When members of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team investigating Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. election have arrived for work each day, they have placed their mobile phones in a locker outside of their office suite before entering.
Operating in secrecy in a nondescript glass-and-concrete office, the team of prosecutors and investigators since May 2017 has unearthed secrets that have led to bombshell charges against several of President Donald Trump’s aides, including his former national security adviser, campaign chairman, and personal lawyer, who have pleaded guilty or been convicted by a jury.
To protect those secrets from prying ears, the whole of the office suite in southwest Washington has been designated a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF), U.S. spy speak for an area that has restrictions to ensure secret information stays secure.
One common restriction in SCIFs is to keep out smartphones and other electronic devices, which can be turned into covert listening devices or spy cameras. Visitors also have been required to turn these over before entering.
The restrictions, while not surprising given the team was investigating whether a hostile foreign power tried to help Trump win the 2016 election and whether his campaign conspired in the effort, have not been previously reported.
Mueller is widely expected to conclude his work anytime and send a report to the U.S. attorney general. It is unclear how much of the report will be made public.
Accounts of witnesses interviewed by the special counsel’s team, their lawyers and others familiar with the investigation reveal the lengths to which Mueller, a former FBI director, has gone to ensure his high-profile probe safeguarded its secrets.
In a city known for its leaks, Mueller has pulled off a rare feat. He has kept a tight lid on both his office and the evidence he was amassing in his highly sensitive investigation that has cast a cloud over Trump’s presidency. And he did it even as Trump relentlessly criticized him, calling the probe a “witch hunt” and the special counsel’s team “thugs.”
“In a town where everybody and their mother is trying to get on the front page, Bob Mueller was always trying to stay out of the news,” said Mark Corallo, a former Justice Department spokesman. “He wanted to be judged on actions, not press conferences.”
Mueller has remained silent throughout the investigation and his office has issued only one statement. In that statement, issued this past January, spokesman Carr labeled as “not accurate” a BuzzFeed News account describing evidence collected by the special counsel that allegedly showed that Trump had directed his former lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about a Moscow real estate deal. BuzzFeed has stood by its story.
Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani, himself a former federal prosecutor, also remarked on Mueller staying out of sight.
“Whenever we talk to them, they say, ‘We’ll take it to Bob.’ He’s like the Wizard of Oz,” Giuliani said.
Giuliani said although he was suspicious of leaks to the news media, he acknowledged he knew of none for sure from the special counsel’s team and that nothing he told Mueller’s office was leaked.
“Mueller doesn’t talk to us. I don’t know why he’d talk to the press,” the former New York mayor added.
Joseph Campbell, a former assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division who worked at the agency when Mueller headed it, said the special counsel knows how to handle sensitive investigations and ignores the attacks on him.
“He went through 12 years starting with 9/11 of extremely critical and sensitive investigations around the world,” said Campbell, referring to the 2001 attacks on the United States. “This is right in his wheelhouse.”
“He is not affected by external criticism or speculation,” Campbell added.