Down The Rabbit Hole: Congressional IT Scandal

Great swathes of the internet are aflame with news about Imran Awan, his family, and their various entanglements with the halls of power and law enforcement.  The interest is most noticeable among the right-wing alternative media, but there are representatives of both the so-called “mainstream media” and internet conspiracists circling the fringes of this story.  I ask, and attempt to answer, three questions: 1) What is it about this story that is so motivating alternative right-wing media?  2) What even is the story?  3) Behind all the partisan reporting and conspiratorial thinking, is there anything to this story?

1. The Partisanship

First, all Congressional members connected to this story appear to be Democrats.  That makes the partisan nature of the reporting and investigation crystal clear.  Second, one of the Congressional members is Debbie Wasserman Schultz, whose compound yet strangely un-hyphenated name may sound familiar.  For the purposes of this story, she is a Florida Representative who kept Imran Awan hired right up until the day Awan was arrested while trying to leave the country.  Yet her fame comes from one of the most sordid stories of an election that had no shortage of sordid stories.  Wasserman Schultz was head of the DNC right up until WikiLeaks broke and it was discovered that she had been working hand-in-glove with the Hillary Clinton campaign to ensure that Clinton, not Sanders, won the Democratic primary.  She was the one who provided the Clinton campaign with advance notice of Democratic debate questions.  After resigning from the DNC in the wake of this scandal, she was within days working for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, a move that was so obviously, terribly tone-deaf that a number of talking heads and outside observers couldn’t believe even Hillary Clinton could be that stupid.  It became a bipartisan theory that the best explanation was that Wasserman Schultz “knew things” that made it dangerous for Clinton’s campaign to leave her adrift and uncompensated.  Depending on the observer’s political stance and level of conspiratorial thinking, these hypothetical “things” ranged from more damaging details of the efforts to derail Sanders’ campaign to deep dark Clinton family crimes.  Republicans, of course, gleefully tore Wasserman Schultz to pieces at the time, tarring Clinton as much as possible with the accusations of subverting democracy.  It didn’t take much effort to do that tarring.  Democrats have not been gleeful but there antipathy for Wasserman Schultz is, if anything, even stronger.  It’s easy to find videos of Wasserman Shultz getting booed by crowds of Democrats.
So, Wasserman Schultz is a bipartisan paria who nevertheless remains an influential Democrat, perhaps more powerful in the DNC machinery than the Congressional sausage-maker, but powerful one way or the other.  And now we have this scandal, where there’s similar circumstantial evidence that some people (Imran Awan and family) “knew things” about Wasserman-Schultz that ensured she kept him hired even past the point of political liability.  There’s something more than a little karmic about the turnabout.
To the point of the partisanship question, however, a large number of Republicans are hoping that computer evidence will show what Awan was blackmailing Wasserman Schultz with, and desperately hoping that this is the same information or at least related to what Wasserman Schultz had over Hillary Clinton.
In short, they hope that Imran Awan is the Watergate thread that will finally put Hillary Clinton in prison.  Thus, many of the reporters are emotionally motivated whether they are honest (by word or tone) about it or not.

2. What Is The Story?

This is less telling a story and more linking it.  I’ve summarized the particular, key, or novel information each link provides, and, when necessary, made a particular note of the apparent credibility (or lack thereof).  As more information comes out, IF more information comes out, I will cross out elements disproven and add new stuff at the bottom if warranted.  And also make a note if some of the less credible stuff is confirmed.

Brief but fairly comprehensive summary from National Review, a conservative but fairly sedate source:

Forbes snidely connects the offsite data transfers and destroyed hard-drives to the fact that the DNC never did turn over their servers to the FBI.  (These would be the servers that we’re told were hacked by Russia, which action, we’re told, has been confirmed by government agencies despite the evidence not being turned over to said government agencies.  One of two reasons, along with WikiLeaks history of sourcing credibility and their steadfast claims that Russia was not involved in their access, I never really bought into the Russia hacking story.)

A right-wing new site complains about the lack of coverage.  They claim that, as of the writing of their article (four days ago), ABC, NBC, and CBS have devoted a TOTAL of 37 seconds to coverage.  This statistic is oft-cited but, for all I know, now falsified (I don’t typically watch cable news).

A very definitely right-wing news organization leverages a depressing number of ‘anonymous sources’ to claim more circumstantial evidence for the blackmail hypothesis – take this with a grain of salt:

Perennially contrarian and persistently pessimistic news aggregator ZeroHedge cites legal documents to claim that Wasserman Schultz (or somebody in her office) used a voice-disguiser while trying to ask questions to lawyers about a case involving Awan, showing an untoward and frankly bizarre interest in some nominally part-time underlings:  PACER (legal documents source) is cited, but the links just go to PDFs hosted by a PAC.  Still, cited too widely, and too easy to disprove if faked to be dismissed.  Treating this as true unless proven otherwise.  This will not be the last item I consider too insane to be fictional.

The centrist to center-left (for a change!) Politico notes that three other relatives of the brothers were put on the payroll:

A conservative tabloid claims that, in order to keep Awan working for her despite the investigation, Wasserman-Schultz re-hired Awan as an ‘adviser” rather than tech-help to get around certain legal requirements involving employees under investigation:  Source is not obviously credible to me, but other stories reference him in passing as being a “tech adviser” before arrest, so looks true enough.  Same tabloid in another article makes the claim that the relatives were given no-show jobs and that this was a way to circumvent legal limits on congressional employee pay, which is consistent with the Politico article above:  Daily Caller also provides most of the top results for the tale of the Marine who moved into a house vacated by Imran Awan and calling law enforcement on finding government tech equipment in the garage (and Awan threatening to sue to get the stuff back).  All of these elements are widely discussed elsewhere but all the references seem to go back to the Daily Caller, which, while hardly anybody’s idea of a really credible news source, has dedicated an investigative team to this story.  Since successful tabloids do have money and few, if any, other journalistic organizations have taken a similar step the Daily Caller can not presently be avoided in discussing this story.

Controversial freethinking youtube commentator Stefan Molyneux’s 1h(!) coverage.  It’s exhaustive – as it should to merit an hour.  He opens by saying he suspects this is ‘bigger than Watergate’, and while such an opening makes me automatically suspicious this is where I heard about the Iraqi connection – a $100000 never-repaid loan from an Iraqis expat (Dr. Ali al-Attar) to the Awan’s then-failing automotive business.  As National Review noted, this side-business (maintained even as the brothers got full-time IT jobes for Congress) is bizarrely named “Cars International A” or “CIA”.  You can’t make this up – any editor would request changes in the name of suspension of disbelief.

For background reference, here’s a rather uncritical NYTimes article from 2003 that cites Dr. al-Attar as looking forward to running the new Iraqi Health Ministry:  (NYTimes, like many individuals, likes to talk as if they were always against the Iraq War and always anti-Bush, but I remember how near-universal the enthusiasm for retaliation was, and how high Presidential opinion polls spiked – and the internet remembers too.  Shame on them for pretending they were always at war with Eastasia!)  This looked-for prestige position helps explain his involvement in the NEXT link.

Here’s a more recent article that discusses Dr. al-Attar and fingers him as one of those responsible for misleading Paul Wolfowitz on the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq:  (Putting one over on Wolfowitz, especially when it leads to invading some foreign place, doesn’t seem to hard…  The guy is one of the most aggravatingly consistent military interventionists in DC.) The $100k loan to Awan’s CIA reportedly occurred as al-Attar was himself fleeing the country for locales without extradition.

Next is a somewhat disorganized, exhaustive, almost bullet-point style summary of the scandal so far that ends with one thing I have yet to find anywhere else: a list of members of Congress who were sharing the Awan’s IT services.  Perhaps this isn’t particularly important given it’s widely agreed that all representatives but Wasserman Schultz dropped the Awans like the liability they are back in February when the investigations first happened.  Note, however, that I know nothing about this source and by inspection it doesn’t seem particularly trustworthy – TownHall, the Blaze, and Daily Caller are at least well-established tabloids.

To close out, here’s a classic example of the high-effort internet conspiracy researcher in his natural habitat.  I tend to have a certain amount of respect and trust in these kinds of people – they build credibility the old fashioned way (sources, links, citations, exhaustive write-ups, and palpable obsession with details), and have littered the internet with feats that would be impressive if done by a team of journalists or intel analysts.  This example comes from two months before Awan was arrested and he got his 37 seconds of cable news fame, and contains most of the details discussed above in a VERY long post.  I link specifically because he gives sources and documentation for a few things discussed without evidence elsewhere, such as the police records in which the brothers’ step-mother accuses them of surveillance and threats of abduction and the claim that the father changed his name to disassociate himself from his sons. Also as discussed elsewhere  True or false, this guy gets serious bonus points for being on top of this story even before alternative media were accusing mainstream media of covering it up.

3. Is There A Story Here?

To recap the chain of connections that make up the conspiratorial backbone of the story

  • Dr. al-Attar, disgraced doctor who encouraged the invasion of Iraq fled the country and gave money to:
  • Cars International A, a struggling auto company that is still owned and operated by:
  • the Awan brothers, with a fraud-ridden history and whose own family members accuse them of threats and surveillance, who somehow got hired (along with relatives) to do IT work for:
  • ~30-80 Congress members, depending who you read, though no specific names are given except for Wasserman-Schultz who:
  • Was involved in one of the biggest scandals of the last election season, whose subversion of the democratic nomination process and immediate hiring by:
  • the Hillary Clinton campaign.

Six degrees can get you from any person A to any person B I’m told, but there is a really depressing amount of sordid details in this particular chain and I fully understand why people are going in conspiratorial directions here.  And they might be right.  Sometimes there really are conspiracies.  Or, more likely, several different conspiracies.  By all accounts both al-Attar and the Awans have been involved in fraud in their run-ins with the law, so it’s not a huge stretch to suggest some criminal conspiracy there.  Then, the Awan brothers have been accused of surveillance before and Wasserman Schulz is a demonstrated political operative of morals so questionable as to be detested bipartisanly – if any member of Congress can be believed to be at risk of blackmail, she is.  That, then, would be a second conspiracy.  I would say these two separate conspiracies, linked by the unsavoury Awans, are both supported by enough circumstantial evidence to warrant a serious investigation.

As far as discussions of the scandal go, this is a fairly tame conclusion, and the more classically nutty conspiracy theorists go several steps further (don’t they always?).  They point darkly at Hillary Clinton’s famously close relationship with Huma Abedin, who is also Pakistani (COINCIDENCE?) and spent a lot of time in Saudi Arabia.  And then the Saudi donations to the Clinton foundation.  And reports of Hezbollah laundering money through OTHER automotive businesses.  And how military surplus dealer Century International Arms has the same initials (gasp!).  And wrap Dr. al-Attar, and Iran, and Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, and Clinton into one massive monolithic conspiracy.  That this requires the Saudis to be working together with Hezbollah & Iran does not seem to bother them overly much.  Also, while it’s clear the Awans (and the members of Congress) were deeply lax in their information management, I have seen no real evidence, even circumstantial, of a foreign intelligence connection.

To summarize the summary: am presently willing to entertain plural criminal conspiracies, including the suspicions of blackmail, but not yet willing to entertain accusations of espionage or foreign government interference.

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