Phones of Russia Probe’s Central Figure Point to UK Connections

October 21, 2019 Updated: October 21, 2019

News Analysis

Smartphones belonging to Joseph Mifsud, one of the central figures of the Russia investigation, are already revealing their secrets, soon after they were obtained by U.S. investigators.

The phones, a BlackBerry Bold 9900 and a BlackBerry Classic, had SIM cards issued in the United Kingdom by O2, a major European operator, according to SIM identification numbers listed in an Oct. 15 court filing (pdf) by Sidney Powell, a former prosecutor and current lawyer to Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.

Powell requested the phones, saying they contain exculpatory information relevant to the case of Flynn, who is awaiting sentencing for one count of lying to the FBI.

Powell wrote in an Oct. 15 tweet that the phones “had been given to Mifsud to use.”

Mifsud was the one who allegedly told a Trump campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, in April 2016 that Russians had “dirt” on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails.” That information was ultimately used by the FBI to open a counterintelligence investigation that involved extensive spying on Trump campaign staff.

Mifsud’s connections high up in British and Italian political, diplomatic, security, and intelligence circles prompted some Republican congressmen to question his role in the Russia affair. His name also apparently sparked the interest of Attorney General William Barr, who is reviewing whether the Russia investigation was properly predicated and conducted.

London Calling

While it isn’t clear who supposedly gave the phones to Mifsud, or when they were given, there are clues.

The second phone, a European model of the BlackBerry Classic, was released in 2015, according to its identification number. At the time, BlackBerry was in decline, outperformed by other brands, but still used by those depending on its security features.

Mifsud had several affiliations in the UK that could have come with phones attached.

He headed the London Academy of Diplomacy (LAD) and was listed as acting in different capacities at the London Centre of International Law Practice (LCILP). Both institutions ceased operations in 2016.

Using phones known for security features would fit the background of the LCILP, which had among its staff several prominent figures from UK security, intelligence, and counterterrorism circles.

Papadopulos landed a job with LCILP in early 2016. He said LCILP staff, including him, were provided BlackBerrys “and they would monitor their [LCILP work] emails.”

“[It] was very bizarre,” he told The Epoch Times via Twitter message.

He said he believed the phones used O2 as the operator and noted that he stopped using the BlackBerry provided to him after he got his own UK phone. He didn’t remember what model he was given or what models were used by others at LCILP. He said LCILP didn’t collect the phone from him.

The LCILP only came into existence in 2014. At the time, it would have been more likely for Mifsud to receive one of the BlackBerry 10 models released in 2013, not the comparatively outdated Bold 9900, which was released in 2011. It may also be that LCILP skipped the BlackBerry 10 line since the models lacked some of the features popular among BlackBerry users.

The Bold model would align with Mifsud’s time at LAD, where he became the director sometime in 2012, documents available online indicate.

LAD sported some prominent names among its staff, contributors, and visiting professors, including former first deputy president of the European Parliament, Gianni Pittella, former British diplomat Charles Crawford, and Claire Smith, a career UK diplomat and former member of the UK Joint Intelligence Committee.

It’s not clear whether LAD provided phones to its staff.

Rome Tie-in?

Mifsud’s phones were obtained by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) around the same time that Barr traveled to Italy to meet with security officials and reportedly inquire, among other things, about Mifsud. That would suggest a tie-in with Mifsud’s Italian contacts represented mainly by the Link Campus University, an institution he reportedly helped set up in 1999 together with former Italian Interior Minister Vincenzo Scotti, its director.

Link has been frequented by Western intelligence, security, and political figures; it had a “framework agreement” with LAD and was working with LCILP as well.

Papadopulos was dispatched with other LCILP staff in March 2016 to attend an event at Link, where he met Mifsud.

In 2017, both LAD and the LCILP vanished, but some of their prominent figures, including Mifsud and LCILP head Nagi Idris, then appeared to receive teaching jobs at Link. Their names seem to have since been removed from Link’s faculty page.

Mifsud said that it was Scotti and Idris who suggested to him that he should introduce Papadopoulos to his Russian contacts, according to Mifsud’s lawyer Stephan Roh, who referred to “declarations of Mifsud made in front of our team.”

Mifsud has denied to the FBI that he told Papadopoulos anything about Russians having Clinton’s emails or information damaging to her. He was never charged with lying. Papadopoulos, on the other hand, was charged with lying for misrepresenting the timing and extent of his contacts with Mifsud. He received a two-week sentence.

The Flynn Tie-in

Powell suggested that Mifsud may have been involved in spying on Flynn.

Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and former national security adviser to President Donald Trump, pleaded guilty on Dec. 1, 2017, to one count of lying to FBI agents during a Jan. 24, 2017, interview.

The interview was related to an FBI investigation of Flynn “based on his relationship with the Russian government,” according to the final report by then-special counsel Robert Mueller, who took over the Russia investigation in 2017.

The probe failed to establish that anybody from the Trump team colluded with Russia to meddle in the 2016 election, the report stated (pdf).

Powell has said that the investigation of Flynn was improper, and that he was targeted for “concocted and political purposes.” Presumably, she expects Mifsud’s phones to contain some evidence to back up her assertion.

She’s asked for dozens of documents related to her argument, but was rebuffed by prosecutors, who said most of the documents are either not relevant or were provided already. She’s scheduled to file a response by Oct. 22.

Update: The article has been updated with further information about the SIM cards associated with Joseph Mifsud’s phones as well as with further information about BlackBerry phones, the information known about the London Academy of Diplomacy, and further information from George Papadopoulos.

Follow Petr on Twitter: @petrsvab
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