“The latest pleading from Special Counsel Robert Durham provides indisputable evidence that my campaign and presidency were spied on by operatives paid by the Hillary Clinton Campaign in an effort to develop a completely fabricated connection to Russia. This is a scandal far greater in scope and magnitude than Watergate and those who were involved in and knew about this spying operation should be subject to criminal prosecution. In a stronger period of time in our country, this crime would have been punishable by death. In addition, reparations should be paid to those in our country who have been damaged by this.”
That is what former President Donald Trump had to say about a court filing alleging that people connected to the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign combed through cybersecurity data in search of information to feed accusations of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.
Most right-leaning media gave the story attention soon after the filing was made on Friday, February 11. “Clinton campaign paid to ‘infiltrate’ Trump Tower, White House servers to link Trump to Russia, Durham finds,” was a Fox News headline characterizing how they and some others in their cadre largely cast the filing.
Yet, much of the mainstream media — perceived by many as left-leaning — had little to say about the story. The Associated Press did not write anything about it until six days after the filing. Many others also waited. Most of those that did cover the story earlier in the week focused on combatting what they portrayed as a slanted “right-wing” story. The New York Times’ lead analysis was titled “Court Filing Started a Furor in Right-Wing Outlets, But Their Narrative Is Off Track,” and the Washington Post’s analysis ran under the headline, “Why Trump Is Once Again Claiming That He Was Spied Upon in 2016.”
By midweek, as more coverage emerged, even Mrs. Clinton herself felt compelled to acknowledge the story. “Trump & Fox are desperately spinning up a fake scandal to distract from his real ones,” she wrote in a tweet. “So it’s a day that ends in Y. The more his misdeeds are exposed, the more they lie. For those interested in reality, here’s a good debunking of their latest nonsense,” her closing comment a reference to a story in Vanity Fair magazine.
Even as news coverage has become increasingly slanted, especially if Mr. Trump plays a role, finding a factual telling of the Durham filing and its implications is especially challenging.
A Digital Trail
The filing in question is one of several in an ongoing Justice Department investigation, led by Mr. Durham, into the origins and conduct of the Muller investigation on suspected ties between Russia and the Trump campaign. That investigation produced no solid evidence, but led to several tangential accusations and legal troubles that dogged the Trump presidency.
There is little about the official purpose of the filing that should attract attention. In its technical sense, the document merely addresses a potential conflict of interest as attorneys representing one suspect in the Durham investigation also represent others connected to the inquiry. The suspect in question is Michael Sussman, a cybersecurity lawyer who was employed by the Clinton campaign. He was already indicted by Durham’s team for misrepresenting himself as a private entity when he reported to the FBI what he presented as suspicious digital traffic between the Trump Organization and a Russian bank. In fact, such a connection was never established, and Mr. Sussman is now charged for hiding his association with the Clinton campaign from the FBI at the time he gave them the lead.
What attracted attention, however, were several sections of the document detailing what Mr. Durham presents as a concerted effort by cybersecurity companies to scour Trump-connected data “for the purpose of gathering derogatory information about Donald Trump.”
“Tech Executive-1 tasked these researchers to mine Internet data to establish ‘an inference’ and ‘narrative’ tying then-candidate Trump to Russia. In doing so, Tech Executive-1 indicated that he was seeking to please certain ‘VIPs,’ referring to individuals at Law Firm-1 and the Clinton Campaign,” reads the filing.
“Law Firm-1” is Perkins Coie, which represented the Clinton campaign, and which employed Mr. Sussman until he resigned following his indictment. “Tech Executive-1” has been identified as Rodney Joffe of Neustar, a Washington-based cybersecurity company and a client of Mr. Sussman’s.
Neustar held contracts with the White House as well as with several Trump-owned buildings and organizations to provide cybersecurity, analyzing large amounts of data for threats together with staff at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Little did those entities suspect that the access this arrangement offered to their data was being, in the words of the filing, “exploited” for apparent use against Mr. Trump. The document also details that internet traffic data was delivered by Mr. Sussman to the FBI together with information about members of the Trump administration using a unique Russian-made brand of mobile phone.
The information presented in the filing, seemingly based on interviews with Mr. Joffe, left much room for interpretation, as the dueling narratives demonstrated.
Many seeking to downplay the significance of the story jumped on Neustar’s legal access to the data to push back against accusations of “spying” and “infiltration.”
Robert Graham, an expert in cybersecurity, said that their critique is grounded in fact.
“Neustar’s job is to provide cybersecurity, so they have engineers to look up requests and send that data for analysis to defend against malware and phishing,” he said. “Is that spying? No. The clients expect them to look at the DNS traffic to block threats.”
DNS, which stands for Domain Name System, was the type of data being tracked by Neustar and others they contracted with. It allows technicians to see where traffic is coming from and going to, but not to see the content of emails or other information being exchanged.
The filing alleges that the data Mr. Sussman delivered to both the FBI and, later, the CIA was intended to raise suspicions about connections between Mr. Trump and Alfa Bank, Russia’s largest private bank, which has extensive government ties. News coverage of suspicion of ties between the former President and the bank based on digital “pings” date back years, but the filing seems to provide an address as to how those stories came to be. No connection was ever shown and the pings, many think, were generated by spam and other trivial internet traffic.
On Monday February 14, as reporting on the filing picked up traction, attorneys for Mr. Joffe said the information he apparently disclosed to Mr. Sussman was called for in the course of his work.
“Contrary to the allegations in this recent filing, Mr. Joffe is an apolitical internet security expert with decades of service to the U.S. Government, who has never worked for a political party,” they said in a statement. “There were serious and legitimate national security concerns about Russian attempts to infiltrate the 2016 election … respected cybersecurity researchers were deeply concerned about the anomalies they found in the data and prepared a report of their findings, which was subsequently shared with the CIA.”
Mr. Graham felt claims that data supposedly connecting Mr. Trump to Russian contacts were rooted purely in national security concerns were transparent, comparing the defense to claims that the former President’s interest in Hunter Biden’s Ukraine dealings were motivated by concern over corruption in Kyiv.
“[Sussman and Joffe] only cared about this if it related to Trump,” he said.
Sentiments that Neustar had a political alignment critical of Mr. Trump seem backed up by more than the narrative presented by Mr. Durham’s team. A recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece culled public information demonstrating that nearly all the company’s political campaign contributions in 2016 and 2020 went to support Democrats and that several of its executives worked in the Clinton and Obama administrations.
Mr. Graham said that since Neustar had been given access to DNS information, characterization of the incident as a hack are inaccurate, but that the alleged actions raise serious ethical questions.
“There was no law being broken, but the question is whether this was proper,” he said. “If you hire a company to look at malware, you don’t expect them to look at your data to see whether you’re a national security threat.”
In response to an inquiry from Hamodia as to whether the disclosing data tied to the Trump campaign and White House was an ethical lapse, Georgia Tech, which did much of the data analysis, denied any wrongdoing.
“A federal agency selected Georgia Tech and its researchers to work on some highly sensitive, extremely sophisticated computer systems research because of the school’s and its researchers’ world-class reputations in this field and their high degree of integrity. The research was very much about securing the United States of America, its systems of governance, and its people. All of the work conducted by Georgia Tech researchers was done in a strictly non-partisan way. These researchers focus on data, and everything they did in this case was a result of delving for the truth in the interests of national security.”
A spokesperson for the college added that the filing did not charge Georgia Tech with “any wrongdoing” and that “everyone connected with Georgia Tech has been cooperative with all aspects of the investigation into this matter.”
A similar inquiry to Neustar from Hamodia was not answered.
“The stories saying that Hillary’s lawyer paid techies to infiltrate a server are fiction, but there are issues here that should be of legitimate concern,” said Mr. Graham.
Borders Between the Red and the Gray
Not everyone was convinced that Neustart’s alleged actions were legal.
Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow for the Heritage Foundation, felt that Mr. Sussman and Mr. Joffe’s use of the data ran them afoul of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFFA).
“They were supposed to prevent a cyber incursion and instead helped gather private and privileged data to help their agenda,” he said. “This is political espionage, to spy on another political campaign and later on the office of the President.”
The CFFA forbids “exceeding authorized access” which Mr. von Spakovsky argues should apply to the present allegations since data was pursued and used for purposes other than what the clients had contracted for. Should charges be brought at some future date, a counterargument will likely be made that the law was not broken since all access to the data was indeed authorized.
Another hurdle that stands in the way of legal action is a five-year statute of limitations that could well preclude indictments.
Even if timing stands in the way of charges, Mr. von Spakovsky felt investigations to show how high up within the Clinton campaign knowledge of the data mining went are in order and that the companies involved should be held accountable.
“The public has a right to know which internet companies are doing this,” he said. “They ought to be outed and barred from government contracts.”
Mr. von Sapovsky said that those dismissing the allegations on the grounds that the content of communications was not known to Neustar are mistaken.
“Any intelligence agency will tell you how valuable this type of information can be,” he said. “Besides the leads it provides, they could give these leads to NGOs to file Freedom of Information requests and get more information.”
A Storm Brewing?
Some feel the present allegations are part of a narrative that the Durham investigation is slowly building showing a concerted effort by the Clinton campaign and those connected to it, feeding a combination of ill-begotten, misleading, and false information to intelligence agencies and sympathetic media. Those outlets used the leads to produce a trove of stories about backchannels between the former President and powerful Russians with Kremlin ties.
In addition to the indictment against Mr. Sussman, Igor Danchenko, a Russian living in Virginia, has also been charged for misrepresentations to the FBI. Mr. Danchenko was a major source of information for the Steele dossier, which contained a long list of allegations that captured wide media attention, and which the FBI used to secure a warrant against former Trump campaign aide Carter Page.
Mr. Durham’s team said that when Mr. Danchenko spoke with the FBI, he falsely denied his connection to Charles Dolan Jr., a longtime associate of the Clintons, among other untrue statements made during his interview with the agency.
While the dossier’s allegations have since been proven false, several of those involved in its assembly and marketing overlap with individuals and issues raised by Mr. Durham’s recent filing. The gathering of the information it contained and its selling to the media was financed and directed by Fusion GPS, a firm that conducts “opposition research” for Democratic candidates and left-wing political causes. Their services had been retained for the Clinton campaign by Perkins, Coie, Mr. Sussman’s former law firm.
Besides the pending cases against Mr. Sussman and Mr. Danchenko, it is unclear where the Durham investigation will lead. Irrespective of the political implications of the present filing, some hope the public attention it gathered will move the cybersecurity industry to shore up their practices.
“As a person in cybersecurity, I’m very concerned about the idea of companies using their access to benefit their agenda, which call all of us into question,” said Mr. Graham. “It could be a good time for every company to review their guardrails and make sure they have rules in place to prevent this sort of thing from happening.”
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