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Sheldon Whitehouse and the Russia Investigation Deconfliction

Laura Rozen has me worried.

She pointed to this CNN article — posted sometime this afternoon — describing Sheldon Whitehouse’s worries that the scope of the DOJ inquiry into Trump and Russia might conflict with the Congressional inquiries.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, the top Democrat on a Judiciary subcommittee, told CNN Thursday that it’s possible Flynn is cooperating with the Justice Department — and that Capitol Hill has not been kept in the loop. He warned that congressional probes that have subpoenaed Flynn for records could undercut Mueller’s investigation if the former national security adviser is secretly working with the Justice Department as part of its broader investigation into possible collusion between Russian officials and Trump associates during the campaign season.

“There is at least a reasonable hypothesis that Mike Flynn is already cooperating with the DOJ investigation and perhaps even has been for some time,” said Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat.

Whitehouse added he had no direct evidence to suggest that Flynn is cooperating with the Justice Department. But he said there is circumstantial evidence to suggest that it could be the case, saying Mueller must immediately detail the situation to “deconflict” with probes on the Hill to “make sure that congressional investigations aren’t inadvertently competing with DOJ criminal investigations.”

[snip]

The Rhode Island Democrat said there are number of factors that suggest Flynn is working the Justice Department in its probe. He pointed out that “all reporting indicates they’ve got him dead to rights on a false statement felony” in his private interview with the FBI over his conversations last year with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. He also noted that Flynn has gone silent and retroactively signed on as a foreign agent to Turkey. And he noted that a federal grand jury has been summoned and has issued subpoenas to Flynn associates.

“So none of that proves anything but it’s all consistent with the hypothesis that he’s already cooperating,” Whitehouse told CNN.

“But that’s certainly a hypothetical case of a time when we do need need this de-confliction apparatus in place to make sure that congressional investigations aren’t inadvertently competing DOJ criminal investigations.”

Now, in point of fact, that deconfliction has already happened — or at least started. That’s what a May 11 meeting between Rod Rosenstein, Richard Burr, and Mark Warner was described as at the time.

Rosenstein was tight-lipped as he entered and emerged from a secure facility Thursday on Capitol Hill, where he huddled with Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Vice Chairman Mark R. Warner (D-Va.). The senators said the meeting had been scheduled before Comey’s ouster to discuss “deconfliction” — keeping the FBI’s and committee’s investigations of alleged ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government from stepping on each other’s toes.

According to reports, the meeting was scheduled before the Jim Comey ouster, so it should reflect the scope of what he was investigating, and therefore presumably resembles the scope of what Robert Mueller will investigate.

But there are three reasons why Whitehouse might be justified in worrying that Congress might fuck up what DOJ is investigating.

Obviously, the first is Mueller: the Comey firing might have reflected some new investigative approach (including Flynn immunity), or Mueller, because of the firing, might be scoping the investigation differently.

A second is jurisdiction. Whitehouse and Lindsey Graham have assumed jurisdiction over the Russia investigation for their subcommittee — and the Senate Judiciary Committee obviously should oversee the FBI. So it may be that former US Attorney Sheldon Whitehouse wants to have a deconflicting conversation for himself, because he knows how investigations work (and for all we know is getting tips from DOJ).

The other is another announcement from this afternoon: that the Senate Intelligence Committee had voted to give Chair Richard Burr and Vice Chair Mark Warner the ability to issue subpoenas themselves going forward, without consulting the committee.

The leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee now have broad authority to issue subpoenas in the Russia investigation without a full committee vote, Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said Thursday.

The panel voted unanimously to give Burr and Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) the blanket authority for the duration of the investigation into Russia’s election meddling and possible collusion with President Trump’s campaign.

The two Senate leaders must be in agreement in order to issue an order.

Now, as the article notes, thus far, the committee has asked for documents, not testimony. My suspicion is this might have more to do with ensuring Comey’s testimony — promised after Memorial Day — is “compelled” in such a way that DOJ can’t object.

Nevertheless, the power to subpoena does grant someone (like former Trump National Security Advisor Richard Burr) the ability to fuck with the DOJ investigation by potentially working at cross-purposes. To grant immunity (and therefore to fuck up the investigation as happened in Iran-Contra), I think Burr would still need the support of the committee.

Still, this still gives Burr far more power to thwart the investigation, with only Mark Warner (who unlike Whitehouse has never been a prosecutor) to prevent it.

In theory, I think Whitehouse is just pushing for jurisdiction (and for the ability to demand the same kind of deconfliction conversation Burr and Warner have gotten).

But upon reflection, I don’t think his concerns are entirely unjustified.

In any case, I trust Whitehouse (with whatever leftover ties he has to DOJ) to do this review more than Mark Warner.

Update: Burr told Bloomberg he has had a deconfliction conversation with Mueller.

Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, said he has contacted Mueller to discuss their parallel probes of Russian meddling.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

James Clapper: Unmasking And/Or Jeff Sessions?

I’m traveling so I’ll have to lay out my thoughts about the Comey firing later.

But for the moment I want to point to a detail in Monday’s hearing that deserves more attention now.

Early in the hearing, Chuck Grassley asked both Sally Yates and James Clapper if they have ever unmasked a Trump associate or member of Congress. Yates said no, but Clapper revealed he had unmasked someone, but couldn’t say more.

GRASSLEY: OK. I want to discuss unmasking.

Mr. Clapper and Ms. Yates, did either of you ever request the unmasking of Mr. Trump, his associates or any member of Congress?

CLAPPER: Yes, in one case I did that I can specifically recall, but I can’t discuss it any further than that.

GRASSLEY: You can’t, so if I ask you for details, you said you can’t discuss that, is that what you said?

CLAPPER: Not — not here.

Grassley returned to the issue for clarification later on. Clapper said he had asked to have the identity of both a member of Congress and a Trump associate unmasked. But then he said he had only asked on one occasion.

GRASSLEY: Mr. Clapper, you said yes when I asked you if you ever unmasked a Trump associate or a member of Congress. But I forgot to ask, which was it? Was it a Trump associate, a member of Congress, or both?

CLAPPER: Over my time as DNI, I think the answer was on rare occasion, both. And, again, Senator, just to make the point here, my focus was on the foreign target and at the foreign target’s behavior in relation to the U.S. person.

GRASSLEY: OK. How many instances were there, or was there just one?

CLAPPER: I can only recall one.

Finally, Lindsey Graham returned to the issue at the close of the hearing. Clapper confirmed he had made a request to unmask a Trump associate and a member of Congress.

You made a request for unmasking on a Trump associate and maybe a member of Congress? Is that right, Mr. Clapper?

CLAPPER: Yes.

Obviously, there’s plenty of room for confusion in these exchanges, and Clapper has a history of sowing confusion in Congressional testimony.

But if it is true that he has only unmasked one person but that he has unmasked both a Trump associate and a member of Congress, it would suggest he unmasked the identity of a member of Congress who is a Trump associate.

If that’s right, there are several possibilities for who it could be: transition official Devin Nunes, national security advisor Richard Burr, and national security official Jeff Sessions.

But the most likely is Sessions, because we know he was talking to Sergey Kislyak and the intelligence community has pulled their collection on Kislyak.

Even if that’s the case, it’s unsurprising Sessions’ communications with Kislyak have been reviewed and unmasked.

Still, it is a data point from Monday’s hearing that makes Sessions’ role in the firing of Jim Comey worth noting.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

Thoughts on the NYT Comey Blockbuster

The NYT has a big piece on Jim Comey’s involvement in the election you should definitely read. Rather than share my thoughts in a tweet storm I thought I’d share here so we can all gab about it.

Consensus coming closer to Jim Comey being self-righteous

As long time readers know, I think Jim Comey is self-righteous. He creates a heroic self-image that is often overblown (as it was regarding the post hospital hero events). So I was happy to see this paragraph — and observations matching it — through out the story.

Mr. Comey made those decisions with the supreme self-confidence of a former prosecutor who, in a distinguished career, has cultivated a reputation for what supporters see as fierce independence, and detractors view as media-savvy arrogance.

Comey deserves all the criticism he has gotten for his statements about the Hillary investigation. But we’re stuck with Comey for now; he’s one of the few checks against Trump’s arbitrary rule (and Comey is enough of a media hound to be able to create the space to conduct the investigation into Trump).

But one way or another I’m happy people are beginning to understand Comey not as the hospital hero, nor as a partisan, but as someone who doesn’t (or didn’t?) assess his own actions with a fair measure.

The secret David Margolis meeting

One of two really interesting new details in this story is that, when Comey was trying to decide what to do, he consulted with David Margolis, who has long been treated as the conscience of DOJ by DOJers. (See this bmaz post for more background on Margolis.)

Mr. Comey sought advice from someone he has trusted for many years. He dispatched his deputy to meet with David Margolis, who had served at the Justice Department since the Johnson administration and who, at 76, was dubbed the Yoda of the department.

What exactly was said is not known. Mr. Margolis died of heart problems a few months later. But some time after that meeting, Mr. Comey began talking to his advisers about announcing the end of the Clinton investigation himself, according to a former official.

This meeting (and the description of how they staged Margolis’ funeral so the DOJ people criticizing Comey wouldn’t have to share a stage with him) plays a weird role in the story, as if just the mention of the meeting serves to exonerate Comey’s terrible decision to announce the end of the Hillary investigation.

But what the story doesn’t note is that Comey was effectively consulting with the person who for years always intervened to make sure DOJ’s lawyers don’t get held accountable for their misconduct (most notably, he did this for John Yoo). Now, I’m not sure whether as FBI Director Comey’s behavior might have been reviewed by the Office of Professional Responsibility; as it happens DOJ IG is doing so. But it is not ethical to have the guy who, later on, would bless your actions, bless them before the fact. It’s like getting pre-approval to break the rules.

Loretta Lynch should have recused

One of the details others find most interesting is that the FBI acted as they did, in part, because a Democratic operative suggested in an email that Loretta Lynch would ensure nothing came of the investigation.

During Russia’s hacking campaign against the United States, intelligence agencies could peer, at times, into Russian networks and see what had been taken. Early last year, F.B.I. agents received a batch of hacked documents, and one caught their attention.

The document, which has been described as both a memo and an email, was written by a Democratic operative who expressed confidence that Ms. Lynch would keep the Clinton investigation from going too far, according to several former officials familiar with the document.

Read one way, it was standard Washington political chatter. Read another way, it suggested that a political operative might have insight into Ms. Lynch’s thinking.

Normally, when the F.B.I. recommends closing a case, the Justice Department agrees and nobody says anything. The consensus in both places was that the typical procedure would not suffice in this instance, but who would be the spokesman?

The document complicated that calculation, according to officials. If Ms. Lynch announced that the case was closed, and Russia leaked the document, Mr. Comey believed it would raise doubts about the independence of the investigation.

I’ve got a slew of hacking related questions about this document — starting with why it hasn’t, as far as I know, been leaked. The described timing as “early last year” suggests that it may have been hacked in the FSB phase of the hacking. But the document would have solidified the narrative the Russians were reportedly fostering about Hillary.

The article doesn’t pursue those questions, but it notes that in response to finding it, Comey did not ask Lynch to recuse. He should have. You recuse whether or not there’s basis for recusal but because of appearances as well. Moreover, so much awfulness could have been avoided had she recused. This was one of the big own goals of this whole mess.

CIA Directors should not meet with just one Gang of Eight member

The second detail I find most interesting in this story is that John Brennan privately briefed Harry Reid about his concerns about the Russians.

John O. Brennan, the C.I.A. director, was so concerned about the Russian threat that he gave an unusual private briefing in the late summer to Harry Reid, then the Senate Democratic leader.

Top congressional officials had already received briefings on Russia’s meddling, but the one for Mr. Reid appears to have gone further. In a public letter to Mr. Comey several weeks later, Mr. Reid said that “it has become clear that you possess explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisors, and the Russian government — a foreign interest openly hostile to the United States.”

While I’m generally sympathetic to Democrats’ complaints that DOJ should have either remained silent about both investigations or revealed both of them, it was stupid for Brennan to give this private briefing (and I hope he gets grilled about it by HPSCI when he testifies in a few weeks). In addition to the things Reid said publicly about the investigation, it’s fairly clear he and his staffers were also behind some of the key leaks here (and, as CNN reported yesterday, leaks about the investigation actually led targets of it to alter their behavior). For reasons beyond what appears in this story, I think it likely Reid served as a cut-out for Brennan.

And that’s simply not appropriate. There may well have been reasons to avoid briefing Richard Burr (who was advising Trump). But spooks should not be sharing information with just one party. CIA did so during its torture cover-up in ways that are particularly troubling and I find this — while not as bad — equally problematic.

Two missing details: the leaks and the delayed notice to Congress

While this is already a comprehensive story (though its telling of October 7 omits key details), there are two parts that seem critical that are missing: the flood of leaks from FBI and the decision to delay notifying the Gang of Four of the CI investigation.

This week, CNN reported that the FBI was “clarifying” an earlier policy fostering more contact between FBI employees with the media in response to leaks about the Trump campaign. (Click through to read about the TV series coming out focusing on FBI heroism that the FBI exercised editorial control over!!!)

The FBI is overhauling its media policy, restricting contacts between the news media and its employees amid controversy over alleged leaks, bureau officials told CNN.

The new media policy was rolled out this week at a conference in Washington attended by FBI special agents in charge of its 56 field offices, according to officials who attended.
Media access to top officials at the FBI became more common in recent years under FBI Director James Comey, part of a transparency effort he said was aiming at demystifying the FBI and helping the public understand its mission. But the new policy appears to curtail that access.
An official familiar with the development of the new policy described it as largely a “clarification” intended to reinforce existing rules on who is authorized to talk to reporters, not a step back from Comey’s transparency initiatives.

Not only should this policy have been put in place before people leaked details of FISA orders, but it should have been put in place in early 2016, when it was clear FBI Agents were leaking details of the Hillary investigation to try to force their supervisors to expand its scope to include the Clinton Foundation.

Instead, the possibility that FBI Agents would leak was one of the reasons why Comey did what he did. The correct thing, instead of making unprecedented public statements as he did, would have been to shut down the leaking.

Additionally, according to Comey’s testimony, FBI actually delayed notifying at least the heads of the Intelligence Committees  until fairly recently. The NYT acknowledges that this detail was hidden. But I’d love to understand how this departure from normal briefing affected all the other decisions (particularly in light of the the Brennan meeting).

In any case, read the whole thing. It’s very frustrating. But it also lays out a series of things that Comey — and other Obama officials — should have done differently.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

The Flynn and Kushner Interviews with SSCI

Richard Burr and Mark Warner had a press conference today to — basically — reassure people that at least one intelligence committee is made up of grown-ups who will be able to conduct an investigation of Russia’s attempts to interfere with the election. Among other things, Burr said the committee has a list of about 20 people with whom they’re in the process of setting up interviews, about five of which have been scheduled, to start Monday.

Amid repeated discussions about leaks, Burr confirmed — as the NYT already has — that the Committee wants to meet with Jared Kushner. The NYT story about Kushner was clearly first informed by Senate Intelligence Committee personnel that SSCI wanted to talk to him, and then got Hope Hicks to confirm it publicly. Of particularly interest (because Burr is very strict that committee business remain secret), the NYT SSCI source asked for anonymity to remain candid about Kushner, not because he or she was not permitted to talk with the press.

The Senate panel’s decision to question Mr. Kushner would make him the closest person to the president to be called upon in any of the investigations, and the only one currently serving in the White House. The officials who initially described that Senate inquiry to The New York Times did so on the condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly about Mr. Trump’s son-in-law.

Later the NYT story cotes a statement from Burr and Mark Warner, confirming (as Burr did in the hearing) that they will speak with Kushner.

In today’s hearing, having confirmed again the detail about Kushner, however, Burr took a different approach in response to a question about Mike Flynn.

Q: Have you guys been in contact with Michael Flynn or representatives of Michael Flynn? Also, can you go into a little bit of the thought process between why you would have an interview behind closed doors or do it publicly, like why you would talk to Jared Kushner behind closed doors, why you would do it publicly?

Burr: Well, I think it’s safe to say that we have had conversations with a lot of people. And you would think less of us if General Flynn wasn’t in that list. From a standpoint of the interview process if you feel like you’re being cheated, because they’re not in public, if there’s relevance to em they’ll eventually be part of a public hearing.

[Burr goes on to discuss the committee doing private interviews first.]

Q: Have you already spoken with Flynn? Have you already spoken with Flynn?

Burr: I’m not gonna tell you one way or another.

Effectively, he confirms that Flynn will be asked to talk to the committee. But when asked (I think my transcription of this is correct but welcome corrections on this point) if he — or the committee — had already spoken with Flynn, he refused to provide the same kind of confirmation he did with Kushner, and particularly to say whether he or the committee had already spoken with him.

I raise this for several reasons. Obviously, the double standard — and Burr’s willingness to deviate from his strict committee business secrecy pledge with regards to Kushner — is notable. The possibility that he or the committee may have already spoken with Flynn is particularly interesting.

In my post on the Kushner story, I noted that the Kushner story for the first time got into the quid pro quo the Russians were really interested in — not a change in policy towards Ukraine, but rather, an end to the sanctions targeting Russia for its annexation of Ukraine. I actually missed one of the most important parts of that story, however. On December 29, the FSB-trained head of a sanctioned who met with Kushner at the request of Sergey Kislyak, Sergey Gorkov, stated that he thought Ukrainian-related sanctions might “change for the better.”

And in an interview on the state-owned Rossiya 24 TV channel on Dec. 29, the same month that he met with Mr. Kushner, Mr. Gorkov said he hoped that the situation caused by Ukraine sanctions imposed by the Americans against Russian banks like his “would change for the better.”

As I noted in my post, the possibility that Gorkov had discussed Ukraine sanctions directly with Kushner would change the connotation of the discussions between Flynn and Kislyak.

And those conversations were on December 29.

In other words, on the very same day that Kislyak and Flynn were having multiple phone calls — and discussed sanctions in vague terms — Gorkov was publicly discussing the Ukraine, not the hacking related, sanctions.

Again, Burr is happy to confirm the committee will call Kushner. He’s not going to say whether the committee has already spoken with Flynn, who would know better about the connotation of sanctions as discussed on December 29.

And SSCI likely has already read the conversations between Kislyak and Gorkov surrounding his meetings with the President’s son-in-law.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

Democrats Should Propose Susan Collins Serve as Acting Chair for Russian Hack Investigation

As I’ve been saying, the Intelligence Committees are the sensible place for any investigation into the Russian hack, but the current investigation is hampered because both Chairs — Devin Nunes in the House and Richard Burr in the Senate — have conflicts that prevent them from being independent.

The WaPo has an absolutely masterful article exposing their conflicts.

Better still, it shows that Benghazi truther Mike Pompeo has already abused his position as CIA Director in the pursuit of politics.

The part that has gotten the most notice is WaPo’s report that — after Reince Priebus failed to get FBI to issue a rebuttal to this NYT article — which claims “Phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election” — he then arranged calls with the press and Nunes and Burr, so they could rebut the claims. As the WaPo reports, the calls were not persuasive enough to get WaPo to report on them.

The officials broadly dismissed Trump associates’ contacts with Russia as infrequent and inconsequential. But the officials would not answer substantive questions about the issue, and their comments were not published by The Post and do not appear to have been reported elsewhere.

Nunes’ comments actually were picked up by WSJ (which has discouraged reporters from doing hard reporting on this issue). Burr’s were not. Here’s how Burr — who normally leaks far less than other Gang of Four members, and who was a national security advisor for Trump during the campaign — defended his comments.

Burr acknowledged that he “had conversations about” Russia-related news reports with the White House and engaged with news organizations to dispute articles by the New York Times and CNN that alleged “repeated” or “constant” contact between Trump campaign members and Russian intelligence operatives.

“I’ve had those conversations,” Burr said, adding that he regarded the contacts as appropriate provided that “I felt I had something to share that didn’t breach my responsibilities to the committee in an ongoing investigation.”

More delectably, the WaPo obliquely reveals that an intelligence official was involved in the calls, and then makes it very clear that Pompeo was the guy. As WaPo points out, this not only makes Pompeo a raging hypocrite, given the way he politicized Benghazi, but it also suggests Pompeo inquired into the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation for the purpose of leaking details of it to the press.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo is the senior-most intelligence official in the administration, with former senator Dan Coats (R-Ind.) still awaiting confirmation as director of national intelligence.

As a Republican member of Congress, Pompeo was among the most fiercely partisan figures in the House investigation of Benghazi, which centered on accusations that the Obama administration had twisted intelligence about the attacks for political purposes.

It is not unusual for CIA leaders to have contact with news organizations, particularly about global issues such as terrorism or to contest news accounts of CIA operations. But involving the agency on alleged Trump campaign ties to Russia could be problematic.

The CIA is not in charge of the investigation. Given the history of domestic espionage abuses in the United States, CIA officials are typically averse to being drawn into matters that involve U.S. citizens or might make the agency vulnerable to charges that it is politicizing intelligence.

This is actually fairly breathtaking. It’s one thing to inquire into a past event, because the inquiry can’t change it. But this is an ongoing counterintelligence investigation! Russians are dying left and right, and at least one of them looks like he was a likely source for the Trump dossier. Two Russians have already been charged with treason and a Ukranian may well be as well. There are reasons you keep counterintelligence investigations secret.

But the CIA Director is more interested in helping Trump out politically.

It turns out that Senate Intelligence Vice Chair Mark Warner, who thus far has defended Burr’s role in this investigation, is not all that happy about this. Here’s what he had to say in response to WaPo’s disclosures.

Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he called CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Burr to express his “grave concerns about what this means for the independence” of the investigation.

“I am consulting with members of the Intelligence Committee to determine an appropriate course of action so we can ensure that the American people get the thorough, impartial investigation that they deserve, free from White House interference,” Warner said in a statement Friday night.

So here’s my suggestion: tell Mitch McConnell and Richard Burr that Susan Collins should serve as acting Chair for this investigation, and if they don’t agree the Democrats will demand an independent inquiry.

Collins is a perfect choice even beyond her comments from the other day, which among other things entertained the possibility of subpoenaing Trump’s tax returns. She has voted against Trump more than any other Senator (which is not much, but still). As Chair of Homeland Security, she conducted a number of credible investigations, working closely with Joe Lieberman.

So she surely could credibly lead this report.

To be clear: I’m suggesting this as a negotiating strategy. This hasn’t been done before and I suspect it wouldn’t be done here. But it is clear that Collins is independent and qualified to lead this investigation. The alternatives all involve more potential exposure for Trump.

Democrats should propose this — so McConnell and Burr can shoot it down, making it clear that Republicans want people who’ve already compromised their independence to lead this investigation.

Update: Here’s Collins’ comment on the new disclosures.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has the expertise, the cleared staff, and the bipartisan determination to follow the evidence wherever it leads in this investigation into malicious Russian activities. For the public to have confidence in our findings, it is important that the Committee work in a completely bipartisan fashion and that we avoid any actions that might be perceived as compromising the integrity of our work. It is also important that the Committee ultimately issue a public report on our findings.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

Susan Collins Implies She Could Be a Swing Vote in SSCI’s Investigation of the Russian Hack

The other day, I explained why we should remain skeptical of the congressional investigations into the Russian hack. Most importantly, I questioned Richard Burr’s seriousness. The investigation should be done by the House and/or Senate Intelligence Committee, and both Chairs of those committees have had Trump appointments in the last year.

That said, this Maine Public Radio interview with Susan Collins may provide reason for hope (see after 10 minutes and 39 minutes).

In it, she reiterated promises — made in the agreement on the inquiry — that the committee would do open hearings and release a public report.

I will encourage that there’ll be some public hearings as well as the closed hearings that we’re doing now and that we issue a report.

She also noted that she and others intend to call Mike Flynn to testify (though she didn’t say whether the interview would be open or not). Note, National Security Advisors cannot be subpoenaed (which is one basis why Devin Nunes said they couldn’t call Flynn).

I am going to request, many members are, that we call Steve Flynn–Mike Flynn, the former National Security Advisor to testify before us.

In addition, after 30 minutes, in response to a caller insisting that the inquiry be public, Collins noted that Republicans have just a one vote majority on the committee (though she didn’t point out that she could be the swing voter).

She was asked if she would subpoena Trump’s tax returns, and on that she said it would depend on Burr and Mark Warner. We shall see whether Warner has the chops to force that issue.

On both torture and drone memos, Collins has been willing to serve as a swing voter on SSCI before. If she does so here, it could make a difference.

 

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

Why We Should Remain Skeptical of the Five (!!) Congressional Investigations into the Russian Hack

I was interviewed (on Thursday) about the Flynn resignation and larger investigation into the Russia hack for Saturday’s On the Media. In what made the edit, I made one error (which I’ll explain later), but a key point I made holds. The leaking about Flynn and other Russian events are hypocritical and out of control. But they may create pressure to fix two problems with the current investigations into the Russian hack: the role of Jeff Sessions overseeing the DOJ-led investigations, and the role of Trump advisory officials Devin Nunes and Richard Burr overseeing the most appropriate congressional investigations.

In this post I’ll look at the latter conflicts. In a follow-up I’ll look at what the FBI seems to be doing.

As I noted in the interview, contrary to what you might think from squawking Democrats, there are five congressional investigations pertaining to Russian hacks, though some will likely end up focusing on prospective review of Russian hacking (for comparison, there were seven congressional Benghazi investigations). They are:

  • Senate Intelligence Committee: After months of Richard Burr — who served on Trump’s campaign national security advisory council — saying an inquiry was not necessary and going so far as insisting any inquiry wouldn’t review the dossier leaked on Trump, SSCI finally agreed to do an inquiry on January 13. Jim Comey briefed that inquiry last Friday, February 17.
  • House Intelligence Committee: In December, James Clapper refused to brief the House Intelligence Committee on the latest intelligence concluding Russian hacked the DNC with the goal of electing Trump, noting that HPSCI had been briefed all along (as was clear from some of the leaks, which clearly came from HPSCI insiders). In January, they started their own investigation of the hack, having already started fighting about documents by late January. While Ranking Democratic Member Adam Schiff has long been among the most vocal people complaining about the treatment of the hack, Devin Nunes was not only a Trump transition official, but made some absolutely ridiculous complaints after Mike Flynn’s side of some conversations got legally collected in a counterintelligence wiretap. Nunes has since promised to investigate the leaks that led to Flynn’s forced resignation.
  • Senate Armed Services Committee: In early January, John McCain announced he’d form a new subcommittee on cybersecurity, with the understanding it would include the Russian hack in its focus. Although he originally said Lindsey Graham would lead that committee, within weeks (and after Richard Burr finally capitulated and agreed to do a SSCI inquiry), McCain instead announced Mike Rounds would lead it.
  • Senate Foreign Relations Committee: In December, Bob Corker announced the SFRC would conduct an inquiry, scheduled to start in January. At a hearing in February, the topic came up multiple times, and both Corker and Ben Cardin reiterated their plans to conduct such an inquiry.
  • Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism: After Graham was denied control of the SASC panel, he and Sheldon Whitehouse announced they’d conduct their own inquiry, including a prospective review of “the American intelligence community’s assessment that Russia did take an active interest and play a role in the recent American elections.”

All the while, some Senators — McCain, Graham, Chuck Schumer, and Jack Reed — have called for a Select Committee to conduct the investigation, though in true McCainesque fashion, the maverick has at times flip-flopped on his support of such an inquiry.

Also, while not an investigation, on February 9, Jerry Nadler issued what I consider (strictly as it relates to the Russian hack, not the other conflicts) an ill-advised resolution of inquiry calling for the Administration to release materials relating to the hack, among other materials. Democrats in both the House and Senate have introduced legislation calling for an independent commission, but have gotten no support even from the mavericky Republicans.

As you can see from these descriptions, it took pressure from other committees, especially Lindsey Graham getting control of one of the inquiries, before Richard Burr let himself be convinced by SSCI Vice Chair Mark Warner to conduct an inquiry. Thus far, Mitch McConnell has staved off any Select Committee. As soon as SSCI did claim to be launching an investigation, a bunch of Republicans tried to shut down the others, claiming it was all simply too confusing.

Let me be clear: as I noted in the OTM interview, the intelligence committees are the appropriate place to conduct this investigation, as it concerns really sensitive counterintelligence matters — people who could be witnesses to it are getting killed! — and an ongoing investigation. The only way to conduct a responsible inquiry is to do so in secret, and unless a select committee with clearance is formed, that means doing so in the dysfunctional intelligence committees.

That’s made worse by Nunes and Burr’s obvious conflicts, having served on Trump’s pre-inauguration advisory teams (at a time when Mike Flynn was chatting about ongoing sanctions with Russia), and their equally obvious disinterest in conducting the investigation. Remember that the intelligence committees successfully bolloxed up the independent investigation into Iran-Contra. While neither Nunes nor Burr is as smart as Dick Cheney, who had a key role in that intentional bolloxing, Democrats should be cognizant of the ways that such bolloxing has happened in the past.

And now that SSCI has finally started its inquiry, Ali Watkins published an uncharacteristically credulous report on Burr’s role in the investigation, slathering on the colorful vocabulary — “brutally yanked;” “underground cohort;” “dark shadow of Langley;” “Wearily, they’re trudging forward on a probe littered with potential political landmines;” — before portraying the allegedly difficult position Burr is in:

That he’s now in charge of the sweeping Russia inquiry puts the North Carolina Republican in between a rock and a hard place. Since taking over the helm of the intelligence committee, Burr has pressed for more active and aggressive oversight, and has kept a rigorous travel schedule to match. But his decisive reelection victory in November came at a cost — throughout the contentious race, Burr towed Trump’s line, and hasn’t yet directly criticized the White House publicly.

But Burr has shown no indication that he’s ever angled for a Trump administration job, and says he’s not running for re-election. How seriously he takes his obligation to carry his president’s water remains to be seen.

Burr has been slammed by colleagues in recent days, who fear he’s slow-rolling an investigation into a fast-moving story. But much of the inquiry’s slow start was due to bureaucratic wrangling — some intelligence agencies insisted products be viewed on site rather than sent to the Hill, and some of the intelligence was so tightly controlled that it was unclear if staffers could even view it.

This is just spin. There is abundant public record that Burr has thwarted oversight generally (he has said things supporting that stance throughout his history on both the Senate and House Intelligence Committee, even ignoring his role in covering up torture, and Watkins’ earlier incorrect claims about Burr’s open hearings remain only partly corrected). There is no mention in this article that Burr was on Trump’s national security advisory committee. Nor that SSCI had reason to do hearings about this hack well before January 2017, back when it might have made a difference — at precisely the time when Burr apparently had time to advise Trump about national security issues as a candidate. Plus, it ignores all the things laid out here, Burr’s continued equivocation about whether there should even be a hearing.

There is no reason to believe Burr or Nunes intend to have a truly rigorous investigation (bizarrely, Warner seems to have had more success pushing the issue than Schiff — or Dianne Feinstein when she was Vice Chair — though that may be because the Ranking position is stronger in the Senate than in the House). And history tells us we should be wary that their investigations will be counterproductive.

As I noted, on Friday — the Friday before a recess — Jim Comey briefed the SSCI on the Russian hack. That briefing was unusual for the date (regular SSCI meetings happen on Tuesday and Thursday, and little business of any kinds happens right before a recess). Reporters have interpreted that, along with the presumed silence about the content of the briefing, as a sign that things are serious. That may be true — or it may be that that was the only time a 3-hour briefing could be scheduled. In the wake of the briefing, it was reported that the SSCI sent broad preservation requests tied to the inquiry (that is, they sent the request long after the inquiry was started). And while the press has assumed no one is talking, the day after the briefing, Reuters reported outlines of at least three parts of the FBI investigation into the Russian hack, attributed to former and current government officials.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

If Richard Burr Jokes about Assassination in Secret, What Else Does He Joke about in Secret?

A tracker caught Senate Intelligence Chair responding to a request for a picture with a guy with an NRA hat on by joking about “putting a bullseye” on Hillary Clinton at an event for volunteers this weekend (the quip is after 34:30).

Nothing made me feel any better than, uh, I walked into a gun shop I think yesterday in Oxford. And there was a copy of Rifleman on the, on the counter. It’s got a picture of Hillary Clinton on the front of it. I was a little bit shocked at that — it didn’t have a bullseye on it.

After the comments became public, Burr apologized for them.

Mind you, Burr has a history of making inappropriate jokes about violence, even about assassination, even in public. In 2013, Burr joked with Treasury Secretary Jack Lew that his relative Aaron Burr assassinated Treasury Secretaries. And in the same year, Burr joked with John Brennan that drinking four glasses of water

“I’ll be brief,” Burr told the nominee to lead the Central Intelligence Agency. “I see you’re on your fourth glass of water and I don’t want to be accused of waterboarding you.”

But this is different, because he laughed about violence from others against a public figure, rather than joking about his own hypothetical violence. And it did so in a fairly closed event.

Given that as SSCI Chair Burr spends so much time huddling in secret with the intelligence community, Burr’s persistent joking about assassination and related issues does raise questions about what else he jokes in his private sessions with spooks. That’s especially true given how far out of his way he has gone to protect CIA from any accountability for torture.

Burr is, to his credit, virtually alone among an recent Gang of Four members for actually keeping what he learns from briefings secret. That means that, unlike this meeting (hilariously, after 13:00 in the recording, Burr kicks out someone he believes to be a tracker, but the person recording the meeting remained inside recording), we would never learn about how funny Burr thinks assassination is when meeting with those who actually carry them out.

That sure makes him an inappropriate person to head oversight of the intelligence community.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

Senate Narrowly Avoids Voting Themselves to Become “Typos”

The McCain (Cornyn) amendment to the Judiciary Appropriations bill that would let them get Electronic Communication Transaction Records with a National Security Letter just narrowly failed to get cloture, with Dan Sullivan flipping his vote to yes near the end but Mike Crapo, a likely no vote, not voting. The final vote was 59-37.

The floor debate leading up to the vote featured a few notable exchanges. Richard Burr was an absolutely douchebag, saying Ron “Wyden is consistently against providing LE the tools it needs to defend the American people.” He did so in a speech admitting that, “My colleague says this wouldn’t stop SB or Orlando. He’s 100% correct.”

Burr also insisted that we can’t let the Lone Wolf provision, which allegedly has never been used, expire. It was extended just last year and doesn’t expire until 2019.

More interesting though was the debate between Burr and Leahy over whether the FBI can’t obtain ECTRs because of a typo in the law as passed in 1993. Leahy basically described that Congress had affirmatively decided not to include ECTRs in NSLs (implicit in this, Congress also did not decide to include it in the 2001 expansion). Burr claimed that Congress meant to include it but didn’t in some kind of oversight.

Here’s how Mazie Hirono and Martin Heinrich described the debate in the report on the Intelligence Authorization, which has a version of the ECTR change.

The FBI has compared expanding these authorities to fixing a “typo” in the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA).

However, during consideration of ECPA reform legislation in 1993, the House Judiciary Committee said in its committee report that “Exempt from the judicial scrutiny normally
required for compulsory process, the national security letter is an extraordinary device. New applications are disfavored.”

The House Judiciary Committee report also makes clear that the bill’s changes to Section 2709(b) of ECPA were a “modification of the language originally proposed by the
FBI.”

This does not support claims that the removal of the ECTR language was a “typo.”

Burr effectively argued that because law enforcement wanted ECTRs to be included back in 1993, they were meant to be included, and Congress’ exclusion of them was just a typo.

In short, a member of the Senate just argued that if Congress affirmatively decides not to capitulate to every demand of law enforcement, it must be considered a “typo” and not legally binding law.

For the moment, the Senate voted down making itself a “typo,” but Mitch McConnell filed a motion to reconsider, meaning he can bring the vote back up as soon as he arm twists one more vote.

 

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

The SSCI Contemplates Splitting CyberCommand from DIRNSA

The Intercept’s Jenna McLaughlin liberated a copy of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Intelligence Authorization for 2017 which was passed out of committee a few weeks back. There are two really shitty things — a move to enable FBI to get Electronic Communications Transaction Records with NSLs again (which I’ll return to) and a move to further muck up attempts to close Gitmo.

But there are a remarkable number of non-stupid things in the bill.

I’m particularly interested in this language.

Screen Shot 2016-06-10 at 9.01.03 AM

Unless I’m completely misreading it, this section would require the Director of NSA to be a separate person from the head of CyberCommand. It would require Admiral Mike Rogers’ current dual hat to be split.

Correction: DIRNSA and CyberCom would only need to be split if CyberCom gets elevated to be a full combatant command.

That’s a recommendation the President’s own Review Group made back in 2013, only to have the President pre-empt PRG’s recommendation before they could publicize it. It would also likely have some impact on NSA’s decision, earlier this year, to combine the Information Assurance Directorate — NSA’s defensive organization — in with its offensive mission.

Frankly, I think our entire cybersecurity approach deserves a more open debate. The IC has done a pretty crummy job at defending us from attacks, and it’s not clear what purpose their secrecy about that serves.

But I am intrigued that SSCI seems to think NSA should retain its defensive capability, independent of all its offensive ones.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.