We’re not in John Walker territory yet, but the scandal engulfing up to 30 Democratic members of Congress who employed IT “expert” Imran Awan and four members of his family may turn out to be the worst breach of sensitive information in the history of the US Congress.
The New York Post is reporting that the scandal may involve the sale of sensitive information on congressmen as well as classified data to the Russians or others. The potential for blackmail is real, say authorities.
What started out 16 months ago as a scandal involving the alleged theft of computer equipment from Congress has turned into a national-security investigation involving FBI surveillance of the suspects.
Investigators now suspect that sensitive US government data — possibly including classified information — could have been compromised and may have been sold to hostile foreign governments that could use it to blackmail members of Congress or even put their lives at risk.
“This is a massive, massive scandal,” a senior US official familiar with the widening probe told The Post.
Alarm bells went off in April 2016 when computer security officials in the House reported “irregularities” in computer equipment purchasing. An internal investigation revealed the theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars in government property, and evidence pointed to five IT staffers and the Democratic Congress members’ offices that employed them.
Awan and his family have been indicted on fraud charges, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his potential crimes. The prosecutor has charged Awan with the lesser crimes so that he can put the screws to him to divulge any espionage activity.
The Democrats who hired the five suspects apparently did a poor job vetting them. Awan’s brother Abid had a rap sheet with multiple offenses, including a conviction for DWI a month before he was hired, and filed for bankruptcy in 2012.
Most had relatively little IT experience. Yet they hauled in a combined $4 million-plus over the past decade. One, a former McDonald’s worker, was suddenly making as much as a chief of staff.
“These lawmakers allowed an insider threat to come into the House,” the official charged. “Computer equipment was stolen, taxpayers were robbed of hundreds of thousands of dollars, and sensitive data was compromised and possibly sold overseas.”
On Thursday, a federal grand jury indicted Imran Awan on four seemingly unrelated felony counts including bank fraud, conspiracy and making false statements. They also indicted his wife, Hina Alvi. FBI agents seized hard drives and other evidence from their Virginia home.
The indictment says the couple wired close to $300,000 in fraudulently obtained funds to Pakistan in January, as the Capitol Police investigation heated up.
FBI agents last month collared Awan, 37, at the Dulles International Airport airport as he tried to board a flight to Pakistan. Alvi, 33, fled to Pakistan in March.
Now that prosecutors have Awan hung up on the fraud charges, they will try to squeeze him harder in the larger cyberespionage investigation, according to the US official, who expects additional charges and arrests in the case.
At the center of the investigation is Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
“This whole investigation pivots off Debbie Wasserman Schultz,” the official said.
“It’s clear that large bytes of data were moved off the secure network,” said another source close to the investigation, adding that Awan and the other four staffers under investigation had “full and complete access” to lawmakers’ e-mails, calendars, schedules, hearing notes, meeting notes and memos and other sensitive information.
Investigators are trying to determine if any classified information was compromised. Although the network that was breached is an unclassified system, it’s possible that members or staff cleared to handle classified information inadvertently sent such information in e-mails after getting classified briefings, sources believe.
“Logic dictates that sensitive data was compromised,” the senior official speculated. “An accused criminal with close ties to Pakistan had full and complete control over data that went out over the network.”
With access to that kind of data, a foreign power could make life extremely uncomfortable for some congressmen. Even if there are no shenanigans revealed in his personal life, imagine what might be in some of those “notes” from committee hearings and private meetings.
Awan did not appear to have the tradecraft that would mark him as a trained spy (he didn’t know how to totally destroy the hard drive to his laptop). But even if he’s just an opportunist, the damage he could have done is hard to fathom.
Is it possible that rather than selling the information to Russia, he sold it to the Pakistani ISI? If he did, it would be as good as selling it to Al-Qaeda.
The scandal is being mostly ignored by the media. They’ve got far more interesting things to report. But if this investigation pans out like authorities believe, it will rock the Democrats in the House who employed this charlatan/spy.