This morning former DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson testified before the House committee investigating Russia’s 2016 election subversion campaign. In the course of the hearing we heard the jarring information that Johnson only heard about the initial hacking into the DNC network sometime in 2016, months after the FBI first learned of the intrusion in the summer of 2015. Johnson said he was told that the FBI had contacted the DNC about the intrusion but was told “they don’t want our help.”
This sounds hard to fathom on a number of levels. There is no question that it delayed any more aggressive law enforcement posture as the hacking campaign continued and escalated over the course of 2016. Indeed, during the hearing, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) jumped in to press the point that the DNC was significantly responsible for what happened since it refused any involvement from federal law enforcement.
This also sounds bewildering. But remember: this isn’t the first we’ve heard about this story. It is a highly misleading rendition of what happened and absolves the FBI of its own pretty clear responsibility for what happened.
Before delving into this I want to be clear that I don’t have a clear sense or any specific reason to think that there was something suspicious or malign going on here. It’s quite possibly just a matter of indifference and incompetence on the part of the FBI. But it’s still an important part of the story to understand.
Let’s go back to mid-December of last year, when Obama was still President, Mike Flynn was calling the shots in the Trump foreign policy transition and we were just learning the full story of the Russian subversion campaign. On December 13th, the Times had a piece on this story, this chain of events and it was followed by a gobsmacked oped by John Podesta, both the chairman of the failed Clinton campaign and the target of what was perhaps the most consequential hacking operation.
The Times article explains that it was in September 2015 when the FBI first contacted the DNC about Russia’s successful attack on its computer networks. Special Agent Adrian Hawkins cold called the DNC and was transferred to the tech support help desk. There he got Yared Tamene, a tech support contractor working for the DNC.
Here’s a key portion of the Times article …
Yared Tamene, the tech-support contractor at the D.N.C. who fielded the call, was no expert in cyberattacks. His first moves were to check Google for “the Dukes” and conduct a cursory search of the D.N.C. computer system logs to look for hints of such a cyberintrusion. By his own account, he did not look too hard even after Special Agent Hawkins called back repeatedly over the next several weeks — in part because he wasn’t certain the caller was a real F.B.I. agent and not an impostor.
“I had no way of differentiating the call I just received from a prank call,” Mr. Tamene wrote in an internal memo, obtained by The New York Times, that detailed his contact with the F.B.I.
As I wrote at the time, the Times article was jarring and a bit bizarre in that its narrative was framed around the alleged indifference and fumbling nature of the DNC’s response, which led to the committee’s further victimization. As the Times put it, “The D.N.C.’s fumbling encounter with the F.B.I. meant the best chance to halt the Russian intrusion was lost.”
This is an amazing gloss, almost certainly the product of the Times reporters working mainly with the FBI to understand the story.
As a flabbergasted Podesta explained two days later, it is astonishing that the FBI had learned that Russia had compromised the computer networks of one of the country’s two main political parties and was content to have a single agent leave messages with someone at the DNC’s tech support help line to try to sound the alarm. It’s simply astonishing, and even more so since the FBI, as late as December was still in CYA mode spinning the story to reporters as the DNC’s fail.
Podesta himself is obviously no disinterested observer in this drama. But his argument was and is, I think, incontestable. The DNC at the time was under the management of a sitting member Congress, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. The chairman of the Clinton campaign, Podesta, is a DC player with decades of experience in Washington, well-known to federal law enforcement for a million reasons, not least of which was the then on-going probe into Hillary Clinton’s emails. Simply put, there were countless ways the FBI could have gotten in touch with a person in a position of authority, with the ability to know the point of contact from the FBI wasn’t a prankster and the authority to take action.
In the best of all worlds Tamene would have escalated the calls to the DNC legal department or a member of the executive team. But again, the FBI was talking to someone in charge of getting their computers to reboot. For all the things the DNC goofed in 2016, this was unquestionably the FBI dropping the ball. Again, this isn’t some fraudster in the Czech Republic breaking into a computer network at Best Buy. It’s the Russian government – the FBI already had come to that conclusion – breaking into the networks of one of the country’s two major political parties. And the FBI made no attempt to contact Wasserman-Schultz, any member of the DNC’s executive team, its General Counsel, anyone at the Clinton campaign or the Sanders campaign. Nobody. It almost beggars belief.
Now we learn today that because the FBI decided that the help desk representative at the DNC never responded to Special Agent Hawkins’ queries that meant to the FBI that the DNC “didn’t want their help.” Because of that determination, Jeh Johnson, the Secretary of DHS was never informed either until going on a year later.
As I said above, it’s not clear to me that this is more than a mix of incompetence and indifference on the part of the FBI and just an unfortunate chain of events. But it’s a critical part of the story, a major ball the FBI dropped – while devoting vast resources to the Clinton email probe – which gave the Russian subversion campaign critical months to do its work before the US government took real cognizance of what was happening.