An FBI agent involved in analyzing the since-debunked Trump-Russia collusion claims pushed to the bureau by Democratic cybersecurity lawyer Michael Sussmann testified that an analysis rejected claims of a secret back channel to Russia within days.
Sussmann was charged last year with concealing his clients — Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign and “Tech Executive-1,” known to be former Neustar executive Rodney Joffe — from FBI General Counsel James Baker when he pushed debunked allegations of a secret line of communication between the Trump Organization and Russia’s Alfa-Bank during a September 2016 meeting.
Scott Hellman, currently an FBI supervisory special agent leading a team investigating cybercrime, said he and a supervisor retrieved the thumb drives and other information passed to the FBI the day after the Baker-Sussmann meeting, reviewed the secret communication claims, and quickly rejected them.
Special counsel Robert Mueller, the FBI, the CIA, a bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee investigation, and John Durham’s team have all cast doubt on or rejected the Alfa-Bank claims touted by the Clinton campaign.
Hellman said the Alfa-Bank allegations included “technical data” such as website names and domain names as well as a “narrative” about the conclusions reached by the creators of the report “based on their analysis of the data.” Hellman said he and his then-supervisor, Nate Batty, conducted an analysis and then compared the FBI’s assessment of the data to the narrative that had been pushed.
Hellman said the allegations claimed there was a “secret communications channel” between the Trump Organization and Alfa-Bank, and he said his analysis with Batty rejected this after roughly a day.
“We did not agree with the conclusion … that this represented a secret communication channel,” the FBI agent testified.
"Whoever had written that paper had jumped to some conclusions that were not supported by the data,” he said, adding, “The methodology they chose was questionable to me.”
He said the claims of a secret channel “didn’t make sense to us,” in part because it was implausible that the Trump Organization would use its own name to connect to a Russian bank directly when it was allegedly supposed to be secret.
“There was not enough data there to make the conclusion that there was any communication, or the secret communication between the Trump Organization and Russia,” Hellman said.
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An exhibit entered into evidence showed “White Paper #1,” which had been provided to Baker by Sussmann. The findings of that report were that “the Trump Organization is using a very unusually configured ‘secret’ email server … for current and ongoing email communications with Alfa Bank (Moscow).”
The paper claimed, “The only plausible explanation for this server configuration is that it shows the Trump Organization and Alfa Bank to be using multiple sophisticated layers of protection in order to obfuscate their considerable recent email traffic.”
The prosecution entered into evidence an analysis summary that Hellman and Batty wrote within a day of looking at the data, in which they assessed “the research conducted in the report reveals some questionable investigative steps taken and conclusions drawn.”
The FBI summary noted that the investigators in the report that had been passed to the FBI had "searched, via publicly available information, for every internet domain … that had ‘Trump’ in it.”
Hellman testified: “I did not feel like that was the most expeditious way. … They were just looking for key terms. … It didn’t make sense to me.”
The FBI report from 2016 also said: “It appears suspicious that the presumed suspicious activity began approximately three weeks prior to the stated start of the investigation conducted by the researcher.”
Hellman echoed this in his testimony Tuesday.
Hellman said Russia would’ve had a much better “technical capability” to “hide” such secret communications than a direct link between the Trump Organization and Russia.
“I did not feel that they were objective in the conclusions that they came to,” Hellman said. “The assumption that you would have to make was so far-reaching that it just didn’t make any sense.”
The FBI agent said his document was drafted and then sent to the FBI’s office in Chicago for a “special investigation” there. He said he believes FBI Chicago then opened an investigation.
Hellman said he had “no involvement in the investigation” but had brief conversations with some agents in Chicago, and “Chicago had looked at the data further and they agreed with our assessment … that there was no secret communications channel between the Trump Organization and Russia.”
He argued that “the motivation of whoever is giving me the information is very important.”
Hellman said knowing the source of the information could influence his views on how “authentic” the data is and whether to trust it. He said political affiliation is another “data point that I would take into consideration if I were to open a case.” And whether the data was being pushed on someone else’s behalf would also be relevant.
Durham has said that one of the white papers pushed to the FBI by Sussmann was authored by the opposition research firm Fusion GPS, which had been hired by Clinton campaign lawyer Marc Elias. Fusion was also responsible for hiring British ex-spy Christopher Steele as he authored his discredited dossier.
Durham also said Sussmann claimed to the CIA in 2017 that data to which he had access “demonstrated that Trump and/or his associates were using supposedly rare, Russian-made wireless phones” called YotaPhones “in the vicinity of the White House and other locations.” Durham found "no support for these allegations.”
The special counsel revealed the CIA “concluded in early 2017” the Alfa-Bank and YotaPhone information was not “technically plausible" and did not “withstand technical scrutiny."
The judge has slapped limits on Durham’s ability to cite the inaccuracy of Trump-Russia collusion claims in his prosecution.
Sussmann attorney Sean Berkowitz displayed Lync messages, from the FBI’s internal messaging service, allegedly from Hellman the day after the Baker-Sussman meeting that said, “The more I read this thing … it feels a little 5150ish,” a reference to the white paper Sussmann provided to the FBI.
Hellman explained Tuesday, “I thought that the person who had drafted this document may have been suffering from some mental disability.”
He confirmed to Berkowitz that he had quickly dismissed these claims. An email from Batty the next afternoon, just before 5 p.m., had the subject line “Analysis of Trump White Paper.”
Sussmann, who also helped the Democratic National Committee handle its response to the 2016 hack, denies wrongdoing, has pleaded not guilty to lying to the FBI, and unsuccessfully called upon the judge to dismiss the case, even relying in part on legal analysis by fired FBI agent Peter Strzok.
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Hellman said Tuesday that he drove from Virginia to FBI headquarters in the nation’s capital with Batty the day after Sussmann met with Baker, and he obtained signatures from those who had custody over the information, including two thumb drives.
He obtained signatures for a chain of custody form, and the trial exhibit showed Baker gave the information to Strzok, who then gave it to Eric Sporre of the FBI’s cyber division, who then gave it to Batty.
Hellman said Sporre “told us that it came from a sensitive source.” Berkowitz said Batty characterized it as coming from “an anonymous source,” and after reviewing an FBI interview, Hellman replied, “I don’t know if that’s what he thought, it’s how he characterized it in an email to me.”
Hellman said he had a “fuzzy memory” of Baker not telling him the source and said it was “weird” and “troubling.”
The defense lawyer displayed a message from Batty to Hellman about doing “a brief summary of what we think about the DNC report.”
Hellman said he doesn’t think the “DNC” reference was about the Democratic National Committee and, after an apparent suggestion from the Durham team, said it is possible Batty meant to say “DNS."