Modern technology complicates investigations into criminal actions. After communications moved from the written word and spoken conversations to highly encrypted messaging apps, the existing tools that law enforcement has at its disposal haven’t always been able to keep up with the myriad ways that people who don’t want their activities made public use to hide their more nefarious exchanges.
While the National Security Agency has a multitude of secret methods of retrieving encrypted messages from people’s computers and cell phones, Special Counsel Robert Mueller is using an old-fashioned method of accessing the surreptitious messages that witnesses testifying in the probes of the Russian collusion in the 2016 presidential election — and the allegations of obstruction of justice as the Justice Department investigated those charges — may have sent.
According to a report on CNBC, Mueller’s team has been asking witnesses to turn over their personal mobile phones for inspection since at least April of this year, allowing agents to review private conversations sent via What’s App, Telegram, and other encrypted messaging apps.
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CNBC cites anonymous sources for the news, which the Special Counsel’s team must see as the only way to access conversations that have not been otherwise disclosed to them. With Mueller and his team remaining tight-lipped about their investigation, the leak of this news probably came from one of the witnesses whose phone was examined.
Reportedly, witnesses have been voluntarily complying with the request from Mueller’s investigators rather than waiting for a subpoena to be issued.
The news is certainly related to the new accusations of witness tampering that Mueller filed on Monday against former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort who allegedly used encrypted messaging apps to contact potential witnesses and coordinate their stories in the case against him after he was indicted for money laundering and illegally acting as a foreign agent.
“For evidence, Mueller’s deputy listed two apps, WhatsApp and Telegram, that they say Manafort used to contact the witnesses in his case. The filing also says that those conversations were provided to Mueller in May, a month after witnesses say they were approached to provide their phones,” the CNBC story says.
Legal experts don’t find it unusual that witnesses would hand over their personal devices for examination in a situation like this.
“It’s just more typical for law enforcement to ask for consent for the obvious reason because it’s much easier than applying to a court to get judicial permission,”Robert Ray, an independent counsel during the Bill Clinton Whitewater investigation said.
Michael German, a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program and a former FBI agent, said “There’s nothing wrong with asking people to voluntarily provide information to the FBI for whatever investigation, and to the extent that that’s a voluntary action is where the rub is.”
The question now becomes, with the news of the requests to examine witnesses’ messaging apps public knowledge, whether the witnesses who have yet to be questioned in the inquiry will be busy scrubbing their phones and computers of any trace of those apps and any incriminating evidence they may contain.
With Mueller and his team remaining tight-lipped about their investigation, we’ll have to wait until his report is issued or the Manafort trial is in court before we find out exactly what else may have discovered in the secret messaging.
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