More Questions About Russiagate
Here are ten questions and answers about Special Counsel John Durham’s new filing in his Russiagate investigation.
1) Fox says one thing, and CNN says the opposite. Who’s right?
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 an exercise in legal housekeeping. It asks that the court consider allowing indicted Clinton lawyer Michael Sussmann to retain his current representation, who has a potential conflict of interest.
Sussmann’s representative works for a law firm that also represents other individuals whom Durham may be going after and may have been involved in the events he’s investigating, perhaps as witnesses. Sussmann has been indicted 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 Hillary 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, what is newsworthy are claims in the filing that the 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, per the filing, then allegedly “exploited this arrangement by mining the EOP’s DNS traffic and other data for the purpose of gathering derogatory information about Donald Trump.”
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 is how Joffe would have gotten 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,” Durham 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 information about digital communications that Edward Snowden showed us the NSA gathers? DNS data 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 the server associated with the Domain Name System. When you use a smartphone or type an address into your browser, it contacts a DNS server, which translates words into binary code—the numbers the internet actually runs on. Same thing for email, TikTok, anything online.
If you have access to DNS data, like Joffe did, you know whom a person has communicated with. DNS data is a map, and if you have enough of data, patterns emerge—like regular communication with Russia, perhaps. That’s why real intelligence officers do the same thing against America’s enemies.
4) Isn’t it true Durham never uses the word “spying”?
Neither do real intelligence officers. But what word would you use to describe the secret (and likely illegal) collection of information about an enemy that one intends 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 other than spying, at least in lay terms.
5) How is what Joffe and Neustar did illegal? They had access to the servers.
There were two sources of DNS information referred to in the filing. Let’s take them separately. The first source was DNS servers inside the White House. Neustar provided these servers under a contract with the government. Contractors like Neustar, who work on sensitive data systems, do not own the data they see. Their legal ability to use that data is specific to the job they were hired to do, like a doctor who knows you’re a drunk but cannot share that with his brother-in-law who sells car insurance.
Real intelligence officers illegally obtain information from people, like foreign diplomats, who have legitimate access to it, all the time. They call that “their job.”
The second source Joffe monitored was the DNS data from Trump Tower and other properties via Georgia Tech. He got those records (along with a trove of other DNS records) as part of an unrelated contract with the Pentagon. Georgia Tech had no obvious right to share its data with Joffe, and he had no right to use the shared data for political purposes. There has 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, right?
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 deeper. The NSA does this all the time, like when it looks at the people one terrorist has contacted in order to target another. Real intelligence officers know this tactic is the core of modern spying. The Clinton campaign was employing it, and using Michael Sussmann as a false front to peddle it. The FBI took the bait.
7) But didn’t I hear 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. Joffe monitored the other source—Trump’s personal and business DNS data— 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 straight out of Better Call Saul, huh?
In a quid pro quo, Joffe was offered a top cybersecurity job in the future Hillary Clinton administration. But his background goes deep. Joffe’s other company, Packet Forensics, sells equipment that allows law enforcement to spy on private web-browsers through fake internet security certificates. Joffe could have easily used his access to the White House servers to install this product and then monitor everything.
Joffe’s company has made $40 million through 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 its wrongdoing in Russiagate. Joffe is in a position to know a lot. And, small world—Joffe’s company Packet Forensics landed another, new, Pentagon contract, the bid for which was awarded on the day of Joe Biden’s inauguration.
9) What’s next?
Joffe will almost certainly be indicted. Durham may also probe why the FBI and CIA did not question the source of Sussmann’s 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 for Durham 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 case against Igor Danchenko, who made up most of the material 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 Moscow; he did P.R. work for the Russian government and was registered as a foreign agent for Russia. Dolan is credited with, among other things, inventing the “pee tape” story and otherwise using cut-outs to push false information about Trump into the dossier.
10) Is anyone going to jail?
Durham’s filings are like lightning bolts, 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. Using little fish to catch bigger fish is a strategy that is likely to time out, at least in terms of prosecutions. So, you-know-who is not going to jail.
Instead, Durham seems intent on exposing the larger conspiracy, including the Russia dossier and now electronic spying by the Clinton campaign. He may also expose more fully the FBI’s role in the affair. 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.