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CIA or NSA Warrantlessly Accessed the Content of More than 300 US Persons (Probably More than 1,300) Who Aren’t Terror Suspects

Because Circa did a really sloppy report on the I Con the Record Transparency Report and Rand Paul quoted, there is a great deal of confusion about what back door searches are.

With the help of the NSA, the FBI collects information via traditional FISA orders. They got 1,559 of them last year, of which 1,477 were targeted at someone in the United States, and of which 336 were targeted at American citizens or permanent residents. All that data goes into a cloud server at the FBI and a separate one at NSA.

In addition, NSA collects information targeted at people overseas under Section 702. FBI can also ask NSA to collect on people they’ve come across in their investigations. Altogether, NSA collected on over 106,000 individual targets last year, via both upstream collection and by asking American providers (Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and the like) for any data they’ve got on those 106,000 targets. They’ll get both sides of targets’ conversations, stored documents and photos, calendar information, and other information.

After NSA gets that information, it will share the parts of that are most relevant to the CIA and the FBI’s missions with them, in raw form. At the FBI, that data is stuck on the same cloud server as the domestic-focused FISA data is in. It is understood that FBI receives any terrorism, counterproliferation, or spying data that has a domestic component (such as Russian spies or ISIS recruiters trying to recruit Americans).

All three agencies — NSA, CIA, and FBI — can then search their own collections of FISA information using the identifier of a US person (a citizen or permanent resident). At NSA and CIA, the analyst has to have a foreign intelligence purpose, such as they think Russians are trying to recruit Mike Flynn. At FBI, an agent has to be looking for criminal information, national security information, or even doing an assessment (such as to figure out whether Carter Page would make a good informant on what the Trump campaign is doing). FBI does so many of these searches they can’t count them.

If there are conversations involving these people in the relevant databases, it appears to the analyst or agent in unmasked form. Yes, if CIA and NSA want to write reports to the White House about what they found, then the name might be masked (but in the vast majority of reports based off 702 reports involving US persons — perhaps 74% — the US person identities eventually get unmasked), but the FBI may dump that data into investigative files.

To understand how and who this might impact in the United States, take this comment from Jim Comey the other day. When asked how many active terrorist investigations the FBI has, he said there were 1,000 investigations where the target was known to be talking to terrorist overseas, and 1,000 where the target embraced radicalism all by him or herself, without talking to an ISIS or any other overseas recruiter.

COMEY: Yes I do. If — we have about 1,000 home grown violent extremist investigations and we probably have another 1,000 or so that are — I should define my terms. Home grown violent extremists, we mean somebody — we have no indication that they’re in touch with any terrorists.

TILLIS: Any foreign touch. Right.

COMEY: Yes. Then we have another big group of people that we’re looking at who we see some contact with foreign terrorists. So you take that 2,000 plus cases, about 300 of them are people who came to the United States as refugees.

Let’s take the higher number, and say there are 2,000 people in the US the intelligence community thinks might be terrorists or susceptible to being convinced to become one.

Now let’s look at the back door search numbers. The NSA used the identifiers (say, their cell phone identifier or their email) of US persons and searched the metadata from their stash of 702 data 30,355 times last year. (The CIA and FBI refuse to count how many metadata searches they did.) That means that NSA tried to do a network analysis on over 28,000 Americans and permanent residents who are not the subject of investigations by the FBI for being terrorists.

Between CIA and FBI combined, they did 5,288 queries on US persons last year. Back in 2013, the CIA did far more searches than the NSA (on 1,400 selectors as compared to NSA’s 198); we don’t know how the split works now. But assume that at least one agency is doing at least 2,644 searches. At the NSA, all 336 traditional FISA targets can be (and I assume are) tasked for back door searches; presumably a chunk of the 336 people targeted under are being investigated for terrorism, though that would also include people like (allegedly) Carter Page, people the FBI has gotten the FISA court to believe are agents of foreign powers). But even if we assume none of the people targeted under FISA are terrorists and all domestic terrorists are being back door searched at NSA, that leaves over 300 people (2,644 – 1,000 – 1,000 – 336) who are having their content accessed without a warrant by the NSA (to say nothing of the FBI, which does it so often it can’t count it). The number is probably higher, though, given that 1,000 of those terrorist suspects aren’t conversing with foreigners. The NSA (or CIA) is only going to access content if they know it exists from metadata, and Comey comment suggests there’s no metadata indicating such conversations. And at least some of those 336 targeted US persons are terror suspects.

Which means one agency — NSA or CIA — is likely accessing the raw content of 1,300 people who aren’t terrorist suspects.

That’s fine. There are other things they might be: suspected weapons proliferators, suspected Russian or Chinese spies, people the government is worried are being recruited by spies, suspected hackers, suspected leakers, Americans who’ve been kidnapped.

But the numbers make clear that the presumption that all of this spying is targeted at terrorists is simply wrong. There are at least 300 people — and probably more like 1,300 people — who even the NSA is accessing the content of without a warrant who are not terrorist suspects.

And the number at FBI is so high it can’t count it.

How to Spy on Carter Page

I have no personal knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the alleged wiretapping of Carter Page, aside from what WaPo and NYT have reported. But, in part because the release of the new, annual FISC report has created a lot of confusion, I wanted to talk about the legal authorities that might have been involved, as a way of demonstrating (my understanding, anyway, of) how FISA works.

FISC did not (necessarily) reject more individual orders last year

First, let’s talk about what the FISC report is. It is a new report, mandated by the USA Freedom Act. As the report itself notes, because it is new (a report covering the period after passage of USAF), it can’t be compared with past years. More importantly, because the FISA Court uses a different (and generally more informative) reporting approach, you cannot — as both privacy groups and journalists erroneously have — compare these numbers with the DOJ report that has been submitted for years (or even the I Con the Record report that ODNI has released since the Snowden leaks); that’s effectively an apples to grapefruit comparison. Those reports should be out this week, which (unless the executive changes its reporting method) will tell us how last year compared with previous years.

But comparing last year’s report to the report from the post-USAF part of 2015 doesn’t sustain a claim that last year had record rejections. If we were to annualize last year’s report (covering June to December 2015) showing 5 rejected 1805/1824 orders (those are the individual orders often called “traditional FISA”) across roughly 7 months, it is actually more (.71 rejected orders a month or .58% of all individual content applications) than the 8 rejected 1805/1824 orders last year (.67 rejected orders a month or .53% of all individual content applications). In 2016, the FISC also rejected an 1861 order (better known as Section 215), but we shouldn’t make too much of that either given that that authority changed significantly near the end of 2015, plus we don’t have this counting methodology for previous years (as an example, 2009 almost surely would have at least one partial rejection of an entire bulk order, when Reggie Walton refused production of Sprint records in the summertime).

Which is a long-winded way of saying we should not assume that the number of traditional content order rejections reflects the reports that FBI applied for orders on four Trump associates but got rejected (or maybe only got one approved for Page). As far as we can tell from this report, 2016 had a similar number of what FISC qualifies as rejections as 2015.

The non-approval of Section 702 certificates has no bearing on any Russian-related spying, which means Page would be subject to back door searches

Nor should my observation — that the FISC did not approve any certifications for 1881a (better known as Section 702, which covers both upstream and PRISM) reflect on any Carter Page surveillance. Given past practice when issues delayed approvals of certifications, it is all but certain FISC just extended the existing certifications approved in 2015 until the matters that resulted in an at least 2 month delay were resolved.

Moreover, the fact that the number of certificates (which is probably four) is redacted doesn’t mean anything either: it was redacted last year as well. That number would be interesting because it would permit us to track any expansions in the application of FISA 702 to new uses (perhaps to cover cybersecurity, or transnational crime, for example). But the number of certificates pertains to the number of people targeted only insofar as any additional certificates represent one more purpose to use Section 702 on.

In any case, Snowden documents, among other things, show that a “foreign government” certificate has long been among the existing certificates. So we should assume that the NSA has collected the conversations of known or suspected Russian spies located overseas conducted on PRISM providers; we should also assume that as a counterintelligence issue implicating domestic issues, these intercepts are routinely shared in raw form with FBI. Therefore, unless last year’s delay involved FBI’s back door searches, we should assume that when the FBI started focusing on Carter Page again last spring or summer, they would have routinely searched on his known email addresses and phone numbers in a federated search and found any PRISM communications collected. In the same back door search, they would have also found any conversations Page had with Russians targeted domestically, such as Sergey Kislyak.

The import of the breakdown between 1805 and 1824

Perhaps the most important granular detail in this report — one that has significant import for Carter Page — is the way the report breaks down authorizations for 1805 and 1824.

1805 covers electronic surveillance — so the intercept of data in motion. It might be used to collect phone calls and other telephony communication, as well as (perhaps?) email communication collected via upstream collection (that is, non-PRISM Internet communication that is not encrypted); it may well also cover prospective PRISM and other stored communication collection. 1824 covers “physical search,” which when it was instituted probably covered primarily the search of physical premises, like a house or storage unit. But it now also covers the search of stored communication, such as someone’s Gmail or Dropbox accounts. In addition, a physical search FISA order covers the search of hard drives on electronic devices.

As we can see for the first time with these reports, most individual orders cover both 1805 and 1824 (92% last year, 88% in 2015), but some will do just one or another. (I wonder if FBI sometimes gets one kind of order to acquire evidence to get the other kind?)

As filings in the Keith Gartenlaub case make clear, “physical search” conducted under a FISA order can be far more expansive than the already overly expansive searches of devices under a Article III warrant. Using a FISA 1824 order, FBI Agents snuck into Gartenlaub’s house and imaged the hard drives from a number of his devices, ostensibly looking for proof he was spying on Boeing for China. They found no evidence to support that. They did, however, find some 9-year old child pornography files, which the government then “refound” under a criminal search warrant and used to prosecute him. Among the things Gartenlaub is challenging on appeal is the breadth of that original FISA search.

Consider how this would work with Carter Page. The NYT story on the Page order makes it clear that FBI waited until Page had left the Trump campaign before it requested an order covering him.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court issued the warrant, the official said, after investigators determined that Mr. Page was no longer part of the Trump campaign, which began distancing itself from him in early August.

I suspect this is a very self-serving description on the part of FBI sources, particularly given reports that FISC refused orders on others. But regardless of whether FISC or the FBI was the entity showing discretion, let’s just assume that someone was distinguishing any communications Page may have had while he was formally tied to the campaign from those he had after — or before.

This is a critical distinction for stored communications because (as the Gartenlaub case makes clear) a search of a hard drive can provide evidence of completely unrelated crime that occurred nine years in the past; in Gartenlaub’s case, they reportedly used it to try to get him to spy on China and they likely would do the equivalent for Page if they found anything. For Page, a search of his devices or stored emails in September 2016 would include emails from during his service on Trump’s campaign, as well as emails between the time Page was interviewed by FBI on suspicion of being recruited by Victor Podobnyy and the time he started on the campaign, as well as communications going back well before that. So if FISC (or, more generously, the FBI) were trying to exclude materials from during the campaign, that might involve restrictions built into the request or the final order

The report covering 2016 for the first time distinguishes between orders FISC modifies (FISC interprets this term more broadly than DOJ has in its reports) and orders FISC partly denies. FISC will modify an order to, among other things,

(1) impos[e] a new reporting requirement or modifying one proposed by the government;

(2)  chang[e] the description or specification of a targeted person, of a facility to be subjected to electronic surveillance or of property to be searched;

(3)  modify[] the minimization procedures proposed by the government; or

(4)  shorten[] the duration of some or all of the authorities requested

Using Page as an example, if the FISC were permitting FBI to obtain communications from before the time Page joined the campaign but not during it, it might modify an order to require additional minimization procedures to ensure that none of those campaign communications were viewed by the FBI.

The FISC report explains that the court will partly deny orders and “by approving some targets, some facilities, places, premises, property or specific selection terms, and/or some forms of collection, but not others.” Again, using Page as an example, if the court wanted to really protect the election related communications, it might permit a search of Page’s homes and offices under 1824, but not his hard drives, making any historic searches impossible.

There’s still no public explanation of how Section 704/Section 705b work, which would impact Page

Finally, the surveillance of Carter Page implicates an issue that has been widely discussed during and since passage of the FISA Amendments Act in 2008, but not in a way that fully supports a democratic debate: how NSA spies on Americans overseas.

Obviously, the FBI would want to spy on Page both while he was in the US, but especially when he was traveling abroad, most notably on his frequent trips to Russia.

The FISA Amendments Act for the first time required the NSA to obtain FISC approval before doing that. As I explain in this post, for years, public debate has claimed that was done under Section 703 (1881b in this report). But abundant evidence shows it is all done under 704 (1881c in this report). The biggest difference between the two, according to an internal NSA document, is the government doesn’t explain its methods in the latter case. With someone who would be spied on both in the US and overseas, that spying would be done under 705b (conducted under 1881d section b), which permits the AG to approve of spying overseas (effectively, 704 authority) for those already approved under a traditional order.

This matters in the context of spying on Carter Page for two reasons. First, as noted government doesn’t share details about how it spies overseas with the court. And some of the techniques we know NSA to use — such as XKeyscore searches drawing on bulk overseas collection — would seem to present additional privacy concerns on top of the domestic authorities. If the FBI (or more likely, the FISC) is going to try to bracket off any communications that occur during the period Page was associated with the campaign, that would have to be done for overseas surveillance as well, most critically, for Page’s July trip to Russia.

This report shows that 704, like the domestic authorities, also gets modified sometimes, so it may be that FISC did just that — permitted NSA to collect information covering that July meeting, but imposed some minimization procedures to protect the campaign.

But it’s unclear whether the court would have an opportunity to do so for 705b, which derives from Attorney General authorization, not court authorization. I assume that’s why 1881d was not included in this reporting requirement, but it seems adding 705b reporting to Title VII reauthorization this year would be a fairly minor change, but one that might reveal how often the government uses more powerful overseas spying techniques on Americans. It’s unclear to me, for example, whether any modifications or partial approvals the FISC made on a joint 1805/1824 order covering Page would translate into a 705b order, particularly if the modifications in question included additional reporting to the FISC.

Carter Page might one day be the first American to get review of his FISA dossier

All of which is why, no matter what you think of Carter Page’s alleged role in influencing the Trump campaign to favor Russia, I hope he one day gets to review his FISA dossier.

No criminal defendant has ever gotten a review of the FISA materials behind the spying, in spite of clear Congressional intent, when the law was passed in 1978, to allow that in certain cases. Because of the publicity surrounding this case, and the almost unprecedented leaking about FISA orders, Page stands a better chance than anyone else of getting such review (particularly if, as competing stories from CNN and Business Insider claim, the dossier formed a key, potentially uncorroborated part of the case against him). Whatever else happens with this case, I think Page should get that review.

Why Susan Rice May Be a Shiny Object

A bunch of Republican propagandists are outraged that the press isn’t showing more interest in PizzaGate Mike Cernovich’s “scoop” that the woman in charge of ensuring our national security under President Obama, then National Security Advisor Susan Rice, sought to fully understand the national security intercepts she was being shown.

There are two bases for their poutrage, which might have merit — but coming from such hacks, may not.

The first is the suggestion, based off Devin Nunes’ claim (and refuted by Adam Schiff) that Rice unmasked things she shouldn’t have. Thus far, the (probably illegally) leaked details — such as that family members, perhaps like Jared Kushner (who met with an FSB officer turned head of a sanctioned Russian bank used as cover for other spying operations), Sean Hannity (who met with an already-targeted Julian Assange at a time he was suspected of coordinating with Russians), and Erik Prince (who has literally built armies for foreign powers) got spied on — do nothing but undermine Nunes’ claims. All the claimed outrageous unmaskings actually seem quite justifiable, given the accepted purpose for FISA intercepts.

The other suggestion — and thus far, it is a suggestion, probably because (as I’ll show) it’s thus far logically devoid of evidence — is that because Rice asked to have the names of people unmasked, she must be the person who leaked the contents of the intercepts of Sergey Kislyak discussing sanctions with Mike Flynn. (Somehow, the propagandists always throw Ben Rhodes’ name in, though it’s not clear on what basis.)

Let me start by saying this. Let’s assume those intercepts remained classified when they were leaked. That’s almost certain, but Obama certainly did have the authority to declassify them, just as either George Bush or Dick Cheney allegedly used that authority to declassify Valerie Plame’s ID (as some of these same propagandists applauded back in the day). But assuming the intercepts did remain classified, I agree that it is a problem that they were leaked by nine different sources to the WaPo.

But just because Rice asked to unmask the identities of various Trump (and right wing media) figures doesn’t mean she and Ben Rhodes are the nine sources for the WaPo.

That’s because the information on Flynn may have existed in a number of other places.

Obviously, Rice could not have been the first person to read the Flynn-Kislyak intercepts. That’s because some analyst(s) would have had to read them and put them into a finished report (most, but not all, of Nunes’ blathering comments about these reports suggest they were finished intelligence). Assuming those analysts were at NSA (which is not at all certain) someone would have had to have approved the unmasking of Flynn’s name before Rice saw it.

In addition, it is possible — likely even, at least by January 2017, when we know people were asking why Russia didn’t respond more strongly to Obama’s hacking sanctions — that there were two other sets of people who had access to the raw intelligence on Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak: the CIA and, especially, the FBI, which would have been involved in any FISA-related collection. Both CIA and FBI can get raw data on topics they’re working on. Likely, in this case, the multi-agency task force was getting raw collection related to their Russian investigation.

And as I’ve explained, as soon as FBI developed a suspicion that either Kislyak was at the center of discussions on sanctions or that Flynn was an unregistered agent of multiple foreign powers, the Special Agents doing that investigation would routinely pull up everything in their databases on those people by name, which would result in raw Title I and 702 FISA collection (post January 3, it probably began to include raw EO 12333 data as well).

So already you’re up to about 15 to 20 people who would have access to the raw intercepts, and that’s before they brief their bosses, Congress (though the Devin Nunes and Adam Schiff briefing, at least, was delayed a bit), and DOJ, all the way up to Sally Yates, who wanted to warn the White House. Jim Comey has suggested it is likely that the nine sources behind the WaPo story were among these people briefed secondarily on the intercepts. And it’s worth noting that David Ignatius, who first broke the story of Flynn’s chats with Kislyak but was not credited on the nine source story, has known source relationships in other parts of the government than the National Security Advisor, though he also has ties to Rice.

All of which is to say that the question of who leaked the contents of Mike Flynn’s conversations with Sergey Kislyak is a very different question from whether Susan Rice’s requests to unmask Trump associates’ names were proper or not. It is possible that Rice leaked the intercepts without declassifying them first. But it’s also possible that any of tens of other people did, most of whom would have a completely independent channel for that information.

And the big vulnerability is not — no matter what Eli Lake wants to pretend — the unmasking of individual names by the National Security Advisor. Rather, it’s that groups of investigators can access the same intelligence in raw form without a warrant tied to the American person in question.

Raw Versus Cooked: Could NSC Monitor FBI’s Investigation?

Multiple people,including Bart Gellman and Josh Marshall, are now arguing that the reason Ezra Cohen-Watnick and Michael Ellis found intercepts involving Trump’s people is that they were monitoring FBI’s investigation of the investigation.

I certainly think the Trump people would like to do that — and would be willing to stoop to that. I even believe that the response to the Russian hack last year had some counterintelligence problems, though probably not on the FBI side.

But there are some details that may limit how much the NSC can monitor the investigation.

First, Devin Nunes has always been very clear: the intercepts he was shown have nothing to do with Russia. That’s not, itself, determinative. After all, Cohen-Watnick and Ellis might have found a bunch of Russian intercepts, but only shared the non-Russian ones so Nunes could make a stink without being accused of endangering the investigation. Also, it’s possible that intercepts involving other countries — most notably Turkey, but there are other countries that might be even more interesting, including Ukraine or Syria — would impact any Russian investigation.

Also note that among the many things Nunes appears not to understand about surveillance is that there are two ways an American’s name can be visible outside the circle of analysts doing the initial review of them: their names can be put into finished intelligence reports that get circulated more broadly, with customers asking to have the name unmasked after the fact. Alternately, their names can be found off of subsequent searches of raw data. At the NSA and CIA, searches for US person content are somewhat controlled. At FBI they are not only not controlled, but they are routine even for criminal investigations. So if, say, General Flynn (or Paul Manafort) were under investigation for failing to register as a foreign agent, the FBI would routinely search their database of raw FISA material on his name. (These are the “back door searches” Ron Wyden has been screaming about for years, concerns which people like Devin Nunes have previously dismissed on national security grounds.) And we have every reason to believe that counterintelligence intercepts of Russians in the US are among the raw feeds that the FBI gets. So if Flynn had conversations with Russians (or Turks) in the US, we should assume that FBI saw them as a routine matter if Flynn became the subject of an investigation at all. We should also assume that the FBI did a search on every Sergey Kislyak intercept in their possession, so they will have read everything that got picked up, including all recorded calls with Trump aides.

On March 15, the House Intelligence Committee asked the NSA, CIA, and FBI for information on unmasking. I don’t believe that request asked about access to US person names on subsequent searches or raw material. Furthermore, at least as of last week, the FBI was not rushing to comply with that request. As I noted after the Jim Comey hearing before HPSCI, none of the Republicans concerned about these issues seemed to have any basic clue about FBI’s searches on raw data. If Nunes doesn’t know (and he appears not to), it’s unlikely Ellis knows, who was until this month Nunes’ aide.

But there’s one other thing that may prevent NSC from obtaining information about the investigation: FBI sometimes uses what are called “ad hoc databases” that include raw FISA data (and probably, post EO 12333 sharing rule changes, raw EO 12333 data) tied to particular investigations. It’s unclear what conditions might necessitate the use of an ad hoc database (see page 25ff for a discussion of them), but if security concerns would encourage their use, it would be likely to have one here, an investigation which Comey described as being so sensitive he delayed briefing the Gang of Four. Ad hoc databases are restricted to those working on investigations, and include specific records of those authorized to access the database. So if FBI were using an ad hoc database for this investigation, it would be even harder for the NSC to learn what they were looking at.

If the FBI’s investigation relies on raw intelligence — and it would be unfathomable that it does not, because it would probably receive the raw FISA data tied to such an investigation routinely, and EO 12333 sharing rules specifically envision the sharing of raw data associated with counterintelligence investigations — then the NSC’s access to finished intelligence reports would provide little insight into the investigation (Nunes was a bit unclear on whether that’s what he was looking at, but the entire premise of his complaints is that these were finished reports).

But while we’re worrying about whether and how Trump would monitor an investigation into his aides, remember that in 2002, Jay Bybee wrote a memo authorizing the sharing of grand jury information with the President and his close advisors including for counterintelligence investigations.

In addition, the Patriot Act recently amended 6(e) and Title III specifically to provide that matters involving foreign intelligence or counterintelligence or foreign intelligence information may be disclosed by any attorney for the government (and in the case of Title III, also by an investigative or law enforcement officer) to certain federal officials in order to assist those officials in carrying out their duties. Federal officials who are included within these provisions may include, for example, the President, attorneys within the White House Counsel’s Office, the President’s Chief of Staff, the National Security Advisor, and officials within the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense.

[snip]

Although the new provision in Rule 6(e) permitting disclosure also requires that any disclosures be reported to the district court responsible for supervising the grand jury, we conclude that disclosures made to the President fall outside the scope of the reporting requirement contained in that amendment, as do related subsequent disclosures made to other officials on the President’s behalf.

In other words, Trump could demand that he — or his National Security Advisor! — get information on any grand jury investigations, including those covering counterintelligence cases. And no judge would be given notice of that.

With Jeff Sessions’ recusal, that’s far less likely to happen than it might have been. But understand that the Executive Branch believes that the President can learn about the happenings in grand jury investigations of the sort that might target his aides.

Update: additional details have been added to this post after it was first posted.

The Jared Kushner Meeting Gets Closer to Quid Pro Quo

Last week, several members of Congress anonymously told the press they had, for the first time, seen evidence that might support charges of collusion between Trump’s associates and the Russians. The frenzied speculation mostly focused on the usual suspects: Paul Manafort, Mike Flynn, Roger Stone, or Carter Page (somehow, the frenzied speculation often forgets Trump lawyer Michael Cohen).

Today, the NYT has a story reporting that the Senate Intelligence Committee wants to talk to Jared Kushner about a previously undisclosed meeting arranged by Russian Ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak.

Until now, the White House had acknowledged only an early December meeting between Mr. Kislyak and Mr. Kushner, which occurred at Trump Tower and was also attended by Michael T. Flynn, who would briefly serve as the national security adviser.

Later that month, though, Mr. Kislyak requested a second meeting, which Mr. Kushner asked a deputy to attend in his stead, officials said. At Mr. Kislyak’s request, Mr. Kushner later met with Sergey N. Gorkov, the chief of Vnesheconombank, which drew sanctions from the Obama administration after President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia annexed Crimea and began meddling in Ukraine.

The NYT only notes this obliquely by stating the committee has access to routine intercepts involving the Ambassador, but remember that FBI went through Kislyak’s intercepted communications in hopes of explaining why Vladimir Putin didn’t respond more aggressively to sanctions Obama imposed in December. So SSCI likely discovered this undisclosed meeting that way.

Which is interesting, because Kushner did not reveal it to some senior Trump officials (likely including White House Counsel Don McGahn).

The extent of Mr. Kushner’s interactions with Mr. Kislyak caught some senior members of Mr. Trump’s White House team off guard, in part because he did not mention them last month during a debate then consuming the White House: how to handle the disclosures about Mr. Flynn’s interactions with the Russian ambassador.

Ms. Hicks said that Mr. Trump had authorized Mr. Kushner to have meetings with foreign officials that he felt made sense, and to report back to him if those meetings produced anything of note. She said that because in Mr. Kushner’s view the meetings were inconsequential, it did not occur to him to mention them to senior staff members earlier.

NYT raises the possibility that Kushner discussed his efforts to fund one of his family’s business in NYC, though Hope Hicks claimed it — and the sanctions — did not come up.

But consider how this meeting might interact with another known Kislyak conversation, the multiple calls with Flynn on December 29 after Obama imposed hacking related sanctions. In context, that conversation was about the hacking sanctions, not the more onerous Ukraine ones. But if Kushner had just met with a sanctioned bank and discussed those sanctions, that could change Kislyak’s understanding of what Flynn was saying.

One mistake of a lot of the frenzied speculation is a focus on changing US policy towards Ukraine, a focus not borne out by the public evidence. The result of that focus is to ignore what the Christopher Steele dossier makes clear was the real Russian goal, unsurprisingly: the lifting of the Ukraine-related sanctions.

There still is no evidence that’s what happened at this meeting that Kushner succeeded in hiding from people within the White House. But if it did, then it might amount to far more than all the smoke swirling around Manafort, Page, and Stone.

The Temporal Feint in Adam Schiff’s Neat Narrative

I did four — count them! four! — interviews on the Russian hearing yesterday. And one thing I realized over the course of the interviews is that people were far more impressed with Adam Schiff’s opening speech than they should have been.

I want to look closely at this passage which — if it were accurate — would be a tight little presentation of quid pro quo tied to the change of platform at the July 18-21, 2016 RNC. But it’s not. I’ve bolded the two claims that are most problematic, though the presentation as a whole is misleading.

In early July, Carter Page, someone candidate Trump identified as one of his national security advisors, travels to Moscow on a trip approved by the Trump campaign. While in Moscow, he gives a speech critical of the United States and other western countries for what he believes is a hypocritical focus on democratization and efforts to fight corruption.

According to Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer who is reportedly held in high regard by U.S. Intelligence, Russian sources tell him that Page has also had a secret meeting with Igor Sechin (SEH-CHIN), CEO of Russian gas giant Rosneft. Sechin is reported to be a former KGB agent and close friend of Putin’s. According to Steele’s Russian sources, Page is offered brokerage fees by Sechin on a deal involving a 19 percent share of the company. According to Reuters, the sale of a 19.5 percent share in Rosneft later takes place, with unknown purchasers and unknown brokerage fees.

Also, according to Steele’s Russian sources, the Trump campaign is offered documents damaging to Hillary Clinton, which the Russians would publish through an outlet that gives them deniability, like Wikileaks. The hacked documents would be in exchange for a Trump Administration policy that de-emphasizes Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and instead focuses on criticizing NATO countries for not paying their fare share – policies which, even as recently as the President’s meeting last week with Angela Merkel, have now presciently come to pass.

In the middle of July, Paul Manafort, the Trump campaign manager and someone who was long on the payroll of Pro-Russian Ukrainian interests, attends the Republican Party convention. Carter Page, back from Moscow, also attends the convention. According to Steele, it was Manafort who chose Page to serve as a go-between for the Trump campaign and Russian interests. Ambassador Kislyak, who presides over a Russian embassy in which diplomatic personnel would later be expelled as likely spies, also attends the Republican Party convention and meets with Carter Page and additional Trump Advisors JD Gordon and Walid Phares. It was JD Gordon who approved Page’s trip to Moscow. Ambassador Kislyak also meets with Trump campaign national security chair and now Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions would later deny meeting with Russian officials during his Senate confirmation hearing.

Just prior to the convention, the Republican Party platform is changed, removing a section that supports the provision of “lethal defensive weapons” to Ukraine, an action that would be contrary to Russian interests. Manafort categorically denies involvement by the Trump campaign in altering the platform. But the Republican Party delegate who offered the language in support of providing defensive weapons to Ukraine states that it was removed at the insistence of the Trump campaign. Later, JD Gordon admits opposing the inclusion of the provision at the time it was being debated and prior to its being removed.

Later in July, and after the convention, the first stolen emails detrimental to Hillary Clinton appear on Wikileaks. A hacker who goes by the moniker Guccifer 2.0 claims responsibility for hacking the DNC and giving the documents to Wikileaks. But leading private cyber security firms including CrowdStrike, Mandiant, and ThreatConnect review the evidence of the hack and conclude with high certainty that it was the work of APT28 and APT29, who were known to be Russian intelligence services. The U.S. Intelligence community also later confirms that the documents were in fact stolen by Russian intelligence and Guccifer 2.0 acted as a front. [emphasis on most problematic claims mine]

What Schiff tries to do here is suggest that the Russians offered Trump kompromat on Hillary, Trump’s team changed the GOP platform, and then in response the Russians started releasing the DNC emails through Wikileaks.

Later in the hearing, several Republicans disputed the nature of the change in the platform. Both in and outside of the hearing, Republicans have noted that the changed platform matched the policy in place by the Obama Administration at the time: to help Ukraine, but stop short of arming them. All that said, the story on this has clearly changed. The change in the platform clearly shows the influence of Russophiles moving the party away from its hawkish stance, but it’s not enough, in my opinion, to sustain the claims of quid pro quo. [Update: One of the outside the hearing arguments that the platform was not weakened is this Byron York piece b linked, which argues the platform actually got more anti-Russian.]

The bigger problem with Schiff’s neat narrative is the way it obscures the timeline of events, putting the release of DNC emails after the change in platform. That is true with regards to the Wikileaks release, but not the Guccifer 2 release, which preceded the platform change.  Moreover, the references in Steele’s dossier Schiff invokes are not so clear cut — the dossier alleges Russia offered kompromat on Hillary unrelated to the stolen emails before any discussion of the Wikileaks emails. I’ve put what Schiff’s timeline would look like if it were not aiming to play up the quid pro quo of the RNC below (note this timeline doesn’t include all Steele reports, just those specifically on point; see also this site for a comprehensive Guccifer related timeline). It shows several things:

  • The changes to the platform preceded the meetings with Sergey Kislyak. Indeed, the first public report on the change in platform even preceded the Kislyak meetings by a day.
  • The stolen documents began to be released well before the platform got changed.
  • The early Steele report on discussions of sharing a dossier of kompromat on Hillary pertains to a dossier dating back decades (even though these reports all post-date the first Guccifer releases, so could have included a discussion of hacked materials). The first explicit reference to the DNC hack comes after Wikileaks started releasing documents (and earlier reports which ought to include such references don’t).
  • The later Steele report tying the Wikileaks release to a change in policy came after the policy had already changed and documents had already been released.
  • The alleged quid pro quo tied to the early July Carter Page meeting was for the lifting of sanctions, not the shift on NATO and Ukraine; the Steele dossier describes the latter as the quid pro quo in exchange for the Wikileaks release only after the emails start coming out from Wikileaks.

Also note: the report that first ties Wikileaks (but not Guccifer) to a quid pro quo is one of the reports that made me raise questions about the provenance of the report as we received it.

This is not lethal for the argument that the Trump campaign delivered on a quid pro quo. For example, if there was extensive coordination, Trump could have changed his policy in March after learning that the Russian military intelligence hack — the one allegedly designed to collect documents to leak — had started. Or perhaps the Guccifer leaks were a down-payment on the full batch. But there’s no evidence of either.

In any case, the narrative, as laid out by Adam Schiff, doesn’t hold together on several points. Trump’s team has not yet delivered on the quid pro quo allegedly tied to the Rosneft brokerage fees that were paid to someone (it’s not public whom) in December — that is, the lifting of sanctions. As laid out here, the descriptions of an offer of a dossier of information on Hillary prior to the Republican platform pertained to stuff going back decades, not explicitly to Wikileaks; the shift of discussion to Wikileaks only came after the emails had already appeared and any Ukraine related policy changes had already been made.

There’s plenty of smoke surrounding Trump and his associates. It doesn’t require fudging the timeline in order to make it appear like a full quid pro quo (and given Jim Comey’s reliance on “coordination” rather than “collusion” in Monday’s discussion, it’s not even clear such quid pro quo would be necessary for a conspiracy charge). Adam Schiff can and should be more careful about this evidence in future public hearings.

Update: Given how remarkably late the references to the stolen emails are in the dossier, I’m linking this post showing how later entries included a feedback loop.


March 19: John Podesta phished (DNC compromise generally understood to date to same time period).

March 31: Trump reportedly embraces pro-Russian stance in foreign policy meeting with advisors.

April 19th: DCLeaks.com registered.

June 8th: DCLeaks.com posts leaks (from post dates).

June 13th: First archived record of DCLeaks posts.

June 15: Crowdstrike report names Russia in DNC hack, first Guccifer 2.0 releases via TSG and Gawker.

June 18: Guccifer releases at WordPress site.

June 20: Steele report presents obviously conflicting information on exchanging intelligence with Trump. A senior Russian Foreign Ministry figure said “the Kremlin had been feeding TRUMP and his team valuable intelligence on his opponents, including … Hillary CLINTON, for several years.” A former top level intelligence officer still active in the Kremlin stated that the Kremlin had been collating a dossier on Hillary, “for many years, dating back to her husband Bill’s presidency, and comprised mainly eavesdropped conversations of various sorts. … Some of the conversations were from bugged comments CLINTON had made on her various trips to Russia and focused on things she had said which contradicted her current position on various issues.” A senior Kremlin official, however, said that the dossier “had not as yet been made available abroad, including to TRUMP or his campaign team.”

July 7-8: Carter Page in Moscow. Allegedly (per later Steele dossier reports) he is offered brokerage fees for the sale of a stake in Rosneft in exchange for ending sanctions on Russia.

July 11-12: Platform drafted.

July 18-21: RNC.

July 18: First report of changes to platform.

July 19: Sergey Kislyak meets numerous Trump associates after a Heritage sponsored Jeff Sessions talk.

July 19: Steele report provides first details of Carter Page meeting in Russia during which Divyekin raises “a dossier of ‘kompromat’ the Kremlin possessed on TRUMP’s Democratic presidential rival, Hillary CLINTON, and its possible release to the Republican’s campaign team.” In context (especially because the same report also warns Trump of kompromat Russia holds on him), this seems to be the dossier going back years also mentioned in the June 20 report, not Wikileaks emails. Certainly no explicit mention of Wikileaks or the hack appears in the report, even though the report is based off July reporting that post-date the first Guccifer 2.0 leaks.

July 22: Wikileaks starts releasing DNC emails.

July 26: Steele report describing conversations from June describes Russian hacking efforts in terms already publicly known to be false. For example, the report claims FSB had not yet had success penetrating American or other “first tier” targets. FSB had success hacking American targets the previous year, including the DNC. This report includes no discussion of the DNC hack or Wikileaks.

Undated July, probably because of report number between July 26 and 30: An “ethnic Russian close associate of Republican US presidential candidate Donald TRUMP” includes the first reference to the DNC hack and WikiLeaks:

[T]he Russian regime had been behind the recent leak of embarrassing e-mail messages, emanating from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to the Wikileaks platform. The reason for using WikiLeaks was “plausible deniability” and the operation had been conducted with the full knowledge and support of TRUMP and senior members of his campaign team. In return the TRUMP team had agreed to sideline Russian intervention in Ukraine as a campaign issue and to raise US/NATO defence commitments in the Baltics and Eastern Europe to deflect attention away from Ukraine, a priority for PUTIN who needed to cauterise the subject.

July 30: A Russian emigre close to Trump describes concern in the campaign about the DNC email fallout. This report mentions that the Kremlin “had more intelligence on CLINTON and her campaign but he did not know the details or when or if it would be released.” In context, it is unclear whether this refers to stolen documents, though the reference to the campaign suggests that is likely.

August 5: Steele report describes Russian interference as a botched operation, discusses wishful thinking of Trump withdrawing.

August 10: Steele report discusses the “impact and results of Kremlin intervention in the US presidential election to date” claiming Russia’s role in the DNC hack was “technically deniable.” This report conflicts in some ways with the August 5 report, specifically with regards to the perceived success of the operation.

September 14: Steele report referencing kompromat on Hillary clearly in context of further emails.

October 18: More detailed Steele report account of Carter Page meeting, including date. It asserts that “although PAGE had not stated it explicitly to SECHIN, he had clearly implied that in terms of his comment on TRUMP’s intention to lift Russian sanctions if elected president, he was speaking with the Republican candidate’s authority.”

October 19: More Steele report accounting of Michael Cohen’s August attempts to clean up after Manafort and Page.

When a White Republican Gets Spied On, Privacy Suddenly Matters

As expected, much of today’s hearing on the Russian hack consisted of members of Congress — from both parties — posturing for the camera.

At first, it seemed that the Republican line of posturing — complaining about the leak that exposed Mike Flynn’s conversations with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak — tracked Donald Trump’s preferred approach, to turn this into a witch hunt for the leakers.

But it was actually more subtle than that. It appears Republicans believe the leaks about Flynn have (finally) made Congress skittish about incidental collection of US person communications as part of FISA collection. And so both Tom Rooney and Trey Gowdy spent much of their early hearing slots discussing how much more difficult the leak of Flynn’s name will make Section 702 reauthorization later this year. In the process, they should have created new fears about how painfully ignorant the people supposedly overseeing FISA are.

Rooney, who heads the subcommittee with oversight over NSA, started by quizzing Mike Rogers about the process by which a masked US person identity can be disclosed. Along the way, it became clear Rooney was talking about Section 702 reauthorization even while he was talking traditional FISA collection, which doesn’t lapse this year.

Rooney: If what we’re talking about is a serious crime, as has been alleged, in your opinion would leaking of a US person who has been unmasked and disseminated by intelligence community officials, would that leaking hurt or help our ability to conduct national security.

Rogers: Hurt.

Rooney: Ok, if it hurts, this leak, which through the 702 tool, which we all agree is vital–or you and I at least agree to that–do you think that that leak actually threatens our national security. If it’s a crime, and if it unmasks a US person, and this tool is so important it could potentially jeopardize this tool when we have to try to reauthorize it in a few months, if this is used against our ability to reauthorize this tool, and we can’t get it done because whoever did this leak, or these nine people that did this leak, create such a stir, whether it be in our legislative process or whatever, that they don’t feel confident a US person, under the 702 program, can be masked, successfully, and not leaked to the press, doesn’t that hurt–that leak–hurt our national security.

Eventually Admiral Rogers broke in to explain to his congressional overseer very basic facts about surveillance, including that Flynn was not and could not have been surveilled under Section 702.

Rogers: FISA collection on targets in the United States has nothing to do with 702, I just want to make sure we’re not confusing the two things here. 702 is collection overseas against non US persons.

Rooney: Right. And what we’re talking about here is incidentally, if a US person is talking to a foreign person that we’re listening to whether or not that person is unmasked.

Nevertheless, Rooney made it very clear he’s very concerned about how much harder the Flynn leak will make it for people like him to convince colleagues to reauthorize Section 702, which is even more of a privacy concern than traditional FISA.

Rooney: But it’s really going to hurt the people on this committee and you in the intelligence community when we try to retain this tool this year and try to convince some of our colleagues that this is really important for national security when somebody in the intelligence community says, you know what the hell with it, I’m gonna release this person’s name, because I’m gonna get something out of it. We’re all gonna be hurt by that. If we can’t reauthorize this tool. Do you agree with that?

A little later, Trey Gowdy got his second chance to complain about the leak. Referencing Rogers’ earlier explanation that only 20 people at NSA can unmask a US person identity, Gowdy tried to figure out how many at FBI could, arguing (this is stunning idiocy here) that by finding a finite number of FBI officials who could unmask US person identities might help assuage concerns about potential leaks of US persons caught in FISA surveillance.

Comey: I don’t know for sure as I sit here. Surely more, given the nature of the FBI’s work. We come into contact with US persons a whole lot more than the NSA does because we may be conducting — we only conduct our operations in the United States to collect electronic surveillance. I can find out the exact number. I don’t know it as I sit here.

Gowdy: I think Director Comey given the fact that you and I agree that this is critical, vital, indispensable. A similar program is coming up for reauthorization this fall with a pretty strong head wind right now, it would be nice to know the universe of people who have the power to unmask a US citizen’s name. Cause that might provide something of a road map to investigate who might have actually disseminated a masked US citizen’s name.

Here’s why this line of questioning from Gowdy is unbelievably idiotic. Both for traditional FISA, like the intercept targeting Kislyak that caught Flynn, and for Section 702, masking and unmasking identities at FBI is not the concern. That’s because the content from both authorities rests in FBI’s databases, and anyone cleared for FISA can access the raw data. And those FBI Agents not cleared for FISA can and are encouraged just to ask a buddy who is cleared to do it.

In other words, every Agent at FBI has relatively easy way to access the content on Flynn, so long as she can invent a foreign intelligence or criminal purpose reason to do so.

Which is probably why Comey tried to pitch something he called “culture” as adequate protection, rather than the very large number of FBI Agents who are cleared into FISA.

Comey: The number is … relevant. What I hope the US–the American people will realize is the number’s important but the culture behind it is in fact more important. The training, the rigor, the discipline. We are obsessive about FISA in the FBI for reasons I hope make sense to this committee. But we are, everything that’s FISA has to be labeled in such a way to warn people this is FISA, we treat this in a special way. So we can get you the number but I want to assure you the culture in the FBI and the NSA around how we treat US person information is obsessive, and I mean that in a good way.

So then Gowdy asks Comey something he really has a responsibility to know: what other agencies have Standard Minimization Procedures. (The answer, at least as the public record stands, is NSA, CIA, FBI, and NCTC have standard minimization procedures, with Main Justice using FBI’s SMPs.)

Gowdy: Director Comey I am not arguing with you and I agree the culture is important, but if there are 100 people who have the ability to unmask and the knowledge of a previously masked name, then that’s 100 different potential sources of investigation. And the smaller the number is, the easier your investigation is. So the number is relevant. I can see the culture is relevant. NSA, FBI, what other US government agencies have the authority to unmask a US citizen’s name?

Comey: Well I think all agencies that collect information pursuant to FISA have what are called standard minimization procedures which are approved by the FISA court that govern how they will treat US person information. So I know the NSA does, I know the CIA does, obviously the FBI does, I don’t know for sure beyond that.

Gowdy: How about Main Justice?

Comey: Main Justice I think does have standard minimization procedures.

Gowdy: Alright, so that’s four. NSA, FBI, CIA, Main Justice. Does the White House has the authority to unmask a US citizen’s name?

Comey: I think other elements of the government that are consumers of our can ask the collectors to unmask. The unmasking resides with those who collected the information. And so if Mike Rogers’ folks collected something, and they send it to me in a report and it says it’s US person #1 and it’s important for the FBI to know who that is, our request will go back to them. The White House can make similar requests of the FBI or NSA but they don’t on their own collect, so they can’t on their own unmask.

That series of answers didn’t satisfy Gowdy, because from his perspective, if Comey isn’t able to investigate and find a head for the leak of Flynn’s conversation with Kislyak — well, I don’t know what he thinks but he’s sure an investigation, possibly even the prosecution of journalists, is the answer.

Gowdy: I guess what I’m getting at Director Comey, you say it’s vital, you say it’s critical, you say that it’s indispensable, we both know it’s a threat to the reauthorization of 702 later on this fall and oh by the way it’s also a felony punishable by up to 10 years. So how would you begin your investigation, assuming for the sake of argument that a US citizen’s name appeared in the Washington Post and the NY Times unlawfully. Where would you begin that investigation?

This whole series of questions frankly mystifies me. I mean, these two men who ostensibly provide oversight of FISA clearly didn’t understand what the biggest risk to privacy is –back door searches of US person content — which at the FBI doesn’t even require any evidence of wrong-doing. That is the biggest impediment to reauthorizing FISA.

And testimony about the intricacies of unmasking a US person identity — particularly when a discussion of traditional FISA serves as stand-in for Section 702 — does nothing more than expose that the men who supposedly oversee FISA closely have no fucking clue — and I mean really, not a single fucking clue — how it works. Devin Nunes, too, has already expressed confusion on how access to incidentally collected US person content works.

Does anyone in the House Intelligence Committee understand how FISA works? Bueller?

In retrospect, I’m really puzzled by what is so damning about the Flynn leak to them. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m very sympathetic to the complaint that the contents of the intercepts did get leaked. If you’re not, you should be. Imagine how you’d feel if a Muslim kid got branded as a terrorist because he had a non-criminal discussion with someone like Anwar al-Awlaki? (Of course, in actual fact what happened is the Muslim kids who had non-criminal discussions with Awlaki had FBI informants thrown at them until they pressed a button and got busted for terrorism, but whatever.)

But Rooney and Gowdy and maybe even Nunes seemed worried that their colleagues in the House have seen someone like them — not a young Muslim, but instead a conservative white man — caught up in FISA, which has suddenly made them realize that they too have conversations all the time that likely get caught up in FISA?

Or are they worried that the public discussion of FISA will expose them for what they are, utterly negligent overseers, who don’t understand how invasive of privacy FISA currently is?

If it’s the latter, their efforts to assuage concerns should only serve to heighten those concerns. These men know so little about FISA they don’t even understand what questions to ask.

In any case, after today’s hearing I am beginning to suspect the IC doesn’t like to have public hearings not because someone like me will learn something, but because we’ll see how painfully little most of the so-called overseers have learned in all the private briefings the IC has given them. If these men don’t understand the full implications of incidental collection, two months after details of Flynn’s conversations have been leaked, then it seems likely they’ve been intentionally mis or underinformed.

Or perhaps they’re just not so bright.

Jeff Sessions’ Narrow Recusal

Update: I was on Democracy Now on these issues today. Here’s the link.

As you know, after having two meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that he did not reveal in response to specific questions posed as part of his confirmation process exposed, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused from any investigation into the elections.

Contrary to much reporting on the recusal, it was nowhere near a complete recusal from matters pertaining to Trump’s administration and its’ ties to Russia. Here’s what Sessions said in his statement:

During the course of the confirmation proceedings on my nomination to be Attorney General, I advised the Senate Judiciary Committee that ‘[i]f a specific matter arose where I believed my impartiality might reasonably be questioned, I would consult with Department ethics officials regarding the most appropriate way to proceed.

During the course of the last several weeks, I have met with the relevant senior career Department officials to discuss whether I should recuse myself from any matters arising from the campaigns for President of the United States.

Having concluded those meetings today, I have decided to recuse myself from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States.

I have taken no actions regarding any such matters, to the extent they exist.

This announcement should not be interpreted as confirmation of the existence of any investigation or suggestive of the scope of any such investigation.

Consistent with the succession order for the Department of Justice, Acting Deputy Attorney General and U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia Dana Boente shall act as and perform the functions of the Attorney General with respect to any matters from which I have recused myself to the extent they exist.

As I emphasized, the only thing he is recusing from is “existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States.”

There are two areas of concern regarding Trump’s ties that would not definitively be included in this recusal: Trump’s long-term ties to mobbed up businessmen with ties to Russia (a matter not known to be under investigation but which could raise concerns about compromise of Trump going forward), and discussions about policy that may involve quid pro quos (such as the unproven allegation, made in the Trump dossier, that Carter Page might take 19% in Rosneft in exchange for ending sanctions against Russia), that didn’t involve a pay-off in terms of the hacking. There are further allegations of Trump involvement in the hacking (a weak one against Paul Manafort and a much stronger one against Michael Cohen, both in the dossier), but that’s in no way the only concern raised about Trump’s ties with Russians.

The concern about the scope of Sessions’ recusal is underscored by the way in which he narrowly addressed his lies to the Senate. Here is his answer to Al Franken, which was a question about campaign surrogates, but did not ask about communications about the campaign.

FRANKEN: CNN has just published a story and I’m telling you this about a news story that’s just been published. I’m not expecting you to know whether or not it’s true or not. But CNN just published a story alleging that the intelligence community provided documents to the president-elect last week that included information that quote, “Russian operatives claimed to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.” These documents also allegedly say quote, “There was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump’s surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.”

Now, again, I’m telling you this as it’s coming out, so you know. But if it’s true, it’s obviously extremely serious and if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?

SESSIONS: Senator Franken, I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have — did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.

His press conference and a (surprisingly good) interview with Tucker Carlson underscores that he is just addressing questions about the election, not conversations with Russians generally (conversations that might address those other two concerns, especially that of influencing policy on things like Ukraine). In the interview, Sessions denied having conversations with Russians “on a continuing basis to advance any kind of campaign agenda” and said “I never had any conversations with the Russians about the campaign.”

By Sessions’ own admission, the conversation with Kislyak concerned Ukraine; he said Kislyak was pushing back on what the Ukrainian Ambassador had said just the day before, though Sessions claims he himself pushed back as well.

That’s important because they key policy issue on which there have been concerns about undue influence is Ukraine.

It is not illegal to have meetings with an Ambassador, where the Ambassador makes a case for policies his country supports — precisely what appears to have gone on in the meeting Sessions did not disclose. But the (thus far unproven) allegations involving other Trump officials go beyond that, without necessarily pertaining to the election. That’s why Sessions’ recusal is far too narrow to be meaningful.

Five Data Points on the Sessions News

As you no doubt have heard, Jeff Sessions met twice with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak last year, then told the Senate Judiciary Committee he had either not talked about the election with any Russians (a written response to Patrick Leahy’s question) or not talked with Russians as a surrogate of the campaign (an oral response to Al Franken).WSJ describes the probe as reviewing stuff in spring of last year, so before the July contact with Kislyak. Thus far, Sessions, his spox, and anonymous Trump official have offered three conflicting explanations for Sessions’ non-disclosure, including Sessions’ own, “I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false.”

Already, Democrats are demanding Sessions’ resignation and more Democrats and some Republicans are calling for him to recuse himself for the FBI counterintelligence investigation. The Twittersphere is calling for prosecution for perjury.

Update: WSJ had originally said Sessions and Kislyak spoke by phone, then corrected to in-person. According to this, he had one of each, with a phone followup several days after the in-person. Which means there’d be a transcript.

Jeff Sessions will almost certainly not be prosecuted for perjury

Which brings me to my first data point. Jeff Sessions is not going to be prosecuted for perjury. And that’s true for more reasons than that he is the AG.

First, it’s a hard crime to prove, because you have to prove that someone knowingly lied. Right now Sessions is all over the map, but he’s also dumb enough to be able to feign stupidity.

Plus, lying to Congress just doesn’t get prosecuted anymore. Remember, Alberto Gonzales lied in his own confirmation hearing in 2005, claiming there were no disagreements about Stellar Wind. It was always clear that was a lie, but even after Jim Comey confirmed that was the case with his May 2007 SJC hospital heroes performance, AGAG stuck around for another three months. And while his lie has often been cited as the reason for his departure in August 2007, I believe that the proximate reason is that he refused to do something Bush wanted him to do, at which point the White House threw him under the bus.

Plus, there are already at least three Trump officials who lied in their confirmation hearings — Mnuchin on his role in robosigning, DeVos on her role in the Prince family foundation, and Pruitt on his use of private emails. None of them are going anywhere.

Finally, in 2013, Holder’s DOJ went way out of its way to protect former DOJ official Scott Bloch from doing time after he lied to the House Oversight Committee. That precedent will make it all the harder to hold anyone accountable for lying to Congress in the future.

The timing of this roll-out gets more and more interesting

Now consider the timing of how all this rolled out.

In another blockbuster (revealing that the Obama Administration squirreled away information on Trump’s advisors to protect informants IDs from him, but also to ensure incriminating information would be available for others), NYT reveals that, after Putin’s non-response to Obama’s December 28 sanctions raised concerns, the FBI found Mike Flynn’s contacts with Kislyak on January 2.

On Jan. 2, administration officials learned that Mr. Kislyak — after leaving the State Department meeting — called Mr. Flynn, and that the two talked multiple times in the 36 hours that followed. American intelligence agencies routinely wiretap the phones of Russian diplomats, and transcripts of the calls showed that Mr. Flynn urged the Russians not to respond, saying relations would improve once Mr. Trump was in office, according to multiple current and former officials.

On January 10, the Trump dossier began to leak. Al Franken actually used that as the premise to ask Sessions about contacts with the Russians.

On January 12, David Ignatius published the first word of the Flynn-Kislyak calls, alerting anyone dumb enough not to already know that the FBI was going through Kislyak’s ties with Trump officials.

This had the effect of teeing up Flynn as a target, without giving Sessions (and other Trump officials) that their contacts with Kislyak were being scrutinized. And only after Flynn’s departure has this Sessions stuff come out.

I imagine someone in the White House Counsel’s office is now reviewing all the metadata and transcripts tied to Kislyak to see who else had curious conversations with him.

The claim Kislyak is the top spy recruiter

CNN’s version of this story and a separate profile of Kislyak insinuates that Session’s contact with Kislyak by itself is damning, because he “is considered by US intelligence to be one of Russia’s top spies and spy-recruiters in Washington.”

Current and former US intelligence officials have described Kislyak as a top spy and recruiter of spies, a notion that Russian officials have dismissed. Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said that “nobody has heard a single statement from US intelligence agencies’ representatives regarding our ambassador,” and attacked the “depersonalized assumptions of the media that are constantly trying to blow this situation out of proportion.”

Even aside from the fact that two Democrats — Joe Manchin of his own accord, and Claire McCaskill after she claimed never to have spoken with Kislyak — have also had contact with him, this seems like a red herring. No matter what Kislyak’s intention, it is still acceptable for someone to meet with a person presenting as a diplomat (for example, no one used to care that Saudi Arabia’s Bandar bin Sultan was running ops when he was Ambassador to the US).

Moreover, if current and former US intelligence officials are so sure Kislyak is the master spook in the US, why wasn’t he at the top of the Persona Non Grata list of 35 diplomats who got ejected at the end of December (though, as I’ve noted in the past, the Russian press was talking about him being replaced).

The delayed preservation request

Yesterday, AP reported that Don McGahn instructed White House officials on Tuesday to retain information relating to Russian contacts.

One official said McGahn’s memo instructs White House staff to preserve material from Trump’s time in office, and for those who worked on the campaign, relevant material from the election.

But the timing of this actually raises more questions. Preservation requests first went out February 17. Reince Priebus admitted knowing about it on the Sunday shows February 19. Sometime during the week of February 20-24, Sean Spicer with Don McGahn conducted a device check with White House staffers to see whether staffers were using Signal or Confide, the latter of which automatically deletes texts, the former of which can be set to do so (after Spicer warned everyone not to leak about the device check, it leaked).

And yet, McGahn only gave preservation instructions on February 28?

Now it’s possible the White House didn’t receive one of the letters sent on February 17 (which would raise other questions), which seems to be the implication of the AP report. But if it did, then McGahn sat on that preservation request for over 10 days, even while being involved in activities reflecting an awareness that staffers were using apps that thwarted retention rules.

Some things can’t be prosecuted

Contrary to what you may believe, thus far none of these reports have confirmed a smoking gun, and the NYT pointedly makes it clear that its sources are not claiming to have a smoking gun (which may not rule out that they have one they’re not yet sharing).

The nature of the contacts remains unknown. Several of Mr. Trump’s associates have done business in Russia, and it is unclear if any of the contacts were related to business dealings.

But consider that smoking guns may be different depending on what they are. That’s true because somethings may be perfectly legal — such as investments from shady Russians — that nevertheless pose a serious counterintelligence risk of compromise going forward.

Its all the more true when you factor in the role of Sessions and Trump. For some of this stuff (including the September meeting with Kislyak) Sessions will be protected by Speech and Debate. It’d be very hard for DOJ to prosecute Sessions for stuff he did as a Senator, even assuming you had someone else in charge of the investigation or department.

Likewise, other crimes may not rise to the level of criminal prosecution but would rise to the level of impeachment. Which is why this passage from the NYT is so interesting.

Obama White House officials grew convinced that the intelligence was damning and that they needed to ensure that as many people as possible inside government could see it, even if people without security clearances could not. Some officials began asking specific questions at intelligence briefings, knowing the answers would be archived and could be easily unearthed by investigators — including the Senate Intelligence Committee, which in early January announced an inquiry into Russian efforts to influence the election.

If FBI judged it could not prosecute Trump or his close associates for something but nevertheless believed the evidence constituted something disqualifying, what they’d want to do is preserve the evidence, make sure SSCI could find it, and provide tips — laid out in the NYT, if need be — about where to look.

And any things that did rise to the level of criminal charges would be a lot easier to charge if someone besides Sessions were in charge.

This seems to be very methodical.

Update: February for January preservation date requests corrected. h/t TN.

David Ignatius’ Curious Role in the Mike Flynn Story

I’m traveling again, so I’m running on delayed coverage of the Trump circus.

But I wanted to point out something that has been puzzling me: David Ignatius’ curious role in the events leading up to the forced resignation of Mike Flynn as President Trump’s National Security Adviser.

After all, Ignatius set off the events with this article. The article included two curious details. First, in an update to the story, Ignatius stated as fact that the Russian plane carrying a military choir to Syria had been shot down.

This official later added that Flynn’s initial call was to express condolences to Kislyak after the terrorist killing of the Russian ambassador to Ankara Dec. 19, and that Flynn made a second call Dec. 28 to express condolences for the shoot-down of a Russian plane carrying a choir to Syria.

Perhaps this was a mistake, but no cause for the crash has been reported (and it’d be even more curious if Trump’s people knew this was a shoot-down right away, given the lack of public accounting for it). There has been no follow-up about who shot down this plane (and little claim that it was terrorism).

More importantly for the Flynn story, Ignatius reported the December 29 calls between Sergey Kislyak and Flynn, the first public mention of them.

According to a senior U.S. government official, Flynn phoned Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak several times on Dec. 29, the day the Obama administration announced the expulsion of 35 Russian officials as well as other measures in retaliation for the hacking. What did Flynn say, and did it undercut the U.S. sanctions? The Logan Act (though never enforced) bars U.S. citizens from correspondence intending to influence a foreign government about “disputes” with the United States. Was its spirit violated? The Trump campaign didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

If the Trump team’s contacts helped discourage the Russians from a counter-retaliation, maybe that’s a good thing. But we ought to know the facts.

Ignatius not only knew of the calls, but he knew enough to ask the question — which the FBI would later pose to Flynn in an interview — about whether Flynn had undercut US sanctions. In response to his mention of the calls, other journalists followed up with Mike Pence, which ultimately led to the excused reason for Flynn’s firing, that he had lied to Pence about the calls. Frankly, that questioning also clearly led to Flynn correcting his story between February 8 and 9, which suggests he may have reviewed the transcripts in the interim.

While Ignatius’ report is mentioned in a WaPo timeline of these events, he’s not bylined in either of the two big bombshells from WaPo on this, even though up to seven journalists are mentioned.

There are two obvious explanations. First, that Ignatius’ column, which serves as a mouthpiece for the IC (and especially CIA), is not generally treated in the same way other journalism at the WaPo is. And possibly, specifically in this case, if that reference were treated as reporting rather than speculation, it might lead Trump’s leak investigation back to the source that kicked off this leak fest. But by posing it as speculative questioning, it protects that original source.

Whatever the explanation is, I think the odd circumstances surrounding the story invite further attention to two of the other questions Ignatius poses in that column. He asked, for example, whether Obama delayed his response to the Russian out of fears Russia would do something worse to Hillary.

Did the administration worry that the Russians would take additional steps to hurt Clinton and help Trump, and might disrupt balloting itself?

According to public reports, Obama twice raised probes of registration databases directly with Putin; after the election the IC included them among Russia’s roles. What exactly was the Obama Administration worried about here?

And Ignatius also asked a question I’ve heard floated (which is one reason I focused so intently on the curious forensic details about the dossier): that the Russians themselves released the anti-Trump dossier compiled by Christopher Steele to sow further chaos (and, presumably, to hurt Trump).

Finally, what’s the chance that Russian intelligence has gamed its covert action more subtly than we realize? Applying a counter-intelligence lens, it’s worth asking whether the Russians hoped to be discovered, and whether Russian operatives fed the former MI6 officer’s controversial dossier deliberately, to sow further chaos.

Clearly, Ignatius’ source on the Flynn call with Kislyak advanced the story in a direction that led to Flynn’s firing. What else were Ignatius’ source or sources for the this story trying to lead reporting to?