A tech executive “exploited” his access to computer data at the White House to find “derogatory information” about President Donald Trump, a special counsel appointed during the Trump administration said in a court filing Friday.
John Durham, appointed by then-Attorney General William Barr in 2020 to probe the origins of the FBI’s investigation of Russian election interference, said “Tech Executive-1,” not named in the filing but first identified by The New York Times as Rodney Joffe, used his access to domain name system, or DNS, data to compile information about which computers and servers the White House servers were communicating with.
Trump and his allies said the disclosure was proof that Trump was under surveillance while he was in office. “They were spying on the sitting president of the United States,” Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, told Fox News on Sunday. “And it goes right to the Clinton campaign.” In a statement Monday, Trump said the alleged spying was “the biggest story of our time, bigger than Watergate.”
The filing does not specify whether any of the data collection occurred while Trump was in office. It also does not allege that the content of any communications from the Executive Office of the President (EOP) or any parties were compromised or read and there’s no indication data collection went beyond identifying where the internet traffic came from and where it went.
Cybersecurity expert Rob Graham told NBC News that what Joffe appeared to have been doing was a search for domain names and addresses to which a computer had tried to connect.
When you type in the name of a website like Google.com, Graham said, DNS will translate it to a specific IP address and a specific group of servers. Monitoring such traffic reveals only that one computer or server is trying to reach another, he said, not the contents of a person’s screen or messages.
The disclosure about Joffe, who has not been charged, came in a filing in the court case of Michael Sussmann, a lawyer whom Durham’s office indicted in September in connection with allegations of lying about his relationship with the 2016 Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.
In the filing Friday, prosecutors said “Tech Executive-1” gave Sussmann data about communications between computer servers at the EOP, two Trump-owned buildings in New York and an unrelated medical firm with Russian-made cellphones near the White House.
According to prosecutors, Sussmann gave the data to an unnamed federal agency at a meeting on Feb. 9, 2017, 20 days into the Trump administration, and said the data “demonstrated that Trump and/or his associates were using supposedly rare, Russian-made wireless phones in the vicinity of the White House and other locations.”
“The Special Counsel’s Office has identified no support for these allegations,” the filing said.
According to prosecutors, Sussmann did not disclose to the agency, identified by the Times as the CIA, that he was working for a client when he provided the report, when he was actually representing “Tech Executive-1,” aka Joffe.
Legal experts said Sussmann could face additional legal exposure if he failed to disclose his relationship to Joffe.
On Monday, attorneys for Sussmann filed a response to the special counsel’s Friday filing, in which they alleged the special counsel had attempted to create the impression that Sussmann had provided the CIA with data collected from the White House during Trump’s presidency — despite knowing that data given to the agency dated from the Obama administration.
“Although the Special Counsel implies that in Mr. Sussmann’s February 9, 2017 meeting, he provided Agency-2 with EOP data from after Mr. Trump took office,” said the attorney, “the Special Counsel is well aware that the data provided to Agency-2 pertained only to the period of time before Mr. Trump took office, when Barack Obama was President.”
The attorneys also said that Sussmann never billed the Clinton campaign for the February meeting with the CIA, nor could he have because the campaign had effectively ceased to exist.
Sussmann’s attorneys told the court, “This is not the first time in this case that the Special Counsel has sought to include allegations about uncharged conduct in public filings and done so using inflammatory and prejudicial rhetoric.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for Joffe said, “Contrary to the allegations in [the special counsel’s] recent filing, Mr. Joffe is an apolitical internet security expert with decades of service to the U.S. Government who has never worked for a political party, and who legally provided access to DNS data obtained from a private client that separately was providing DNS services to the Executive Office of the President (EOP).”
Joffe’s spokesperson said that under the terms of his contract, “the data could be accessed to identify and analyze any security breaches or threats.”
“As a result of the hacks of EOP and [Democratic National Committee] servers in 2015 and 2016, respectively, there were serious and legitimate national security concerns about Russian attempts to infiltrate the 2016 election,” the spokesperson said. “Upon identifying DNS queries from Russian-made Yota phones in proximity to the Trump campaign and the EOP, respected cyber-security researchers were deeply concerned about the anomalies they found in the data and prepared a report of their findings, which was subsequently shared with the CIA.”
A spokesperson for special counsel Durham’s office said the office declines to comment beyond the court filings and any response will be in future filings with the court.
Durham’s office originally indicted Sussmann in September. As NBC News has previously reported, Sussmann’s indictment says that he was advising the Clinton campaign in 2016 about cybersecurity matters and that a partner at his firm served as general counsel for the campaign. According to prosecutors, during a Sept. 19, 2016, meeting between Sussmann and the FBI’s general counsel at the time, James Baker, Sussmann told Baker about suspicions relating to alleged secret communications between the Trump campaign and Russia. Prosecutors said Sussmann “stated falsely” that he was not working for any client in reporting the suspicions.
The suspicions, which involved internet traffic with Russia’s Alfa-Bank, were later determined to be unfounded.
At the time of the indictment, Sussmann’s attorneys issued a statement that said: “Michael Sussmann was indicted today because of politics, not facts. … This case represents the opposite of everything the Department of Justice is supposed to stand for.
“At its core, the Special Counsel is bringing a false statement charge based on an oral statement allegedly made five years ago to a single witness that is unrecorded and unobserved by anyone else. The Department of Justice would ordinarily never bring such a baseless case.”
Durham’s investigation continues and has resulted in one other indictment besides Sussmann’s. Last year, he charged a Russian analyst who was a source for the Steele dossier with lying to the FBI.
Durham was also acting U.S. attorney for Connecticut during the Clinton administration and acting U.S. attorney and then U.S. attorney during the Trump administration, leaving office last year.
Friday’s court filing was made as part of an inquiry about whether the law firm Latham & Watkins had a conflict of interest in serving as counsel to Sussmann because it also represented other parties with interests in the case.
CORRECTION (Feb. 15, 2022, 7:21 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article incorrectly specified a time period in special counsel Durham’s Feb. 11 filing when internet data from the White House was collected. The filing was silent on when data collection ended and what time period the data covered; it did not say the collection took place through February 2017 and thus during the Trump presidency.