The indictment of Hillary Clinton lawyer Michael Sussmann for lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has shed new light on the pivotal role of Democratic operatives in the RussiaGate scandal. According to media reports, the emerging picture shows Sussmann and his Perkins Coie colleague Marc Elias, the chief counsel for Clinton’s 2016 campaign, proceeding on parallel, coordinated tracks to solicit and spread disinformation tying Donald Trump to the Kremlin.
In a detailed charging document in September 2021, Special Counsel John Durham accused Sussmann of concealing his work for the Clinton campaign while trying to sell the FBI on the false claim of a secret Trump backchannel to Russia’s Alfa Bank. But Sussmann’s alleged false statement to the FBI in September 2016 wasn’t all. Just months before, he helped generate an even more consequential Russia allegation that he also brought to the FBI. In April of that year, Sussmann hired CrowdStrike, the cybersecurity firm that publicly triggered the Russiagate saga by lodging the still unproven claim that Russia was behind the hack of Democratic National Committee emails released by WikiLeaks.
At the time, CrowdStrike was not the only Clinton campaign contractor focusing on Russia. Just days before Sussmann hired CrowdStrike in April, his partner Elias retained the opposition research firm Fusion GPS to dig up dirt on Trump and the Kremlin.
These two Clinton campaign contractors, working directly for two Clinton campaign attorneys, would go on to play highly consequential roles in the ensuing multi-year Russia investigation.
Working secretly for the Clinton campaign, Fusion GPS planted Trump-Russia conspiracy theories in the FBI and US media via its subcontractor, former British spy Christopher Steele. The FBI used the Fusion GPS’s now debunked “Steele dossier” for investigative leads and multiple surveillance applications putatively targeting Trump campaign volunteer Carter Page.
CrowdStrike, reporting to Sussmann, also proved critical to the FBI’s work. Rather than examine the DNC servers for itself, the FBI relied on CrowdStrike’s forensics as mediated by Sussmann.
The FBI’s odd relationship with the two Democratic Party contractors gave Sussmann and Elias unprecedented influence over a high-stakes national security scandal that upended U.S. politics and ensnared their political opponents. By hiring CrowdStrike and Fusion GPS, the Perkins Coie lawyers helped define the Trump-Russia narrative and impact the flow of information to the highest reaches of U.S. intelligence agencies.
The established Trump-Russia timeline and the public record, including overlooked sworn testimony, congressional and Justice Department reports, as well as news accounts from the principal recipients of government leaks in the affair, the Washington Post and the New York Times, help to fill in the picture.
In late April 20216, after being informed by Graham Wilson, a Perkins Coie colleague, that the DNC server had been breached, Michael Sussmann immediately turned to CrowdStrike. As Sussmann recalled in December 2017 testimony to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the cyber firm was hired based on his “recommendation”.
Although it is widely believed that CrowdStrike worked for the DNC, the firm in fact was retained by Sussmann and his Clinton campaign law firm. As CrowdStrike CEO Shawn Henry told the House committee, his contract was not with the DNC, but instead “with Michael Sussmann from Perkins Coie.”
And it was Sussmann who controlled what the FBI was allowed to see. After bringing CrowdStrike on board, Sussmann pushed aggressively to publicize the firm’s conclusion that Russian government hackers had attacked the DNC server, according to a December 2016 account in the New York Times.
“Within a day, CrowdStrike confirmed that the intrusion had originated in Russia,” the Times reported, citing Sussmann’s recollection. Sussmann and DNC executives had their first formal meeting with senior FBI officials in June 2016, where they encouraged the bureau to publicly endorse CrowdStrike’s findings:
Among the early requests at that meeting, according to participants: that the federal government make a quick “attribution” formally blaming actors with ties to Russian government for the attack to make clear that it was not routine hacking but foreign espionage.
“You have a presidential election underway here and you know that the Russians have hacked into the D.N.C.,” Mr. Sussmann said, recalling the message to the F.B.I. “We need to tell the American public that. And soon”.
But the FBI was not ready to point the finger at Russia. As the Senate Intelligence Committee later reported, “CrowdStrike still had not provided the FBI with forensic images nor an unredacted copy of their [CrowdStrike’s] report”.
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