Probe into House tech worker yields no ev­i­dence of es­pi­onage

The Mercury News - - Front Page - By Shawn Boburg

In late Septem­ber 2016, lead­ers in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives met be­hind closed doors for brief­ings on a closely held in­ves­ti­ga­tion into a group of com­puter tech­ni­cians work­ing on Capi­tol Hill.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors with the In­spec­tor Gen­eral’s Of­fice had been qui­etly track­ing the five IT work­ers’ dig­i­tal foot­prints for months. They were alarmed by what they saw. The em­ploy­ees ap­peared to be ac­cess­ing con­gres­sional servers with­out au­tho­riza­tion, an in­di­ca­tion that they “could be read­ing and/or re­mov­ing information,” ac­cord­ing to doc­u­ments dis­trib­uted at the pre­vi­ously un­re­ported pri­vate brief­ings.

For some who lis­tened to the find­ings, the fact that the em­ploy­ees were born in Pak­istan set off alarms about na­tional se­cu­rity, ac­cord­ing to two par­tic­i­pants who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity. Oth­ers thought it more likely that the IT work­ers, nat­u­ral­ized U.S. cit­i­zens, were bend­ing rules on network ac­cess to share job du­ties — vi­o­la­tions of House pro­to­col, per­haps, but not es­pi­onage.

The mat­ter was soon re­ferred to the Capi­tol Po­lice, who have been as­sisted in their in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the FBI’s Joint Ter­ror­ism Task Force. In Fe­bru­ary, the IT work­ers were barred from ac­cess­ing the House network, a devel­op­ment that quickly made head­lines.

Since then, the story of the House IT work­ers — broth­ers Im­ran Awan, Abid Awan and Ja­mal Awan, as well as Im­ran Awan’s wife, Hina Alvi, and friend Rao Ab­bas — has become a light­ning rod charged by the con­ver­gence of pol­i­tics, cy­ber­se­cu­rity and fears of for­eign in­tru­sion.

It has at­tracted un­founded con­spir­acy the­o­ries and in­trigue. Far-right news or­ga­ni­za­tions seized on it as a po­ten­tial coverup of an es­pi­onage ring that plun­dered na­tional se­crets and might have been re­spon­si­ble for the cam­paign hack­ing of the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee, a breach that in­tel­li­gence agen­cies have linked to Rus­sia. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has fanned its em­bers from his Twit­ter ac­count, re­post­ing a story that claimed the main­stream me­dia was ig­nor­ing a scan­dal “en­gulf­ing” Rep. Deb­bie Wasser­man Schultz, a Florida Demo­crat who was slow to fire Im­ran Awan af­ter news of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion broke.

Yet, ac­cord­ing to a se­nior con­gres­sional of­fi­cial fa­mil­iar with the probe, crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tors have found no ev­i­dence that the IT work­ers had any con­nec­tion to a for­eign gov­ern­ment. In­ves­ti­ga­tors look­ing for clues about es­pi­onage in­stead found that the work­ers were us­ing one con­gres­sional server as if it were their home com­puter, stor­ing per­sonal information such as chil­dren’s home­work and fam­ily photos, the of­fi­cial said.

Even so, the story — re­con­structed here af­ter The Wash­ing­ton Post re­viewed con­fi­den­tial doc­u­ments and in­ter­viewed more than a dozen peo­ple, in­clud­ing House of­fi­cials, wit­nesses and oth­ers, many of whom spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss the sen­si­tive in­ves­ti­ga­tion — high­lights ur­gent and per­sis­tent questions about how well Congress safe­guards com­puter equip­ment and data.

Lawyers for some of the IT work­ers told The Post that their clients had done noth­ing wrong.

Christo­pher Gowen, one of Im­ran Awan’s lawyers, called the es­pi­onage claims “lu­di­crous.”

“There’s noth­ing that Im­ran did that wasn’t re­quested by one of his clients on House staff,” he said.

Jim Ba­con, a lawyer rep­re­sent­ing Abid Awan, said “a very lax en­vi­ron­ment” sur­rounds se­cu­rity pro­to­cols in the House. “I can tell you what they were do­ing was not un­usual,” he said.

The nearly one-year-old in­ves­ti­ga­tion has thus far re­sulted in no charges re­lated to the group’s House IT work. It has bur­rowed deeply into their per­sonal fi­nances and out­side business ven­tures.

In July, pros­e­cu­tors in the U.S. Dis­trict At­tor­ney’s Of­fice for the Dis­trict of Columbia charged Im­ran Awan and Alvi with bank fraud, al­leg­ing that the cou­ple made mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tions on an ap­pli­ca­tion for a home-eq­uity loan.

Im­ran Awan was arrested at the air­port as he was pre­par­ing to board a flight to Pak­istan, where his wife and three chil­dren — ages 4, 7, and 10 — have been since March. He has pleaded not guilty. Alvi is plan­ning to re­turn to the United States in the com­ing weeks to face bank-fraud charges, ac­cord­ing to court records. None of the other IT work­ers has been ac­cused of wrong­do­ing.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion is on­go­ing. Both the FBI and the U.S. At­tor­ney’s Of­fice de­clined to comment.

Im­ran Awan, now 38, was a 14-year-old liv­ing in Pak­istan when he filled out an ap­pli­ca­tion for a U.S. pro­gram that pro­vides lim­ited green cards through a lottery sys­tem, his lawyers said. He and his fam­ily were cho­sen. He ar­rived at 17, got a job work­ing at a fast-food restau­rant and went to com­mu­nity col­lege in North­ern Vir­ginia. He trans­ferred to Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity in Bal­ti­more and earned a de­gree in information technology.

Awan be­came a U.S. cit­i­zen in 2004, his lawyers said, the same year he was hired for a part-time job as an IT spe­cial­ist in the of­fice of Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla. Awan had got­ten to know some of Wexler’s staffers as an in­tern for a com­pany that pro­vided ser­vices to the of­fice.

As an IT spe­cial­ist, Awan set up print­ers and work email ac­counts for new em­ploy­ees, and did tech­ni­cal trou­bleshoot­ing. Charis­matic and ac­com­mo­dat­ing, he be­came a pop­u­lar choice among House Democrats and soon cob­bled to­gether more than a dozen part-time jobs as what is known as a “shared em­ployee” on the Hill, float­ing be­tween of­fices on an as-needed ba­sis.

Such ar­range­ments came un­der scru­tiny in 2008 when House In­spec­tor Gen­eral James Cor­nell tes­ti­fied that there was “in­ad­e­quate over­sight” over shared em­ploy­ees.

“In most in­stances, they have all the free­dom of a ven­dor and all the ben­e­fits of an em­ployee with­out the ac­count­abil­ity one would ex­pect with an em­ployee,” Cor­nell told law­mak­ers. IT spe­cial­ists, he noted, “present an ad­di­tional risk in that they of­ten have ac­cess to mul­ti­ple of­fice’s data out­side of both the over­sight of con­gres­sional of­fice staff and the vis­i­bil­ity of House se­cu­rity per­son­nel.”

BONNIE JO MOUNT — THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Im­ran Awan, a technology worker in Congress for 13years, is — along with his wife, two broth­ers and a friend — the sub­ject of a fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion that has become a light­ning rod for some con­ser­va­tives.

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