Matt Tait, a former information security specialist for GCHQ and currently a security consultant who tweets as @pwnallthethings, was a source for the Wall Street Journal’s reporting on Peter Smith, his ties to the Trump campaign and his apparent communications with Russian intelligence. Tait writes: When he first contacted me, I did not know who Smith was, but his legitimate connections within the Republican party were apparent. My motive for initially speaking to him was that I wondered if the campaign was trying to urgently establish whether the claims that Russia had hacked the DNC was merely “spin” from the Clinton campaign, or instead something they would need to address before Trump went too far down the road of denying it. My guess was that maybe they wanted to contact someone who could provide them with impartial advice to understand whether the claims were real or just rhetoric.
Although it wasn’t initially clear to me how independent Smith’s operation was from Flynn or the Trump campaign, it was immediately apparent that Smith was both well connected within the top echelons of the campaign and he seemed to know both Lt. Gen. Flynn and his son well. Smith routinely talked about the goings on at the top of the Trump team, offering deep insights into the bizarre world at the top of the Trump campaign. Smith told of Flynn’s deep dislike of DNI Clapper, whom Flynn blamed for his dismissal by President Obama. Smith told of Flynn’s moves to position himself to become CIA Director under Trump, but also that Flynn had been persuaded that the Senate confirmation process would be prohibitively difficult. He would instead therefore become National Security Advisor should Trump win the election, Smith said. He also told of a deep sense of angst even among Trump loyalists in the campaign, saying “Trump often just repeats whatever he’s heard from the last person who spoke to him,” and expressing the view that this was especially dangerous when Trump was away.
Over the course of a few phone calls, initially with Smith and later with Smith and one of his associates—a man named John Szobocsan—I was asked about my observations on technical details buried in the State Department’s release of Secretary Clinton’s emails (such as noting a hack attempt in 2011, or how Clinton’s emails might have been intercepted by Russia due to lack of encryption). I was also asked about aspects of the DNC hack, such as why I thought the “Guccifer 2” persona really was in all likelihood operated by the Russian government, and how it wasn’t necessary to rely on CrowdStrike’s attribution as blind faith; noting that I had come to the same conclusion independently based on entirely public evidence, having been initially doubtful of CrowdStrike’s conclusions.
Towards the end of one of our conversations, Smith made his pitch. He said that his team had been contacted by someone on the “dark web”; that this person had the emails from Hillary Clinton’s private email server (which she had subsequently deleted), and that Smith wanted to establish if the emails were genuine. If so, he wanted to ensure that they became public prior to the election. What he wanted from me was to determine if the emails were genuine or not.
It is no overstatement to say that my conversations with Smith shocked me. Given the amount of media attention given at the time to the likely involvement of the Russian government in the DNC hack, it seemed mind-boggling for the Trump campaign—or for this offshoot of it—to be actively seeking those emails. To me this felt really wrong.
In my conversations with Smith and his colleague, I tried to stress this point: if this dark web contact is a front for the Russian government, you really don’t want to play this game. But they were not discouraged. They appeared to be convinced of the need to obtain Clinton’s private emails and make them public, and they had a reckless lack of interest in whether the emails came from a Russian cut-out. Indeed, they made it quite clear to me that it made no difference to them who hacked the emails or why they did so, only that the emails be found and made public before the election.
As I mentioned above, Smith and his associates’ knowledge of the inner workings of the campaign were insightful beyond what could be obtained by merely attending Republican events or watching large amounts of news coverage. But one thing I could not place, at least initially, was whether Smith was working on behalf of the campaign, or whether he was acting independently to help the campaign in his personal capacity.
Then, a few weeks into my interactions with Smith, he sent me a document, ostensibly a cover page for a dossier of opposition research to be compiled by Smith’s group, and which purported to clear up who was involved. The document was entitled “A Demonstrative Pedagogical Summary to be Developed and Released Prior to November 8, 2016,” and dated September 7. It detailed a company Smith and his colleagues had set up as a vehicle to conduct the research: “KLS Research”, set up as a Delaware LLC “to avoid campaign reporting,” and listing four groups who were involved in one way or another.
The first group, entitled “Trump Campaign (in coordination to the extent permitted as an independent expenditure)” listed a number of senior campaign officials: Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, Sam Clovis, Lt. Gen. Flynn and Lisa Nelson.
The largest group named a number of “independent groups / organizations / individuals / resources to be deployed.” My name appears on this list. At the time, I didn’t recognize most of the others; however, several made headlines in the weeks immediately prior to the election.
My perception then was that the inclusion of Trump campaign officials on this document was not merely a name-dropping exercise. This document was about establishing a company to conduct opposition research on behalf of the campaign, but operating at a distance so as to avoid campaign reporting. Indeed, the document says as much in black and white.
The combination of Smith’s deep knowledge of the inner workings of the campaign, this document naming him in the “Trump campaign” group, and the multiple references to needing to avoid campaign reporting suggested to me that the group was formed with the blessing of the Trump campaign. [Continue reading…]