After the New York Times came out with its 16 May “Crossfire Hurricane” apologetic for the FBI’s spying operation against the Trump campaign, Kimberley Strassel and Andrew McCarthy drew two important conclusions from it.
One – Strassel’s – is that the politicization of the “Russia-Trump” probe could have occurred earlier than the conventional wisdom has placed it. Alluding to Rep. Devin Nunes’ increasing suspicion that the Trump team was “set up,” Strassel suggests looking at a point in the “late spring” of 2016 when James Comey is said to have briefed Obama’s national security principals that “the FBI had counterintelligence concerns about the Trump campaign.”
In Strassel’s words:
With this briefing, Mr. Comey officially notified senior political operators on Team Obama that the bureau had eyes on Donald Trump and Russia. Imagine what might be done in these partisan times with such explosive information.
She goes on to recount some of what was done. That litany alone amounts to a set of questions that urgently require answers.
McCarthy’s conclusion – which is something we already effectively knew, but which he frames nicely as a powerful reminder – is that the FBI was running a counterintelligence investigation against the Trump campaign, essentially under the guise of running it against Russia.
In other words, it was implicitly an investigation about a “national security” threat, as opposed to a criminal investigation. It didn’t have to meet the standard of probable cause required for using surveillance tools and the FBI’s human spies in criminal matters.
But a counterintelligence investigation is supposed to be mounted against a foreign threat. This one, as the NYT article makes clear (if perhaps inadvertently), was mounted against Americans.
McCarthy summarizes it (emphasis in original):
The scandal is that the FBI, lacking the incriminating evidence needed to justify opening a criminal investigation of the Trump campaign, decided to open a counterintelligence investigation. With the blessing of the Obama White House, they took the powers that enable our government to spy on foreign adversaries and used them to spy on Americans — Americans who just happened to be their political adversaries.
Whether you waited for Strassel and McCarthy to derive these conclusions, or had come to them yourself some time ago, the moment created by the NYT article is something of a watershed. The article’s effective confession – yes, the FBI did the things it’s accused of, but here’s the sympathetic story on why – is itself a momentum-changer. But more than that, the conclusions we can draw from it mean that a lot of facts may be considered in a fresh light.
And they probably should be. I want to look at just a couple here. But first, one more point from the NYT article. This is a point I have already made several times, but NYT sets it up once again.
Here’s the relevant passage:
Only about five Justice Department officials knew the full scope of the case, officials said, not the dozen or more who might normally be briefed on a major national security case.
The facts, had they surfaced, might have devastated the Trump campaign: Mr. Trump’s future national security adviser was under investigation, as was his campaign chairman. One adviser appeared to have Russian intelligence contacts. Another was suspected of being a Russian agent himself.
Trump supporters would likely hear in these prominently placed points an attempt to smear Trump; i.e., by reiterating rote, unsubstantiated claims that have a sinister ring to them. Others – probably including Ms. Strassel and Mr. McCarthy – would hear language justifying the FBI.
That pesky “good-faith” perspective again
But I would suggest stepping back even further than Strassel does, and recognizing a bigger picture. If the FBI really thought Trump’s future national security adviser, his campaign chairman, his adviser with Russian contacts, and his adviser who might be a Russian agent, were so gravely suspect that they needed to be spied on, improperly, on an emergency basis, with all the tools of federal surveillance – what in the world was the Obama administration doing keeping that under wraps for months on end?
If they genuinely thought they were watching a national security train wreck developing, it was a colossal error of judgment to dither around about it, doing nothing more than spying on the suspicious wretches and worrying about whether acting more publicly would have an undue impact on the campaign.
And by colossal, I mean titanic. This is the kind of error in judgment that rightly gets senior people dismissed from their jobs for gross dereliction of duty, and banished to where they will never be heard from again.
If, that is – if, the FBI really had reason to harbor such suspicions about Trump.
Note, of course, that the buck stopped much higher up. It’s at the NSC and Oval Office level that I have questioned this before: this implication of the Russiagate narrative that the Obama administration did nothing wrong in sneaking around spying on Trump, and throwing shade on him, instead of confronting the potential of Russian interference head-on.
The FBI happens to be the agency the NYT article focuses on. But the answer on this – the answer to why the Obama administration didn’t just do the right thing, if it truly thought it had a candidate for president colluding with the Russians – can only be properly answered by Obama himself.
The thought must intrude that the Obama administration did not truly think Trump was colluding with the Russians. Instead, it saw an opportunity to exploit the appearance that that was possible.
Remember, the Obama agencies, by the middle of 2016, had pulled vast amounts of NSA surveillance data on most or perhaps all of the Trump team. If the agencies had found anything indicating collusion with the Russians, we would already know about it. That cannot be stressed enough. Virtually all the information the agencies were ever going to have from that set of surveillance sources, and from that block of time – months or years before mid-2016 – they already had in mid-2016. They thus had, significantly, their most important tool for identifying contacts and shaping lines of inquiry – including the questioning of suspects and informants – already in-hand.
Anything they couldn’t retrieve without specific FISA authority at that point, they then pulled after getting the Carter Page warrant in October 2016.
We also know that the credentials of top national security officials were being used to unmask the identities of Americans from the NSA database. That activity was not undertaken by the FBI, but it contributed much of the same kind of (or complementary) information, and presumably contributed it to the Obama administration’s picture of what was going on with the Trump team. The obvious entry point for the information was the secret task force set up in the White House the first week of August 2016.
The “bad-faith” alternative
Yet the lead agencies – the DOJ and FBI – have never shown any sign of thinking they had concrete evidence of collusion. In light of that reality, it would be actively stupid to stubbornly reject the possibility that the Obama administration was using the allegation of suspicion as an opportunity to spy.
It is an excellent question how the vision of that opportunity got started. Was it only because the FBI had some of the members of the Trump campaign under surveillance early in 2016, as Kimberley Strassel suggests?
We haven’t gotten anywhere near the bottom of that yet, especially given that John Brennan’s role in fanning the flames of the Russiagate narrative seems to have developed independently of the FBI activity.
At the very least, if Brennan’s role and the FBI’s counterintelligence operation had the same origin, the intersection point for that probably goes even further back than Strassel places it (i.e., earlier than late spring in 2016).
But determining that is for the future, when we know a bit more. In the meantime, three points, now that we’re moving toward the same sheet of music about the nature of the FBI investigation.
A “counterintelligence” operation means revisiting things we know about electronic surveillance
There will be a number of things to revisit, but there is one in particular that stands out after the release of the additional Strzok-Page texts in February 2018, at the behest of Senator Ron Johnson.
Buried in the avalanche of those texts is a comment by Lisa Page on a date I have identified before as a highly significant one: 9 March 2016. On page 186 of the PDF file Page and Strzok have this very brief exchange:
Strzok: K. Lync me when you get to desk, I’ll finish. Re oca and briefing requirements
Page: Yes. But need to try to fix a HUGE who f-up.
Strzok: Who or wfo?
This little exchange doesn’t seem at all informative on its face. It helps to know that “wfo” refers to the Washington Field Office, the FBI’s field office in Washington, D.C., which functions separately from the headquarters in the J. Edgar Hoover building a few blocks away. The WFO handles for the District of Columbia the kinds of things the other 55 field offices handle in their various locations around the country.
But it also has special functions because it’s the Washington Field Office, covering the concerns that arise in the nation’s capital. One of those special functions is having a large linguistic translation unit (some 200-strong in the mid-2000s), something only a few other field offices have; e.g., in New York, Los Angeles, and Detroit. The WFO translation unit, a legacy of the Cold War, has been around for a long time, in fact.
Even after a 2014 reorganization of FBI linguistic capabilities under the National Virtual Translation Center (NVTC), which was created in 2003 and has its front office in the J. Edgar Hoover building, the WFO has retained a special prominence in translation operations.
There is no slam-dunk here, and I want to emphasize that. But with the confirmation that the FBI was using full-blown counterintelligence capabilities against the Trump team, Lisa Page’s exclamation about the “HUGE f-up” on 9 March raises a question we need an answer to.
Was she referring to the identification, on 9 March 2016, of the improper access the FBI had accorded contract personnel to raw NSA surveillance data?
An extensive online search reveals nothing else publicly acknowledged that would fit Page’s characterization of a “HUGE f-up,” by the WFO, emerging on 9 March 2016.
And while we don’t know for sure that the WFO was principally involved in the improper exposure of NSA data, there is good reason to suspect that’s the case. The bottom line is that it would tell us a lot, to find out one way or the other if the WFO was the FBI entity involved in exposing raw NSA data to contractors.
I have never made the assumption, for example, that this exposure to contractors, reported to the FISA Court in 2016, had anything to do with Nellie Ohr, the wife of Bruce Ohr (and a Russian linguist). That was a leap we simply didn’t have the information to make.
And we still don’t. But there is now better reason to imagine we might.
The short version on that is as follows: If contractors were being exposed to raw NSA data – the form in which they could see unmasked information – it had to be made available to them by someone in the FBI with the security credentials to have computerized access to it. The contractors who didn’t have such access couldn’t somehow have the data distributed to them by tasking or another collateral process. It had to be made available by analysts who used such access.
The NVTC concept, implemented with the reorganization in 2014, includes having translation contractors work remotely, from anywhere, to perform jobs for the FBI. But the exposure of NSA data would have occurred in a work center – a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) – and was most probably happening in the translation unit of the WFO. That’s where the locus of personnel and equipment has been for a long time to deal with the special requirements of the nation’s capital.
Moreover, contract translators are the most likely audience for this improper data exposure. The FBI may contract for other analytical work involving sensitive, compartmented data, but translators are the ones who might most easily view what they shouldn’t, if proper controls aren’t in place.
Now add in the point that this discovery wasn’t made at some random time, but occurred at a time when the FBI was one of a handful of agencies whose retrievals of NSA data had skyrocketed over the previous three years (see links above). We’ve never had a satisfactory public explanation for that. The technological capability to perform data-pulls easily is one aspect of such an explanation, but what we are really owed is a functional justification for the explosion of data retrievals.
There has never been one – not even a vague claim, for example, that counterterrorism requirements suddenly got much vaster between 2013 and 2016.
For these reasons, at a minimum, we are justified in asking if the improper exposure of NSA data to contractors was about the Obama administration spying on more Americans than ever before in 2016; if it was about spying on Trump and his associates, possibly among other, similar administration targets; and if – at the Washington Field Office, and involving contractors – the “f-up” that we know was identified on 9 March 2016 was indeed linked to a personage like Nellie Ohr, or to Ms. Ohr herself.
Nellie Ohr worked for Accenture, after all, and presumably (whether for Accenture or another company) as a contractor for Russian linguist services. Accenture is a contractor for linguists, among many other corporate and government services.
This is a question that takes on renewed interest when we’ve uncovered enough to agree that the Obama FBI was running a maverick counterintelligence operation against Donald Trump.
One more point relating to Nellie Ohr also stands out, in light of that circumstance and the history of NSA’s internal probe in the spring of 2016. It is increasingly clear in hindsight that when Nellie Ohr got a ham radio operator’s license in May of 2016 (link above), the detection capability and alerted level of concern she and Fusion GPS were seeking to avoid were those of NSA’s Admiral Mike Rogers.
Counterintelligence and the spy(ies) on the Trump campaign
As others have noted, the NYT “Crossfire Hurricane” article indicates that there may well have been more than one FBI informant about the Trump campaign, potentially including someone literally infiltrated to act as a spy.
We still don’t have anything to firmly identify the individuals involved. I spoke before of my skepticism about the specific person being widely discussed among other bloggers – not because I felt the person couldn’t be named in the document Devin Nunes was seeking access to, but because the individual had never had enough involvement with the campaign itself to function in the role suggested for him.
I still don’t see the person as fitting the role of “spy,” in the sense of operating covertly on behalf of the FBI to gather inside information. But flags in the person’s history do suggest a long familiarity with routine-contact activities that would be useful to the FBI.
One is having a rather open-ended contractual relationship with another department of the U.S. federal government (not the FBI or DOJ). Kimberley Strassel, in her column from last week, gave a nice summary of how informants for the FBI can get close to the FBI’s targets using natural, professional pretexts:
When government agencies refer to sources, they mean people who appear to be average citizens but use their profession or contacts to spy for the agency. Ergo, we might take this to mean that the FBI secretly had a person on the payroll who used his or her non-FBI credentials to interact in some capacity with the Trump campaign.
Those credentials can also offer a way to be kept on retainer for various useful functions, but at a distance from the agency that might call on the individual at a given time. The Treasury Department, for example, might invoke someone’s services, and the State Department might actually pay the person via an ongoing contractual relationship. The type of work listed in the contractual payment is often a “tell” in that regard. If there’s no auditable due-out named for the payment, it’s a good bet it was something other than writing a monograph.
There are other flags. More specificity is for a later time. Superficial records will not tell us everything, if the FBI was running a full-scale counterintelligence operation against the Trump campaign. In the coming days, we’ll probably learn if the person being touted in the blogosphere had a named role in FBI documentation. Perhaps we’ll learn if someone else did. Either way, what we’ll have won’t really be answers, but a better sense of what the right questions are.
Once again, the reality: This counterintelligence operation required the entire federal executive to bring off
The focus is on the FBI right now. But we can’t ignore the extraordinary amount of unmasking of U.S. persons done by national security principals at the NSC and CIA (along with Samantha Power, or at least someone using her credentials, during her time at the UN).
I’ve covered this before, and won’t rehash the whole scenario. But it’s essential to remember that the operation at the FBI isn’t the bottom of this thing. The FBI could pull a lot of electronic “non-content” information on Trump officials using national security letters. Ultimately, using the Steele dossier, the FBI was able to get a FISA warrant on Carter Page, which enabled the gathering of additional data. But both of these avenues still kept the FBI within limits.
Assuming there really was a human spy inside the Trump campaign, that no doubt helped to improve the precision of the electronic surveillance effort. But to exceed the limits imposed by law on the FBI, where such limits were inconvenient for a bastardized “counterintelligence” operation, there had to be a complementary effort from another source that could get away longer – effectively unaudited, unquestioned – with electronically retrieving unmasked information, outside the confines of the FISA process.
That’s where the national security principals and their credentials would have come in. After the beginning of August 2016, there was even a vehicle for coordinating such a collaborative effort; i.e., between NSC staffers and the FBI. The secret task force convened by Obama at John Brennan’s behest was the obvious channel.
When NSA’s Admiral Rogers went on the warpath about improper data retrievals in early 2016, it became especially necessary to divide up the activities in some manner like this.
We may never get all the way to the bottom of this feature of the intelligence operation against the Trump campaign. We can’t know from out here if the electronic records are still there to clarify who did what.
But we forget at our peril that the storm of unmaskings by the national security principals did happen. That absolutely must be addressed by Congress – ideally by a commission, rather than a special investigation – not as much to identify perpetrators and their reasons as to ensure, the best we can, that it won’t happen again.