In the midst of allegations of Russian ties to the Trump administration and in the aftermath of the hacking of Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee emails, there is a new email scandal involving Democratic House members that could amount to a covert effort by foreign actors to penetrate the House of Representatives' computer system.
According to the Daily Caller, three brothers who managed information technology (IT) for Democratic House members – Abid, Imran, and Jamal Awan – were suspended on February 2, 2017 for serious misconduct, including accessing the computer accounts of House members without their knowledge and stealing equipment from Congress. Two other House IT staff – Imran Awan's wife, Hina Alvi, and a fifth unnamed person – also reportedly are under investigation.
The five IT staffers reportedly were “shared” staff for the personal offices of a dozen or more House Democrats. Some or all of the IT staffers reportedly had significant financial problems, including a repossessed car, bankruptcy and second mortgages.
This story suggests congressional Democrats learned nothing from last year’s hacking of Democratic computers. It also raises serious questions about the security of the House computer system.
The House reportedly only required background investigations of House IT staff in 2016. These investigations were to be applied retroactively to existing House IT staff unless a member signed a waiver attesting to their "trustworthiness and judgment."
If the suspended IT staffers were investigated and cleared, these background investigations are obviously worthless.
It would be a much more serious matter if the IT staffers were given waivers from background investigations by House Democratic members. If this is the case, the American people deserve to know the names of Democratic members of Congress who exempted these miscreants from background investigations.
So far there have been no reports that the five IT House staff members had access to classified material. However, they did support the personal office computers of Reps. Joaquin Castro, Andre Carson, and Jackie Spier, all members of the House Intelligence Committee. Although personal office computers are not supposed to be used for Intelligence Committee business or classified material, accessing these computers is a high priority for foreign intelligence services because of the information they could glean about the committee’s work from unclassified emails. (Some press reports have claimed the five IT staff members also had access to classified information and the House Intelligence Committee’s classified computer system. These reports are untrue.)
Were these IT staffers part of a plot by foreign actors to penetrate the House of Representatives and its computers? There has been speculation by some conservative journalists and experts that they may have had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. A former CIA officer told me she worries that the three Awad brothers, who reportedly are Pakistani immigrants, may have ties to the Pakistani intelligence service, ISI.
No evidence has been made public on whether the IT staffers had any ties to foreign actors. However, it is difficult to believe this case was only about stealing computer equipment if press reports are true that the IT staffers illegally accessed the computers of members of Congress and stole data. The FBI needs to fully investigate whether this was an effort to penetrate the House computer system by a foreign intelligence service or a foreign jihadist organization.
Update: New concerns that this may have been an attempt by a foreign Jihadist organization to penetrate the House computer system arose this week in reports by The Daily Caller and The Daily Signal that the Awan brothers owed money to Dr. Ali al-Attar, an Iraqi political figure who allegedly has connections to Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed terrorist group.
Democratic House members have some difficult questions to answer about this case aside from which Democratic members may have granted the IT staffers waivers from background investigations. Which members originally hired these individuals? Who referred them? And why didn’t House Democrats tighten their computer security practices after the hacking of DNC and Clinton campaign emails last year?
The House Republican leadership needs to explain why it didn’t require background investigations for IT staff until last year and why it allowed waivers for existing IT staff. Has the waiver rule been abolished? If the IT staffers passed their background investigations, what is being done to toughen them to screen out people like this? The Senate’s Republican leadership should look into whether it has similar cyber vulnerabilities and take appropriate steps to address them if necessary.
While no evidence has been made public that this was an effort by hostile foreign actors like the Muslim Brotherhood or Chinese intelligence to penetrate the computer system of the U.S. House of Representatives, it still represents a major scandal because foreign actors could have easily done this. It is time for the mainstream media to stop ignoring this important story.
Fred Fleitz is senior vice president for policy and programs with the Center for Security Policy. He held national security jobs for 25 years with the CIA, DIA, Department of State and the House Intelligence Committee staff.