WATCH | Learn more about a computer scientist who raised concerns about a possible connection between President Trump and a Russian bank.
A respected computer scientist who raised concerns about a possible connection between President Trump and a Russian bank is an unabashed Hillary Clinton supporter who made multiple small donations to the Democrat’s presidential campaign around the time she and her colleagues surfaced the allegations.
Who is L. Jean Camp?
Indiana University professor L. Jean Camp, a recognized expert whose work includes federal research on the security of Internet-connected devices, became a spokesperson last fall for a loose group of computer researchers who reported they had detected a series of communications between a commercial email server registered at Trump’s office in New York City and a server at Alfa Bank in Russia.
L. Jean Camp
Posted to Reddit
Logs of the computer communications -- known as Domain Name System look-ups -- were originally posted on the Reddit social media site by one of the researchers, and then by Camp on her personal website. They quickly became grist for a series of stories suggesting there may have been a secret channel of communication between one of the largest private commercial banks in Vladimir Putin’s country and Trump’s campaign.
FBI says server provided no evidence
The FBI counterintelligence team that chronicled Russian interference in the U.S. election briefly reviewed the server connections and concluded they did not provide evidence of collusion between Russia and Trump’s campaign and likely were explainable by routine computer behavior, U.S. officials told Circa, speaking only on condition of anonymity.
"Like all people, I have many roles. One is professor and another is citizen."
—L. Jean Camp
In subsequent social media posts, Camp’s Twitter account alleged the FBI and news media like The New York Times did not give enough attention to the data she surfaced and other Russia-related allegations against Trump, instead focusing on Clinton’s email scandal and allowing the Republican to become president.
Here's Camp's tweet from March 1.
Camp tweeted this in mid-February.
She tweeted a comment from a Slate reporter whose story discussed her concerns.
In emailed answers to questions, Camp told Circa her decision to call attention to the computer logs should be viewed separately from her political and social media activities, stressing that the data she made public should rise above partisanship.
“Like all people, I have many roles. One is professor and another is citizen (and a third is recently moved homeowner, speaking of stress). We all balance our lives,” she wrote to Circa.
“I do this by saying only what is clear in the data. In terms of the Trump server, it is the data that are speaking.”
The FBI was alerted to the Trump-Alfa computer connections by government-connected private sector sources who had learned about them from Camp’s loose group of colleagues. Agents used traditional investigative techniques and did not require a surveillance warrant for that review, the sources said. No new information has surfaced to date to warrant reopening that review, the sources added.
"I was a bit frightened but I thought it was important for people to know."
—L. Jean Camp
Alfa Bank found only routine activity
Alfa Bank likewise has said through a spokesman that its extensive security review found the computer communications were nothing more than routine activities related to commercial email activity.
Camp's name started to appear in media reports
Camp’s name surfaced in stories just before and after the election, raising the concerns she and her colleagues had about the potential connections between the two servers, which were captured between May 1, 2016 and mid-September. The first stories emerged in late October and early November, just days before Trump defeated Clinton.
“These organizations are communicating in a way designed to block other people out,” Camp was quoted in a late October article in Slate. Other scientists shared her intrigue about the data but also acknowledged there could be a more innocent explanation for the computer communications.
'A loose group of concerned nerds'
Camp told Circa via email that she never talked to the FBI and that none of her colleagues -- she called them “a loose group of concerned nerds” -- took any money for their sleuthing. She added that she labored over the decision of whether to leak the computer logs so close to Election Day. “I was a bit frightened but I thought it was important for people to know,” she said.
Federal Election Commission records state Camp made a total of 22 small contributions in 2016 to Clinton’s presidential campaign totaling $1,547. The first was recorded on April 23, 2016, and the last on Election Day. The records list earlier donations totaling $1,150 to Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, as well as smaller amounts to other liberal causes, like MoveOn.org’s political action committee and the Democratic National Committee. Camp confirmed the donations by phone.
Tweets from Camp's Twitter account suggested she disliked Trump.
The account retweeted a call to “join the resistance.”
Camp’s Twitter account called Clinton a "hero."
The stories that quoted Camp about the Trump-Russia server connections last fall did not mention the campaign donations or social media posts.
Throughout 2016, the FBI heard occasional allegations of Russian connections to Trump and his associates while investigating concerns that Putin was trying to influence the election. Some were incidental information from intelligence sources and others came from partisan sources.
The Russian dossier
Among them was a dossier assembled by a former British intelligence officer that contained salacious allegations against Trump from intelligence sources in Moscow involving prostitutes, bribery and other misdeeds. To date, the allegations mostly have not been corroborated by U.S. intelligence.
That dossier was part of a project by a U.S. firm hired at first by Republican critics of Trump in the spring and summer of 2016 and then by Democratic critics of Trump in the fall, according to U.S. officials familiar with its contents.
Like the computer logs, the dossier was leaked, became the focus of media attention, and drew resources from the FBI when it was investigated.
No FBI charges expected
Circa reported last week that FBI officials have not found any evidence to date of criminal collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia aimed at influencing the outcome of the 2016 election. Intelligence officials delivered a similar message to congressional leaders in recent days, sources said.
The FBI, CIA and the rest of the intelligence community do share a common assessment that Russia took actions like hacking Democratic email accounts, trying to penetrate voter databases and spreading propaganda in an effort to influence the U.S. election, officials say.
A report released in January by former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper stated that the Obama administration’s official assessment was that the Russian campaign aimed to “harm” Clinton and “aspired to help” Trump.
Those beliefs, however, are not fully shared inside the FBI, which has a long history with Russian counterintelligence dating to spy scandals in the 1990s and early 2000s that involved figures like Robert Hanssen, Aldrich Ames and Anna Chapman.
What the Russians were really up to
Some senior experts inside the FBI believe the goal of the Russian covert operations during the 2016 election was to create chaos and undermine Americans' confidence in their democratic election process and not necessarily to favor one candidate or the other, a senior official told Circa.
That belief stems in part from the fact that the FBI uncovered Russian efforts to hack into Republican National Committee computers, spread largely uncorroborated derogatory information about Trump in the dossier, and gain access to a voter registration database in a part of Illinois that Trump had little chance of winning, that official said.
“Disrupting the election and eroding confidence in democracy seemed more likely to us than ensuring a preference” of one candidate over the other, the source said.
Timing of Camp's findings
The group of researchers loosely working with Camp, some of whom have not been publicly identified, appeared to have initially captured the communications between the Trump-tied server and Alfa starting around May 1, 2016, according to the data posted on Camp’s site.
That was about the time news headlines were focused on a different email controversy affecting the presidential election: the FBI probe of classified information found on Clinton’s private email server. FBI Director James Comey announced in early July that he would not bring charges against Clinton for her reckless use of private email to receive and transmit classified information.
The first stories about the Alfa-Trump connection publicly quoting Camp and other computer scientists emerged in late October, right around the time the FBI announced it had reopened the Clinton email case after some possibly related evidence was found on a computer tied to the husband of a former Clinton aide. The FBI cleared Clinton three days before the election.
Weighing 'ethical considerations'
Camp’s own website suggests she weighed the “ethical considerations” of posting the computer logs -- and even the possibility of an “October surprise” -- but that she decided transparency was the best policy.
“Given the reports of Russian engagement in the election, looking at the interaction between campaign sites and Russia seemed unquestionably ethical,” she wrote, providing five justifications for releasing the data.
“There is value to openness and to the disclosure. In this case, not disclosing would be to self-censor,” she added.
Camp expanded on her rationale in her emails to Circa, saying collaboration with outside experts, like what happened regarding the Trump server, also made her a better academic.
“I also have time allocated by my employer for consulting and other outside work. The theory is that professors engaged in industry and the larger world are better at teaching as well as placing our research in larger contexts,” she wrote.