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On Trump’s Impenetrable Cyber Security Unit to Guard Election Hacking

Man oh man did Vladimir Putin hand Trump his ass in their meeting the other day. While most the focus has been on Trump’s apparent refusal to confront Putin on the election hack (which Trump is now trying to spin — pity for him he excluded his credible aides who could tell us how it really went down or maybe that was precisely the point).

But I was more interested in Putin and Sergei Lavrov’s neat trick to get Trump to agree to a “joint working group on cybersecurity.”

Lavrov says Trump brought up accusations of Russian hacking; Moscow and DC will set up joint working group on cybersecurity.

Here’s how Trump has been talking about this in an [unthreaded] rant this morning.

People who’re just discovering this from Trump’s tweets are suitably outraged.

But I think even there they’re missing what a master stroke this was from Putin and Lavrov.

First, as I noted at the time, this comes at the moment Congress is trying to exclude Kaspersky Lab products from federal networks, accompanied by a more general witch hunt against the security firm. As I have said, I think the latter especially is problematic (and probably would have been designed at least partly to restore some asymmetry on US spying on the world, as Kaspersky is one of the few firms that will consistently ID US spying), even if there are reasons to want to keep Kaspersky out of sensitive networks. Kaspersky would be at the center of any joint cyber security effort, meaning Congress will have a harder time blackballing them.

Then there’s the fact that cooperation has been tried. Notably, the FBI has tried to share information with the part of FSB that does cyber investigations. Often, that ends up serving to tip off the FSB to which hackers the FBI is most interested in, leading to them being induced to spy for the FSB itself. More troubling, information sharing with US authorities is believed to partly explain treason charges against some FSB officers.

Finally, there’s the fact that the Russians asked for proof that they hacked our election.

SECRETARY TILLERSON: The Russians have asked for proof and evidence. I’ll leave that to the intelligence community to address the answer to that question. And again, I think the President, at this point, he pressed him and then felt like at this point let’s talk about how do we go forward. And I think that was the right place to spend our time, rather than spending a lot of time having a disagreement that everybody knows we have a disagreement.

If the US hadn’t been represented by idiots at this meeting, the obvious follow-up would be to point to Russia’s efforts to undermine US extradition of Russians against whom the US has offered proof, at least enough to get a grand jury to indict, most notably of the three Russians involved in the Yahoo hack, as well as Yevgeniy Nikulin. The US would be all too happy to offer proof in those cases, but Russia is resisting the process that will end up in that proof.

But instead, Trump and his oil-soaked sidekick instead agreed to make future hacking of the US easier.

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.

Trump Was Worried HR McMaster or Fiona Hill Would Spy on His Conversation with Putin

There were two infuriating stories earlier this week in preparation of today’s meeting between President Trump and Vladimir Putin.

The Daily Beast reported that Trump’s aides wanted top NSC Russia expert Fiona Hill in the meeting between the presidents.

According to two White House aides, senior Trump administration officials have pressed for Hill—the National Security Council’s senior director for Europe and Russia and the author of critical psychological biography of Putin—to be in the room during the president’s highly anticipated meeting with Putin.

If Hill is there, these officials believe, it will help the White House avoid the perception that the president is too eager to cozy up to the Kremlin. The hope is to avoid a repeat of Trump’s last meeting with top Russian officials, during which he disclosed classified intelligence to two of the country’s top diplomats—and was pictured by Russian state media looking particularly friendly with them.

But it used linguistic gymnastics to avoid stating who might decide to keep Hill out of the meeting.

Then Axios reported that just Trump, Rex Tillerson, and a translator would represent the US.

There will likely only be six people in the room when President Trump meets President Putin on Friday at the sidelines of the G-20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany.

According to an official familiar with the meeting’s planning, it will be Trump, Putin, the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, and translators.

But it, too, remained silent about who decided to keep the attendee list so small (though admittedly, that detail was a less crucial part of their story).

Thankfully, the NYT has finally revealed that it was Trump, not Putin, who chose to limit attendees.

Only six people attended the meeting itself: Mr. Trump and his secretary of state, Rex W. Tillerson; Mr. Putin and his foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov; and two interpreters.

The Russians had agitated to include several more staff members in the meeting, but Mr. Trump’s team had insisted that the meeting be kept small to avoid leaks and competing accounts later, according to an administration official with direct knowledge of the carefully choreographed meeting, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity around the matter.

And he did so specifically to avoid leaks about what would transpire.

This means that Trump (personally, given the NYT portrayal) decided to exclude his National Security Advisor and top Russian advisor. And he did so, again, based on the NYT reporting, because he didn’t want a competing account from coming out. He basically excluded the key staffers who should have been in the meeting, in spite of the wishes of aides, to avoid having Russian critics describing what really happened in his meeting with Putin.

Remember, this is not the first time Trump has excluded McMaster from a key meeting: he also left McMaster sitting outside his meeting with Bibi Netanyahu, after belatedly inviting Tillerson in.

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.

In Defense of [Gulp] Mike Pompeo

Let me say at the outset that I think Mike Pompeo is a totally inappropriate choice for CIA. I believe he is inclined to torture and engage in illegal surveillance. I believe he is among a long line of overly politicized Republicans appointed to this position. I believe he plans to criminalize journalism, if not my own journalism, specifically. And I believe it likely he’s hiding requests from Trump to downplay the Russian investigation.

But I’m uncomfortable with critiques of him about this interview with Hugh Hewitt.

To be clear: I’m appalled that a CIA Director would choose someone so nakedly partisan for his first exclusive interview. I don’t approve of the interview, generally.

But people are suggesting that this passage shows Pompeo denying known facts about the Russian investigation.

HUGH HEWITT, MSNBC HOST: Today, I bring to you my conversation with the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Mike Pompeo. This is his first interview with a news network since taking the job. I sat down with the former congressman, West Point and Harvard Law graduate at CIA headquarters in Langley. I started by asking him about Russia’s meddling in last year’s election, and what the administration is doing to stop it from happening again.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE POMPEO, DIRECTOR, CIA: I can’t talk about the details of the intelligence, but we have, the intelligence community has said, that this election was meddled with by the Russians in a way that is frankly not particularly original. They’ve been doing this for an awfully long time. And we are decades into the Russians trying to undermine American democracy. So in some ways, there’s no news, but it certainly puts a heightened emphasis on our ability to figure out how to stop them.

HEWITT: The news was actually that Putin personally directed. Do you think the Russian President did that?

POMPEO: I can’t confirm the intelligence related to that.

Perhaps this is semantics, but Hewitt used a different word than the Intelligence Community Assessment that everyone complaining is pointing to. Hewitt used “directed,” suggesting (to me, anyway) a hands on involvement. The ICA described Putin’s involvement as “ordering” the operation, suggesting (again, to me) a delegation of direction.

We assess with high confidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election, the consistent goals of which were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. When it appeared to Moscow that Secretary Clinton was likely to win the election, the Russian influence campaign then focused on undermining her expected presidency.

We also assess Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him. All three agencies agree with this judgment. CIA and FBI have high confidence in this judgment; NSA has moderate confidence.

Add in a tolerance — by virtually all those complaining — for intelligence officials to defer public comments by refusing to stray from existing public comments. Indeed, even where Pompeo all but confirms something Hewitt raises — that the US and Russia continue to cooperate on counterterrorism issues — he engages in the tired charade of pretending not to confirm the confirmation.

POMPEO:  I don’t talk about the liaison partners that I speak with.  But it is important that we continue to work in places where we can on intelligence matters to keep Americans safe.  Counterterrorism is a perfect example.  Americans fly on Russian planes, Russians fly on American planes, to the extent we can keep planes in the sky.  All of those counter terrorism issues and places they overlap, where there are terrorists in Kazakhstan or Russia or other places where the Russians might have information, I certainly expect they’ll share that with us.  And by the same token, if we can help keep Russians or American interests in Russia alive by providing them with information, it’s the right thing to do.

So I took, and take, Pompeo’s refusal to confirm the intelligence related “to that” as a refusal to go beyond the ICA. Sure, perhaps Hewitt’s question was orchestrated. Perhaps this is Pompeo’s way of acceding to Trump’s request to downplay the Putin role in the election operation.

But you can’t pick and choose among public deferrals of answers. If John Brennan could get away with this kind of obfuscation (and he did, including with these journalists in particular) then similar obfuscation should not suddenly become an object of suspicion.

The point is no CIA director should get away with this kind of parsing. But what Pompeo has done here is more of the same kind of parsing that all CIA Directors, forever and ever, have engaged in, with the indulgence of their favored press outlets.

That’s not acceptable. But those who’ve permitted such indulgences in the past are in no position to demand more transparency from other CIA Directors.

By all means let’s criticize Pompeo for helping Trump to downplay the Russian investigation. But let’s apply the same standards we have to past CIA Directors, especially if we’re those who’ve gotten privileged access in the past.

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 Compartments in WaPo’s Russian Hack Magnum Opus

The WaPo has an 8300 word opus on the Obama Administration’s response to Russian tampering in the election. The article definitely covers new ground on the Obama effort to respond while avoiding making things worse, particularly with regards to imposing sanctions in December. It also largely lays out much of the coverage the three bylined journalists (Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima, and Adam Entous) have broken before, with new details. The overall message of the article, which has a number of particular viewpoints and silences, is this: Moscow is getting away with their attack.

“[B]ecause of the divergent ways Obama and Trump have handled the matter, Moscow appears unlikely to face proportionate consequences.”

The Immaculate Interception: CIA’s scoop

WaPo starts its story about how Russia got away with its election op with an exchange designed to make the non-response to the attack seem all the more senseless. It provides a dramatic description of a detail these very same reporters broke on December 9: Putin, who was personally directing this effort, was trying to elect Trump.

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

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

[snip]

The material was so sensitive that CIA Director John Brennan kept it out of the President’s Daily Brief, concerned that even that restricted report’s distribution was too broad. The CIA package came with instructions that it be returned immediately after it was read.

[snip]

In early August, Brennan alerted senior White House officials to the Putin intelligence, making a call to deputy national security adviser Avril Haines and pulling national security adviser Susan Rice side after a meeting before briefing Obama along with Rice, Haines and McDonough in the Oval Office.

While the sharing of this information with just three aides adds to the drama, WaPo doesn’t consider something else about it. The inclusion of Rice and McDonough totally makes sense. But by including Avril Haines, Brennan was basically including his former Deputy Director who had moved onto the DNSA position, effectively putting two CIA people in a room with two White House people and the President. Significantly, Lisa Monaco — who had Brennan’s old job as White House Homeland Security Czar and who came from DOJ and FBI before that — was reportedly excluded from this initial briefing.

There are a number of other interesting details about all this. First, for thousands of wordspace, the WaPo presents this intelligence as irreproachable, even while providing this unconvincing explanation of why, if it is so secret and solid, the CIA was willing to let WaPo put it on its front page.

For spy agencies, gaining insights into the intentions of foreign leaders is among the highest priorities. But Putin is a remarkably elusive target. A former KGB officer, he takes extreme precautions to guard against surveillance, rarely communicating by phone or computer, always running sensitive state business from deep within the confines of the Kremlin.

The Washington Post is withholding some details of the intelligence at the request of the U.S. government.

If this intelligence is so sensitive, why is even the timing of its collection being revealed here, much less its access to Putin?

That seemingly contradictory action is all the more curious given that not all agencies were as impressed with this intelligence as CIA was. It’s not until much, much later in its report until WaPo explains what remains true as recently as Admiral Rogers’ latest Congressional testimony: the NSA wasn’t and isn’t as convinced by CIA’s super secret intelligence as CIA was.

Despite the intelligence the CIA had produced, other agencies were slower to endorse a conclusion that Putin was personally directing the operation and wanted to help Trump. “It was definitely compelling, but it was not definitive,” said one senior administration official. “We needed more.”

Some of the most critical technical intelligence on Russia came from another country, officials said. Because of the source of the material, the NSA was reluctant to view it with high confidence.

By the time this detail is presented, the narrative is in place: Obama failed to respond adequately to the attack that CIA warned about back in August.

The depiction of this top-level compartment of just Brennan, Rice, McDonough, and Haines is interesting background, as well, for the depiction of the way McDonough undermined a State Department plan to institute a Special Commission before Donald Trump got started.

Supporters’ confidence was buoyed when McDonough signaled that he planned to “tabledrop” the proposal at the next NSC meeting, one that would be chaired by Obama. Kerry was overseas and participated by videoconference.

To some, the “tabledrop” term has a tactical connotation beyond the obvious. It is sometimes used as a means of securing approval of an idea by introducing it before opponents have a chance to form counterarguments.

“We thought this was a good sign,” a former State Department official said.

But as soon as McDonough introduced the proposal for a commission, he began criticizing it, arguing that it would be perceived as partisan and almost certainly blocked by Congress.

Obama then echoed McDonough’s critique, effectively killing any chance that a Russia commission would be formed.

Effectively, McDonough upended the table on those (which presumably includes the CIA) who wanted to preempt regular process.

Finally, even after  these three WaPo journalists foreground their entire narrative with CIA’s super duper scoop (that NSA is still not 100% convinced is one), they don’t describe their own role in changing the tenor of the response on December 9 by reporting the first iteration of this story.

“By December, those of us working on this for a long time were demoralized,” said an administration official involved in the developing punitive options.

Then the tenor began to shift.

On Dec. 9, Obama ordered a comprehensive review by U.S. intelligence agencies of Russian interference in U.S. elections going back to 2008, with a plan to make some of the findings public.

The WaPo’s report of the CIA’s intelligence changed the tenor back in December, and this story about the absence of a response might change the tenor here.

Presenting the politics ahead of the intelligence

The WaPo’s foregrounding of Brennan’s August scoop is also important for the way they portray the parallel streams of the intelligence and political response. It portrays the Democrats’ political complaints about Republicans in this story, most notably the suggestion that Mitch McConnell refused to back a more public statement about the Russian operation when Democrats were pushing for one in September. That story, in part because of McConnell’s silence, has become accepted as true.

Except the WaPo’s own story provides ample evidence that the Democrats were trying to get ahead of the formal intelligence community with respect to attribution, both in the summer, when Clapper only alluded to Russian involvement.

Even after the late-July WikiLeaks dump, which came on the eve of the Democratic convention and led to the resignation of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) as the DNC’s chairwoman, U.S. intelligence officials continued to express uncertainty about who was behind the hacks or why they were carried out.

At a public security conference in Aspen, Colo., in late July, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. noted that Russia had a long history of meddling in American elections but that U.S. spy agencies were not ready to “make the call on attribution” for what was happening in 2016.

And, more importantly, in the fall, when the public IC attribution came only after McConnell refused to join a more aggressive statement because the intelligence did not yet support it (WaPo makes no mention of it, but DHS’s public reporting from late September still attributed the the threat to election infrastructure to “cybercriminals and criminal hackers”).

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) went further, officials said, voicing skepticism that the underlying intelligence truly supported the White House’s claims. Through a spokeswoman, McConnell declined to comment, citing the secrecy of that meeting.

Key Democrats were stunned by the GOP response and exasperated that the White House seemed willing to let Republican opposition block any pre-election move.

On Sept. 22, two California Democrats — Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Adam B. Schiff — did what they couldn’t get the White House to do. They issued a statement making clear that they had learned from intelligence briefings that Russia was directing a campaign to undermine the election, but they stopped short of saying to what end.

A week later, McConnell and other congressional leaders issued a cautious statement that encouraged state election officials to ensure their networks were “secure from attack.” The release made no mention of Russia and emphasized that the lawmakers “would oppose any effort by the federal government” to encroach on the states’ authorities.

When U.S. spy agencies reached unanimous agreement in late September that the interference was a Russian operation directed by Putin, Obama directed spy chiefs to prepare a public statement summarizing the intelligence in broad strokes.

I’m all in favor of beating up McConnell, but there is no reason to demand members of Congress precede the IC with formal attribution for something like this. So until October 7, McConnell had cover (if not justification) for refusing to back a stronger statement.

And while the report describes Brennan’s efforts to brief members of Congress (and the reported reluctance of Republicans to meet with him), it doesn’t answer what remains a critical and open question: whether Brennan’s briefing for Harry Reid was different — and more inflammatory — than his briefing for Republicans, and whether that was partly designed to get Reid to serve as a proxy attacker on Jim Comey and the FBI.

Brennan moved swiftly to schedule private briefings with congressional leaders. But getting appointments with certain Republicans proved difficult, officials said, and it was not until after Labor Day that Brennan had reached all members of the “Gang of Eight” — the majority and minority leaders of both houses and the chairmen and ranking Democrats on the Senate and House intelligence committees.

Nor does this account explain another thing: why Brennan serially briefed the Gang of Eight, when past experience is to brief them in groups, if not all together.

In short, while the WaPo provides new details on the parallel intelligence and political tracks, it reinforces its own narrative while remaining silent on some details that are critical to that narrative.

The compartments

The foregrounding of CIA in all this also raises questions about a new and important detail about (what I assume to be the subsequently publicly revealed, though this is not made clear) Task Force investigating this operation: it lives at CIA, not FBI.

Brennan convened a secret task force at CIA headquarters composed of several dozen analysts and officers from the CIA, the NSA and the FBI.

The unit functioned as a sealed compartment, its work hidden from the rest of the intelligence community. Those brought in signed new non-disclosure agreements to be granted access to intelligence from all three participating agencies.

They worked exclusively for two groups of “customers,” officials said. The first was Obama and fewer than 14 senior officials in government. The second was a team of operations specialists at the CIA, NSA and FBI who took direction from the task force on where to aim their subsequent efforts to collect more intelligence on Russia.

Much later in the story, WaPo reveals how, in the wake of Obama calling for a report, analysts started looking back at their collected intelligence and learning new details.

Obama’s decision to order a comprehensive report on Moscow’s interference from U.S. spy agencies had prompted analysts to go back through their agencies’ files, scouring for previously overlooked clues.

The effort led to a flurry of new, disturbing reports — many of them presented in the President’s Daily Brief — about Russia’s subversion of the 2016 race. The emerging picture enabled policymakers to begin seeing the Russian campaign in broader terms, as a comprehensive plot sweeping in its scope.

It’s worth asking: did the close hold of the original Task Force, a hold that appears to have been set by Brennan, contribute to the belated discovery of these details revealing a broader campaign?

The surveillance driven sanctions

I’m most interested in the description of how the Obama Admin chose whom to impose sanctions on, though it includes this bizarre claim.

But the package of measures approved by Obama, and the process by which they were selected and implemented, were more complex than initially understood.

The expulsions and compound seizures were originally devised as ways to retaliate against Moscow not for election interference but for an escalating campaign of harassment of American diplomats and intelligence operatives. U.S. officials often endured hostile treatment, but the episodes had become increasingly menacing and violent.

Several of the details WaPo presents as misunderstood (including that the sanctions were retaliation for treatment of diplomats) were either explicit in the sanction package or easily gleaned at the time.

One of those easily gleaned details is that the sanctions on GRU and FSB were mostly symbolic. WaPo uses the symbolic nature of the attack on those who perpetrated the attack as a way to air complaints that these sanctions were not as onerous as those in response to Ukraine.

“I don’t think any of us thought of sanctions as being a primary way of expressing our disapproval” for the election interference, said a senior administration official involved in the decision. “Going after their intelligence services was not about economic impact. It was symbolic.”

More than any other measure, that decision has become a source of regret to senior administration officials directly involved in the Russia debate. The outcome has left the impression that Obama saw Russia’s military meddling in Ukraine as more deserving of severe punishment than its subversion of a U.S. presidential race.

“What is the greater threat to our system of government?” said a former high-ranking administration official, noting that Obama and his advisers knew from projections formulated by the Treasury Department that the impact of the election-related economic sanctions would be “minimal.”

Three things that might play into the mostly symbolic targeting of FSB, especially, are not mentioned. First, WaPo makes no mention of the suspected intelligence sources who’ve been killed since the election, most credibly Oleg Erovinkin, as well as a slew of other suspect and less obviously connected deaths. It doesn’t mention the four men Russia charged with treason in early December. And it doesn’t mention DOJ’s indictment of the Yahoo hackers, including one of the FSB officers, Dmitry Dokuchaev, that Russia charged with treason (not to mention the inclusion within the indictment of intercepts between FSB officers). There’s a lot more spy vs. spy activity going on here that likely relates far more to retaliation or limits on US ability to retaliate, all of which may be more important in the medium term than financial sanctions.

Given the Yahoo and other indictments working through San Francisco (including that of Yevgeniey Nikulin, who claims FBI offered him a plea deal involving admitting he hacked the DNC), I’m particularly interested in the shift in sanctions from NY to San Francisco, where Nikulin and Dokuchaev’s victims are located.

The FBI was also responsible for generating the list of Russian operatives working under diplomatic cover to expel, drawn from a roster the bureau maintains of suspected Russian intelligence agents in the United States.

[snip]

The roster of expelled spies included several operatives who were suspected of playing a role in Russia’s election interference from within the United States, officials said. They declined to elaborate.

More broadly, the list of 35 names focused heavily on Russians known to have technical skills. Their names and bios were laid out on a dossier delivered to senior White House officials and Cabinet secretaries, although the list was modified at the last minute to reduce the number of expulsions from Russia’s U.N. mission in New York and add more names from its facilities in Washington and San Francisco.

And the WaPo’s reports confirm what was also obvious: the two compounds got shut down (and were a priority) because of all the spying they were doing.

The FBI had long lobbied to close two Russian compounds in the United States — one in Maryland and another in New York — on the grounds that both were used for espionage and placed an enormous surveillance burden on the bureau.

[snip]

Rice pointed to the FBI’s McCabe and said: “You guys have been begging to do this for years. Now is your chance.”

The administration gave Russia 24 hours to evacuate the sites, and FBI agents watched as fleets of trucks loaded with cargo passed through the compounds’ gates.

Finally, given Congress’ bipartisan fearmongering about Kaspersky Lab, I’m most interested that at one point Treasury wanted to include them in sanctions.

Treasury Department officials devised plans that would hit entire sectors of Russia’s economy. One preliminary suggestion called for targeting technology companies including Kaspersky Lab, the Moscow-based cybersecurity firm. But skeptics worried that the harm could spill into Europe and pointed out that U.S. companies used Kaspersky systems and software.

In spite of all the fearmongering, no one has presented proof that Kaspersky is working for Russia (there are even things, which I won’t go in to for the moment, that suggest the opposite). But we’re moving close to de facto sanctions against Kaspersky anyway, even in spite of the fact (or perhaps because) they’re providing better intelligence on WannaCry than half the witnesses called as witnesses to Congress. But discrediting Kaspersky undercuts one of the only security firms in the world who, in addition to commenting on Russian hacking, will unpack America’s own hacking. You sanction Kaspersky, and you expand the asymmetry with which security firms selectively scrutinize just Russian hacking, rather than all nation-state hacking.

The looming cyberattack and the silence about Shadow Brokers

Which brings me to the last section of the article, where, over 8000 words in, the WaPo issues a threat against Russia in the form of a looming cyberattack Obama approved before he left.

WaPo’s early description of this suggests the attack was and is still in planning stages and relies on Donald Trump to execute.

Obama also approved a previously undisclosed covert measure that authorized planting cyber weapons in Russia’s infrastructure, the digital equivalent of bombs that could be detonated if the United States found itself in an escalating exchange with Moscow. The project, which Obama approved in a covert-action finding, was still in its planning stages when Obama left office. It would be up to President Trump to decide whether to use the capability.

But if readers make it all the way through the very long article, they’ll learn that’s not the case. The finding has already been signed, the implants are already being placed (implants which would most likely be discovered by Kaspersky), and for Trump to stop it, he would have to countermand Obama’s finding.

The implants were developed by the NSA and designed so that they could be triggered remotely as part of retaliatory cyber-strike in the face of Russian aggression, whether an attack on a power grid or interference in a future presidential race.

Officials familiar with the measures said that there was concern among some in the administration that the damage caused by the implants could be difficult to contain.

As a result, the administration requested a legal review, which concluded that the devices could be controlled well enough that their deployment would be considered “proportional” in varying scenarios of Russian provocation, a requirement under international law.

The operation was described as long-term, taking months to position the implants and requiring maintenance thereafter. Under the rules of covert action, Obama’s signature was all that was necessary to set the operation in motion.

U.S. intelligence agencies do not need further approval from Trump, and officials said that he would have to issue a countermanding order to stop it. The officials said that they have seen no indication that Trump has done so.

Whatever else this article is designed to do, I think, it is designed to be a threat to Putin, from long gone Obama officials.

Given the discussion of a looming cyberattack on Russia, it’s all the more remarkable WaPo breathed not one word about Shadow Brokers, which is most likely to be a drawn out cyberattack by Russian affiliates on NSA. Even ignoring the Shadow Brokers’ derived global ransomware attack in WannaCry, Shadow Brokers has ratcheted up the severity of its releases, including doxing NSA’s spies and hacks of the global finance system, It has very explicitly fostered tensions between the NSA and private sector partners (as well as the reputational costs on those private sector partners). And it has threatened to leak still worse, including NSA exploits against current Microsoft products and details of NSA’s spying on hostile nuclear programs.

The WaPo is talking about a big cyberattack, but an entity that most likely has close ties to Russia has been conducting one, all in plain sight. I suggested back in December that Shadow Brokers was essentially holding NSA hostage in part as a way to constrain US intelligence retaliation against Russia. Given ensuing events, I’m more convinced that is, at least partly, true.

But in this grand narrative of CIA’s early warning and Obama’s inadequate response, details like that remain unsaid.

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.

Of Spies and Casinos

[photo: liebeslakritze via Flickr]

Many have forgotten the case of Russian spies arrested in the U.S.

Not the ten from the Illegals Program sleeper cell spy ring rounded up in 2010, whose integration into the U.S. formed the backbone of the cable drama, The Americans.

No, the ones in New York City who attempted to recruit college students and collect economic intelligence.

Three in total were arrested a year ago January — Evgeny Buryakov, Igor Sporyshev and Victor Podobnyy — the latter two shipped out as they were here under diplomatic visas while the first was prosecuted and jailed.

The story is rather interesting though it didn’t garner much attention outside New York. The spies were tasked with not only recruiting but gathering intelligence in the financial sector about market destabilization and the status of development and investment in alternative energy.

Buryakov, who was not under diplomatic protection, wasn’t the sharpest pencil in the box. He was a little put out at having a less than glamorous gig, and he was rather imprudent. He was recorded easily, and his words used as evidence against him.

One interesting bit was thinly fleshed out in the USDOJ’s complaint.

Buryakov toured casinos in Atlantic City.

But which casinos?

In July 2014, a confidential contact working on behalf of the FBI, “posed as the representative of a wealthy investor looking to work with Bank-1 [the Russian bank for which Buryakov posed as an employee] to develop casinos in Russia,” and approached Buryakov about casino development in Russia. A tour of Atlantic City casinos was taken in August.

Combing through the complaint looking for the colleges from which they attempted to recruit revealed no mention of Trump University.

But the casinos visited aren’t clear. The Trump Plaza (closed September 2014) or the Trump Taj Mahal (closed October 2016) can’t be ruled out as sites visited by Buryakov — the Plaza closed only a few weeks later.

The skepticism with which they viewed the casino gambit was amusing (excerpt from complaint, p. 23-24):

It was a trap, just as suspected; did the confidential source not give off the right vibe, or were the Russians skeptical of any investment in casinos developed in Russia? Trump, after all, didn’t get his Trump Towers Moscow off the ground even after his 2013 trip for the Miss World Pageant. Did the skepticism worry the FBI they might lose their targets? Or did the FBI finally have enough of toying with these guys and decide it was time to drop the hammer? Was some other trigger which forced the FBI to wrap up this investigation?

A few other points worth noting:

• “Others known and unknown” were also involved in spying or supporting spies but were not included in the warrant according to the complaint (ex: CC-1 and CC-2 in complaint). Who were they and where are they now? Has the FBI continued to watch them? Were any of them among the Russians who were escorted out of the U.S. after former president Obama announced new sanctions this past December?

• “And then Putin even tried to justify that they weren’t even tasked to work, they were sleeper cells in case of martial law,” Victor Podobnyy remarked in a conversation about the Illegals Program sleeper cells. What did he mean by, “in case of martial law”? Is this a continuing concern with regard to any remaining undetected sleeper cells?

• A “leading Russian state-owned news organization” was mentioned in the complaint, “used for intelligence gathering purposes.” Which news outlet was this? How did this news organization figure into advanced methods used by this operation? It would be interesting to know if this was RT (formerly Russia Today) given Michael Flynn’s and Jill Stein’s attendance at an RT event in December 2015.

• The spies used an office in Manhattan for conveying information to their superiors. How was this done apart from phone calls; what technology and networks if any were involved?

There’s an important bit about aeronautics, but I’ll tackle that in another post. It’s important enough to be broken out on its own.

Oh, one last thing about this case: timing.

— On January 21, 2016 UK’s public inquest announced its final conclusions into the PO-210 poisoning death of Alexander Litivinenko, attributing the murder to orders from the top of Russia’s FSB — including Vladimir Putin.

— The next day, January 22,  the UK froze the assets of the escaped henchmen accused of the poisoning while seeking their extradition.

— A sealed complaint and a request for warrants were filed in Southern District of New York for the three Russian spies on January 23, 2016.

— The arrests of the spies was reported publicly on January 26, 2016.

These events on either side of the Atlantic didn’t happen in a vacuum. The casinos’ tour and the hand-off of government documents happened nearly six months before the complaint and warrants were filed and issued. But the Litvinenko inquest conclusion and the arrests happened within a couple of days — mere hours apart.

It shouldn’t be surprising to find coordinated retaliation occurred against both the UK and the US.

Blogger since 2002, political activist since 2003, geek since birth. Opinions informed by mixed-race, multi-ethnic, cis-female condition, further shaped by kind friends of all persuasions. Sci-tech frenemy, wannabe artist, decent cook, determined author, successful troublemaker. Mother of invention and two excessively smart-assed young adult kids. Attended School of Hard Knocks; Rather Unfortunate Smallish Private Business School in Midwest; Affordable Mid-State Community College w/evening classes. Self-employed at Tiny Consulting Business; previously at Large-ish Chemical Company with HQ in Midwest in multiple marginalizing corporate drone roles, and at Rather Big IT Service Provider as a project manager, preceded by a motley assortment of gigs before the gig economy was a thing. Blogging experience includes a personal blog at the original blogs.salon.com, managing editor for a state-based news site, and a stint at Firedoglake before landing here at emptywheel as technology’s less-virginal-but-still-accursed Cassandra.

Democrats Demand DOJ Release the Information that Has Christopher Steele Hiding for His Life

I have to say, the Democrats are beginning to convince me Russia’s involvement in the DNC hack is just one hoax.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe there is plenty of evidence — in public and stuff I’ve been told by people close to the hack — that the Russians did hack the DNC and John Podesta and share those documents with Wikileaks.

But given the bozo way the Democrats are trying to politicize it, I can only conclude the Democrats think this is less serious than I have believed and than Democrats claim. That’s because they’re now demanding that FBI give them the very same information that — we’ve been told by public reporting — led former MI6 officer Christopher Steele to hide for his life.

This morning, David Corn wrote a piece complaining about “the mysterious disappearance of the biggest scandal in Washington.”

After reviewing some of the facts in this case (and asserting without proof that Putin’s interference in the election “achieved its objectives,” which is only partly backed by declassified intelligence reports on the hack) and giving an incomplete list of the congressional committees that have announced investigations into the hack, Corn gave this inventory of what he claims to be the lack of outcry over the hack.

Yet these behind-closed-doors inquiries have generated minimum media notice, and, overall, there has not been much outcry.

Certainly, every once in a while, a Democratic legislator or one of the few Republican officials who have bothered to express any disgust at the Moscow meddling (namely Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Marco Rubio) will pipe up. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi days ago called on the FBI to investigate Trump’s “financial, personal and political connections to Russia” to determine “the relationship between Putin, whom he admires, and Donald Trump.” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), responding to Trump’s comparison of the United States to Putin’s repressive regime, said on CNN, “What is this strange relationship between Putin and Trump? And is there something that the Russians have on him that is causing him to say these really bizarre things on an almost daily basis?” A few weeks ago, Graham told me he wanted an investigation of how the FBI has handled intelligence it supposedly has gathered on ties between Trump insiders and Russia. And last month, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) pushed FBI Director James Comey at a public hearing to release this information. Yet there has been no drumbeat of sound bites, tweets, or headlines. In recent days, the story has gone mostly dark.

The funniest detail in this is how Corn describes Chris Murphy’s response to the exchange that took up the entire weekend of news — Trump’s nonplussed response when Bill O’Reilly called Putin a killer.

O’Reilly: Do you respect Putin?

Trump: I do respect him but —

O’Reilly: Do you? Why?

Trump: Well, I respect a lot of people but that doesn’t mean I’m going to get along with him. He’s a leader of his country. I say it’s better to get along with Russia than not. And if Russia helps us in the fight against ISIS, which is a major fight, and Islamic terrorism all over the world — that’s a good thing. Will I get along with him? I have no idea.

O’Reilly: But he’s a killer though. Putin’s a killer.

Trump: There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think — our country’s so innocent. You think our country’s so innocent?

O’Reilly: I don’t know of any government leaders that are killers.

Trump: Well — take a look at what we’ve done too. We made a lot of mistakes. I’ve been against the war in Iraq from the beginning.

O’Reilly: But mistakes are different than —

Trump: A lot of mistakes, but a lot of people were killed. A lot of killers around, believe me.

This was a Super Bowl interview, for fuck’s sake, and both before and after the interview, political pundits on both sides of the aisle were up in arms about Trump’s affinity for Putin’s murderous ways! Google counts more than 70,000 articles on the exchange.

But to Corn, that translated into only one comment from Murphy.

From there, Corn goes onto complain that the White House press briefings — which have been a noted shitshow inhabited by people like Infowars — has only featured direct questions about the investigation twice, and that the questions about Trump’s call to Putin weren’t about the investigation (as opposed to, say, Trump’s ignorant comments about the START treaty, which could get us all killed).

The crazier thing is that, best as I can tell, Mother Jones — the media outlet that David Corn has a bit of influence over — seems to have ignored the indictment of Hal Martin yesterday, the arrest on treason charges of two FSB officers, allegedly for sharing information with the US intelligence community, or even today’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on our relations with Russia. Among other things, today’s hearing discussed the hack, Trump’s comments about Putin the killer, weaponization of information, sanctions, Trump’s lukewarm support for NATO. It also included multiple Democratic calls for a bipartisan investigation and assurances from Chairman Corker and Ranking Member Cardin that that would happen.

So effectively, David Corn should be complaining about his own outlet, which isn’t covering the things relating to the hack others of us are covering.

No matter. Corn made his sort of ridiculous call, that call got liked or RTed over 3,000 times, and as if magically in response, Jerry Nadler introduced a resolution of inquiry, calling on the Administration to (in part) release any document that relates or refers to “any criminal or counterintelligence investigation targeting President Donald J. Trump, National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Carter Page, Roger Stone, or any employee of the Executive Office of the President.”

As I’ve already noted, two FSB officers recently got arrested on treason charges, an event many people fear came in response to details revealed about this investigation and if so would badly undermine any investigation. People equally wonder whether the curious death of former FSB General Oleg Erovinkin relates to the leaked Steele dossier that Corn himself played a central role in magnifying, which would represent another lost intelligence source. And, of course, there are the reports that the former MI6 officer that compiled the dossier, Christopher Steele, on which these allegations rest fled from his home out of fear for his life because of the way it got publicized.

Either Putin is a ruthless thug or he’s not. Either Steele had reason to flee because the dossier is true or he didn’t. Either this thuggery is serious or it’s just a political stunt.

I really do believe it is the former (though I have real questions about the provenance of the dossier, questions which Corn could but has not helped to provide clarity on). Which is why I’m absolutely mystified that Democrats are demanding every document pertaining to any counterintelligence investigation into it, the kind of exposure which —  recent history may already show — is totally counterproductive to actually pursuing that investigation.

As I’ll write shortly, I do deeply suspect the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation (especially) is designed to be counterproductive. The Hal Martin indictment yesterday seems to suggest FBI doesn’t have the evidence to figure out who Shadow Brokers is, if even it has ties to the DNC hack (as much evidence suggests it does). But I also think political stunts like this don’t help things.

But maybe that’s not the point?

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.

One Day After Senior Intelligence Official Leaks Details of “Red Phone” Call, Russia Cuts Back Communications with the US

Yesterday, I expressed alarm that someone identified as a “senior intelligence official” not only leaked to NBC that President Obama had used the crisis “Red Phone” with Russia for the first time in his presidency (at least in a cyber context), but characterized the communication as muddled.

A month later, the U.S. used the vestige of an old Cold War communications system — the so-called “Red Phone” that connects Moscow to Washington — to reinforce Obama’s September warning that the U.S. would consider any interference on Election Day a grave matter.

This time Obama used the phrase “armed conflict.”

[snip]

A senior intelligence official told NBC News the message ultimately sent to the Russians was “muddled” — with no bright line laid down and no clear warning given about the consequences. The Russian response, said the official, was non-committal.

But it alarms me that someone decided it was a good idea to go leak criticisms of a Red Phone exchange. It would seem that such an instrument depends on some foundation of trust that, no matter how bad things have gotten, two leaders of nuclear armed states can speak frankly and directly.

Without that conversation being broadcast to the entire world via leaks.

Today, Reuters released a bizarre report — really signals within signals — claiming that most channels of dialogue are frozen.

The Kremlin said on Wednesday it did not expect the incoming U.S. administration to reject NATO enlargement overnight and that almost all communications channels between Russia and the United States were frozen, the RIA news agency reported.

“Almost every level of dialogue with the United States is frozen. We don’t communicate with one another, or (if we do) we do so minimally,” Peskov said

I say it’s bizarre because it’s not a firsthand report. It reports that RIA reported that Peskov said this in an interview with the Mir TV station. So it lacks context.

Moreover, it appears to be false, given that John Kerry spoke with Sergei Lavrov yesterday (with whom he seems to have a pretty good relationship).

MR KIRBY: Well, as you know, we weren’t a party to the talks, but Secretary Kerry did speak today to both Foreign Minister Lavrov and Foreign Minister Cavusoglu, who were there. And they provided the Secretary a sense of how the discussions went.

Nevertheless, this may be a kind of signaling.

It’s precisely the kind of possibility that I worried about when I noted the leak.

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.

Now the Spooks Are Leaking Criticism of Obama’s Sole Use of the “Red Phone”

NBC, which seems to be sharing the role of spook leak central with WaPo, has upped the ante on previous leaks. Last night, it revealed that on October 31, Obama used the “Red Phone” (which is in reality an email system) designed to avert disasters with Russia for the first time in his Administration to warn Vladimir Putin not to fuck with our election process.

A month later, the U.S. used the vestige of an old Cold War communications system — the so-called “Red Phone” that connects Moscow to Washington — to reinforce Obama’s September warning that the U.S. would consider any interference on Election Day a grave matter.

This time Obama used the phrase “armed conflict.”

The reason we’re getting this leak seems fairly clear. Not only are Democrats peeved that Obama didn’t manage to recall or suppress documents already leaked to WikiLeaks, but one “senior intelligence official” is angry that Obama laid down no bright line.

A senior intelligence official told NBC News the message ultimately sent to the Russians was “muddled” — with no bright line laid down and no clear warning given about the consequences. The Russian response, said the official, was non-committal.

I’m pretty favorable to leaks (though not their use to preempt deliberative assessment of intelligence). They serve an important check on government, even on the President.

But it alarms me that someone decided it was a good idea to go leak criticisms of a Red Phone exchange. It would seem that such an instrument depends on some foundation of trust that, no matter how bad things have gotten, two leaders of nuclear armed states can speak frankly and directly.

Without that conversation being broadcast to the entire world via leaks.

It would seem such a leak might lead Putin to take such exchanges less seriously in the future knowing that the spooks reviewing the exchange don’t take the gravity of it all that seriously.

Ah well. Good things these spooks are so successfully combatting the inappropriate leak of information by leaking more information.

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.

16 Words: “The British government has learned that Vladimir Putin recently sought significant quantities of votes for Trump”

This morning, I managed to remind the NYT in the NYT of its role in spreading leaks that led us to war in Iraq. I did so not to defend Donald Trump, but to point out how the flood of leaks leading up to the Iraq War is similar to the one we’ve had in the last week, insisting that Putin hacked Hillary specifically to get Trump elected. Here’s the comparison, which you’re familiar with from my posts in the last week.

Trump is not quite right when he claims that, “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.” Neither the entire intelligence community nor even everyone at the C.I.A. was wrong about the Iraq intelligence. Rather, leaks like the ones we’re seeing now ensured elected officials didn’t hear from the skeptics who got it right.

That time, as members of Congress were demanding the Bush administration show its case for war, anonymous officials told this newspaper that aluminum tubes purchased by Iraq could only be used for nuclear enrichment. By the time Congress got a report, a month later, saying that might not be the case most members never read it; they had already been convinced that the case for war was a “slam dunk.”

This time, just hours after the White House revealed President Obama had ordered a (belated) review by the entire intelligence community of how hacks have tainted our democracy, the C.I.A.’s incendiary conclusion got leaked to the press: First, anonymous leaks said Russia had hacked Democrats not just to cause chaos, but specifically to get Trump elected. Last Wednesday the leaks went further: Putin himself oversaw the operation to put Trump in the White House. On Friday, another C.I.A. leak came out minutes before Obama started a news conference where he said, “I want to make sure … I give the intelligence community the chance to gather all the information.”

The point of my post is not — as numerous people who refute it without reading it suggest — to argue Russia didn’t hack Hillary. While I have lingering questions, I think that likely.

Rather, it is to ask why the CIA is so invested in the narrative that Putin specifically intervened to get Trump elected, rather than the more obvious explanation, which is that he intervened to retaliate for real and imagined CIA-led covert operations targeted at Russian interests?

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.

In Latest Russian Plot, WikiLeaks Reveals Hillary Opposes ISDS

Among the emails released as part of the Podesta leaks yesterday, WikiLeaks released this one showing that, almost a year before she was making the same argument in debates with Bernie Sanders, Hillary was opposed to Investor State Dispute Settlement that is part of the Trans Pacific Partnership. (h/t Matt Stoller) ISDS is the means by which corporations have used trade agreements to operate above the domestic laws of party countries (if you haven’t read this three part series from BuzzFeed to learn about the more exotic ways business are profiting off of ISDS).

The email also appears to echo her later public concern that she had changed her mind on TPP because of KORUS.

After our last talk with HRC, we revised our letter to oppose ISDS and include her caution about South Korea.

Sure, other Podesta emails show Hillary supporting a broad region of free trade (and labor) in the Americas. But this more recent email confirms that the views she expressed in debate were more than just an attempt to counter Bernie’s anti-trade platform.

Whether or not this is newsworthy enough to justify the WL dump, it is noteworthy in light of NYT’s rather bizarre article from some weeks back suggesting that WL always sides with Putin’s goals. As I noted, the article made a really strained effort to claim that WL exposed TPP materials because it served Putin’s interests. Now, here, WL is is releasing information that makes Hillary look better on precisely that issue.

That doesn’t advance the presumed narrative of helping Trump defeat Hillary!

Then, as I noted yesterday, in spite of all the huff and puff from Kurt Eichenwald, the release of a Sid Blumenthal email used by Trump is another case where the WL release, as released, doesn’t feed the presumed goals of Putin.

Which brings me to this Shane Harris piece, which describes four different NatSec sources revealing there’s still a good deal of debate about WL’s ties to Russia.

Military and intelligence officials are convinced that WikiLeaks is an ongoing threat to U.S. national security and privacy owing to its leaks of classified documents and emails. But its precise relationship with Russia has been a subject of internal debate. Some do see the group as being in cahoots with the Kremlin. But others find that WikiLeaks is acting mainly as the beneficiary of stolen documents, not unlike a journalistic organization.

There are some funny aspects to this story. Nothing in it considers the significant evidence that WL is (and has reason to be) affirmatively anti-Hillary, which means its interests may align with Russia, even if it doesn’t take orders from Russia.

It also suggests that if the spooks can prove some tie between WL and Russia, they can spy on it as an agent of foreign power.

But those facts don’t mean WikiLeaks isn’t acting at Russia’s behest. And that’s not a trivial matter. If the United States were to determine that WikiLeaks is an agent of a foreign power, as defined in U.S. law, it could allow intelligence and law enforcement agencies to spy on the group—as they do on the Russian government. The U.S. can also bring criminal charges against foreign agents.

WL has been intimately involved in two separate charges cases of leaking-as-espionage in the US, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. The government has repeatedly told courts that it has National Security/Criminal investigations, plural, into WikiLeaks, and when pressed for details about how and whether the government is collecting on supporters and readers of WikiLeaks, the government has in part hidden those details under a b3 FOIA exemption, meaning a statute prevents disclosing it, while extraordinarily refusing to reveal what statute that is. We certainly know that FBI has used multiple informants to spy on WL and used a variety of collection methods against Jacob Appelbaum, including (according to Appelbaum) physical tails.

So there’s not only no doubt that the US government believes it can spy on WikiLeaks (which is, after all, headed by a foreigner and not a US organization), but that it already does, and has been doing for at least six years.

Perhaps Harris’ sources really mean they’ve never found a way to indict Julian Assange before, but if they can claim he’s working for Putin, then maybe they’ll overcome past problems of indicting him because it would criminalize journalism. If that’s the case, it may be shading analysis of WL, because the government would badly like a reason to shut down WL (as the comments about the direct threat to the US in the story back up).

As I’ve said before, the role of WL in this and prior leak events is a pretty complex one, one that if approached too rashly (or too sloppily) could have ramifications for other publishers. While a lot of people are rushing to collapse this (in spite of what sounds like a continuing absence of directly incriminating evidence) into a nation-state conflict, things like this TPP email suggest it’s not that simple.

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.