Ten New Questions (and Answers) About Hillary and Russiagate
Here are ten questions and answers about Special Counsel John Durham’s new filing in his Russiagate investigation. You’ll probably jump to number four…
1) Fox says one thing, and CNN says the opposite…
The filing is only 13 pages; the juicy stuff is just a few paragraphs. Read it.
2) Could you give me the gist?
The filing is at its heart legal housekeeping, asking that a waiver be considered to allow indicted Clinton lawyer Michael Sussmann to retain his current representation.
A potential conflict of interest exists because Sussmann’s representative works for a law firm which also represents others Durham may be going after, and may have been involved in the larger events under investigation, perhaps as witnesses. Sussmann is under indictment for lying to the FBI. He brought the Trump-Alfa Bank accusations to the FBI pretending to be a patriotic citizen, when he was actually working on Clinton’s behalf trying to get the FBI to investigate Trump. Real intelligence officers call that “using cover.”
While the conflict of interest issue is interesting in itself, what is news worthy are claims tech company Neustar and its executive Rodney Joffe (who was also a law client of Michael Sussmann) accessed “dedicated servers for the Executive Office of the President (EOP).” Joffe then “exploited this arrangement by mining the EOP’s DNS traffic and other data for the purpose of gathering derogatory information about Donald Trump.” All quotes are from the filing.
Joffe also “enlisted the assistance of researchers at a U.S.-based university” (likely Georgia Tech) who had access to “large amounts of Internet data in connection with a pending federal government cybersecurity research contract.” Real intelligence officers call that “recruiting sources with demonstrated access,” or informally, “spotting.”
This would have been how Joffe got access to data from Trump’s private computers. “[Joffe] tasked these researchers to mine Internet data to establish ‘an inference’ and ‘narrative’ tying then-candidate Trump to Russia,” he added. “In doing so, [Joffe] indicated that he was seeking to please certain ‘VIPs,’ referring to individuals at Law Firm-1 and the Clinton campaign.”
3) What is DNS?
Remember metadata, the info about a communication Edward Snowden showed us the NSA gathers? This is like that. Metadata shows, among other things, when and where a communication started, and where it ended up. DNS data, a kind of metadata, comes from a Domain Name Server. When you use a smartphone or type an address into your browser, it contacts a DNS server, which translates words into the numbers the Internet actually runs on. Same thing for email, TikTok, anything online.
If you have access to DNS data, such as Joffe did, you know who Trump communicated with. DNS data is a map and if you have enough of it, patterns, such as perhaps regular communication with Russia, emerge. That’s why real intelligence officers do the same thing against enemies.
4) Durham never uses the word “spying.”
Neither do real intelligence officers. But what word would you use to describe secretly and likely illegally collecting information about enemies to use against them? Durham is writing a legal document, and must use precise words. But it is pretty hard to call what actually happened anything else in lay terms.
5) How is what Joffe/Neustar did illegal? They had access to the servers.
There were two sources of DNS information, let’s take them separately. The first was DNS servers actually inside the White House. Neustar provided these servers under a contract with the government. Contractors like Neustar working on sensitive data systems do not own the data they see. Their scope of usage is very specific to the job they were hired to do. Like your doctor, who knows you’re a drunk but cannot just share that with his brother-in-law who sells car insurance.
Real intelligence officers all the time illegally obtain information from people, like foreign diplomats, who have legitimate access to it. They call that “their job.”
Joffe also monitored the DNS data from Trump Tower and other properties via Georgia Tech. They got it (along with a gazillion other DNS records) as part of an unrelated contract with the Pentagon. Georgia Tech had no obvious right to share data with Joffe and he had no right to use the shared data for political purposes. There has got to be a crime in there somewhere.
6) But Joffe and others never read any Trump email or listened in on calls. So it’s not spying.
Time to update the definition of spying from 1945. In Joffe’s case, he was trying to establish a pattern of communications between Trump and Russia. Michael Sussmann was then to take that pattern to the FBI and CIA as a patriotic bystander, and those agencies would be able to go in deep. The NSA does this all the time, looking at who one terrorist contacts in order to target another. Real intelligence officers know it is the core of modern spying. The Clinton campaign was doing it, and then using Michael Sussmann as a false front to peddle it. The FBI took the bait.
7) But I heard all this DNS monitoring of the White House started under Obama.
Neustar got the contract and installed the DNS servers in the White House during the Obama administration. This may have been for some legitimate cybersecurity task and/or to establish a baseline of “normal” White House-Russia communications. Joffe continued his DNS monitoring of the White House into February 2017, after Trump took office. Having failed to stop his campaign, the data was lined up to aid in driving him out of office. The other monitoring, of Trump’s personal and business DNS data, took place during the campaign, which of course meant it was while Obama was in the White House but separate from it.
8) This guy Joffe seems right out of Better Call Saul.
In quid pro quo, Joffe was offered a top cybersecurity job in the future Hillary Clinton administration. But his background goes deep. Among other things, Joffe’s other company, Packet Forensics, sells equipment that allows law enforcement to spy on private web-browsing through fake Internet security certificates. Joffe could have easily used his access to the White House servers to install his product and then monitor everything.
Joffe’s company has done $40 million in federal contracts, including with the FBI (in 2013, FBI Director James Comey gave Joffe an award recognizing his work on a case) and the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Joffe’s firm also monitors the computers of other government officials for threats, including Justice Department watchdog Michael Horowitz, who investigated the FBI for Russiagate wrongdoing. Joffe is one guy in position to know a lot. And small world — Joffe’s company Packet Forensics landed another, new, Pentagon contract, with the bid awarded the day Joe Biden was inaugurated.
9) What’s next?
Joffe’s indictment is almost certain. Durham may also get curious why the FBI and CIA did not question where Sussmann got his data, given that it could have only come from White House servers. In addition, if researchers at Georgia Tech paid by the U.S. government were freelancing the data they collected to help the Clinton campaign smear Trump, that would be another area to explore. It’s likely too late, but Durham might also seize the Neustar-provided DNS servers and see if any malware was ever installed.
One of Durham’s earlier indictments, former FBI lawyer, Kevin Clinesmith, has already been found guilty of falsifying data on a FISA application. The case against Clinton lawyer Michael Sussmann is ongoing, as is the third publicly-known indictment, against Igor Danchenko. Danchenko made up most of what was in Christopher Steele’s dossier.
Keep your eye on Charles Dolan, a long-time Clinton hack. Dolan has close ties not only to the Clintons but to Moscow as well; he did PR work for the Russian government and was registered as a foreign agent for Russia. Dolan is credited with, among other things, making up the pee tape and otherwise using cut-outs to feed false info about Trump into the dossier.
10) Anyone going to jail?
Durham’s filings are lightening flashes, briefly and unpredictably illuminating part of the whole. One thing seems clear, however. The statute of limitations on many process crimes, like perjury, is short. Any strategy of using little fish to catch bigger fish is likely to time out, at least as far as actual prosecutions. So you-know-who is not going to jail.
Instead, Durham seems intent more on exposing the larger conspiracy, to include the Russia dossier and now electronic spying by the Clinton campaign. He may also expose more fully the FBI’s role in all this. One can imagine future hearings in a Republican-controlled House showing what Hillary, never mind Obama and Biden, knew.
Peter Van Buren is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.