Democrats are vowing to investigate allegations that people linked to President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer had placed the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine under surveillance.
Documents released by House impeachment investigators late Tuesday indicate that Lev Parnas, an associate of Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, corresponded with Republican congressional candidate Robert Hyde about tracking the movements of the ex-envoy, Marie Yovanovitch. In often coarse terms, the pair nodded to an effort to oust her from the role.
The revelations, which have shocked and angered already beleaguered U.S. diplomats, offered a new twist ahead of Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate. Trump was impeached by the House last year on suspicions that he improperly pressured Ukraine’s government to investigate former vice president Joe Biden.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who like Biden is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, called the situation "outrageous." "This must be fully investigated as the Senate conducts the impeachment trial," he tweeted Wednesday. "We have a responsibility to hold this lawless administration to account."
It is outrageous that the President’s personal lawyers appear to have directed the surveillance of a U.S. ambassador.— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) January 15, 2020
This must be fully investigated as the Senate conducts the impeachment trial. We have a responsibility to hold this lawless administration to account. https://t.co/nY3ykuKdiZ
Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote a letter Wednesday to the State Department seeking records related to Hyde, Parnas and Yovanovitch. Engel wrote that he was especially alarmed by messages in which Hyde suggested he had “a person inside” who could offer information on the ambassador; Engel questioned whether that person could be based at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv.
“This unprecedented threat to our diplomats must be thoroughly investigated and, if warranted, prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” the New York Democrat said in a statement earlier in the day.
Engel also said his staff had contacted the State Department division that handles diplomatic security to “seek assurances that proper steps have been taken to ensure the security of Embassy Kyiv and that of Ambassador Yovanovitch.” Without offering details, Engel said he’s “confident this matter is getting the attention it merits.”
New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote his own letter to the State Department demanding "an immediate briefing and accounting" by officials in the diplomatic security division and others about what they knew and did to protect Yovanovitch.
The State Department did not respond to requests for comment; the department has adopted a policy of almost always staying silent on questions related to Ukraine and impeachment.
In May 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo withdrew Yovanovitch from her post in Kyiv, a few months before her tenure was due to end. The recall came as Giuliani was spreading unsubstantiated claims about the veteran diplomat, and as Trump was unhappy with her presence in Ukraine.
The documents released Tuesday night included a series of text messages between Parnas and Hyde, whose name until now had not surfaced in the impeachment inquiry. The pair exchanged articles written about Yovanovitch in conservative news outlets, and Hyde used slurs to refer to a woman who appeared to be her.
"Wow. Can't believe Trumo (sic) hasn't fired this bitch. I'll get right in that," Hyde wrote on March 23, 2019.
In other exchanges, he implied that he had people on the ground in Ukraine monitoring the then-ambassador, and gave supposed updates on her activity.
"She under heavy protection outside Kiev," he wrote, also on March 23.
"They are moving her tomorrow," Hyde wrote two days later, again apparently referring to Yovanovitch. "The guys over they (sic) asked me what I would like to do and what is in it for them."
A few hours later, Hyde wrote, "She's talked to three people. Her phone is off. Computer is off." The updates kept coming: "She's next to the embassy," "Not in the embassy", "Private security. Been there since Thursday," and "They will let me know when she's on the move."
Parnas responded with brief replies, such as "Interesting" and "Perfect."
On March 26, 2019, Hyde wrote: "Update she will not be moved special security unit upgraded force on the compound people are already aware of the situation my contacts are asking what is the next step because they cannot keep going to check people will start to ask questions."
Yovanovitch testified in the House impeachment inquiry last year. She described how alarmed she felt as Giuliani and others tried to undermine her standing in Kyiv. She said that in April, as State Department officials told her to fly quickly to Washington for consultations, one official spoke of "great concern” for her safety.
She also talked about her astonishment at learning that, in a July 25 call with Ukraine’s president, Trump had derided her as “bad news” and said she’s “going to go through some things.”
In a statement, Yovanovitch's lawyer, Lawrence Robbins, called the latest news "disturbing." “We trust that the appropriate authorities will conduct an investigation to determine what happened,” he said. He declined to comment further.
It was difficult to tell how real or serious Hyde's apparent claims of monitoring Yovanovitch were. In a Facebook post Tuesday, he slammed House investigators, writing: "I was never in Kiev. For them to take some texts my buddy’s and I wrote back to some dweeb we were playing with that we met a few times while we had a few drinks is definitely laughable."
In a television interview with Eric Bolling aired on Wednesday evening, Hyde said he never surveilled Yovanovitch and that he was “joking around” in his messages with Parnas.
Hyde styles himself as an ardent Trump supporter and has posted pictures of himself with the president online. White House spokespersons did not reply to a request for comment on the president's relationship with Hyde.
It's not clear whether the systems in place for protecting U.S. diplomats from on- and offline surveillance would have discovered the monitoring of Yovanovitch — if it indeed incurred.
A former U.S. ambassador said the State Department needs more funding to improve its cybersecurity, but that its physical security protocols are "very good."
"All of that said, they’re not necessarily going to be looking for threats from a guy running for Congress in Connecticut," the former ambassador said. "To get info on a U.S. person, especially one who is friends with the president, would require jumping through a lot of legal hoops."
Diplomatic security "would always tell you about a potential threat, but this was an American, so they probably didn’t even know about it," the former ambassador said.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul agreed. “What’s so odd about this is that it’s allegedly an American who’s doing the surveilling, so who do you go to?” he said. “Hyde also made it sound like somebody was on the inside helping them. As you would imagine, certainly in Russia, we were always wary of the possibility that somebody on the embassy staff could be compromised.”
A former senior State Department security official agreed that a threat coming from a fellow U.S. citizen might be more challenging to spot and that there would be additional legal hurdles to investigate it. But the former security official also said some of Hyde's claims appear puffed up, in part because it doesn't take all that much to track the location of a U.S. ambassador overseas.
U.S. ambassadors are generally fairly open about their whereabouts in their host country. They travel in armored vehicles and are often impossible to miss, the former security official said.
There's an expectation that ambassadors will face physical and electronic surveillance, including from other countries that might be hostile to the United States, the former security official said. In Ukraine, the Russians would be especially keen on tracking the U.S. ambassador given America's support for Kyiv in its territorial war with Moscow.
Ambassadors are trained on how to deal with such surveillance. For instance, they are supposed to be careful not to use personal devices to discuss classified information, or even to talk about sensitive issues in front of their security escorts, who are likely local residents.
State Department official devices have safeguards to prevent hacking from anywhere, including the United States.
It's not clear if Hyde had Yovanovitch's cell phone number, but he could have simply called it to figure out that it was turned off. Less clear was how he would know that her computer was off.
The former senior security official said although the notion of an ambassador being under surveillance wouldn't be surprising, a key question is: "Is there an actual physical threat against her? Are there people wanting to kidnap her or kill her? Some kind of attack on her?"
The former security official said what needs to happen now, if it hasn't already, is that people involved with Yovanovitch's security details receive additional vetting.
It's possible some have loose lips, the former official said: "I don’t think any of them would breach their duty in terms of protecting her. But would they talk to their brother-in-law, their brother?"
The latest revelations further rattled U.S. diplomats who have already been deeply frustrated with Pompeo over his handling of Yovanovitch's situation and his unwillingness to publicly defend her.
State Department staffers contacted by POLITICO used terms like "crazy," "appalling" and "Keystone Cops" in reacting to the news.
"Pompeo should be out there immediately explaining how this happened on his watch," one staffer said. "It's really shocking even in this administration."