Watchdog One – Week in Review – January 20, 2018

Welcome back to the Watchdog One weekly, by Jason Mojica. Please make sure to follow us on Twitter: @watchdog_one / Tell your friends to SUBSCRIBE / Send us tips: tips@watchdogone.org / Let us know what you think: editor@watchdogone.org.

THIS WEEK WE HEARD A LOT ABOUT…

The “shutdown” of the Federal Government
– Here’s a handy chart of who gets sent home as a result [Washington Post]
Here’s what happens to FEMA, coming off a historic (or as we like to say, “an historic”) year of natural disasters. [Washington Post]

FISA passing in the Senate
– Here’s how your favorite Senator voted [US Senate]
– Here’s how US Government-run Voice of America reported it to international audiences [VOA]

A CIA officer who got arrested at JFK for one thing but is “suspected” of others
– The official DOJ press release here. [DOJ]
– “Sources familiar with the case” expand on things here. [NBC News]
– Read the full complaint here. [DOJ]

Bannon getting subpoenaed by Mueller
Here’s Michael Schmidt on the story. [NYT]
Here’s Breitbart on the story, which they apparently got from… Michael Schmidt. [Breitbart]

MEANWHILE…

The House solution to avert the shutdown stands to give Trump new powers
The temporary spending bill that passed in the House Thursday night included language that would give the Trump administration the power to shift intelligence money from one project to another without notifying congress. That’s according to Ryan Grim at The Intercept, who broke the story a day before The Washington Post’s hedgier version of it, which was later corrected to say that, in fact, “the president would still have to notify Congress of any changes made to the budget, and could not operate fully in secret.” Whether that correction is indeed correct is unclear. In any case, it certainly got Senator Wyden’s attention, who Tweeted, “It would be extraordinarily dangerous for the Senate to give this administration new powers to work around Congress, particularly now, with the IC’s vast spying authorities and the most political CIA director in memory.” Keep your eye on any proposed solutions to the current government shutdown to see if this language survives.  [Read more from The Intercept]

The DOJ & DHS exhibited some fuzzy math on terrorism
The Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security released a joint report on Tuesday that claimed, among other things, that approximately 73% of individuals convicted of international terrorism charges (emphasis added) in US courts were foreign-born. This is kind of like saying that most Japanese cars are made in Japan. Still, President Trump ran with it, making an official statement that “nearly 3 in 4 individuals convicted of terrorism-related charges are foreign-born” and connected the stat to the need for immigration reform.
– In response to this, the folks over at Lawfare politely pointed out that, “even excluding domestic terrorism cases, it was possible to support the president’s claim only if one counted as foreign-born terrorism suspects people the United States had actively imported in order to prosecute for terrorism or terrorism-related crimes.” [Read more from Lawfare]

The House refused to decide whether the President should be impeached
The House voted 355-66 to table a motion to impeach President Trump. It was the third attempt by Rep. Al Green (D-TX). [Read more from Roll Call]

The math was less fuzzy at the Department of the Interior
More than three out of four individuals on the National Park System Advisory board quit on Wednesday, citing frustration that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke “had refused to meet with them or convene a single meeting last year,” according to The Washington Post. [Read more]

HHS is giving healthcare workers so much religious freedom, their heads will spin
On Thursday, two days after President Trump used his Religious Freedom Day proclamation to call attention to the plight of those who have been threatened with “tax consequences for particular forms of religious speech” or forced to “comply with laws that violate their core religious beliefs,” his administration announced a new civil rights division within the Department of Health and Human Services, designed to protect healthcare workers who refuse services on religious or moral grounds. The Washington Post reports that the division “will consider complaints from doctors, nurses and others who feel they have been pressured by employers to ‘perform, accommodate or assist with’ procedures that violate their beliefs. If a complaint about coercion or retribution is found to be valid, an entity receiving federal dollars could have that funding revoked.” [Read more from The Washington Post]

– Earlier this month, in response to a FOIA request from BuzzFeed News, the HHS quietly posted thousands comments the agency had previously withheld regarding a proposed rule that would remove barriers for religious and faith-based organizations to participate in public programs and receive public funding. The majority of the comments we saw were of the copy and paste variety, beginning with the statement, “The mission of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is to put the health and well-being of the public first. But instead of working to ensure everyone has equal access to comprehensive and nondiscriminatory services, HHS is asking for suggestions on how to expand the use of religious beliefs to discriminate and deny patients health care.” [Read more from BuzzFeed News]

A federal judge heard arguments on the Trump White House’s use of encrypted messaging apps
On Wednesday, US District Court Judge Christopher Cooper heard arguments relating to a lawsuit that charges that President Trump and his staff “seek to evade transparency and government accountability,” particularly through the use of “email messaging applications that destroy the contents of messages as soon as they are read, without regard to whether the messages are presidential records.” Politico’s Josh Gerstein writes, “During a 45-minute hearing, Cooper—an appointee of President Barack Obama—sounded uncomfortable with the government’s claim that the courts have no role at all in enforcing the Presidential Records Act. However, the judge also seemed reluctant to embark on an unbounded, free-range inquiry into whether the Trump White House is policing its staff’s compliance with record keeping obligations. And he appeared even more skeptical about delving into claims that the Trump White House is using executive orders to steer policy decisions out of federal agencies whose records are subject to request under the Freedom of Information Act.” [Read more from Politco]

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will get no money next quarter… kinda
Mick Mulvaney, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget who you’ve seen on TV a lot this week, requested exactly zero dollars for next quarter’s operation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (of which he is the acting director). That headline might be enough to get your blood up, but when you realize that it’s because the bureau has $177mm currently sitting in the bank (read: $32mm more than it needs), it’s a bit less meaningful. That is, until next quarter. Stay tuned. [Read more from Politico]

A former CIA agent, convicted of leaking classified info to a journalist, was released from federal prison
Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA agent convicted of leaking classified material to then New York Times reporter James Risen, was released from prison on Tuesday. “The key evidence that persuaded a jury to convict Sterling on nine felony counts consisted of phone records and emails that showed Sterling and Risen had communicated with each other,” Peter Maass explains at The Intercept. “However, those records did not disclose anything about the content of their conversations. All the government knew, and all the jury knew, is that they had communicated.” [Read more from The Intercept]

INVESTIGATIONS & REVELATIONS

The DNI updated its policy on classified leaks
Steven Aftergood, Director of the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy, noticed this week that the Director of National Intelligence recently updated its procedures for dealing with leaks of classified information. Most notably, Aftergood points out that, “It presents an expansive definition of an unauthorized disclosure that includes not simply disclosure but also the ‘confirmation’ or ‘acknowledgement’ of classified information to an unauthorized person.” The directive also lays out a three-tiered hierarchy that advises on how and when agencies should engage the DOJ once a leak has occurred.

A US official told Watchdog One that the reason for the update to the original 2007 directive was that this version takes into account the role of the Intelligence Community (IC) Inspector General, a position that did not exist until 2010. The official explained that the directive addresses “how the IC can address an issue in a meaningful, consistent way, when DOJ declines prosecution.”

The official also claimed that the directive did not expand the definition of what the agency considers an unauthorized disclosures, “rather it spells out what is meant [by the term], which includes confirmation or acknowledgment – which would have also fallen under the 2007 version of the directive, though it wasn’t explicitly stated.”

There is, of course, another way of reading the tea leaves on this. Aftergood told Watchdog One that this new directive makes leaks the subject of senior IC attention. “A directive like this sends a message throughout the bureaucracy that dealing with leaks is a priority. That in turn could have implications for how resources are allocated, and how aggressive leak investigations become. The directive may serve a deterrent function all by itself, so that fewer leaks take place, and it may tip the balance in favor of criminal prosecutions, so that more of those also occur.”

The implications for members of the press, who love a good leak, are unclear. “The executive branch, even in the Trump administration, has an interest in being able to communicate candidly with members of the press,” said Aftergood. Sometimes that means going beyond the strict limitations of the classification system and bending the rules a bit. In other words, in real life administration officials are not categorically opposed to all leaks” [Read more from FAS]

Mueller is following the (Russian) money
Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier of BuzzFeed News revealed on Wednesday that Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team is examining a number of suspicious banking transactions from Russian diplomatic accounts, including two from former Ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak. The Russian foreign ministry responded to the story by calling on the US government to crack down on the leakers. [Read more from BuzzFeed News]

The NSA said it accidentally destroyed Bush-era data
“The NSA sincerely regrets its failure to prevent the deletion of this data.” That’s a snippet of the mea culpa from the Deputy Director of Capabilities of the National Security Agency, in regards to the fact that the agency destroyed surveillance data it was under orders to preserve. The story, which was first reported Friday night by Politico, explains that since 2007, “the NSA has been under court orders to preserve data about certain of its surveillance efforts that came under legal attack following disclosures that President George W. Bush ordered warrantless wiretapping of international communications after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. In addition, the agency has made a series of representations in court over the years about how it is complying with its duties. [Read more from Politico]

Public Citizen detailed the inflow of political money to Trump’s properties during his first year in office
On Tuesday, Public Citizen published a report titled “Presidency for Sale,” documenting “More than 60 trade groups, companies, religious groups, charities, foreign governments, interest groups and political candidates are spending money at President Donald Trump’s properties.” [Read the full report from Public Citizen here]

A DOT audit found that people responsible for sensitive information don’t know what information is sensitive.
The Department of Transportation possesses what its advisory committee once called, “some of the most sensitive and intimately revealing” consumer data, so when a report from the DOT Inspector General on the agency’s protection of privacy information comes in over the transom, it’s worth taking a look at. The auditors determined that 164 of the agency’s 464 computers contain personally identifiable information (PII) about the public and / or DOT employees, and found that there was a “lack of adequate privacy resources in place.” The auditors stated that, “The incomplete privacy plan for a system may result in the inappropriate collection, use, storage, sharing, and/or loss of PII resulting in substantial harm, embarrassment, and inconvenience to individuals and may lead to identity theft or other fraudulent use of the information.” Additionally, they found issues with training regarding privacy: “It became clear in the discussions that the privacy system personnel were not aware of what constitutes sensitive and non-sensitive PII.’ [Read more from the DOT OIG]

Florida Man
U.S. District Judge Marcia G. Cooke sentenced a Florida man to a year in prison for threatening to shoot members of a mosque in Miami Gardens. Gerald Wallace pleaded guilty in October to “one count of obstructing the free exercise of religious beliefs,” which you now know is a thing. [Read more from Courthouse News]