy concerns)?

Answer: I believe it is important for the Intelligence Community to use its authorities appropriately against valid intelligence targets. The amendments to Title V of FISA made by Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act expired on March 15, 2020 and, to date, have not been reauthorized.

Ratcliffe dodged several questions about whether FISA was exclusive means to collect

Extra-Statutory Collection

QUESTION 9: Title 50, section 1812 provides for exclusive means by which electronic surveillance and interception of certain communications may be conducted. Do you agree that this provision of law is binding on the President?

Answer: If confirmed, I would work with the Attorney General to ensure that IC activities are carried out in accordance with the Constitution and applicable federal law.

QUESTION 10: Do you believe that the intelligence surveillance and collection activities covered by FISA can be conducted outside the FISA framework? If yes, please specify which intelligence surveillance and collection activities, the limits (if any) on extra-statutory collection activities, and the legal authorities you believe would authorize those activities.

Answer: If confirmed, I would work with the Attorney General and the heads of IC elements, as well as the General Counsels throughout the IC, to ensure that intelligence activities are conducted in accordance with the Constitution and applicable federal law. As set forth in Section 112 of FISA, with limited exceptions, FISA constitutes the exclusive statutory means by which electronic surveillance, as defined in FISA, and the interception of domestic wire, oral, or electric communications for foreign intelligence purposes may be conducted.

QUESTION 11: What would you do if the IC was requested or directed to conduct such collection activities outside the FISA framework? Would you notify the full congressional intelligence activities?

Answer: Consistent with the requirements of the National Security Act, I would keep the congressional intelligence committees informed of the intelligence activities of the United States, including any illegal intelligence activities. As you know, not all intelligence activities are governed by FISA.

If confirmed, I would work with the Attorney General and the heads of IC elements, as well as the General Counsels throughout the IC, to ensure that intelligence activities are conducted in accordance with the Constitution and applicable federal law.

Senator Wyden asked a question about the IC purchasing stuff they otherwise would need a warrant for.

QUESTION 12: Do you believe the IC can purchase information related to U.S. persons if the compelled production of that information would be covered by FISA? If yes, what rules and guidelines would apply to the type and quantity of the information purchased and to the use, retention and dissemination of that information? Should the congressional intelligence committees be briefed on any such collection activities?

Answer: Elements of the IC are authorized to collect, retain, or disseminate information concerning U.S. persons only in accordance with procedures approved by the Attorney General. As you know, not all intelligence activities are governed by FISA, and it is my understanding that in appropriate circumstances elements of the IC may lawfully purchase information from the private sector in furtherance of their authorized missions. Nonetheless, any intelligence activity not governed by FISA would be regulated by the Attorney General-approved procedures that govern the intelligence activities of that IC element. Consistent with the requirements of the National Security Act, if confirmed, I would keep the congressional intelligence committees informed of the intelligence activities of the United States.

 

Chuck Grassley and His Two Republican Friends

After spending several days hemming and hawing about it, Chuck Grassley has sent a letter to President Trump, asking that he “provide more detailed reasoning for the removal of Inspector General Atkinson no later than April 13, 2020.”

The letter cites the basis for which Congress can make such demands: Inspector Generals work for both Congress and the Executive.

Further, the IC IG and indeed all inspectors general (IG) are designed to fulfill a dual role, reporting to both the President and Congress, to secure efficient, robust, and independent agency oversight. To ensure inspectors general are fully capable of performing their critical duties, and in recognition of their importance both to efficient administration and to the legislative function, Congress set clear, statutory notice requirements for their potential removal.

And it lays out how Trump’s move — not just putting Michael Atkinson on 30-day administrative leave (something Obama did , but also naming Thomas Monheim as Atkinson’s replacement immediately, something without precedent that Adam Schiff also raised concerns about.

Further, according to public reports, Mr. Atkinson already was placed on administrative leave, effectively removing him from his position prior to the completion of the statutorily required notice period.

[snip]

Please also provide your views on how the appointment of an acting official prior to the end of the 30 day notice period comports with statutory requirements.

The letter is precisely the kind of Congressional pushback on a removal that laws governing the appointments of Inspectors General envision. This is not just a show; Grassley has a long history of caring deeply about this stuff (and twice defended Schiff’s efforts to keep the identity of the Ukraine whistleblower secret).

The problem with his letter is this:

Just two of the Senators who co-signed this letter, Susan Collins and Mitt Romney, are Republicans (Gary Peters, ranking member on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, also signed). Grassley unsurprisingly didn’t get the hackish Ron Johnson, who as the Chair of HGSAC should make a pretense of giving a damn about oversight, to sign on. He didn’t get the Senator with the biggest role in overseeing the ICIG, Senate Intelligence Chair Richard Burr, to sign on (though Mark Warner is Ranking Member on the committee). And he didn’t get any of the other Senators — like Lisa Murkowski or Lamar Alexander — who purportedly considered voting for impeachment to sign on.

And that means, without enough Republicans to be able to threaten that a majority of the Senate would back an effort to enforce this request, Trump can and might well just blow this request off.

Like All Else, Trump’s Inspector General Turnover Is about Pandemic

Update: I’m republishing this and bumping it, because Trump just replaced Glenn Fine as Acting Inspector General — whom Michael Horowitz had named to head the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee — with the IG for EPA. This makes him ineligible to head PRAC. Fine will remain Principle Deputy IG. 

Late last night, President Trump fired the Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson, the Inspector General who alerted Congress of the whistleblower complaint that led to Trump’s impeachment. Trump effectively put Atkinson on administrative leave for 30 days in a move that skirts the legal requirement that an inspector general be fired for cause and Congress be notified of it.

Trump has been accused of firing Atkinson late at night on a Friday under cover of the pandemic to retaliate for the role Atkinson had — which consisted of nothing more than doing his job as carefully laid out by law — in Trump’s impeachment. It no doubt is.

But it’s also likely about the pandemic and Trump’s proactive attempts to avoid any accountability for his failures in both the pandemic response and the reconstruction from it.

There were a lot of pandemic warnings Trump ignored that he wants to avoid becoming public

I say that, first of all, because of the likelihood that Trump will need to cover up what intelligence he received, alerting him to the severity of the coming pandemic. Trump’s administration was warned by the intelligence community no later than January 3, and a month later, that’s what a majority of Trump’s intelligence briefings consisted of. But Trump didn’t want to talk about it, in part because he didn’t believe the intelligence he was getting.

At a White House briefing Friday, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said officials had been alerted to the initial reports of the virus by discussions that the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had with Chinese colleagues on Jan. 3.

The warnings from U.S. intelligence agencies increased in volume toward the end of January and into early February, said officials familiar with the reports. By then, a majority of the intelligence reporting included in daily briefing papers and digests from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the CIA was about covid-19, said officials who have read the reports.

[snip]

Inside the White House, Trump’s advisers struggled to get him to take the virus seriously, according to multiple officials with knowledge of meetings among those advisers and with the president.

Azar couldn’t get through to Trump to speak with him about the virus until Jan. 18, according to two senior administration officials. When he reached Trump by phone, the president interjected to ask about vaping and when flavored vaping products would be back on the market, the senior administration officials said.

On Jan. 27, White House aides huddled with then-acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney in his office, trying to get senior officials to pay more attention to the virus, according to people briefed on the meeting. Joe Grogan, the head of the White House Domestic Policy Council, argued that the administration needed to take the virus seriously or it could cost the president his reelection, and that dealing with the virus was likely to dominate life in the United States for many months.

Mulvaney then began convening more regular meetings. In early briefings, however, officials said Trump was dismissive because he did not believe that the virus had spread widely throughout the United States.

In that same period, Trump was demanding Department of Health and Human Service Secretary Alex Azar treat coronavirus briefings as classified.

The officials said that dozens of classified discussions about such topics as the scope of infections, quarantines and travel restrictions have been held since mid-January in a high-security meeting room at the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), a key player in the fight against the coronavirus.

Staffers without security clearances, including government experts, were excluded from the interagency meetings, which included video conference calls, the sources said.

“We had some very critical people who did not have security clearances who could not go,” one official said. “These should not be classified meetings. It was unnecessary.”

The sources said the National Security Council (NSC), which advises the president on security issues, ordered the classification.”This came directly from the White House,” one official said.

Now, it could be that this information was legitimately classified. But if so, it means Trump had even more — and higher quality — warning of the impending pandemic than we know. If not, then it was an abuse of the classification process in an attempt to avoid having to deal with it. Either one of those possibilities further condemns Trump’s response.

Also in this same period, then Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire was asking not to hold a public Worldwide Threats hearing because doing so would amount to publicly reporting on facts that the President was in denial about.

The U.S. intelligence community is trying to persuade House and Senate lawmakers to drop the public portion of an annual briefing on the globe’s greatest security threats — a move compelled by last year’s session that provoked an angry outburst from President Donald Trump, multiple sources told POLITICO.

Officials from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, on behalf of the larger clandestine community, don’t want agency chiefs to be seen on-camera as disagreeing with the president on big issues such as Iran, Russia or North Korea, according to three people familiar with preliminary negotiations over what’s known as the Worldwide Threats hearing.

The request, which is unlikely to be approved, has been made through initial, informal conversations at the staff level between Capitol Hill and the clandestine community, the people said.

Not only did that hearing never happened, but neither has a report been released.

Among the things then Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats warned of in last year’s hearing was the threat of a pandemic.

We assess that the United States and the world will remain vulnerable to the next flu pandemic or large-scale outbreak of a contagious disease that could lead to massive rates of death and disability, severely affect the world economy, strain international resources, and increase calls on the United States for support. Although the international community has made tenuous improvements to global health security, these gains may be inadequate to address the challenge of what we anticipate will be more frequent outbreaks of infectious diseases because of rapid unplanned urbanization, prolonged humanitarian crises, human incursion into previously unsettled land, expansion of international travel and trade, and regional climate change.

So to some degree, Trump has to make sure there’s no accountability in the intelligence community because if there is, his failure to prepare for the pandemic will become all the more obvious.

Richard Burr is incapable of defending the Intelligence Community right now

But it’s also the case that the pandemic — and the treatment of early warnings about it — may have created an opportunity to retaliate against Atkinson when he might not have otherwise been able to. Even beyond offering cover under the distraction of thousands of preventable deaths, the pandemic, and Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr’s success at profiting off it, means that the only Republican who might have pushed back against this action is stymied.

On Sunday, multiple outlets reported that DOJ is investigating a series of stock trades before most people understood how bad the pandemic would be. Burr is represented by former Criminal Division head Alice Fisher — certainly the kind of lawyer whose connections and past white collar work would come in handy for someone trying to get away with corruption.

The Justice Department has started to probe a series of stock transactions made by lawmakers ahead of the sharp market downturn stemming from the spread of coronavirus, according to two people familiar with the matter.

The inquiry, which is still in its early stages and being done in coordination with the Securities and Exchange Commission, has so far included outreach from the FBI to at least one lawmaker, Sen. Richard Burr, seeking information about the trades, according to one of the sources.

[snip]

Burr, the North Carolina Republican who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, has previously said that he relied only on public news reports as he decided to sell between $628,000 and $1.7 million in stocks on February 13. Earlier this month, he asked the Senate Ethics Committee to review the trades given “the assumption many could make in hindsight,” he said at the time.

There’s no indication that any of the sales, including Burr’s, broke any laws or ran afoul of Senate rules. But the sales have come under fire after senators received closed-door briefings about the virus over the past several weeks — before the market began trending downward. It is routine for the FBI and SEC to review stock trades when there is public question about their propriety.

In a statement Sunday to CNN, Alice Fisher, a lawyer for Burr, said that the senator “welcomes a thorough review of the facts in this matter, which will establish that his actions were appropriate.”

“The law is clear that any American — including a Senator — may participate in the stock market based on public information, as Senator Burr did. When this issue arose, Senator Burr immediately asked the Senate Ethics Committee to conduct a complete review, and he will cooperate with that review as well as any other appropriate inquiry,” said Fisher, who led the Justice Department’s criminal division under former President George W. Bush.

In spite of Fisher’s bravado, Burr is by far the most legally vulnerable of the senators who dumped a lot of stock in the period. That’s partly because he had access to two streams of non-public reporting on the crisis, the most classified on SSCI (which Senator Feinstein also would have had), but also on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee. And unlike the other senators, Burr admitted that he made these trades himself.

Again, in spite of Fisher’s claims, Burr will be forced to affirmatively show that he didn’t rely on this non-public information when dumping an inordinate amount of stock.

All of which is to say that Burr may be hoping that Fisher can talk him out of any legal exposure, which will require placating the thoroughly corrupt Bill Barr.

I had already thought that Trump might use this leverage to influence the findings or timing of the remaining parts of SSCI’s Russian investigation. That’s all the more true of Atkinson’s firing. Thus far, Burr has remained silent on what is obviously a legally inappropriate firing.

Even as he fired Atkinson, Trump undermined any oversight of his pandemic recovery efforts

A week before firing Atkinson, Trump made it clear he had no intention of being bound by Inspectors General in his signing statement for the “CARES Act” recovery bill. In addition to stating that Steve Mnuchin could reallocate spending without prior notice to Congress (as required by the bill and the Constitution), Trump also undercut both oversight mechanisms in the law. He did so by suggesting that the Chairperson of Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (who is DOJ’s Inspector General Michael Horowitz) should not be required to consult with Congress about who he should make Director and Deputy Director of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee.

Section 15010(c)(3)(B) of Division B of the Act purports to require the Chairperson of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency to consult with members of the Congress regarding the selection of the Executive Director and Deputy Executive Director for the newly formed Pandemic Response Accountability Committee. The Committee is an executive branch entity charged with conducting and coordinating oversight of the Federal Government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. I anticipate that the Chairperson will be able to consult with members of the Congress with respect to these hiring decisions and will welcome their input. But a requirement to consult with the Congress regarding executive decision-making, including with respect to the President’s Article II authority to oversee executive branch operations, violates the separation of powers by intruding upon the President’s power and duty to supervise the staffing of the executive branch under Article II, section 1 (vesting the President with the “executive Power”) and Article II, section 3 (instructing the President to “take Care” that the laws are faithfully executed). Accordingly, my Administration will treat this provision as hortatory but not mandatory.

On Monday, Horowitz named DOD Acting Inspector General Glenn Fine Director of PRAC.

In appointing Mr. Fine to Chair the PRAC, Mr. Horowitz stated, “Mr. Fine is uniquely qualified to lead the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, given his more than 15 years of experience as an Inspector General overseeing large organizations — 11 years as the Department of Justice Inspector General and the last 4 years performing the duties of the Department of Defense Inspector General. The Inspector General Community recognizes the need for transparency surrounding, and strong and effective independent oversight of, the federal government’s spending in response to this public health crisis. Through our individual offices, as well as through CIGIE and the Committee led by Mr. Fine, the Inspectors General will carry out this critical mission on behalf of American taxpayers, families, businesses, patients, and health care providers.”

Last night, however, after years of leaving DOD’s IG position vacant, Trump nominated someone who has never managed the an office like DOD’s Inspector General, which oversees a budget larger than that of many nation-states, and who is currently at the hyper-politicized Customs and Border Patrol.

Jason Abend of Virginia, to be Inspector General, Department of Defense.

Mr. Abend currently serves as Senior Policy Advisor, United States Customs and Border Protection.

Prior to his current role, Mr. Abend served in the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s Office of Inspector General as a Special Agent. Before that, he served as a Special Agent in the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Inspector General, where he led a team investigating complex Federal Housing Administration mortgage and reverse mortgage fraud, civil fraud, public housing assistance fraud, and internal agency personnel cases.

Mr. Abend was also the Founder and CEO of the Public Safety Media Group, LLC, a professional services firm that provided strategic and operational human resources consulting, training, and advertising to Federal, State, and local public safety agencies, the United States Military, and Intelligence agencies.

Earlier in his career, Mr. Abend worked as a Special Agent at the United States Secret Service and as an Intelligence Research Specialist at the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Mr. Abend received his bachelor’s degree from American University and has received master’s degrees from both American University and George Washington University.

Abend seems totally unqualified for the DOD job alone, but if he is confirmed, he would also make Fine ineligible to head PRAC.

Horowitz issued a statement on Atkinson’s firing today that emphasized that Atkinson had acted appropriately with the Ukraine investigation, as well as his intent to conduct rigorous oversight, including — perhaps especially — PRAC.

Inspector General Atkinson is known throughout the Inspector General community for his integrity, professionalism, and commitment to the rule of law and independent oversight. That includes his actions in handling the Ukraine whistleblower complaint, which the then Acting Director of National Intelligence stated in congressional testimony was done “by the book” and consistent with the law. The Inspector General Community will continue to conduct aggressive, independent oversight of the agencies that we oversee. This includes CIGIE’s Pandemic Response Accountability Committee and its efforts on behalf of American taxpayers, families, businesses, patients, and health care providers to ensure that over $2 trillion dollars in emergency federal spending is being used consistently with the law’s mandate.

Also in last week’s signing statement, Trump said he would not permit an Inspector General appointed to oversee the financial side of the recovery to report to Congress when Treasury refuses to share information.

Section 4018 of Division A of the Act establishes a new Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery (SIGPR) within the Department of the Treasury to manage audits and investigations of loans and investments made by the Secretary of the Treasury under the Act. Section 4018(e)(4)(B) of the Act authorizes the SIGPR to request information from other government agencies and requires the SIGPR to report to the Congress “without delay” any refusal of such a request that “in the judgment of the Special Inspector General” is unreasonable. I do not understand, and my Administration will not treat, this provision as permitting the SIGPR to issue reports to the Congress without the presidential supervision required by the Take Care Clause, Article II, section 3.

That may not matter now, because Trump just nominated one of the lawyers who just helped him navigate impeachment for that SIGPR role.

Brian D. Miller of Virginia, to be Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery, Department of the Treasury.

Mr. Miller currently serves as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Associate Counsel in the Office of White House Counsel. Prior to his current role, Mr. Miller served as an independent corporate monitor and an expert witness. He also practiced law in the areas of ethics and compliance, government contracts, internal investigations, white collar, and suspension and debarment. Mr. Miller has successfully represented clients in government investigations and audits, suspension and debarment proceedings, False Claims Act, and criminal cases.

Mr. Miller served as the Senate-confirmed Inspector General for the General Services Administration for nearly a decade, where he led more than 300 auditors, special agents, attorneys, and support staff in conducting nationwide audits and investigations. As Inspector General, Mr. Miller reported on fraud, waste, and abuse, most notably with respect to excesses at a GSA conference in Las Vegas.

Mr. Miller also served in high-level positions within the Department of Justice, including as Senior Counsel to the Deputy Attorney General and as Special Counsel on Healthcare Fraud. He also served as an Assistant United States Attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia, where he handled civil fraud, False Claims Act, criminal, and appellate cases.

Mr. Miller received his bachelor’s degree from Temple University, his juris doctorate from the University of Texas, and his Master of Arts from Westminster Theological Seminary.

To be fair, unlike Abend, Miller is absolutely qualified for the SIGPR position (which means he’ll be harder to block in the Senate). But by picking someone who has already demonstrated his willingness to put loyalty ahead of the Constitution, Trump has provided Mnuchin one more assurance that he can loot the bailout with almost no oversight.

Three Things: Racist Redirects as GOP Clings to Its Brand

[Check the byline, thanks!/~Rayne]

No news on the family front with regard to COVID-19 — at least with my family. No news is good news here.

I feel so very sorry for the New Jersey family which lost three of its family members * to COVID-19 this week. It was a blessing to the matriarch she didn’t know she lost her two oldest children; the heartbreak on top of the virus would have been torture beyond human ken.

None of this had to happen, either. Not a lick of it.

And it’s really only just beginning.

~ 3 ~

Let’s get this out of the way: Donald Trump is a racist jerk. He can’t read anything but inch-high print prepared for his ease; he had to go out of his way to make absolutely certain that he referred to COVID-19 as “Chinese.”

This is wholly intentional, deliberate as hell.

The fact COVID-19 emerged from China to become pandemic was sheer dumb luck. Spare us the racist bullshit talking down about eating unfamiliar animals and wet markets.

For Christ’s sake people here in the U.S. eat road kill and celebrate those animals with a festival.

They eat organ meats, blood sausages from across their many ethnic heritages, and they do odd-looking things with products made of proteins extracted from cartilage.

Americans and all the cultures from which they emerged have their own relationships with animals which have spawned biological crises over millennia. Just read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel.

It was simply a crap shoot this pandemic originated in China and not from a hantavirus in the American Southwest, or a flavivirus from South America or Africa. Chances are good we may yet see another emergent threat like a virulent Zika as the climate continues to warm.

Americans don’t have room to criticize. Their president being a racist moron to China about a crappy draw of luck is just plain stupid.

So is his and his party’s escalation of tension with the other largest economy in the world which both owns a lot of our debt. It’s incredibly shortsighted to bash the country which has been incredibly generous with research data based on their harrowing national experience with COVID-19.

I can’t begin to imagine how bad off the U.S. and other countries fighting COVID-19 would be if China hadn’t shared genomic and epidemiological data with the world.

We would not only be as far behind as we are because this administration felt winning re-election was more important than doing its job. We would have had to do much of the genomic and epidemiological research ourselves, on the fly, while our country’s health was in meltdown.

One need only look at how little research material has been published by other countries during this epidemic for comparison. They, too, have relied on China’s research.

Or look at how we continue to rely on China to do human testing – likely cutting corners on human experimentation ethics – just so Americans can obtain the benefit of a successful drug therapy while an American company reaps benefits.

No one of Asian ethnicity and heritage should have to put up with the hate unleashed by that slack-assed racist in the White House and the team of inept and bigoted enablers who are propping him up.

We may have legitimate concerns with China about supply chain integrity and intellectual property theft, but it’s on the U.S. that this is an issue to begin with. Outsourcing so much of what should be critical infrastructure is our own fault.

And failing to act in a responsible timely manner to a pandemic threat is solely that of the racist scumbag at the podium.

~ 2 ~

Speaking of failing to respond to pandemic threat…

If Senator Richard Burr knew by February 13 — when he sold $1.6 million worth of stock — that COVID-19 posed a potential national emergency, who else did and did nothing?

By “did nothing” I mean the way Burr lied to our faces and said, “the United States today is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus,” a day before he voted to acquit Trump and six days before he sold his stock.

Think back to the earliest time you heard about the viral illness in China. Do remember when you first heard or read about it?

I do. I had just read about two high-profile deaths from pneumonia in middle and late December. A Chinese actress died, noted in Chinese media. She wasn’t known well to the U.S. so no mention here had been made. Only days later, right around Christmas, a young ESPN anchor also died of an odd pneumonia. This time there was news in the U.S. about his passing.

A week later on New Year’s Eve there was a report in English-language Chinese media about an odd cluster of pneumonia-like illness in Wuhan, China. My awareness of pneumonia had been heightened by the two high-profile deaths so close together.

If I could see a cluster of pneumonia in China by New Year’s Day, you know somebody within the U.S. intelligence community saw it even earlier.

We know now that the Senate Intelligence Committee chair had been briefed, based on a recording made of a meeting Burr had with large-ticket donors. Who else holding elected or appointed office were also briefed by intelligence and then refused to do the right thing to protect the American public?

Now you know why there’s been a full court press from the White House through the GOP congressional caucus to the right-wing media and punditry pushing racist invective against China about the pandemic.

It’s to distract and redirect the public’s attention away from the GOP’s wholesale betrayal of the American public and its allies while COVID-19 ramped up into a pandemic.

By the middle of summer thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of American lives will be lost because Richard Burr and others as yet unnamed helped Donald Trump fuck us over for their own venal aims.

Trump and the GOP had absolutely no intention of doing anything about COVID-19, which explains why Trump has only mentioned but still not used the Defense Production Act to ensure health care workers have adequate personal protection equipment. Crafters across the country are sewing homemade masks of irregular specifications right now to make up the shortfall while health care workers scavenge hardware supplies for mashed-up PPE.

Can’t help wonder how much PPE that $1.6 million would buy.

Or how much the profits from Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s stock sale would buy, or Sen. James Inhofe’s or Sen. Ron Johnson’s stock sale profits. (Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s household also recently liquidated stock but her press secretary said it was in a blind trust with the rest of her assets.)

Loeffler’s financial moves are egregious not only because of profit taking on inside information not shared with the public and then lying directly to the public on camera about the country’s condition. She then acquired stock in a business specializing in remote work, and her spouse is the chairman and CEO of the New York Stock Exchange. There’s absolutely NO excuse for not having her assets in a blind trust to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, particularly because of her spouse’s role. But I guess when you’re worth half a billion dollars you just don’t give a shit about annoying little details like ethics.

~ 1 ~

In previous posts I’ve discussed the different drugs being studied as potential therapies for COVID-19. This is an extremely important point which must be emphasized: all drugs, whether antivirals or monoclonal antibodies or anti-inflammatory meds are subjects of study. Some are being used off-label as last ditch efforts.

By off-label I mean they are NOT approved by the Food and Drug Administration as safe and effective for treatment of COVID-19 infections.

We are relying on off-label medications applied by doctors in desperate conditions in China and Italy on patients who are in dire shape to tell us about their effectiveness. We are literally relying on human experimentation without a consistent ethical framework

Yesterday’s presser with Trump was a disaster not only because of his racist bullshit aimed at China, but because he fucked up and discussed off-label drug therapies. He should have left that all together to the Center for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration.

His half-assed, poorly-framed remarks about an anti-malarial drug set off a run on black market chloroquine in Nigeria. The drug had been removed from the Nigerian market more than a decade ago because of the risks it poses to patients. It’s quite likely people will die because of misplaced trust in Trump’s words about this drug.

Two antivirals, lopinavir and ritonavir, used as a cocktail in a study in China failed to perform as needed against COVID-19. A study announcing these unfortunate results was published just Wednesday in  the New England Journal of Medicine. (Yet another example of Chinese researchers providing a benefit to the U.S. and the world, I’ll point out. Can only wonder what happened to the subjects of the test.)

And another antiviral discussed here before, remdesivir, is still under study, and still poses an unexamined conflict of interest for at least one person in the Trump administration.

The media did not catch how bad Trump’s remarks on drugs were — that hack Chris Cillizza offers an example, failing to mention the gross and dangerous errors about these medications in his list of fail.

Trump’s words and deeds, likely the output of his inept team including his son-in-law Jared Kushner and his pet Nazi Stephen Miller, are going to kill more people here and abroad on top of COVID-19. Given Miller’s history with this administration, this may be the desired result.

~ 0 ~

* I started writing this post Thursday mid-day. Before I finished it a fourth family member died.

Meanwhile, in neighboring New York, Gov. Cuomo doesn’t want a “shelter in place” order because it sounds too much like nuclear war and might scare people.

New York City is a COVID-19 hot spot rapidly become an American Wuhan cell. More people are likely to die there of COVID-19 than died during 9/11, and we changed our society dramatically out of fear of another such event. New Yorkers and the rest of the U.S. whose banking is centered in NYC need more than Cuomo’s personal concerns about a turn of phrase.

But as I said earlier, none of this had to happen, either. Not a lick of it. It makes the ongoing daily failures even more ridiculous because most are unforced errors. Much of the daily fail could be so easily stopped if Trump just shut up and left handling COVID-19 to ethical professionals.

This is an open thread.

SSCI Has Already Dismissed One of the Key Issues John Durham Is Investigating

The other day, the NYT had an update on another area included in John Durham’s 9-month investigation of the Russian investigation. Durham appears to be chasing a theory (based on what predication, aside from Bill Barr’s fevered imagination, it’s unclear) that John Brennan tricked the FBI into investigating Trump by fooling them into believing Russia wanted Trump elected.

Questions asked by Mr. Durham, who was assigned by Attorney General William P. Barr to scrutinize the early actions of law enforcement and intelligence officials struggling to understand the scope of Russia’s scheme, suggest that Mr. Durham may have come to view with suspicion several clashes between analysts at different intelligence agencies over who could see each other’s highly sensitive secrets, the people said.

Mr. Durham appears to be pursuing a theory that the C.I.A., under its former director John O. Brennan, had a preconceived notion about Russia or was trying to get to a particular result — and was nefariously trying to keep other agencies from seeing the full picture lest they interfere with that goal, the people said.

[snip]

The Justice Department has declined to talk about Mr. Durham’s work in meaningful detail, but he has been said to be interested in how the intelligence community came up with its analytical judgments — including its assessment that Russia was not merely sowing discord, but specifically sought to help Mr. Trump defeat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.

A key part of this involves the credibility assigned to a Russian source and the CIA’s initial unwillingness to share his identity.

One fight, they said, concerned the identity and placement of a C.I.A. source inside the Kremlin. Analysts at the National Security Agency wanted to know more about him to weigh the credibility of his information. The C.I.A. was initially reluctant to share details about the Russian’s identity but eventually relented.

But officials disagreed about how much weight to give the source’s information, and the intelligence community’s eventual assessment apparently reflected that division. While the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. concluded with “high confidence” that Mr. Putin was specifically trying to help Mr. Trump win the election, the National Security Agency agreed but said it had only “moderate confidence.”

As with much of the Durham investigation, this likely came from a partisan investigation — specifically the HPSCI Report on Russian interference that the GOP released with little Democratic involvement. It found that

(U) Finding #16: The lntelllgence Communi· tv Assessment judgments on Putin’s strategic intentions did not employ proper ana· lytic tradecraft. (U) While the Committee found that most ICA analysis held-up to scrutiny, the investigation also identified significant intelligence tradecraft failings that undermine confidence in the JCA judgments regarding Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategic objectives for disrupting the U.S. election. Those judgments failed to meet longstanding standards set forth in the primary guiding document for IC analysis, ICD 203, Analytic Standards including:

(U) ”Properly describe quality and credibilit:y of underlying sources.”

(U) “Properly express and explain uncertainties associated with major analytic judgments.”

(U) “Incorporate analysis of alternatives ·- [particularly] when major judgments must contend with significant uncertainties or … high-impact results.”

(U) Base confidence assessments on “the quantity and quality of source material.”

(U) “Be informed by all relevant information available.”

(U) “Be independent of political considerations.”

[snip]

The Committee’s findings on ICA tradecraft focused on the use of sensitive, [redacted] intelligence [redacted] cited by the ICA. This presented a significant challenge for classification downgrade. The Committee worked with intelligence officers from the agencies who own the raw reporting cited in the ICA to downgrade the classification of compartmented findings [redacted]

In short, in the same way that the HJC/OGR echo chamber of shoddy propaganda injected George Papadopoulos’ claims into Durham’s investigation, the HPSCI report likely gave Barr a way to demand this prong of the investigation.

The thing is, however, the Senate Intelligence Committee has also reviewed this intelligence — notably, at a time after the CIA source behind it had been exfiltrated (and after abundant other evidence proving that Putin really did prefer Trump came in). And SSCI had no problem with the conclusion.

The ICA states that:

We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.[2]

  • The Committee found that the ICA provided a range of all-source reporting to support these assessments.
  • The Committee concurs with intelligence and open-source assessments that this influence campaign was approved by President Putin.
  • Further, a body of reporting, to include different intelligence disciplines, open source reporting on Russian leadership policy preferences, and Russian media content, showed that Moscow sought to denigrate Secretary Clinton.
  • The ICA relies on public Russian leadership commentary, Russian state media reports, public examples of where Russian interests would have aligned with candidates’ policy statements, and a body of intelligence reporting to support the assessment that Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for Trump.

The ICA also states that:

We also assess Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.[3]

  • The Committee found that the ICA provided intelligence and open source reporting to support this assessment, and information obtained subsequent to publication of the ICA provides further support.
  • This is the only assessment in the ICA that had different confidence levels between the participating agencies—the CIA and FBI assessed with “high confidence” and the NSA assessed with “moderate confidence”—so the Committee gave this section additional attention.

The Committee found that the analytical disagreement was reasonable, transparent, and openly debated among the agencies and analysts, with analysts, managers, and agency heads on both sides of the confidence level articulately justifying their positions. [my emphasis]

Significantly, over time that conclusion has held up.

In fact, an even more recent SSCI Report — released in recent weeks — makes it clear that what is obviously this same reporting stream provided the “wake up” call that led the IC to take the Russian attack as seriously as they should have. The intelligence is introduced (but entirely redacted) on page 11, but the description of Brennan’s action — and the degree to which this intelligence was closely held thereafter — makes it clear that this is the CIA HUMINT.

According to Director Brennan, he recommended that the intelligence be briefed to the Gang of Eight, stating, “I think it’s important that this be a personal briefing.”

[snip]

According to multiple administration officials, the receipt of the sensitive intelligence prompted the NSC to being a series of restricted PC meetings to craft the administration’s response to the Russians’ active measures campaign. These restricted “small group” PC meetings, and the corresponding Deputies Committee (DC) meetings, were atypically restricted, and excluded regular PC and DC attendees such as the relevant Senior Directors within the NSC and subject matter experts that normally accompanied the principals and deputies from the U.S. Government departments and agencies.

According to former NSC Senior Director for Intelligence Programs, Brett Holmgren, no one other than the principals participated in the initial PC meetings, due to the sensitivity of the intelligence reporting. Mr. Holmgren further stated that the “reports were briefed verbally, often times by Director Brennan. So I didn’t get access to a lot of these reports until the November or December time frame.”

To be clear, ultimately this more recent SSCI Report comes down on the same side that the Durham inquiry seems to be — that CIA ended up holding this too close, making it difficult for other agencies to properly vet it. This SSCI Report argues that the close hold led to a less robust response than the US should have mounted.

So all four reviews — HPSCI’s, SSCI’s ICA assessment and 3rd volume, along with Durham’s current review — agree that the CIA held this information really closely. But the bipartisan reports that assess whether the conclusion held up over time — just the SSCI ones — not only find that CIA was right, but that that view marked the belated moment when the US IC started taking the attack seriously enough.

In other words, John Durham is investigating something that the proper oversight authorities already have deemed the correct result that actually came too late and not broadly enough, and trying to find fault with it. Bill Barr is trying to get Durham to criminalize an intelligence conclusion that is the one thing that didn’t lead us to get more badly damaged by the attack.

The Black Hole Where SSCI’s Current Understanding of WikiLeaks Is

Four years after it started, the Senate Intelligence Committee continues its investigation into Russia’s 2016 election interference, this week releasing the report on what the Obama Administration could have done better. For a variety of reasons, these reports have been as interesting for their redactions or silences as for what the unredacted bits say.

This latest report is no different.

Putin responded to Obama’s warnings by waggling his nukes

The most interested unredacted bit pertains to Susan Rice’s efforts, scheduled to occur just before ODNI and DHS released their report attributing the hack to Russia, to warn Russia against continuing to tamper in the election. That would place the meeting at just about precisely the moment the Access Hollywood video and Podesta email release happened, a big fuck you even as Obama was trying to do something about the tampering. The meeting also would have occurred during the period when Sergei Kislyak was bitching about FBI efforts to prevent Russia from sending election observers to voting sites.

The description of the meeting between Rice and Kislyak is redacted. But the report does reveal, for the first that I heard, that Russia responded to being warned by raising its nukes.

Approximately a week after the October 7. 2016. meeting, Ambassador Kislyak asked to meet with Ambassador Rice to deliver Putin’s response. The response, as characterized by Ambassador Rice, was “denial and obfuscation,” and “[t]he only thing notable about it is that Putin somehow deemed it necessary to mention the obvious fact that Russia remains a nuclear power.”

This exchange is all the more interesting given that there’s an entirely redacted bullet (on page 37) describing actions that “Russian cyber actors” took after Obama warned Putin. Given that the state and county scanning and the alleged hack of VR Systems shows up, there’s something we either still don’t know about or SSCI continues to hide more details of the VR Systems hack.

The page long post-election response to the election year attack

The longest subsection in a section devoted to describing Obama’s response is redacted (pages 39-41).

Here’s what the timing of the unredacted parts of that section is:

  • A: Expulsion of Russian diplomats (December 29, 2016)
  • B: Modifying the EO and sanctions (December 29, 2016)
  • C: redacted
  • D: Cybersecurity action in the form of the issuance of two technical reports (December 29, 2016 and February 10, 2017)
  • E: Tasking the ICA Report (initiated December 6, 2016; completed December 30, 2016; published January 5 and 6, 2017)
  • F: Protecting election infrastructure (January 5, 2017)

That might suggest that whatever secret action the Obama Administration took happened right in December, with everything else.

John Brennan was proved fucking right

There’s a redacted passage that may undermine the entire premise of the John Durham investigation, which purports to review what agencies, other than FBI, did to lead to an investigation focused on Trump’s campaign. Some reporting suggests Durham is investigating whether CIA tricked FBI into investigating Trump’s flunkies.

But this report describes how, in spite of knowing about related Russian hacks in 2015 and Russia’s habit of leaking information they stole, the IC really wasn’t aware of what was going on until John Brennan got an intelligence tip during the summer of 2016. That intelligence tip was described at length in a WaPo story that resembles this section of the report.

Early last August, an envelope with extraordinary handling restrictions arrived at the White House. Sent by courier from the CIA, it carried “eyes only” instructions that its contents be shown to just four people: President Barack Obama and three senior aides.

Inside was an intelligence bombshell, a report drawn from sourcing deep inside the Russian government that detailed Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race.

But it went further. The intelligence captured Putin’s specific instructions on the operation’s audacious objectives — defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.

At that point, the outlines of the Russian assault on the U.S. election were increasingly apparent. Hackers with ties to Russian intelligence services had been rummaging through Democratic Party computer networks, as well as some Republican systems, for more than a year. In July, the FBI had opened an investigation of contacts between Russian officials and Trump associates. And on July 22, nearly 20,000 emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee were dumped online by WikiLeaks.

But at the highest levels of government, among those responsible for managing the crisis, the first moment of true foreboding about Russia’s intentions arrived with that CIA intelligence.

The section in this report is redacted.

Effectively, this report seems to confirm the WaPo reporting (which may have been based off sources close to those who testified to SSCI). It also emphasizes the import of this intelligence. But for this intelligence, the IC may have continued to remain ignorant of Putin’s plans for the operation.

The IC won’t let SSCI share its current understanding of WikiLeaks

But the most interesting redactions pertain to WikiLeaks.

There are four redacted paragraphs describing how hard it was for the IC to come up with a consensus attribution for the hack and leak operation.

Senior administration officials told the Committee that they hesitated to publicly attribute the cyber efforts to Russia m1til they had sufficient information on the penetration of the DNC network and the subsequent disclosure of stolen information via WikiLeaks, DCLeaks, and Guccifer 2.0.

More interesting still, almost the entirety of the page-plus discussion (relying on testimony from Ben Rhodes, Michael Daniel, Paul Selva, Mike Rogers, and others) of why it took so long to understand WikiLeaks remains redacted.

One reference that is unredacted, however, describes WikiLeaks as “coopted.”

This information would be of particular interest as the prosecution of Julian Assange goes forward. That — and the fact that some of this determination, relying as it does on former NSA Director Mike Rogers, appears to rely on NSA information — may be why it remains redacted.

Update: I’ve deleted the remainder of this post. It came from Wyden’s views, not the report itself.

The Republican Party Is No Longer the Party of Personal Responsibility

In a cynical speech that, if we’re lucky, will be an effort to deescalate militarily by imposing more sanctions on Iran (which is not a good thing but far better than the alternative), Trump just pre-blamed Barack Obama for the failures most experts predict and have correctly predicted will come from Trump’s Iran policy. He suggests, falsely, that the current escalation is the result of Obama’s peace deal, rather than the demonstrable result of his suspension of it.

Iran’s hostilities substantially increased after the foolish Iran nuclear deal was signed in 2013, and they were given $150 billion, not to mention $1.8 billion in cash. Instead of saying “thank you” to the United States, they chanted “death to America.” In fact, they chanted “death to America” the day the agreement was signed.

Then, Iran went on a terror spree, funded by the money from the deal, and created hell in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The missiles fired last night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration. The regime also greatly tightened the reins on their own country, even recently killing 1,500 people at the many protests that are taking place all throughout Iran.

The very defective JCPOA expires shortly anyway, and gives Iran a clear and quick path to nuclear breakout. Iran must abandon its nuclear ambitions and end its support for terrorism. The time has come for the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia, and China to recognize this reality.

I’ll leave it to others to unpack how dishonest this claim, both with respect to what JCPOA did and what has led to the increase in tension since Trump reversed our commitment to it.

But it exists in a larger context in which the Trump’s supporters are both refusing to take responsibility for their own actions, including but not limited to their support for Trump, but also doing so by pre-blaming Democrats.

This has been going on for the entirety of the Trump Administration (indeed, arguably it has been going on for at least 15 years). But with respect to Iran, it has consisted of:

  • Blaming Obama’s successful peace deal for the effects of Trump’s own rejection of it
  • Claiming Trump couldn’t brief Democrats on the Soleimani assassination because otherwise they would leak
  • Suggesting that Democrats’ past impeachment of Trump will have a future effect on his ability to respond to the crisis he created with the assassination

Let me be clear: I don’t think Trump assassinated Soleimani to distract from impeachment. I think he assassinated Soleimani because he’s a narcissist who responds to slights by lashing out, and his top advisors Mark Esper and Mike Pompeo are committed to Raytheon, Rapture, and a dangerously escalatory Iran policy, and so in this case did not rein in the natural result of arming someone with Trump’s narcissism, which is to use force where diplomacy would be more effective.

But here we are, with a dead Iranian general and fewer allies in the Middle East and few adults running policy, which may well be a recipe for disastrous things to come.

Trump (and his supporters’) refusal to take responsibility for their own actions is particularly toxic in this context because his policies and incompetent implementation of them are highly likely to fail, and the only way Trump can sustain support while presiding over obvious and foreseeable failures is to blame some other entity, which in this case includes Democrats and Iranians. And the only way for him to continue failing policies even while it’s clear they are failing is to pretend they’re not the cause of the failure.

Trump’s excuses for not briefing the Gang of Eight are particularly worrisome. It’s bad enough he didn’t do so, both for Constitutional and practical reasons. Even Richard Burr or Mitch McConnell might have advised Trump to take a more moderate approach. And had Trump briefed Nancy Pelosi, Adam Schiff, or Chuck Schumer, any one of them might have said something to make it clear that if he did this and it blew up in his face, they would make it clear to the public that he had made the decision against their advice. Our system of briefing the Gang of Eight on covert operations is a terrible way to vet military and intelligence operations (not least because you don’t get in those positions unless you’re a hawk). But in this instance, it might have made Trump worry about being shamed if he ignored the advice. It also would have offered Trump the ability — one George Bush used aggressively to survive his scandalous embrace of torture and illegal wiretapping — to claim there was bipartisan awareness of the actions, which might make it more likely to craft a bipartisan response if things do start to go south.

But Trump doesn’t like the humiliation of hearing advice he doesn’t like, and so he didn’t brief  the Gang of Eight beforehand.

He owns this decision, and all its consequences, because he chose to make the decision without following the norm that would allow him to share the blame.

But that raises the stakes for him to find scapegoats. It’s a feedback loop, where his refusal to listen to competent advice increases the likelihood of stupid decision and his defensiveness about admitting all that, thereby raising the stakes on having scapegoats still further.

And that, in turn, raises the aggressiveness he needs to direct at his scapegoats. Democrats (and Iranians and NATO) must not be wrong. They must be disloyal or traitors or Jew-ridden socialist countries or terrorists. Indeed, that’s likely one of the reasons why Trump so readily adopts inflammatory slurs with no basis in fact: because he has to dehumanize his scapegoats, to make sure no one thinks too much about what function that scapegoating plays.

It’s all a recipe for increasing violence.

And at the core, on the Soleimani assassination, the case that Trump is responsible is not just obvious — best embodied by his refusal to brief the Gang of Eight even while telegraphing his attack to his cronies at Mar-a-Lago — but a root cause of why he wants to build his scapegoats in from the start.

Revisiting the First Time President Trump Blabbed Out Classified Information for Political Gain

I’d like to revisit what might be the first time in his presidency that Donald Trump blabbed out highly classified information for political gain. Trump appears to have endangered the investigation into CIA’s stolen hacking tools, all to blame Obama for the leak.

It happened on March 15, 2017, during an interview with Tucker Carlson.

Amid a long exchange where Tucker challenges Trump, asking why he claimed — 11 days earlier — that Obama had “tapped” Trump Tower without offering proof, Trump blurted out that the CIA was hacked during the Obama Administration.

Tucker: On March 4, 6:35 in the morning, you’re down in Florida, and you tweet, the former Administration wiretapped me, surveilled me, at Trump Tower during the last election. Um, how did you find out? You said, I just found out. How did you learn that?

Trump: I’ve been reading about things. I read in, I think it was January 20th, a NYT article, they were talking about wiretapping. There was an article, I think they used that exact term. I read other things. I watched your friend Bret Baier, the day previous, where he was talking about certain very complex sets of things happening, and wiretapping. I said, wait a minute, there’s a lot of wiretapping being talked about. I’ve been seeing a lot of things. Now, for the most part I’m not going to discuss it because we have it before the committee, and we will be submitting things before the committee very soon, that hasn’t been submitted as of yet. But it’s potentially a very serious situation.

Tucker: So 51,000 people retweeted that, so a lot of people thought that was plausible, they believe you, you’re the president. You’re in charge of the agencies, every intelligence agency reports to you. Why not immediately go to them and gather evidence to support that?

Trump: Because I don’t want to do anything that’s going to violate any strength of an agency. You know we have enough problems. And by the way, with the CIA, I just want people to know, the CIA was hacked and a lot of things taken. That was during the Obama years. That was not during, us, that was during the Obama situation. Mike Pompeo is there now, doing a fantastic job. But we will be submitting certain things, and I will be perhaps speaking about this next week. But it’s right now before the Committee, and I think I want to leave it at that. I have a lot of confidence in the committee.

Tucker: Why not wait to tweet about it until you can prove it? Does it devalue your words when you can’t provide evidence?

Trump: Well because the NYT wrote about it. You know, not that I respect the NYT. I call it the failing NYT. They did write on January 20 using the word wiretap. Other people have come out with —

Tucker: Right, but you’re the President. You have the ability to gather all the evidence you want.

Trump: I do, I do. But I think that frankly we have a lot right now and I think if you watch, uh, if you watched the Brett Baier and what he was saying and what he was talking about and how he mentioned the word wiretap, you would feel very confident that you could mention the name. He mentioned it and other people have mentioned it. But if you take a look at some of the things written about wiretapping and eavesdropping, and don’t forget when I say wiretap, those words were in quotes, that really covers, because wiretapping is pretty old fashioned stuff. But that really covers surveillance and many other things. And nobody ever talks about the fact that it was in quotes but that’s a very important thing. But wiretap covers a lot of different things. I think you’re going to find some very interesting items over the next two weeks. [my emphasis]

It was clear even at the time that it was a reference to the Vault 7 files, now alleged to have been leaked to WikiLeaks by Joshua Schulte; the first installment of files were released eight days earlier.

The next day, Adam Schiff, who as the then-Ranking HPSCI member, likely had been briefed on the leak, responded to Trump’s comments and suggested that, while Trump couldn’t have broken the law for revealing classified information, he should nevertheless try to avoid releasing it like this, without any kind of consideration of the impact of it.

Last night, the President stated on Fox News that “I just wanted people to know, the CIA was hacked, and a lot of things taken–that was during the Obama years.” In his effort to once again blame Obama, the President appears to have discussed something that, if true and accurate, would otherwise be considered classified information,

It would be one thing if the President’s statement were the product of intelligence community discussion and a purposeful decision to disclose information to the public, but that is unlikely to be the case. The President has the power to declassify whatever he wants, but this should be done as the product of thoughtful consideration and with intense input from any agency affected. For anyone else to do what the President may have done, would constitute what he deplores as “leaks.”

Trump did reveal information the CIA still considered classified. At the very least, by saying that CIA got hacked, he confirmed the Vault 7 documents were authentic files from the CIA, something the government was not otherwise confirming publicly at that time. (Compare Mike Pompeo’s oblique comments about the leak from a month later.)

His reference to the volume of stolen files may have been based on what the CIA had learned from reviewing the initial dump; court filings make it clear the CIA still did not know precisely what had been stolen.

His reference to a hack, rather than a leak, is an interesting word choice, as the compromise has usually been called a leak. But Schulte’s initial search warrants listed both Espionage and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, meaning the government was treating it as (partly) a hacking investigation. And some of the techniques he allegedly used to steal the files are the same that hackers use to obfuscate their tracks (which is unsurprising, given that Schulte wrote some of the CIA’s obfuscation tools).

Perhaps the most damning part of Trump’s statement, however, was the main one: that the theft had taken place under Obama. WikiLeaks’ initial release was totally noncommittal about when they obtained the files, but said it had been “recent[].” By making it clear that the government knew the theft had taken place in 2016 and not more “recently,” Trump revealed a detail that would have made it more likely Schulte would realize they believed he was the culprit (though he knew from the start he’d be a suspect), given that he’d left the agency just days after Trump was elected.

The most damning part of all of this, though, is the timing. Trump made these comments at an unbelievably sensitive time in the investigation.

Tucker did the interview while accompanying Trump to Detroit on March 15, 2017, which means the interview took place sometime between 10:50 AM and 3:30 PM (Tucker said the interview happened at Willow Run Airport, but this schedule says he flew into DTW). Unless it was given special billing, it would have aired at 9PM on March 15.

That means Trump probably made the comments as the FBI was preparing a search of Schulte’s apartment, the first step the FBI took that would confirm for Schulte that he was the main suspect in the leak. Trump’s comments likely aired during the search, before the moment Schulte left his apartment with two passports while the search was ongoing.

CIA had had a bit of advanced warning about the leak. In the lead-up to the leaks (at least by February 3), a lawyer representing Julian Assange, Adam Waldman, was trying to use the Vault 7 files to make a deal with the US government, at first offering to mitigate the damage of the release for some vaguely defined safe passage for Assange. The next day, WikiLeaks first hyped the release, presumably as part of an attempt to apply pressure on the US. Shortly thereafter, Waldman started pitching Mark Warner (who, with Richard Burr, could have granted Assange immunity in conjunction with SSCI’s investigation). On February 17, Jim Comey told Warner to stop his negotiations, though Waldman would continue to discuss the issue to David Laufman at DOJ even after the initial release. Weeks later, WikiLeaks released the initial dump of files on March 7.

An early WaPo report on the leak (which Schulte googled for its information about what the CIA knew before WikiLeaks published) claimed that CIA’s Internal Security had started conducting its own investigation without alerting FBI to the leak (though obviously Comey knew of it by mid-February). The same report quoted a CIA spox downplaying the impact of a leak it now calls “catastrophic.”

By March 13, the day the FBI got its first warrant on Schulte, the FBI had focused on Schulte as the primary target of the investigation. They based that focus on the following evidence, which appears to incorporate information from the CIA’s own internal investigation, an assessment of the first document dump, and some FBI interviews with his colleagues in the wake of the first release:

  • The FBI believed (and still maintains) that the files were stolen from the onsite backup server
  • Schulte was one of a small group of SysAdmins who had privileges to that server (in the initial warrant they said just three people did but have since revised the number to five)
  • The FBI believed (mistakenly) that the files were copied on March 7, 2016, a time when one of the other two known SysAdmins was offsite
  • Schulte had had a blow-up with a colleague that led to him souring on his bosses
  • During the period the CIA was investigating that blow-up, Schulte had reset his administrative privileges to restore his access to the backup server and one project he was working on
  • As part of his August security clearance renewal, some of Schulte’s colleagues said they thought he could be subject to coercion and was not adhering to rules on removable media
  • Just before he left, Schulte created two documents claiming to have raised concerns about the security of the CIA’s servers that (the government claims) he didn’t actually raise
  • Names identifying the two other SysAdmins who had access to the backup server, but not Schulte’s, were included in the initial release
  • In six days since the initial Vault 7 release, Schulte had contacted colleagues and told them he thought he’d be a suspect but was not the leaker

Having obtained a warrant based off that probable cause, on the afternoon of March 13, FBI agents went to conduct a covert search of Schulte’s apartment. The FBI was trying to conduct the search before a trip to Mexico Schulte was scheduled to take on March 16, which (as the affidavit noted) would have been only his second trip outside the US reflected in DHS records. But when the FBI got to Schulte’s apartment, they found a slew of computer devices (listed at PDF 116), making the covert search impractical. So overnight, they obtained a second warrant for an overt search; the FBI obtained that warrant at 1:36 AM on March 14. During that same overnight trip to the magistrate, the FBI also obtained warrants for Schulte’s Google, Reddit, and GitHub accounts.

There’s a lack of clarity about this detail in the public record: the warrant is dated March 14, but it is described as the “March 15 warrant.” The overt search continued through the night in question, so it could either be March 14-15 or March 15-16. The government’s response to Schulte’s motion to suppress the search says, “The Overt Warrant was signed during the early morning hours of March 14, 2017, and the FBI executed the warrant the same day.” But a May 5, 2017 affidavit (starting at PDF 129) says the overt search of Schulte’s apartment took place on March 15.

Whatever day the search happened, it appears that the search started when the lead agent approached Schulte in the lobby of Bloomberg, perhaps as he was leaving work, and asked if he had a role in the leak, which Schulte denied. (This conversation is one basis for Schulte’s false statements charge; the Bill of Particulars describing the interview says it took place on March 15.) The agent got Schulte to confirm he was traveling to Mexico on March 16, then got Schulte to let them into his apartment (Bloomberg is at 120 Park Avenue; Schulte lived at 200 E 39th Street, five blocks away). The search of Schulte’s apartment went through the night. Sometime between 10 and 11 PM, Schulte left his apartment, telling the FBI Agents he’d return around 11:30 PM. By 12:15 AM he hadn’t returned, so the lead FBI Agent went and found him leaving Bloomberg. They told him they had found classified information in his apartment, and asked for his passports. He went back to his workstation to retrieve them, and voluntarily handed them over. The affidavit describes Schulte being put on leave by Bloomberg on March 16, the last day he reported to work at Bloomberg (which would be consistent with the search taking place on the night of March 15-16).

If the search took place overnight on March 14-15, Trump’s statements might have reflected knowledge the search had occurred (and that FBI had found classified information in Schulte’s apartment that would sustain an arrest on false statements and mishandling classified information charges, if need be). If the search took place overnight on March 15-16 (which seems to be what the record implies), it would mean Trump made the comments before the search and they would have been aired on Fox News during it.

In other words, Trump may well have made the comments at a time when FBI was trying to avoid giving Schulte any advance notice because they were afraid he might destroy evidence.

In addition, Trump undoubtedly made the comments (and Schiff highlighted the significance of them) before Schulte had follow-up interviews on March 20 and 21, at which he denied, among other things, ever making CIA’s servers more vulnerable to compromise. If Schulte had read Trump’s comment he’d be more worried about anything akin to hacking.

The question is, how much of what Trump said reflected real knowledge of the investigation, and to what degree should he have known that blurting this out could be unbelievably damaging to the investigation?

Given Trump’s imprecision in speech, his comments could derive entirely from the Vault 7 release itself, or at least a really high level briefing (with pictures!) of the compromise and CIA’s efforts to mitigate it.

But there are two pieces of evidence that suggest Trump may have been briefed in more detail about Schulte as a target.

Jim Comey testified on June 8, 2017 that, in addition to asking him to, “let this [Flynn thing] go,” Trump had asked him about a classified investigation, but that conversation was entirely professional.

WARNER: Tens of thousands. Did the president ever ask about any other ongoing investigation?

COMEY: No.

WARNER: Did he ever ask about you trying to interfere on any other investigation?

COMEY: No.

WARNER: I think, again, this speaks volumes. This doesn’t even get to the questions around the phone calls about lifting the cloud. I know other members will get to that, but I really appreciate your testimony, and appreciate your service to our nation.

COMEY: Thank you, Senator Warner. I’m sitting here going through my contacts with him. I had one conversation with the president that was classified where he asked about our, an ongoing intelligence investigation, it was brief and entirely professional.

Obviously there were a ton of investigations and this conversation could have taken place after Trump made the public comments. But the Vault 7 investigation would have been one of the most pressing investigations in the months before Comey got fired.

More directly on point, in his Presumption of Innocence blog, Schulte describes the interactions with the FBI during the search — which are consistent with them taking place on March 15 — this way (he has not sought to suppress the statements he made that night, which suggests his claims of coercion aren’t strong enough to impress his attorneys):

The FBI set an artificial and misguided deadline on the night before I was to depart NYC for Cancun to prevent me from leaving the country. Despite my insistence with them that the notion someone would flee the country AFTER the publication literally made no sense—if it were me communicating with WikiLeaks then obviously I would have made damn sure to leave BEFORE it happened—they were persistent in their belief that I was guilty. The FBI literally told me that everyone ”up to the top” knew we were having this conversation and that “they” could not afford to let me leave the country. “They” could not afford another national embarrassment like Snowden. “They” would not, under any circumstances, allow me to leave the country. The FBI were prepared and willing to do anything and everything to prevent me from leaving the country including threaten my immediate arrest arrest unless I surrendered my passport. I did NOT initially consent, but the FBI held me against my will without any arrest warrant and even actively disrupted my attempts to contact an attorney. Intimidated, fearful, and without counsel, I eventually consented. I was immediately suspended from work

Schulte’s an egotist and has told obvious lies, especially in his public statements attempting to claim innocence. But if it’s true that the FBI agents told him everyone “up to the top” knew they were having the conversation with him on March 15, it might reflect knowledge that people at least as senior as Comey or Sessions or Pompeo knew the FBI was going to conduct an overt search with one goal being to prevent Schulte from leaving the country. And given the purported reference to Snowden and the way the entire government pursued him, it is not impossible that Trump had been asked to authorize Schulte’s arrest if he didn’t surrender his passports.

In other words, it is certainly possible that when Trump boasted that the CIA’s hacking tools had been stolen under Obama and not under his Administration (an interesting claim to begin with, given the delay in CIA alerting the FBI that WaPo reported), he had been briefed about Schulte within the last 48 hours or even that morning.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that this comment was a deliberate attempt to sabotage the FBI investigation. Trump has a habit of mindlessly repeating whatever he has heard most recently, so if Trump were briefed on the investigative steps against Schulte on the 14th or 15th, it’s not surprising he brought it up when sitting with Tucker mid-day on the 15th, particularly given that they were discussing surveillance.

But imagine how this would look to the FBI as Trump started engaging in outright obstruction of the Russian investigation, particularly by firing Comey. There’s nothing in the public record that suggests a tie between Schulte’s leaks and Russia. But Schulte’s leaks (most notably the Marble Framework he authored) not only would have made it easier for Russia to identify CIA’s Russian targets, but they would have forced CIA to rebuild during a period it was trying to figure out what had happened in 2016 (and NSA would be in the same position, post Shadow Brokers). When the FBI was trying to keep their focus on Schulte secret for one more day so they could get to his apartment before he started destroying things, Trump sat before a TV camera and made a comment that might have alerted Schulte the FBI did, indeed, believe he was the culprit.

And Trump did so all to blame Obama for a catastrophic leak rather than himself.