US Treasury Department officials used a Gmail back channel with the Russian government as the Kremlin sought sensitive financial information on its enemies in America and across the globe, according to documents reviewed by BuzzFeed News.
The extraordinary unofficial line of communication arose in the final year of the Obama administration — in the midst of what multiple US intelligence agencies have said was a secret campaign by the Kremlin to interfere in the US election. Russian agents ostensibly trying to track ISIS instead pressed their American counterparts for private financial documents on at least two dozen dissidents, academics, private investigators, and American citizens.
Most startlingly, Russia requested sensitive documents on Dirk, Edward, and Daniel Ziff, billionaire investors who had run afoul of the Kremlin. That request was made weeks before a Russian lawyer showed up at Trump Tower offering top campaign aides “dirt” on Hillary Clinton — including her supposed connection to the Ziff brothers.
Russia’s financial crimes agency, whose second-in-command is a former KGB officer and schoolmate of President Vladimir Putin, also asked the Americans for documents on executives from two prominent Jewish groups, the Anti-Defamation League and the National Council of Jewish Women, as well as Kremlin opponents living abroad in London and Kiev.
In an astonishing departure from protocol, documents show that at the same time the requests were being made, Treasury officials were using their government email accounts to send messages back and forth with a network of private Hotmail and Gmail accounts set up by the Russians, rather than communicating through the secure network usually used to exchange information with other countries.
Analysts at an elite agency within Treasury first warned supervisors in 2016 that the Russians were “manipulating the system” to conduct “fishing expeditions.” And they raised fears that the Treasury’s internal systems could be compromised by viruses contained in emails from the unofficial Russian accounts. But staff continued using the Gmail back channel into 2017, despite repeated internal warnings that Russia could be trawling for sensitive financial records — including Social Security and bank account numbers — to spy on, endanger, or recruit targets in the West.
The Treasury Department refused to tell BuzzFeed News why its officials were communicating with unofficial Gmail accounts at the same time that Russia was sending the suspicious requests, or to say whether it eventually turned over any documents in response. Nor would officials answer any other specific questions about the matter.
Yeah. Why does Russia have to hack our system when they can just get stuff from us BY ASKING? This is bizarre.
And it’s not an isolated incident:
It was not the only time that concerns about serious counterintelligence threats were raised at the elite financial intelligence unit during the past two years.
Six sources told BuzzFeed News that at least two FinCEN analysts were reported to Treasury’s inspector general over suspicions that they might have been working against the interests of the US.
One analyst was a man with close family ties to Ukraine. He was tracking the finances of corrupt foreign officials in a job that requires a security clearance. Four sources said they were told by security officials at the agency that the analyst turned out not to have one. He had applied for clearance during his previous posting at the State Department, they were told, but was denied it because of suspicious contacts with foreigners.
The sources said the man also had unusual contacts with his colleagues both before and after he was fired. Shortly after he was escorted out of FinCEN early last year, he showed up outside a coworker’s apartment building late at night and asked questions about investigations and internal Treasury databases. The coworker reported the encounter to supervisors.
The man’s uncleared access to sensitive information was considered such a major national security breach that FinCEN was stripped of its authority to grant security clearances for some time, according to these four sources. FinCEN’s security chief was later placed on administrative leave.
A second employee was suspended after he was caught traveling to other countries without informing his supervisors — something that FinCEN analysts are forbidden to do because of the value their data could have to foreign powers. A Treasury spokesperson declined to answer detailed questions about these matters.
These revelations are the latest evidence of the disarray inside America’s financial intelligence system, which a two-year BuzzFeed News investigation has laid bare.
FinCEN is a critical US law enforcement agency that each day collects and analyzes thousands of bank reports about suspicious financial behavior. Analysts have played a key role in current investigations by the FBI and special counsel Robert Mueller, assisting FBI agents with inquiries into the murky finances of President Donald Trump and his associates.
Wow. Men on the inside?