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SSCI Plays Hardball with Michael Cohen’s Attempt to Distract from Trump Tower Deal

Just before it was supposed to start, SSCI canceled Michael Cohen’s private interview with the committee. They did so, per a statement from Richard Burr and Mark Warner, because Cohen broke an agreement not to talk to the press by releasing what has generally been described as “his statement” to the press beforehand.

We were disappointed that Mr. Cohen decided to pre-empt today’s interview by releasing a public statement prior to his engagement with Committee staff, in spite of the Committee’s requests that he refrain from public comment. As a result, we declined to move forward with today’s interview and will reschedule Mr. Cohen’s appearance before the Committee in open session at a date in the near future. The Committee expects witnesses in this investigation to work in good faith with the Senate.

But in point of fact, what got published as his “statement” was not the entirety of it. Close to the end of the “statement” is this paragraph, alluding to a further two page statement on the Trump Tower deal that somehow didn’t get leaked.

I assume we will discuss the rejected proposal to build a Trump property in Moscow that was terminated in January of 2016; which occurred before the Iowa caucus and months before the very first primary. This was solely a real estate deal and nothing more. I was doing my job. I would ask that the two-page statement about the Moscow proposal that I sent to the Committee in August be incorporated into and attached to this transcript.

Other than that paragraph, mind you, Cohen’s statement closely parallels the letter to HPSCI Cohen released last month after spending a week distracting from and pre-empting the Trump Tower story. Both deny the allegations in the Christopher Steele dossier, and try to suggest that if he is found innocent of those allegations, then HPSCI and/or SSCI must issue a statement exonerating him.

In other words, with both committees, Cohen has manipulated the press so as to set a narrative about his testimony, a narrative that treats the Steele dossier as the entirety of his expose, rather than the now far more interesting (and interestingly time) real estate deal.

Four days ago, Michael Cohen (or the Trump Organization) pre-empted revelations that would leak as soon as he turned over a third tranche of documents to the House Intelligence Committee by revealing a seemingly damning detail from it: along with Trump’s associate Felix Sater, Cohen was pursuing a Trump Tower deal in Moscow well after Trump’s campaign was in full swing. Sure enough, more damning information was still to come: Sater somehow imagined the deal — whatever it was — would get Trump elected. Then still more damning information: in January 2016, Cohen reached out to trusted Putin aide Dmitry Peskov to push for help on the deal. That’s when Cohen began to not recall precisely what happened, and also ignore questions about why he hadn’t told Trump about this call, unlike the other actions he took on this deal.

[snip]

All that said, the way in which Cohen has orchestrated this disclosure — up to and including his failures to recall and answer obvious questions — is either great lawyering and/or sign that this earlier deal making is a real problem.

Of course, Burr and Warner were having none of this narrative scene setting and so now will force Cohen to testify publicly.

Cohen is sure spending a lot of time orchestrating distractions from this property deal. A pity for him his second attempt didn’t work as well as the first one.

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 Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, 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 in Grand Rapids, MI.

CNN Worries about Mueller’s Aggressive Tactics, But Real Concern May Be Senate Intelligence Committee

CNN has a cryptic story — pitched as evidence that the committees conducting the Russian investigation may be clashing with the Mueller investigation — suggesting two kinds of “aggressive tactics” on the part of Robert Mueller’s team.

The less cryptic of the two tactics is that the FBI seized attorney-client privileged documents in the morning raid of Manafort’s house.

Mueller issued subpoenas to Manafort’s former lawyer and current spokesman and authorized a pre-dawn raid of his Virginia home in late July.

During that raid, Mueller’s investigators took documents considered to be covered by attorney-client privilege, sources told CNN.

Lawyers from the WilmerHale law firm, representing Manafort at the time, warned Mueller’s office that their search warrant didn’t allow access to attorney materials. The documents in question have now been returned, the sources say.

The episode raised questions about whether investigators have seen materials they weren’t entitled to obtain.

“You can’t unsee something,” one source said.

It’s not an uncommon problem in FBI investigations. US attorneys typically have separate document-review teams to prevent investigators from handling materials they aren’t allowed to have. It’s not clear what procedures Mueller’s office uses.

We first head of this claim not from Manafort, but from Trump’s lawyer, John Dowd, via an email sent to WSJ but instead reported by Fox.

Dowd also said agents seized “privileged and confidential materials prepared for Mr. Manafort by his counsel to aid him in his cooperation with the Congressional committees,”

The claim that this privileged information pertained to Manafort’s cooperation with the Congressional committees may help to elucidate the second claim: that Mueller’s lawyers made an agreement with Manafort’s lawyers about what they could obtain from the Senate Intelligence Committee, then overstepped it in trying to get an actual transcript of the interview. CNN rather unhelpfully doesn’t tell us when Mueller made the agreement with Manafort’s lawyers about his appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee, before or after the interview and the raid.

After Manafort privately interviewed with Senate intelligence committee staff in late July to discuss the June 2016 meeting between Trump Jr. and Russian operatives, Mueller’s lawyers have struggled to get a copy of the interview transcript.

Manafort’s attorneys, in talks with the special counsel’s office, agreed to allow Mueller’s team only to get the documents Manafort had turned over to the committee, not the interview transcript, according to the sources.

Yet an attorney with the Mueller team later told the committee that they were authorized by Manafort’s representatives to have the Manafort interview transcript, sources familiar with the discussions told CNN. Committee lawyers later learned from Manafort’s attorneys that they had not provided that consent, the sources say.

As a result of the dispute, the committee hasn’t turned over any documents and the matter is still under discussion, sources say.

That’s critically important given the concern (which is real), that Mueller’s team “can’t unsee something.” That is, they may have seen something in the privileged communications about Manafort’s interview strategy that made them interested in the transcript, and only then asked for the transcript. Alternately, Manafort (and/or Dowd!) may just be bullshitting here, in a way to get SSCI to withhold something that became far more damning after the raid on his home.

Dowd’s other complaints — that Mueller didn’t need to raid Manafort’s home because he could get everything via other means, as witnessed by Manafort’s cooperation with SSCI — suggest the latter may be the case.

Dowd, in his note, questioned the validity of the search warrant itself, calling it an “extraordinary invasion of privacy.” Dowd said Manafort already was looking to cooperate with congressional committees and said the special counsel never requested the materials from Manafort.

“These failures by Special Counsel to exhaust less intrusive methods is a fatal flaw in the warrant process and would call for a Motion to Suppress the fruits of the search,” Dowd wrote, arguing the required “necessity” of the warrant was “misrepresented to the Court which raises a host of issues involving the accuracy of the warrant application and the supporting FBI affidavit.”

But there’s something else important here. As I laid out here, the Mueller raid happened in the wake of two developments in the Senate Judiciary Committee. On Monday, July 24 (“last night” in a July 25 release), Grassley and Feinstein issued a subpoena for Manafort, in particular complaining that Manafort wanted to appear before just one committee, SSCI.

While we were willing to accommodate Mr. Manafort’s request to cooperate with the committee’s investigation without appearing at Wednesday’s hearing, we were unable to reach an agreement for a voluntary transcribed interview with the Judiciary Committee.  Mr. Manafort, through his attorney, said that he would be willing to provide only a single transcribed interview to Congress, which would not be available to the Judiciary Committee members or staff.  While the Judiciary Committee was willing to cooperate on equal terms with any other committee to accommodate Mr. Manafort’s request, ultimately that was not possible. Therefore, yesterday evening, a subpoena was issued to compel Mr. Manafort’s participation in Wednesday’s hearing. As with other witnesses, we may be willing to excuse him from Wednesday’s hearing if he would be willing to agree to production of documents and a transcribed interview, with the understanding that the interview would not constitute a waiver of his rights or prejudice the committee’s right to compel his testimony in the future.

That is, Manafort was digging his heels in on a strategy that would have him cooperate exclusively with SSCI, not with SJC. And, as with Mueller, Manafort was refusing to turn over that transcript to SJC.

Faced with the threat of the subpoena, however, Manafort agreed to turn over documents and suggested he might be willing to do a separate transcribed interview.

Faced with issuance of a subpoena, we are happy that Mr. Manafort has started producing documents to the Committee and we have agreed to continue negotiating over a transcribed interview. It’s important that he and other witnesses continue to work with this committee as it fulfills its oversight responsibility. Our investigation is still in its early stages, and we will continue to seek information from witnesses as necessary. As we’ve said before, we intend to get the answers that we need, one way or the other. Cooperation from witnesses is always the preferred route, but this agreement does not prejudice the committee’s right to compel his testimony in the future.

This is the reluctant, last minute “cooperation” that Dowd pointed to as basis for his claim that Mueller could have gotten Manafort’s cooperation via other means, and part of that cooperation had Manafort undergoing a transcribed interview solely with SSCI.

Hours after Manafort made this agreement with SJC, Mueller’s team raided Manafort.

Two more details are worth recalling. We now know that on the day the WaPo broke the story of Mueller’s raid of Manafort, Donald Trump bitched out Mitch McConnell on the phone about not protecting him in the Russia probe. NYT described Trump as being even angrier about that than McConnell’s failure to pass TrumpCare.

During the call, which Mr. Trump initiated on Aug. 9 from his New Jersey golf club, the president accused Mr. McConnell of bungling the health care issue. He was even more animated about what he intimated was the Senate leader’s refusal to protect him from investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to Republicans briefed on the conversation.

That’s when Dowd started emailing reporters at Murdoch publications, complaining that the Manafort raid endangered Trump.

Now consider that the other thing CNN includes among Mueller’s aggressive tactics — his subpoena of Manafort’s former lawyer Melissa Laurenza — is effectively a subpoena of a former McConnell staffer.

The subpoenas seeking documents and testimony were sent to Melissa Laurenza, an attorney with the Akin Gump law firm who until recently represented Manafort, and to Jason Maloni, who is Manafort’s spokesman, according to people familiar with the matter.

So it may be that Trump believed Manafort had certain understandings with McConnell that the raid — executed hours after Manafort’s SSCI interview — disrupted.

All that being said, once you consider that both Mueller’s team and Grassley’s committee are facing similar difficulties with Manafort, it suggests the focus here should not be on Mueller, but instead on what kind of special deals SSCI (Chaired by former Trump advisor Richard Burr) is offering up.

Sure, we have yet to have committees granting immunity to protect the president and his lackeys — which is what thwarted the Iran-Contra investigation. But given that SSCI seems to have offered to serve as a black hole for Manafort’s sworn claims, I think it time to stop assuming, as many in DC are doing, that that’s where the grown-ups live.

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 Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, 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 in Grand Rapids, MI.

Report from North Carolina Makes Reality Winner Leak Far More Important

According to NPR, the poll books in six precincts in Durham County, NC, went haywire on election day, which led the entire county to shift to paper poll books.

When people showed up in several North Carolina precincts to vote last November, weird things started to happen with the electronic systems used to check them in.

“Voters were going in and being told that they had already voted — and they hadn’t,” recalls Allison Riggs, an attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

The electronic systems — known as pollbooks — also indicated that some voters had to show identification, even though they did not.

[snip]

At first, the county decided to switch to paper pollbooks in just those precincts to be safe. But Bowens says the State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement got involved “and determined that it would be better to have uniformity across all of our 57 precincts and we went paper pollbooks across the county.”

That move caused a whole new set of problems: Voting was delayed — up to an hour and a half — in a number of precincts as pollworkers waited for new supplies. With paper pollbooks, they had to cut voters’ names out and attach them to a form before people could get their ballots.

The company that provided the software for the poll books is VR Systems — the company that the document Reality Winner leaked showed had been probed by Russian hackers.

But Susan Greenhalgh, who’s part of an election security group called Verified Voting, worried that authorities underreacted. She was monitoring developments in Durham County when she saw a news report that the problem pollbooks were supplied by a Florida company named VR Systems.

“My stomach just dropped,” says Greenhalgh.

She knew that in September, the FBI had warned Florida election officials that Russians had tried to hack one of their vendor’s computers. VR Systems was rumored to be that company.

Because of the publicity surrounding the VR targeting — thanks to the document leaked by Winner — NC has now launched an investigation.

Lawson says the state first learned of the hack attempt when The Intercept, an online news site, published its story detailing Russian attempts to hack VR Systems. The leaked report said hackers then sent emails to local election offices that appeared to come from VR — but which actually contained malicious software.

[snip]

So now, months after the election, the state has launched an investigation into what happened in Durham County. It has secured the pollbooks that displayed the inaccurate information so forensic teams can examine them.

So this may be the first concrete proof that Russian hackers affected the election. But we’ll only find out of that’s true thanks to Winner’s leak.

Except she can’t raise that at trial.

Last week, Magistrate Judge Brian Epps imposed a protection order in her case that prohibits her or her team from raising any information from a document the government deems to be classified, even if that document has been in the public record. That includes the document she leaked.

The protective order is typical for leak cases. Except in this case, it covers information akin to information that appeared in other outlets without eliciting a criminal prosecution. And more importantly, Winner could now point to an important benefit of her leak, if only she could point to the tie between her leak and this investigation in North Carolina.

With the protection order, she can’t.

Note one more implication of this story.

In addition to the Presidential election last year, North Carolina had a surprisingly close Senate election, in which Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr beat Deborah Ross by 6%. Admittedly, the margin was large — over 200,000 votes. But Durham County is the most Democratic county in the state.

Burr, of course, is presiding over one of the four investigations into the Russian hacks. And while I don’t think this story, yet, says that Burr won because of the hack, if the investigations shows VR was hacked in the state and it affected throughput in the most Democratic county, then it means Burr benefitted as clearly from the Russian hacks as Trump did.

The SSCI investigation has been going better than I had imagined. But this seems like a conflict of interest.

Update: I originally said the entire state switched to paper pollbooks. That’s incorrect: just Durham County did, which makes the issue even more important.

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 Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, 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 in Grand Rapids, MI.

The Long-Delayed Jeff Sessions Reveal

Today (or yesterday — I’ve lost track of time) the WaPo reported what has long been implied: there’s evidence that Jeff Sessions spoke to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak about campaign-related stuff, contrary to his repeated sworn comments.

At first, I thought this revelation might relate to Richard Burr’s assertion that Devin Nunes made up the scandal about which Obama officials had unmasked the identity of Trump officials who got sucked up in intercepts of Russians.

“The unmasking thing was all created by Devin Nunes, and I’ll wait to go through our full evaluation to see if there was anything improper that happened,” Burr said. “But clearly there were individuals unmasked. Some of that became public which it’s not supposed to, and our business is to understand that, and explain it.”

After all, one of the things the Senate Intelligence Committee would do to clear Rice is figure out who unmasked the identities of Trump people. And there’s at least circumstantial evidence to suggest that James Clapper unmasked Jeff Sessions’ identity, potentially on the last day of his tenure.

But Adam Entous, one of the three journalists on the story (and all the stories based on leaks of intercepts) reportedly said on the telly they’ve had the story since June.

Which instead suggests the WaPo published a story they’ve been sitting on since Sessions’ testimony.

The WaPo story cites the NYT interview in which Trump attacked Sessions for his poor answers about his interactions with Kislyak.

Trump, in an interview this week, expressed frustration with Sessions’s recusing himself from the Russia probe and indicated that he regretted his decision to make the lawmaker from Alabama the nation’s top law enforcement officer. Trump also faulted Sessions as giving “bad answers” during his confirmation hearing about his Russian contacts during the campaign.

Officials emphasized that the information contradicting Sessions comes from U.S. intelligence on Kislyak’s communications with the Kremlin, and acknowledged that the Russian ambassador could have mischaracterized or exaggerated the nature of his interactions.

Many people took this interview as an effort on Trump’s part to get Sessions to resign.

And the WaPo goes on to note that the disclosure — by these same journalists — of Mike Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak led to his resignation.

Kislyak was also a key figure in the departure of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was forced to leave that job after The Post revealed that he had discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with Kislyak even while telling others in the Trump administration that he had not done so.

And all of a sudden, we get this confirmation that Sessions has been lying all along.

Don’t get me wrong: I’d be happy to see Jeff Sessions forced to resign. But if he does, Trump will appoint someone more willing to help the cover up, someone who (because he wouldn’t have these prevarications about conversations with the Russian Ambassador and therefore won’t have to recuse) will assume supervision of Robert Mueller.

So while I’m happy for the confirmation that Sessions lied, I have real questions about why this is being published now.

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 Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, 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 in Grand Rapids, MI.

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 Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, 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 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 Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, 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 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 Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, 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 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 Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, 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 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 Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, 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 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 Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, 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 in Grand Rapids, MI.