One year ago, we introduced readers to William Binney, a former high-ranking NSA official turned whistleblower with an interesting theory: Binney believes the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia-linked hackers stole emails from the DNC as they pushed to sway the election in Trump’s favor is bullshit.
The real story, he says, is that a DNC insider stole the emails by downloading them manually from the DNC’s server onto a hard drive. Binney says he arrived at this conclusion after conducting an independent analysis of the metadata from the emails with a particular eye toward timestamps that he says indicate a download speed consistent with loading the files onto a thumb drive.
Binney’s views have been vigorously rebutted by the intelligence community, which has accused him of cynically advancing his theory to benefit President Trump, whom he supported during the election.
But now, it appears Binney’s theory is being discussed at the highest levels within the CIA after the Intercept reported that CIA Director Mike Pompeo met with Binney late last month under the advisement of President Donald Trump.
The meeting, as the Intercept noted, has caused something of a stir in the intelligence community, as several agents dished that they were worried Pompeo’s politics were superseding his interest in preserving our national security - an extremely serious charge to make under cover of anonymity.
However, given the Mueller probe’s recent turn toward investigating Trump associates’ alleged financial crimes and other allegations unrelated to the campaign, and the growing skepticism surrounding the Clinton’s and their conduct during the campaign and during Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State, and investigators’ seeming reluctance to elaborate on how they know what they know (which one might expect them to do given the seriousness of the allegations) it’s unsurprising that Trump would get frustrated.
Of course, this isn’t the first time Pompeo has expressed skepticism about Russia’s involvement in the DNC hack, and in trying to influence the election more broadly...
More recently, at a Washington event in October, Pompeo said that U.S. intelligence had determined that Moscow’s intervention hadn’t impacted the outcome of the election. He was quickly criticized for the comments, and the CIA had to issue a clarification saying that the intelligence assessment on Russia hadn’t been altered.
Pompeo’s meeting with Binney came just days before the first charges from Mueller’s investigation were made public on October 30.
...Which in turn has alarmed some of his colleagues at the CIA.
However the meeting came about, the fact that Pompeo was apparently willing to follow Trump’s direction and invite Binney to discuss his analysis has alarmed some current and former intelligence officials.
“This is crazy. You’ve got all these intelligence agencies saying the Russians did the hack. To deny that is like coming out with the theory that the Japanese didn’t bomb Pearl Harbor,” said one former CIA officer.
Binney, for his part, is happy that the meeting occurred and eager to help Pompeo and Trump get to the bottom of the DNC email theft. As he points out, the intelligence community helped Bush justify the war in Iraq with intelligence they knew to be unreliable. Who’s to say - given the clues that initially sparked Binney’s doubt - that something similar isn’t happening with Russia.
One thing’s for sure: Trump’s support for warmer relations with Russia immediately alienated the intelligence agencies and foreign policy establishment, which have always been deeply suspicious of Russia.
“I was willing to meet Pompeo simply because it was clear to me the intelligence community wasn’t being honest here,” Binney said, referring to their assessment of the DNC email theft. “I am quite willing to help people who need the truth to find the truth and not simply have deceptive statements from the intelligence community."
Binney said that Pompeo asked whether he would be willing to meet with NSA and FBI officials to further discuss his analysis of the DNC data theft, suggesting that there may be some institutional follow-up.
Of course, the CIA’s comms department has insisted that Pompeo supports the community’s findings, which were laid out in a paper published in January.
“The Director stands by, and has always stood by, the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment,” Boyd, the CIA spokesperson, said.
Notably, the revelation that former DNC Chairwoman Donna Brazile said she feared for her life after DNC staffer Seth Rich was murdered certainly help cast Binney’s views in a new light. Some suspect that Rich wasn’t murdered in a robbery gone awry, like police said, but in a deliberate hit job organized by shadowy elements associated with the DNC and Clinton campaign. Binney said he mentioned the case of Seth Rich to Pompeo during their meeting.
And as the Intercept readily admits, Pompeo’s decision to meet with Binney breathes new life into narratives that were originally dismissed by the mainstream media as “right wing conspiracy theories."
Pompeo’s decision to meet with Binney raises the possibility that right-wing theories aired on Fox News and in other conservative media can now move not just from conservative pundits to Trump, but also from Trump to Pompeo and into the bloodstream of the intelligence community.
Some senior CIA officials have grown upset that Pompeo, a former Republican representative from Kansas, has become so close to Trump that the CIA director regularly expresses skepticism about intelligence that doesn’t line up with the president’s views. Pompeo has also alienated some CIA managers by growing belligerent toward them in meetings, according to an intelligence official familiar with the matter.
The Director has been adamant that CIA officers have the time, space and resources to make sound and unbiased assessments that are delivered to policy makers without fear or favor,” Boyd said in an email to The Intercept. “As he has stated repeatedly, when we deliver our assessments to policy makers, we must do so with complete candor. He has also pushed decision making down in the organization, giving officers greater ownership of their work and making them more accountable for the outcomes. These changes are designed to make CIA more agile, aggressive and responsive."
This past summer, as the Mueller investigation was heating up, Binney co-authored a memo, published by members of a group of former intelligence officials called Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, making the case that the DNC emails were not hacked by Russia, but stolen by an insider. The memo argued that the emails were likely downloaded directly from a DNC computer onto a thumb drive or some other external device.
“Forensic studies of ‘Russian hacking’ into Democratic National Committee computers last year reveal that on July 5, 2016, data was leaked (not hacked) by a person with physical access to DNC computer,” the memo states. The memo’s conclusions were based on analyses of metadata provided by the online persona Guccifer 2.0, who took credit for the alleged hack. “Key among the findings of the independent forensic investigations is the conclusion that the DNC data was copied onto a storage device at a speed that far exceeds an Internet capability for a remote hack."
The memo garnered attention on the right, but its claims have been disputed. It cited timestamps embedded in the Guccifer files showing when they’d been copied, and used this data to extrapolate how quickly they’d been copied from one computer to another. The analysis on which the VIPS memo was based, conducted by a blogger called “The Forensicator,” showed that the files were transferred at a speed roughly equivalent to the rate at which data can be downloaded to a USB thumb drive. VIPS claimed that speed was “much faster than what is physically possible with a hack,” and so the files had to have been stolen by an insider with direct access to the computer system.
Binney, who has serious health problems and is confined to a wheelchair, said he traveled to the CIA headquarters in Langley Virginia to meet with Pompeo, who was accompanied by two CIA analysts who didn’t reveal their names.
While the intelligence community has categorically disputed Binney’s theory, it has never provided a compelling explanation as to why.
However, we imagine now that the death of Rich is back in the news cycle and both the Mueller indictments plus the revelation that the ‘Trump dossier’ was financed by Democrats, the intelligence community is rapidly hurtling toward a Sophie’s choice of sorts: Admit they lied and acknowledged that Binney’s theory is at least plausible, or produce the evidence that will definitively prove that Russia-linked hackers were responsible for the DNC leaks - something we imagine might be difficult in the absence of any real conclusive evidence.
Like they say, being “mostly certain” is just an upside-down way of saying that doubts remain.