Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice filed charges against a U.S. Treasury official, Natalie Sours Edwards, for making unauthorized disclosures of numerous “suspicious activity reports” (SARs) on banking transactions to a BuzzFeed reporter between October 2017 and October 2018. Ms. Edwards worked in the Treasury Department’s Financial Crime Enforcement Network (FinCEN).
The reporter’s name – Jason Leopold – was on all of the articles cited as evidence in the DOJ complaint. Major media outlets have universally concluded that Leopold is “Reporter-1” in the complaint, a deduction that looks solid.
In fact, it is a bit interesting to see that the complaint affords us that visibility on who was involved. By contrast, clues to the identity of a collaborator inside FinCEN (“CC-1”) – the associate director, or division head, to whom Edwards reported – have been pretty much wiped from the Internet. Online records, including Edwards’s LinkedIn page, are silent about the specific department or field she’s been working in there.
Her background may be informative, but it is by no means a decisive indicator. Edwards has been something of a generalist, with a history of teaching and working in different federal agencies, but not apparently specializing on a career basis in finance, law enforcement, or intelligence. If the Twitterverse is correct, her record of federal employment indicates she was a GS-15 at the time of indictment.
There are six associate directors at FinCEN, and most of the names are hard to come by. More on that in a moment.
The complaint has a couple of other curious highlights. One is its specific mention of Edwards disclosing SARs information on Mueller probe targets Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, as well as Russiagate-related persons like Maria Butina (the alleged Russian spy) and “planners of the Trump Tower meeting” in June 2016 (who appear to include Aras Agalarov and an associate, Irakly “Ike” Kaveladze).
The complaint also mentions unauthorized SARs disclosures relating to Prevezon Alexander, the New York firm – a client of Fusion GPS – that in 2017 settled a DOJ charge over laundering money for Russia, as well as to the banking transactions of a “GOP operative,” presumably Peter W. Smith, who spent months pursuing leads in a hunt for Hillary Clinton’s 30,000-odd missing emails before allegedly committing suicide in a Minnesota hotel room in May 2017.
The SARs information Natalie Edwards had saved for unauthorized purposes to a flash drive included “highly sensitive material” on Russia, Iran, and ISIS. But the focus of the DOJ complaint is the disclosures that apparently resulted in media articles, almost all of which were linked directly or indirectly to the Russiagate narrative.
If I had to guess, I’d guess that these charges are being brought separately from any institutional group inside DOJ that supports the narrative and the Mueller probe. The news that a federal official has been feeding confidential information to the media about the targets of Russiagate doesn’t bolster confidence in the integrity of Mueller’s investigation.
In fact, Internet sleuths promptly raised questions about how this Treasury-media connection may have affected the Mueller investigation, rather than vice versa. And that brings us to the second curious highlight from the DOJ complaint against Natalie Edwards.
A brief passage that changes the game
Deep in the complaint, on pp. 15-16, is a quote from a message exchange between Natalie Edwards and Reporter-1 (probably Jason Leopold). The passage begins with the introduction to subparagraph c of the relevant section.
c. As noted above, the October 2018 Article regarded, among other things, Prevezon and the Investment Company [an unnamed investment company with business interests connected to Prevezon – J.E.]. As recently as September 2018, EDWARDS and Reporter-1 engaged in the following conversation, via the Encrypted Application, in relevant part:
EDWARDS: I am not getting any hits on [the CEO of the Investment Company] do you have any idea what the association is if I had more information i could search in different areas …
Reporter-1: If not on his name it would be [the Investment Company]. That’s the only other one [The CEO] is associated with Prevezon Well not associated … his company is [the Investment Company] …
This makes it clear that in some cases, “Reporter-1” was fishing for information, rather than being fed packaged material by Edwards.
But the important aspect of this goes beyond the realization that the reporter was prompting and in at least some cases directing queries.
The important aspect is that Natalie Edwards didn’t know what the connection was between Prevezon and the “investment company” the reporter was asking about.
That indicates one of two things (if this situation is straightforwardly what it appears to be). Either Edwards wasn’t working in a job in which she was aware of the links being probed by law enforcement authorities based on suspicious banking activity. Or the federal records she was accessing showed no evidence of such links either being probed, or apparently existing at all.
This is a data point about which we can legitimately ask: does it make sense?
If there were an obvious banking link relevant to Reporter-1’s query about Prevezon, and especially a link that U.S. authorities were already working on, the array of databases to which Edwards had access, based on the DOJ complaint, should have afforded some clues about it, even if nothing directly implicating that specific link was flagged as suspicious. See this Wired article from 1993, for example, outlining the financial connections FinCEN has been able to rapidly establish among private-sector entities for more than a quarter of a century.
Given the extensive probe of Prevezon by the Justice Department and the Mueller team over the last several years, it seems particularly unlikely that there would be no evidence of the link Reporter-1 was asking about in FinCEN’s accessible databases.
But I find it equally doubtful that Edwards didn’t have the requisite access, considering the nature of the material she was forwarding to Reporter-1.
Who are Edwards and her FinCEN accomplice?
This point raises again the question of where she worked in FinCEN, and who her boss (“CC-1”) was, especially since the boss is also alleged in the DOJ complaint to be implicated in the correspondence with Reporter-1. Others have guessed that it must be Thomas Ott, an associate of DOJ official Bruce Ohr, who became Associate Director of FinCEN for Enforcement in August 2016.
If Ott was her boss, that would put Edwards in the Enforcement Division, and would presumably mean her access included whatever information federal law enforcement agencies were recording on the financial links of U.S. as well as foreign actors.
However, the Washington Post actually reported in its initial article on the Edwards complaint (link above) that unnamed sources in the Treasury Department said her boss was Mr. Kip Brailey. There is no confirmation that this ID is correct, and thus nothing to confirm that Brailey is “CC-1” in the DOJ complaint against Edwards.
Kip Brailey is the Associate Director for Intelligence. And according to the oral biographic blurb offered about him at a cyber-security conference in 2015 (video link), in which he was a panelist, he was with the CIA for 26 years before moving to Treasury and assuming the role of chief of the FinCEN Intelligence Division.
The biographical blurb indicated that he worked at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) for some of that time. And indeed, he was identified in the 2012-2013 period as the DNI’s “Intelligence Community Chief Learning Officer,” or the official in charge of training policy for U.S. intelligence professionals. (See the article citation on him in the professional journal Trajectory in 2013 as well. See p. 27 or search on “Brailey.”)
The ODNI connection would be significant, because according to her LinkedIn biography, as cited at heavy,com, Natalie Edwards worked at ODNI too before coming to FinCEN. The timeframe appears to have been 2010-2014 (although she may not have worked at ODNI the entire time), and her major accomplishment seems to have been setting up the intelligence community’s “Human Capital Enterprise Services” system, or IC HCES, which has oversight of policy for manning and training the U.S. intelligence community.
Brailey and Edwards probably knew each other from their overlapping time at ODNI, in other words. And her hire at FinCEN may have been due to that connection.
Does the Reporter-1 connection mean anything about who knew what?
Whether she was in the Enforcement or the Intelligence Division, it is well beyond a stretch to imagine that Edwards couldn’t find, or didn’t know, what connections there might be related to what the reporter was asking her to search on in the Prevezon case. It’s beyond a stretch, that is, if Reporter-1’s query was related to the familiar elements of Russiagate.
One online sleuth, who goes by the Twitter handle @_ImperatorRex_, wonders if the reporter was actually performing a “priming” function by asking about specific financial activity: injecting suspicions where the law enforcement systems had not necessarily detected them, or perhaps alerting Robert Mueller to them where he had not been aware of them. Could something like this have led to some aspects of the Mueller investigation?
I wouldn’t wholly discount that possibility on principle (although I don’t think it’s explanatory here), given the remarkable timing of the media-priming event in April 2017 (here and here) that preceded the FBI’s raid on Paul Manafort’s storage unit in May 2017. There was every indication that the purpose of that meeting was for a group of reporters to tell the FBI that Manafort had a storage unit in northern Virginia stuffed full of documents about his dealings in Ukraine.
Others have noted, moreover, that in that DOJ/FBI meeting with AP reporters on 11 April 2017, DOJ’s Andrew Weissman – who had arranged the meeting, to the unwelcome surprise of the FBI – seemed to try to “lead” the AP reporters on what they should be asking Cypriot banking authorities about transactions relating to Manafort. And as I suggested in the second post, it’s possible Weissman’s real purpose was to circulate clues about banking transactions not just to the media but to the FBI.
Perhaps the queries from Reporter-1 to his FinCEN contact(s) had such an objective. But I don’t find that that hypothesis really works, if the queries were “about” Russiagate.
There are two strong reasons for that conclusion. One, as mentioned above, the features of the Russiagate connections are so very well known already. Even a year ago, in October 2017 – when the Edwards/Reporter-1 exchanges began – the outlines of the connections had been established, and for the most part, the public knew that Mueller was looking at them. Certainly Mueller himself did. His first indictment of Manafort was filed in October 2017.
This leads to reason two. Mueller shouldn’t have needed third-party cueing about SARs on banking transactions, to obtain the records he presented in the Manafort indictments. He didn’t need the priming.
What he couldn’t get through the records of previous investigations of Manafort, and/or the IRS, he could have requested from Treasury on a blanket basis, with or without SARs cueing, under a national security letter (NSL). It has been clear that he has the authority under his special counsel charter to obtain records, including bank transaction records, using NSLs.
(If it hadn’t been clear, it was clarified when Fox reported that Peter Strzok wanted to retain his FBI authority to issue NSLs when he moved to the Mueller team in 2017, and that he received that guarantee. Issuing NSLs to obtain information goes with the territory, for what is formally a “counterintelligence” investigation. The subject is usually counterterrorism or syndicate crime rather than something like the “Russia Russia Russia” narrative, but the principle is the same, as regards NSLs and following the money.)
Effectively, then, Reporter-1’s interest in SARs was probably a parallel pursuit of information through FinCEN, and not a priming agent for the Mueller probe, at least in terms of the output we’ve seen from the probe so far. Certainly, with a series of articles, BuzzFeed used it to shape public perceptions, an effort that looks like it augmented the impact of Mueller’s own output.
It’s worth asking if a back-door media pursuit of SARs was a way to set up a priming agent, considering that the priming of law enforcement activities by both the media and private “intelligence” firms has been rampant in the Russiagate saga. But it doesn’t look like priming of this kind – neon-lighting SARs – had to be a piece of the puzzle to explain things about the Mueller investigation to date.
The real question
That leaves us with the real question about the DOJ complaint against Natalie Edwards, which is what it does mean. I think it’s clear what it isn’t: a definitive clue about the back-alley machinations of the Russiagate probe. At most, it shows where a BuzzFeed reporter got his information for a series of articles.
And that may be the key thing that’s interesting about it, hiding in plain sight. Just a little peeling of the onion leads to two federal officials, both of them with links to the intelligence community, who were allegedly complicit in a fishing expedition by a reporter. Just think about that for a moment. It turns the profile of the strategically motivated intel community leaker on its head. Instead of having the primary motive in the equation, the leakers apparently had to be steered, in at least some cases, to find what someone else was looking for.
That has the profile of the leaks nexus between Senate staffer James Wolfe and New York Times reporter Ali Watkins, more than anything else, and it could mean several things. But none of them has to be about explaining Russiagate as we currently know it. To put it even more clearly: none of them is explanatory if the context is only Russiagate as we know it.
The DOJ complaint puts its particulars in the familiar terms of the Russiagate narrative. But I’m not so sure it’s ultimately about Russiagate. I’d be watching for more of what the Sessions DOJ may have up its sleeve in the days ahead.