Mueller’s team of sleuths at high risk of hack­ing

With dig­i­tal foot­prints, few iden­ti­fied

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY AN­DREA NO­BLE

One by one, as mem­bers of spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller’s team are pub­licly iden­ti­fied, se­cu­rity an­a­lysts say their emails, on­line data and past law firm com­mu­ni­ca­tions could be­come tar­gets for the types of cy­ber­in­tru­sions the team must in­ves­ti­gate — a fear that could ex­plain why of­fi­cials have been re­luc­tant to re­lease their names.

Af­ter an elec­tion sea­son in which hack­ers — pre­sum­ably Rus­sian op­er­a­tives — broke into sys­tems of the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee and the chair­man of Hil­lary Clin­ton’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign and at­tempted to break into state elec­tion sys­tems, it’s no leap to as­sume they will try to pen­e­trate the sys­tems of the in­ves­ti­ga­tors who are tar­get­ing them, an­a­lysts said.

“There is no ques­tion that any­one in­volved in a mat­ter this high pro­file is go­ing to be a tar­get for some sort of at­tempted cy­ber­surveil­lance,” said R. David Edel­man, di­rec­tor of the Project on Tech­nol­ogy, Econ­omy and Na­tional Se­cu­rity at the Massachuse­tts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy and a for­mer di­rec­tor of in­ter­na­tional cy­ber­pol­icy at the White House Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil.

The spe­cial coun­sel’s of­fice has brought 13 at­tor­neys on board so far, with “sev­eral more in the pipe­line,” said spokesman Peter Carr. The of­fice has de­clined to pro­vide a full list of its staff but has con­firmed the names of eight mem­bers of the team in dribs and drabs.

Mr. Carr de­clined to com­ment on cy­ber­se­cu­rity threats the team might face or pre­cau­tions it is tak­ing. But Mr. Edel­man said the team is smart to give mem­bers a chance to clean up their dig­i­tal foot­prints and har­den their de­fenses.

“Nam­ing these in­di­vid­u­als pub­licly makes them tar­gets,” he said. “Ev­ery day you can de­lay, that helps pro­tect them from ad­ver­saries — for­eign and do­mes­tic.”

An­a­lysts said the ef­forts to hack the DNC, state elec­tion sys­tems and John Podesta, chair­man of the Clin­ton cam­paign, show there is an abil­ity and a clear in­ter­est of ad­ver­saries to peer into the in­ner work­ings of the U.S. po­lit­i­cal sys­tem.

“I imag­ine that any­body who did want to un­der­mine the Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion, and there cer­tainly are peo­ple who want to do that, would be in­ter­ested in mem­bers of his in­ves­tiga­tive team and would be con­duct­ing op­po­si­tion re­search, if you will, on them,” said Faiza Pa­tel, co-di­rec­tor of the Bren­nan Cen­ter’s Lib­erty and Na­tional Se­cu­rity Pro­gram.

The mo­ti­va­tion be­hind any po­ten­tial ef­fort to tar­get the spe­cial coun­sel’s team, how­ever, is de­bat­able.

“Cer­tainly they tried to in­flu­ence the elec­tion,” Ms. Pa­tel said of the Rus­sian in­tru­sions. “Whether that means they’re now pro-Trump, given the elec­tion is over and he is in power, is not as clear.”

U.S. of­fi­cials have said the Rus­sians sought to sow dis­cord and dis­trust in the U.S. demo­cratic process through their med­dling. A sim­i­lar at­tack on the spe­cial coun­sel could un­der­mine the in­ves­ti­ga­tion’s in­tegrity.

“If you had hack­ing and some­one dumped the emails be­tween Mueller and [spe­cial coun­sel at­tor­ney] An­drew Weiss­mann one day, that would be a ma­jor blow to the in­ves­ti­ga­tion — not just be­cause of what it would tell you about the in­ves­ti­ga­tion but be­cause of what it would tell you about how they treated the in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” Ms. Pa­tel said.

An­a­lysts say po­ten­tial threats could in­clude at­tempts to search for per­sonal com­mu­ni­ca­tions or data re­gard­ing some of the team mem­bers’ work in pri­vate prac­tice.

“At­tor­ney-client priv­i­lege isn’t very priv­i­leged if the in­for­ma­tion is posted on Paste­bin,” Mr. Edel­man said.

Of the eight em­ploy­ees who have been iden­ti­fied so far, three of them came from jobs at WilmerHale, the pri­vate law firm that also em­ployed Mr. Mueller.

They are for­mer Water­gate pros­e­cu­tor James L. Quar­les III; for­mer FBI coun­tert­er­ror­ism agent Aaron Ze­b­ley; and Jean­nie Rhee, for­mer deputy as­sis­tant at­tor­ney gen­eral for the Jus­tice De­part­ment’s of­fice of le­gal coun­sel.

The oth­ers were al­ready work­ing for the fed­eral gov­ern­ment and were de­tailed to the team: Michael Dreeben, deputy so­lic­i­tor gen­eral; Mr. Weiss­mann, chief of the Jus­tice De­part­ment crim­i­nal divi­sion’s fraud sec­tion; El­iz­a­beth Prel­ogar, an ap­pel­late at­tor­ney on de­tail from the of­fice of the so­lic­i­tor gen­eral; Lisa Page, an at­tor­ney from the FBI’s of­fice of the gen­eral coun­sel; and Adam Jed, an ap­pel­late lawyer from Jus­tice De­part­ment’s civil divi­sion.

The team has al­ready faced crit­i­cism from de­fend­ers of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion who have ac­cused Mr. Mueller of politi­ciz­ing the probe by hir­ing sev­eral pros­e­cu­tors with ties to the Demo­cratic Party.

Ms. Rhee do­nated $5,400 to Hil­lary Clin­ton’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign and was twice part of the le­gal team that rep­re­sented the Clin­ton Foun­da­tion in re­cent lit­i­ga­tion. Three other team mem­bers are also on record as hav­ing do­nated to Democrats in re­cent years.

It’s not clear why the oth­ers on the team aren’t be­ing iden­ti­fied, but given Mr. Mueller’s pen­chant for closely guard­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions and the na­ture of the probe, the team mem­bers are likely tak­ing strin­gent mea­sures to pro­tect their per­sonal data as well as any com­mu­ni­ca­tions about the case, an­a­lysts say.

“The last thing the spe­cial coun­sel wants to be­come is a vic­tim in his own in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” said Jonathan Tur­ley, a Ge­orge Washington Univer­sity law pro­fes­sor.

Both the fed­eral gov­ern­ment and pri­vate-sec­tor law firms have beefed up train­ing on cy­ber­se­cu­rity is­sues in re­cent years, so it’s un­likely that any of the team mem­bers would be un­fa­mil­iar with ba­sic se­cu­rity pro­to­cols such as two-fac­tor au­then­ti­ca­tion to log into email ac­counts or check­ing for soft­ware up­dates on their per­sonal com­put­ers to patch se­cu­rity prob­lems, Mr. Edel­man said.

But as a re­cent hack­ing case un­der­scores, even high-rank­ing in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials can be vic­tims of rel­a­tively un­so­phis­ti­cated schemes.

The hack­ing col­lec­tive Crackas with At­ti­tude claimed it had com­pro­mised the AOL ac­count of then-CIA Di­rec­tor John O. Bren­nan, the Ver­i­zon ac­count of thenDirec­tor of Na­tional In­tel­li­gence James R. Clap­per and email ac­counts for other FBI of­fi­cials.

A plea agree­ment for two North Carolina men charged in the at­tack said hack­ers ob­tained ac­cess to ac­counts through “so­cial en­gi­neer­ing” tech­niques. At one point, a hacker called Ver­i­zon and im­per­son­ated one of the vic­tims in or­der to re­set a pass­word and gain con­trol of an ac­count.

Af­ter seiz­ing con­trol of email, so­cial me­dia and other on­line ac­counts, of­fi­cials said, the hack­ers pub­lished per­sonal in­for­ma­tion stolen from the ac­counts on­line or called the vic­tims to ha­rass them.

“This is cer­tainly go­ing be a new fron­tier for any in­ves­ti­ga­tion, high-pro­file or oth­er­wise,” Mr. Edel­man said. “Just as these is­sues were front and cen­ter in the cam­paign, any­time you are deal­ing with con­fi­den­tial in­for­ma­tion on a com­puter there are some real risks.”


Robert Mueller, the spe­cial coun­sel in­ves­ti­gat­ing Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the elec­tion, has de­clined to pro­vide a full list of his staff but has con­firmed the names of eight mem­bers.

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