How 'Just Metadata' Helped Ruin A Career Diplomat's Life

from the silent-killer dept

Those defending bulk domestic surveillance have dismissively referred to the take as “just metadata.” To many people, this likely seems acceptable. It’s nothing but call records… or so it often seems. But “just metadata” is actually surveillance state slang for almost anything that can be obtained without a warrant or subpoena — which includes anything the government considers to be a “third party record,” like financial transactions and historical cell site location data.

“Just metadata” is actually a dangerous thing when left in the hands of intelligence agencies. It’s what turned State Department advisor Robin Raphel’s diplomatic work with Pakistani officials into a severely misguided — and severely intrusive — espionage investigation. A series of blundering investigations into people who had done nothing wrong resulted in the DOJ changing its investigative guidelines, but not before Raphel’s house was raided (twice) by the FBI and her reputation severely damaged.

In the end, the government had nothing left of its espionage investigation but a single allegation that Raphel kept classified documents at her home. (Not that she shared them with anyone, unlike General Petraeus, who suffered a mild wrist slap and was temporarily considered for a Trump cabinet position.) In the beginning, though, it was all “just metadata.”

In February 2013, according to law-enforcement officials, the FBI received information that made its agents think Raphel might be a Pakistani mole.

The tip came in the form of intercepted communications that suggested Raphel had shared sensitive inside information without authorization. Two officials said this included information collected on wiretaps of Pakistani officials in the U.S.

[…]

Investigators began what they call “circling the target,” which means examining the parts of Raphel’s life they could explore without subpoenas or warrants.

[…]

One of the first things they looked at was her “metadata”—the electronic traces of who she called or emailed, and also when and for how long. Her metadata showed she was in frequent contact with a host of Pakistan officials that didn’t seem to match what the FBI believed was her rank and role.

The reason Raphel worked outside of her “rank and role” was because staying within the system meant dealing only with Pakistani officials who would be unable or unwilling to part with useful information. Raphel had plenty of experience in dealing with Pakistan’s often-volatile relationship with the US — something that had been strained even further by President George W. Bush’s anti-nuke sanctions and President Obama’s increasing reliance on drone strikes, including one that mistakenly killed 24 Pakistani troops, rather than the target the US was seeking.

Raphel may have operated outside of her “rank and role,” but she was still aligned with the US’s goals, rather than pursuing her own agenda. Apparently, nearly four decades of service to the US government meant nothing. Spurred on by the Snowden leaks, the FBI had a renewed interest in hunting down potential “threats.” This is what moved the investigation from mere metadata to something far more intrusive.

After months of circling the target, FBI supervisors decided it was time to delve deeper. To monitor Raphel’s private conversations with Lodhi and other contacts on Skype, the FBI obtained a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court—a decision approved at the highest levels of the FBI and the Justice Department.

The FBI used these communications to build a case against Raphel. It still had nothing that showed criminal intent or actually anything resembling wrongdoing. But it did — with its limited experience in dealing with diplomatic targets — feel something wasn’t quite right. It had lots of “smoke” but no “smoking gun,” according to a former FBI official. It dumped a bunch of “smoke” into an affidavit and secured a “sneak and peek” warrant for Raphel’s home. After an extensive search, it managed to locate a 20-year-old file related to Raphel’s “Diplomatic Security” investigation. Something of little consequence to anyone — especially this far removed from its originating date — was used to justify the FBI’s more intrusive search later, one that resulted in Raphel’s electronic devices and computers being seized.

The search also led to perhaps the most incongruous question Raphel had ever been asked.

Two FBI agents approached her, their faces stony. “Do you know any foreigners?” they asked.

Raphel’s jaw dropped. She had served as a diplomat in six capitals on four continents. She had been an ambassador, and the State Department’s assistant secretary for South Asian affairs. Knowing foreigners had been her job.

“Of course,” she responded, “Tons…Hundreds.”

This was followed by more FBI activity that bore the unmistakable imprint of recently-installed director James Comey. The FBI routed its inquiries with the State Department to someone who wouldn’t talk to anyone else about its actions. It forbade the State Department from informing Raphel’s coworkers why she wouldn’t be returning to work while simultaneously leaking news of the investigation to the New York Times.

The FBI finally began talking to other State Department officials and employees, most of whom felt they had to explain how diplomacy actually worked. They didn’t like what they saw in the FBI’s “mole-hunting” effort.

At times, Raphel’s colleagues pushed back—warning the FBI that their investigation risked “criminalizing diplomacy,” according to a former official who was briefed on the interviews.

The interviews undercut the FBI’s narrative, but it did nothing to slow the agency’s roll towards an indictment. The DOJ, however, seemed less sure of the merits of a prosecution. But it also did little to head the FBI off. Meanwhile, Raphel not only lost her career but also her life savings.

Raphel heard nothing for months from the FBI. She had already spent about $100,000 on legal fees, which she paid by tapping into her savings, but the bills were piling up. Jones set up a legal-defense fund and 103 of Raphel’s friends and colleagues, mostly from the State Department, donated nearly $122,000.

The 20-year-old document on which the prosecution hinged could very well have been declassified while the government pursued a conviction, leaving it with nothing but thousands of taxpayer dollars spent and the embarrassment of being unable to determine the difference between diplomatic activity in volatile outposts from actual espionage.

The charges were finally dropped in March of this year. To date, Raphel’s security clearance is still revoked and her career as a diplomat is effectively over. This is what “just metadata” — along with a newfound enthusiasm for hunting down “insider threats” — can do to a person who spent nearly 40 years serving their country.

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Comments on “How 'Just Metadata' Helped Ruin A Career Diplomat's Life”

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78 Comments
PaulT (profile) says:

“Two FBI agents approached her, their faces stony. “Do you know any foreigners?” they asked.”

Forget how idiotic that question is in reference to her role and history, just consider how idiotic it is in terms of an attitude to law enforcement. Knowing people from other countries is now a potential offence in the minds of those upholding the law?

I’m assuming the quote is from the paywalled WSJ article linked, but even if that’s a paraphrase of the conversation and they only means people from Pakistan, that’s an astoundingly xenophobic attitude. As someone who is currently sat in an office with at least 20 different nationalities sat around me, it’s incredible.

Anonymous Coward says:

more than anything, in my opinion, this shows that government is NOT happy until it has ruined someone’s life, not just their career, in pursuit of a prosecution. the prosecution is the ultimate goal but if that fails, as it did in this case, doing anything to get revenge for that failure then becomes the next ultimate desire. accusations abound with no evidence other than what the DoJ or whoever can dream up and once those accusations have been thrown about, although they may well be totally unfounded, without any sort of proof, it’s up to the poor person concerned to prove innocence and then try to get some sort of a life back. how the hell can anyone justify this sort of thing?

Machin Shin (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I think the comparison to witch hunter is sadly accurate. If you look back at the history you find that those accused of being a witch had very little chance of proving they were not witches. Even worse was the fact that most of the “tests” would at the very least humiliate the accused, possibly even kill them.

So just like today, the accusation alone was enough to destroy your life and possibly kill you.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Also worth noting – accusations of witchcraft were a handy way to get rid of people you didn’t like, resolve petty jealous or ownership disputes, get your hands on a neighbour’s property, etc.

Whether you’re talking Salem, McCarthy or mole hunting, it’s not just the fate of the accused that you have to worry about. It’s the way that the innocent can be destroyed with barely an defending argument.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re:

“Witch hunters” is right.

[she] worked outside of her “rank and role”

They used that as an excuse to destroy her; have they no idea at all of how utterly ironic that is? Their rank is as a federal law enforcement body and their role is to enforce domestic law. They’ve been working (very badly) outside of that for some time now.

Anonymous Coward says:

Considering how may article titles on Tech Dirt say "Trump"

in some fashion, and considering that part of the beef here is keeping classified data at home, and considering that this article in no way mentioned an email server, but did mention General Petraeus, I am compelled to read it with a certain degree of taint.

If your going to fling poo, please discriminate less. And if your going to fling poo and offer an umbrella to some beloved person you think is important, please articulate a more technical reason for why they deserve the umbrella.

I agree, meta data is protected speech. But your case for why THIS person gets a pass, isn’t made. And your case for HOW meta data is protected speech isn’t made either. This article dilutes the TD brand more than it contributes to the brands position or authority.

Please look down before flinging poo. If your up to your knees in it, expect difficulty in avoiding returned fire.

Thanks in advance.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Considering how may article titles on Tech Dirt say "Trump"

“Will Trump voters be as disappointed as Obama supporters? Probably not”

That’s yet to be seen. Although, the main disappointment among Obama voters seems to be that he didn’t go far enough in undoing the damage done by Bush, or do enough to route round a congress that promised to block him before he was even sworn in.

“Obama was quite the letdown for the left and Hillary would have been more of the same.”

Yet, not the disaster that Trump will be. Assuming he actually manages to do the things he claims he’ll do, of course. The man is already an international embarrassment.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Considering how may article titles on Tech Dirt say "Trump"

Blocked by Congress? Hee had a super majority his first two years and all he managed to do was pass a turd of a health care bill. He could have done any tax reform he wanted but never mentioned it until his reelection. Then dropped it afterward. Grace it, he played you for a sucker.

KeillRandor (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Considering how may article titles on Tech Dirt say "Trump"

Unfortunately for Obama, (because I remember it all from that time), his ‘true’ super-majority was VERY short-lived, and you obviously don’t understand how conservative some members of the democratic party are… Although Republican=conservative, democratic != liberal, (yet).

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Considering how may article titles on Tech Dirt say "Trump"

“Hee had a super majority his first two years all he managed to do was pass a turd of a health care bill”

Yeah, compromised to all hell with a party he shouldn’t have been trying to negotiate with in the first place. Imagine what he’d have achieved if he’d not assumed they were willing to negotiate on behalf of their constituents’ actual interests.

Plus, you might remember a massive international financial crisis and two wars that his predecessor dumped on him that he ended up sorting out as well. Not a bad show, all considered.

“He could have done any tax reform he wanted”

He probably would have done if his majority lasted any longer, once he’d cleared the more pressing immediate issues. A shame it didn’t, and you got petulant children blocking his every move for the next 6 years instead, huh?

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Considering how may article titles on Tech Dirt say "Trump"

No, Obama did not have a supermajority. Never.

Between Republicans contesting Al Franken’s election, Senator Byrd of West Virginia being hospitalized and the death of Senator Ted Kennedy, Obama was always one or two votes short of a supermajority.

With Republicans filibustering EVERYTHING as their stated policy – that’s NOT "business as usual, BTW – a mere democratically elected clear majority wasn’t enough.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:6 Considering how may article titles on Tech Dirt say "Trump"

So passing ACA without single Republican vote was just myth? And you are right, raising taxes is an economy killer. And I am glad didn’t do any more damage than that. The republicans had a mandate to block him. They got one now too.

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:7 Considering how may article titles on Tech Dirt say "Trump"

All sides negotiated and came to an agreement. For independent "Senator for Aetna" Lieberman, the public option was removed. For Republicans, states got the right to prohibit coverage of abortion.

And so despite Obama having only 58 of 60 votes needed for a supermajority, it was passed with 60 votes. The two independents voted for it, and one Republican didn’t vote.

Remember to begin with, the ACA was essentially "15 years of Republican healthcare policy up until the moment Obama voted for it." The ACA:

a) Mirrors the RomneyCare plan, lauded by Republicans as a private industry success. (It’s only when Obama adopted it that it became a commie Marxist socialist failure.)

b) Is very similar to a proposal made to candidate McCain in 2008 by the Health Insurance lobby.

c) Is very similar to the Republican alternative to ClintonCare – the Republican’s Health Equity and Access Reform Today Act of 1993.

d) Mirrors Bob Dole’s plan from the 1990s.

Even the "individual mandate" was called for by Republicans for 15 years, by everyone from Bob Dole to Jim DeMint to the Heritage Foundation to Newt Gingrich to Mitt Romney, as the alternative to socialism. For Republicans the individual mandate was all about personal responsibility, by not forcing others to pay for your healthcare.

So the Republicans made a deal but kept grandstanding. Get over it.

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:9 Considering how may article titles on Tech Dirt say "Trump"

Just like the last 50 anti-ACA votes by House Republicans.

Sarcasm aside, let’s be realistic. Just three days after the election Trump was already backpedalling on his promise to repeal the ACA. He’d hang onto popular provisions like “the prohibition against insurers denying coverage because of patients’ existing conditions, and a provision that allows parents to provide years of additional coverage for children on their insurance policies.”

A repeal would cause about 20 million people to lose coverage, and now they could only blame Republicans.

So yes, the ACA will be “gone.” Replaced with a rebranded system that looks pretty much the same. The personal mandate will still be there, but Republicans will return to declaring it to be “about personal responsibility and not forcing others to pay for your healthcare.” They can stand under a “Mission Accomplished” banner, and that’s what counts.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Considering how may article titles on Tech Dirt say "Trump"

Horrible legacy? I didn’t vote for him and didn’t like several of the changes he has made but look what Bush left him with. It took him 8 years just to get the US back on its feet. I believe Trump has good intentions but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if the US went bankrupt under his presidency. He already has a pattern of doing it personally.

Dingledore the Mildly Uncomfortable When Seated says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Considering how may article titles on Tech Dirt say "Trump"

Please cite the policies Obama put in place that doubled the national debt.

No? There’s a surprise.

Tax cuts, PP, ACA, increased military spending, and ARRA total up to less thatn $1t. Debt increased as a percentage of GDP increased by 50%, but not due to federal spending that increased by less than 5%.

You could claim that he didn’t act enough to correct problems inherited from his predecessor, but then he was working to pull the US out of a recession and, well, that wouldn’t fit your narrative.

Cockwomble.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Considering how may article titles on Tech Dirt say "Trump"

When your president-elect talks about grabbing women by the pussy and you’re willing to overlook it, let’s not pretend what I’m saying is of any sexist significance.

It’s called telling it like it is.

Ask Trump what that means.

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Considering how may article titles on Tech Dirt say "Trump"

Hillary, being on a list of lawyers willing to defend low-income clients was ordered by a judge to defend a rapist. Even the prosecutor in the case backs this up.

Hillary and several other women also founded the city’s first rape crisis center.

Was Trump ordered by a judge to grope those women? Was Trump ordered by a judge to walk into the changing rooms of naked teenage girls and then proudly brag about it later?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Considering how may article titles on Tech Dirt say "Trump"

There is a huge divide in worldview and ideology today. The comment section here doesn’t show it as much because most in tech fall on one side of the spectrum. So most here are still in their bubble with no idea why they lost big including you apparently.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Considering how may article titles on Tech Dirt say "Trump"

There is a huge divide in worldview and ideology today.

And people like you are the reason that the divide exists, by instantly and repeatedly making out that people who differ in view to hold extreme views; why else would you accuse them of being on the political left..

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Considering how may article titles on Tech Dirt say "Trump"

Sorry, but the left are the ones labeling and name calling and losing because of it. There is a complete refusal from the left to talk policy.

The only one labeling others that I see here is you. Also, have you realized yet that this story has nothing to do with Trump at all? Why make it about that?

I’ve been saying for a while that any comment that talks about "the right" or "the left" is almost 100% devoid of actual content. You’re name calling for no reason other than tribalism. You want to talk policy? Stop with the team sports bullshit and talk actual policy. Starting with this post: let’s talk about the problems of surveillance. We started with the post. You then shat in the comments about blue team/red team, rather than actually adding to the discussion about policy.

So go ahead: stop labeling, and talk policy.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:6 Considering how may article titles on Tech Dirt say "Trump"

I didn’t start the partisan talk, Tim did with this dig at Trump:

“was temporarily considered for a Trump cabinet position.”

I was merely pointing out the sins of the other side which he conveniently failed to point out which is a very frequent occurrence here of late. If you want to talk policy, then talk policy, but making snide remarks about one side and ignoring the other only works for all the bubble boys here.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:7 Considering how may article titles on Tech Dirt say "Trump"

*I didn’t start the partisan talk, Tim did with this dig at Trump:

"was temporarily considered for a Trump cabinet position."*

Um. That wasn’t a "dig." It was a factual statement.

Holy shit. Get a grip and get some perspective.

I was merely pointing out the sins of the other side which he conveniently failed to point out which is a very frequent occurrence here of late.

No. It’s not. You’re projecting from some sort of weird inferiority complex. Tim made a factual point and you turned it into partisan pattycake. Stop it.

Leigh Beadon (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:7 Considering how may article titles on Tech Dirt say "Trump"

Hmm… a bit paranoid and defensive, maybe? You do realize that simply
saying the name of the President Elect doesn’t automatically count as a dig at him right?

Pointing out Petraeus’ consideration for a cabinet position was done to underline the hugely differing treatments that certain people receive in situations like this – not to criticize Trump.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:7 Considering how may article titles on Tech Dirt say "Trump"

“I didn’t start the partisan talk, Tim did with this dig at Trump:

“was temporarily considered for a Trump cabinet position.”

I was merely pointing out the sins of the other side which he conveniently failed to point out which is a very frequent occurrence here of late. If you want to talk policy, then talk policy, but making snide remarks about one side and ignoring the other only works for all the bubble boys here.”

There’s no other way to say it, you are an idiot.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:8 Considering how may article titles on Tech Dirt say "Trump"

“was temporarily considered for a Trump cabinet position.”

= FACT

Is an epic jerk

= DIG

Heil Trump!

= DIG, specifically aimed at Trump supporters in need of safe spaces to avoid having their delicate sensibilities hurt by people who get creeped out by that “Bow before our Glorious Leader!” thing. This is a feature of authoritarian cultures on every side of the political spectrum; it’s not confined to any one ideological position.

Gwiz (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Considering how may article titles on Tech Dirt say "Trump"

The comment section here doesn’t show it as much because most in tech fall on one side of the spectrum.

Bullshit. The comment section here doesn’t show it as much because Techdirt readers tend be more educated and tend to be considered professionals in their respective fields (quantcast.com used to show demographics for Techdirt, but it doesn’t work anymore). Like Techdirt itself, the commenters here used to focus on the actual issues, not all of that Red Team/Blue Team bullshit that is primarily used to shift focus from what is really important.

Techdirt has never been for one side over the other and has constantly called out BOTH sides for saying and doing shit that is detrimental to issues they deem important and, on the flipside, have given proper accolades to those who have advanced those issues.

Unlike most sites that disappear old articles, you can go back through 15+ years of posts and see for yourself that it’s true.

I have personally refrained from commenting here the last few months because of all the Red Team/Blue Team crap in the comment section and thought once the election was over we could go back to discussing important issues as adults. Apparently not.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Considering how may article titles on Tech Dirt say "Trump"

Wow, you certainly live in an alternate universe or should I say bubble? You are part exactly the kind I was referring too. The few conservatives here are just as educated as the liberals and your comment making the assumption otherwise shows your attitude is exactly the reason the left is losing.

I too focus on the issues, but believe it or not, tech issues are not the only issues out there. I know, right? Many of those issues are what got Trump elected along with many, many other Republicans. Drop the condescending attitude and come to the table ready to talk policy or keep losing.

http://www.politifact.com/punditfact/statements/2015/jan/25/cokie-roberts/have-democrats-lost-900-seats-state-legislatures-o/

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Considering how may article titles on Tech Dirt say "Trump"

My team is better than your team & we won.

Did I mention that we won, no, so I better mention that my team won.

For those under a rock my team won, we won you know, yeah.

I better tell the world that my team won, over & over & over again, just so I can rub it in & destroy any sensible comments on any article I think that the readers need to be told that my team won.

Winning is everything & my team won, yeah we won.
/S

Leigh Beadon (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Considering how may article titles on Tech Dirt say "Trump"

Umm. Gwiz didn’t say anything about liberals being the educated ones. He just talked about there being educated commenters here.

And… YOU automatically interpreted someone talking about “educated professionals” to mean they must be only talking about “liberals”. Heheheheh. That’s actually pretty funny, and says a lot more about you than it does about anyone else.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:6 Considering how may article titles on Tech Dirt say "Trump"

And I thought I was joking when I threw Trump and Hillary in a comment on an article that couldn’t possible fit them in.

Well, we already know Mike is a pro-anti-trump-hillary-google-microsoft-apple-left-right-communist-baby eating-kitten murderer-capitalist shill so I guess everything is possible nowadays!

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