WSJ | 17 Feb 2022
‘Benevolent posse’ or partisans for Hillary Clinton? John Durham has the answer.
The usual suspects are already circling the wagons around the techie “experts” who spied on Donald Trump. If their defense feels tired, it’s because we’ve been through it before. It’s Christopher Steele all over again.
Special counsel John Durham destroyed the last shreds of Mr. Steele’s credibility last year, proving that the paid-for-hire spook had relied on fabrications for the infamous dossier the Federal Bureau of Investigation used in its Trump probe. The special counsel is now dismantling that other big claim of Trump-Russia “collusion”—the Alfa Bank narrative. The wonder is that the press and others are stepping up for another humiliation—when the disturbing actions of the creators of the Alfa narrative are already so easy to document, and in their own words.
The Alfa story came to life in October 2016, when Franklin Foer of Slate was gulled into writing that a largely anonymous “benevolent posse” of “computer scientists,” “spurred by a sense of shared idealism,” had discovered data showing secret communications between the Trump Organization and Russia-based Alfa Bank. Cybersecurity professionals instantly ridiculed the data as nonsense, and the FBI dismissed it, but the liberal media kept it alive. In October 2018, the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins devoted a 7,600-word panegyric to the “self-appointed guardians of the Internet” who continued to flog the claims.
In recent court filings, Mr. Durham explains that these tech experts—including Rodney Joffe, formerly of Neustar, Inc.—were in cahoots with the same crew as Mr. Steele, using the same playbook. They worked with Democratic lawyers at Perkins Coie and opposition-research firm Fusion GPS, with the goal of dredging up “derogatory” information on Mr. Trump that would please “VIPs” in the Clinton campaign. The techies did so, the Durham indictment says, in part by mining protected internet data that had been supplied to a government contractor—allowing them to snoop on the White House as well as Trump Tower and Mr. Trump’s Manhattan apartment
Mr. Joffe’s legal team continues to insist he is “apolitical” and wasn’t aware his lawyer, Michael Sussmann, was billing Team Clinton. (A grand jury impaneled by Mr. Durham indicted Mr. Sussmann in September on a charge of making a false statement to the FBI. Mr. Sussmann pleaded not guilty.) The press initially tried to ignore the story, then resorted to parsing the definition of “spying,” justifying the accused, and trashing Mr. Durham.
The problem for the last-gaspers is that the techies they seek to defend have already put too much on the record that suggests their real concern was a President Trump, not national security. Start with the company that the “apolitical” Mr. Joffe kept. One of his colleagues involved in the project and referenced in the Sussmann indictment is Paul Vixie, whose Twitter feed sports a long record of liberal, anti-Trump sentiments. Another member of the circle—who took on the job of publishing the Joffe data—is L. Jean Camp, an Indiana University computer-science professor and Clinton supporter who called on Americans to join the “resistance” against Mr. Trump. So much for the media’s description of a gang of politically innocent nerds.
The researchers claim that by July 2016 they were alarmed by the security implications of their data, mined from government information. Yet they didn’t go to the government. Mr. Joffe instead went to Democrats—namely Mr. Sussmann, the Perkins Coie lawyer who in the summer of 2016 was regularly identified in the press as an attorney for the Democratic National Committee. The Sussmann indictment notes a meeting Mr. Joffe had with Marc Elias, the Perkins Coie attorney for the Clinton campaign. And a deposition by a Fusion GPS staffer as part of continuing Alfa Bank litigation says Mr. Joffe attended a meeting with Peter Fritsch, a co-founder of Fusion GPS. Was he still confused about the partisan nature of this project?
He certainly couldn’t have been two years later. By that point, the roles Perkins Coie and Fusion played in funneling information to the FBI for Clinton were well known, while Fusion had gone on to team up with former Democratic staffer Dan Jones to keep advancing the claims. Mr. Joffe sat for that October 2018 New Yorker piece that pushed the Alfa claims, anonymously calling himself “Max” and admitting in the piece that he’d continued to help that effort long after the election, providing Mr. Jones’s team with 37 million internet records to examine. (A deposition in the Alfa litigation identified Mr. Joffe as Max.)
Here’s the most revealing bit: “Max” also explained to the New Yorker how vitally important it was in 2016 to make sure the threat his team discovered was “known before the election.” Which was why he and his lawyer first went with their information to the press. The Sussmann indictment says Mr. Sussmann tried peddling the data to the New York Times in late August 2016. He didn’t approach the FBI until the middle of September. Mr. Joffe’s spokesperson declined to comment.
The defenders of Mr. Steele’s dossier also spent years insisting that the oppo researcher was nonpartisan and his work beyond reproach—only to be humiliated. The media is stepping out again at its peril. There’s plenty to show an ugly tale already—and Mr. Durham will likely have plenty more to come.