Between October and March, the Federal Bureau of Investigation legally seized 6,000 cell phones during criminal and terrorist investigations. They were able to see the information on about half. The others, essentially, were paperweights, whatever secrets they held safe from investigators.
That was one of the less-heralded details to come out of FBI director James Comey’s hours-long testimony Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee. While news coverage of his appearance focused on his defense of his role in the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email, a host of other significant intelligence-related issues came up during his testimony. Among them:
1. Law enforcement is finding it increasingly difficult to access cell phones and other devices connected to criminal investigations, and the use of encryption by criminal suspects is growing. In response to a question from the committee’s chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Comey said FBI examiners tried to access more than 6,000 devices that had been seized in the first six months of the fiscal year. Of those, 46 percent couldn’t be opened “with any technique.” “That means half of the devices that we encounter in terrorism cases, in counterintelligence cases, in gang cases, in child pornography cases, cannot be opened with any technique,” he said. “That is a big problem. And so the shadow continues to fall.”
2. Hacking into phones can be expensive. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said that the FBI spent $900,000 to hack into an iPhone belonging to Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the shooters in the San Bernardino shooting that left 14 dead in December 2015. Still, it took more than four months to access the phone’s contents.
3. The Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection division, which provides agents at border checkpoints, apparently has difficulty finding employees who can pass a lie detector test. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said that 65 percent of the agency’s job applicants fail their polygraph test. He wondered if the agency had ever consulted with the FBI on that rate, which he describes as “significantly higher . . . than any other federal law enforcement agency.” “The FBI does pretty well with this,” Flake said. President Donald Trump has signed an executive order directing CBP to hire 5,000 new Border Patrol agents.
4. There are currently about 2,000 terrorism investigations underway in the United States, Comey said. About 1,000 of those are what Comey called “homegrown,” meaning suspects who appeared to have had no contact with people outside the United States. The others involved cases with some foreign involvement. Of the 2,000, about 300 involve people who came to the United States as refugees, one-third of those from six countries that were included in a Trump-ordered travel ban that has been stayed by a federal court in Hawaii. The remaining two-thirds were from Iraq, which had been included in Trump’s first attempt at a travel ban but was excluded from the second. Nearly all of the suspects in the investigations are American citizens, Comey said. Asked by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., if he agreed that “citizenship is unlikely to be a reliable indicator for potential terrorist activity,” Comey answered simply “yes.”
5. Former Congressman Anthony Weiner still has not been interviewed about why as many as 30,000 of Hillary Clinton’s emails ended up on his personal laptop. The emails were discovered as part of an FBI probe into Weiner’s contact with an underage girl as part of a federal investigation. The discovery gave rise to Comey’s infamous Oct. 27 letter to Congress saying the FBI was reopening its probe into Clinton’s emails – a pronouncement Clinton blames in part for her election loss to Trump. Comey’s spirited defense of that decision was the subject of most news coverage, but he also provided new details of how the Clinton emails ended up on Weiner’s laptop: Clinton’s longtime aide, Huma Abedin, who at the time was married to Weiner, forwarded them to Weiner to print out “as a matter of convenience.” Comey said he did not know if Weiner read the emails, 12 of which were found subsequently to have contained classified information. As for why Weiner has not been questioned in that case, Comey said it was a matter of priorities: “I don’t think we’ve been able to interview him because he has pending criminal problems of other sorts.”
6. The United States last month broke up a huge hacking operation that was run by a Russian hacker who’d taken control of as many as 45,000 computers. Those computers were used to send 4 billion spam messages every day. Comey explained the Kelihos botnet in colorful terms – “zombie armies of computers that have been taken over by criminals, lashed together in order to do tremendous harm to innocent people.” He said the scheme, which had been going on for at least seven years, was broken up when Spanish national police “locked up the Russian hacker behind that botnet, who made a mistake that Russian criminals sometimes make of leaving Russia and visiting the beautiful city of Barcelona.” He result: “the good people’s computers who had been lashed to that zombie army have now been freed from it and are no longer part of a huge criminal enterprise.”
7. Comey said that, “for the first time since Congress passed a statute making it a crime in the United States to engage in female genital mutilation, to mutilate little girls . . . we made the first case last week against doctors in Michigan for doing this terrifying thing to young girls all across the country. With our partners in the Department of Homeland Security, we brought a case against two doctors who were doing this to children.”
8. Comey consistently refused to answer questions about who specifically is being investigated in the FBI’s probe into possible collusion between Trump’s presidential campaign and Russian hackers. But he did say that he’d briefed the two senior members of the Judiciary Committee, Grassley, the Republican chairman, and Leahy, the Vermont Democrat, a fact that made their questions of particular note.
Grassley asked for example whether FBI policy permitted payments to an investigator who was already being paid by another entity, a reference to Christopher Steele, the British former spy who compiled a controversial dossier on Trump’s possible Russia connections. Leahy focused at one point on whether the FBI was investigating former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani over leaks Giuliani, a Trump adviser, may have received from FBI agents about the Clinton investigation. Comey responded, “It’s a matter that I’m very, very interested in.”
9. Comey acknowledged that he had been interviewed in the Justice Department’s Inspector General’s investigation into how he and the FBI handled the Clinton investigation.
10. Comey also provided some details of the mechanics of the ongoing probe into possible Trump-Russia collusion. He said he had briefed Deputy Attorney General Rod Rothstein on the probe as soon as Rothstein on “his first day in office;” Rothstein was given responsibility for overseeing the investigation after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself after it became known he’d spoken twice with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Comey said two groups of U.S. attorneys are involved in the probe: the national security branch of the Justice Department in Washington and the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Virginia. It would be those attorneys that would recommend whether to press criminal charges.
10. Comey confirmed that FBI agents interviewed retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who’d been named national security adviser, within hours of Trump’s inauguration Jan. 20 about conversations he’d been monitored having with Russian Ambassador Kislyak. On Jan. 23, then Acting Attorney General Sally Yates told the White House that the Justice Department believed that Flynn was lying about those contacts. Under questioning by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., Comey said he had been involved in conversations about Flynn in the interval between Flynn’s FBI interview and Yates’ discussions with the White House. “I don’t know whether two days is right,” Comey said. “I think it might have been one day. . . . And I did participate in conversations about the matter.” He declined, however, to offer more details because he said he didn’t know if he had Justice Department authorization to discuss them. Yates is scheduled to testify publicly before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee next week.