FBI’s workspace at Democratic-aligned law firm raises conflict-of-interest concerns

The FBI has a personal workstation in the Washington office of Perkins Coie, a law firm with deep ties to the Democratic Party and a string of Democratic presidential campaigns, The Washington Times has learned.

The cozy relationship between the bureau and the Democratic-allied legal powerhouse adds to fears of a politicized FBI that grew since its Crossfire Hurricane operation launched in 2016 to pursue conspiracy theories about Trump-Russia collusion.

The workstation at Perkins Coie is one of several secure sites the FBI has scattered throughout Washington at private law firms, cybersecurity businesses and third-party vendors. The stations, known as sensitive compartmented information facilities, are designed for FBI officials and third parties to discuss and view sensitive materials without fear of spying or surveillance.

The peculiar arrangement between the FBI and private businesses is shrouded in secrecy, with both sides reluctant to talk. An FBI spokesperson declined to provide The Washington Times with a list of businesses that house sensitive compartmented information.

Perkins Coie’s workstation was not publicly known until a lawyer representing the firm disclosed it in a letter last week to Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee.

The Times obtained a copy of the letter. It was authored by Michael D. Bopp, a partner in Gibson Dunn, which represents Perkins Coie.

Mr. Bopp says in the letter that the facility has “been in continuous operation” since March 2012.

The committee’s Republicans say it is a massive conflict of interest for the FBI to be entrenched inside a law firm that raked in more than $40 million in legal fees from Democratic candidates, political action committees and other entities during the 2020 election season.

Accusations of political taint have dogged the FBI since the 2016 presidential election. 

Those complaints resurfaced last month in the criminal trial of Michael Sussmann, a Perkins Coie lawyer who represented Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016. Mr. Sussmann was accused of exploiting his FBI connections to sabotage Donald Trump’s White House bid when he urged the bureau to probe a false theory tying the Trump Organization to Russia’s Alfa Bank. On Wednesday, a federal jury acquitted Mr. Sussmann of a charge of lying to the FBI. 

Rep. Matt Gaetz, Florida Republican and a member of the Judiciary Committee, said Perkins Coie’s sensitive compartmented information site smacks of political cronyism.

“The fact that Christopher Wray hasn’t shut down this workspace reinforces concerns that the FBI is in political cahoots with Democrats on an ongoing basis,” Mr. Gaetz said in an interview. “Perkins Coie is functionally the legal wing of the Democratic Party, having taken over $42 million from the DNC. I’ve spoken with former federal prosecutors on the Judiciary Committee and around the country. None have ever heard of such an arrangement.”

“Why does the FBI conduct business with the DNC’s law firm? What influence does this give the DNC over the FBI? We deserve answers, and we will get them,” Mr. Gaetz said.

Mr. Bopp’s letter noted that Mr. Sussmann, a cybersecurity lawyer who also handled political matters, had access to the workstation until July 2021. He resigned from the firm two months later, after his criminal indictment.

A spokesperson for Perkins Coie did not return multiple phone calls and emails for comment.

Attorneys for Mr. Sussmann insisted during his criminal trial that he did not know the Alfa Bank claims were inaccurate. They said he was a good citizen bringing his concerns to the FBI, which ultimately determined — after the election — that the accusations were false.

The FBI said sensitive compartmented information facilities are built with necessary safeguards to host briefings with attorneys for internet and telephone service providers in national security investigations.

“In certain instances, the FBI coordinates with non-government, third-party entities such as law firms, that represent service providers, which receive the classified Court orders,” the FBI said in a statement. “This includes providing access to private attorneys, which represent the service providers in satisfaction of their legal rights.”

It is not known whether law firms with ties to Republican candidates, such as Kirkland & Ellis or Paul, Weiss, have sensitive compartmented information facilities in their Washington offices. Neither of those law firms returned requests for comment.

The Times spoke with former FBI agents experienced with the workstations. The agents said such arrangements between the FBI and third parties are not unusual. They also expressed concern about the bureau’s ability to secure off-site areas controlled by private organizations that it can’t monitor around the clock.

“I don’t know if we could ever assure ourselves that by merely having a SCIF information could never be compromised,” said Kevin R. Brock, a former assistant director of intelligence for the FBI. “There are procedures attached and facility inspections, but I don’t know how impactful or meaningful they are. There are processes in place, but nothing in this government, this agency is foolproof. There are always risks involved.”

Another former agent, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, said it was “uncomfortable” to use a third-party workstation and always insisted on holding sensitive conversations in secure rooms at FBI headquarters.

The former agents said they would be wary of placing a sensitive compartmented information site inside a law firm so stringently aligned with one political party.

Perkins Coie is the counsel of record for the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Leadership Council, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. It also represents nearly every Democratic member of Congress and has served as legal counsel for the presidential campaigns of John F. Kerry, Barack Obama and Mrs. Clinton.

After the 2020 presidential election, Perkins Coie responded to scores of lawsuits filed by the Trump campaign seeking to overturn Joseph R. Biden’s election win.

Mr. Brock said Perkins Coie’s workstation is likely tied to the firm’s cybersecurity work rather than its political practice. Still, he said the facility should warrant extra scrutiny because of Perkins Coie’s political connections.

“I think it is fair to raise the issue in order to gain assurances for Congress to look into this,” he said. “SCIFs are serious issues, and Congress does have a responsibility to make sure they are being used for the purpose of the design.”

Government contractors or businesses build off-site sensitive information facilities, and FBI engineers inspect them for final approval, the agents said. The third party, not the FBI, is responsible for securing the facility.

Perkins Coie’s workstation was built as part of a larger construction project involving the build-out of its Washington office, according to the letter sent to House Republicans. The FBI issued a final accreditation, which “periodically performs inspections to ensure that the Secure Work Environment is Operating in accordance with the requisite standards,” the letter said.

Private organizations hosting an FBI sensitive compartmented information facility must ensure it complies with the bureau’s stringent security standards. In its statement to The Times, the bureau insisted the off-site workstations were inspected to keep sensitive materials away from prying eyes.

“The FBI ensures that any storage of classified orders meets stringent security protocols required for such documents,” the bureau said.