A years-old conspiracy theory that came out of the office of former Sheriff Joe Arpaio has found new life because it purports to involved mass surveillance and President Donald Trump.
A promise of blockbuster allegations fizzled as it became clear the source did not have the information he insisted he did.
A years-old conspiracy theory about mass surveillance that sprang from the office of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has earned a second life in recent weeks, largely because it involves President Donald Trump and despite the fact that one of the people touting it once found it unworthy of belief.
This previously discarded claim has been held up as proof that Trump was indeed under surveillance, as the president asserted in a series of tweets in March.
According to the theory, Arpaio’s office had proof that Trump was under federal surveillance during the mid-2000s. Trump’s name was among millions of phone records and bank transactions that the government supposedly harvested from major telecommunications companies and banks, according to the claim.
But one of the men promoting the claim, Mike Zullo, the former head of Arpaio’s volunteer Cold Case Posse, had disavowed it three years ago, according to emails that became exhibits in a federal court case against Arpaio.
What made Zullo change his mind about the allegations is not entirely clear. Zullo, who also headed the Sheriff’s Office investigation into President Barack Obama’s birth certificate, did not return calls or emails from The Arizona Republic requesting comment.
Zullo brought up the idea of mass surveillance activity during two guest appearances on “Infowars,” the national radio and online show of Alex Jones, a fervent supporter of Trump who has drawn praise from the president. Jones’ show has also been known as a place where conspiracy theories are given credence.
Jones has suggested the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting that killed 20 elementary school students in Connecticut was partly staged by people with an anti-gun agenda. Last week, he apologized to the owner of a pizza restaurant for repeating stories that said a pedophile ring involving Washington D.C., Democratic Party honchos was being run out of the parlor.
Zullo appeared on the “Infowars” show on March 19 and 20. It was two weeks after Trump, in a series of tweets, accused Obama of conducting surveillance of him at Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign.
Jones, introducing Zullo’s segment, hyped it as “earth-shaking,” adding that “now, we have the documents.”
On the air, Zullo talked about a database given to him in 2013 by a whistleblower who claimed he was paid by the government to hack into and harvest data from computers.
Zullo said on the show that the data the whistleblower provided included phone and financial records of Supreme Court Justices John Roberts and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, among others. “We had senators,” he said. “We had movie actors. Clint Eastwood. I was in there. Sheriff Arpaio was in there.”
Jones, the host, said that more than an identity-theft problem, it sounded like a “target list of people who might be faithful, good Americans.”
Zullo mentioned how the database became part of Arpaio’s federal trial regarding his immigration enforcement measures, and how he and others testified about it.
“At no time,” he said on the show, “did any agency ever come back and discredit this information.”
‘Took them 17 minutes’
But Zullo himself discredited the information. So did the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, as well as a reporter from Fox News.
Zullo, in a December 2014 email, told the would-be whistleblower, Dennis Montgomery, that he had provided “zero proof” that the database was real. Zullo called the database “cut (and) paste crap you handed us on those worthless drives. All smoke and mirrors. It sucks when the smoke clears.”
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Zullo, in the same email to Montgomery, referenced the conclusions of former members of the National Security Agency whom the Sheriff’s Office asked to look at the data. They concluded it was fraudulent.
“Ex-NSA guys we used to expose you,” Zullo wrote to Montgomery. “Took them 17 minutes.”
At his federal trial, under questioning from the judge in the case, Arpaio testified that the information provided by Montgomery was worthless.
But Zullo, in his appearances with Jones, did not mention Arpaio’s refutation of that data or his own.
Jones told his audience the evidence of surveillance was a massive story, one bigger than the data-collection program exposed through the Washington Post by Edward Snowden, the former government contractor.
A story about the data on the “Infowars” website was written by Jerome Corsi, who was hired to start the organization’s bureau in Washington, D.C. Corsi, author of the book “Where’s The Birth Certificate?” met Zullo during the investigation into Obama’s birth document.
Jones told his audience that as he and Corsi prepared to publish the story, he received warnings from top government officials.
“Threats started pouring in,” he told his listeners. Even his own lawyers, he said, advised him against breaking the story.
The Arpaio connection
But all of the claims Zullo made had already been openly talked about in federal court. Emails, audio recordings of meetings, and portions of the supposed data were made federal court exhibits.
The ill-fated Arpaio investigation into the mass surveillance program was first reported by the Phoenix weekly tabloid New Times. The judge in the 2015 trial handed that article to Arpaio to read during his testimony.
Jones told his listeners that he had checked with Arpaio before publishing the documents.
But Arpaio, reached by phone, said he did not coordinate with Zullo and Corsi about the “Infowars” appearance. “They didn’t check with me about any statements they were going to make,” Arpaio said.
The former sheriff said he would not comment about the veracity of the claims, citing his ongoing federal legal case.
The same surveillance claims were also made in February on Fox Business by attorney Larry Klayman, the firebrand conservative attorney who represents Montgomery. Klayman made the claims while on the network to discuss the resignation of Michael Flynn, who was Trump’s national security advisor.
Klayman told viewers about Montgomery’s claims. He also said Montgomery was prepared to testify that the NSA had placed Trump as well as Justice Roberts under surveillance. Under his face, the network placed the words: “Klayman: NSA Tapping Trump.”
Klayman, reached this week, also said he did not know Zullo and Corsi were going to give Montgomery’s claims new life on “Infowars.” He did not wish to comment on why Zullo might have changed his mind on the veracity of the claim.
“Nice try,” he said.
Klayman said Montgomery’s claims were valid. He said Montgomery talked to the FBI two years ago and turned over his data, but has heard nothing from the agency. “The evidence speaks for itself,” Klayman said, “and it needs to be investigated.”
On his radio show, Jones told his listeners that the Montgomery data was proof that Trump was correct when he asserted on Twitter that Obama had “my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory.”
However, the database purported to show surveillance between 2004 and 2007, before Obama took office. Zullo repeated that detail on Jones’ show.
Zullo, in his appearance, gave an explanation for why he might have recently given the Montgomery evidence a new look, despite calling them “worthless” in 2014. Zullo said portions of what Montgomery told him were prophetic.
“Today, we’re seeing a lot of things going on in the news,” Zullo said, “things that Montgomery said were going on.” He did not get specific.
A ‘blockbuster’ revelation
The database first came to light in 2013. A real-estate magnate named Tim Blixseth, who was named to the Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans, requested a meeting with Arpaio to detail what he touted as a blockbuster revelation that could take down key people in the Obama administration. Blixseth said he brought the information to Arpaio, according to recordings of their meetings, because of the Arpaio’s reputation as a fearless lawman.
A recording of the meeting would become a federal court exhibit.
Blixseth told Arpaio and other sheriff’s officials that Montgomery had worked for his ex-wife’s lawyer during their divorce. Blixseth said he suspected someone had hacked into his emails. After the case, he said, Montgomery contacted him to tell him that he was right. And there was more.
Blixseth said Montgomery told him he was paid by the government to build a computer called “the Hammer” that could hack into various databases, collecting information on millions of U.S. residents. The data, Blixseth said, included recordings of phone calls. It also included bank transactions and call records. Blixseth also told Arpaio that Montgomery knew details about who faked Obama’s birth certificate.
Blixseth told Arpaio that Montgomery had health issues that could be fatal. He wanted to come forward, Blixseth said, to clear his conscience.
Blixseth also told Arpaio that false stories had been planted by the government, designed to harm Montgomery’s credibility. A 2009 Playboy magazine story about Montgomery was headlined, “The Man Who Conned the Pentagon.” It detailed how Montgomery was paid millions in government contracts for software that supposedly could decode messages being broadcast on the Al Jazeera network.
Blixseth told Arpaio that he had seen portions of the data. “I see Donald Trump in there a zillion times,” he said, according to a recording of the meeting.
At the time, Trump was known more for his reality show, “The Celebrity Apprentice,” and his reputation as a businessman. He also was the most high-profile person to question the legitimacy of Obama’s birth certificate.
On the recording of the meeting, Arpaio, at one mention of Trump’s name, called the future president a “double agent.” He did not explain the comment.
Arpaio asked Blixseth if his name was in the database. “That’s important,” he said, according to the recording.
Blixseth said he was checking.
‘The whole ball game’
Blixseth said Fox News had interviewed Montgomery and was ready to air a story. As proof, he called the cellphone of Fox reporter Carl Cameron, placing the reporter on a speaker phone so Arpaio could tell him hello.
Blixseth told Sheriff’s Officials that an investigation into the veracity of the database would be simple. They could find residents of Maricopa County, take the hacked data to them, and ask them to verify that the account information or phone numbers were theirs. Doing so, Blixseth said, would allow Arpaio to prove officials violated portions of the Patriot Act that governed surveillance.
“This is the whole ball game,” Blixseth said.
Arpaio gave the investigation to his Cold Case Posse, which Zullo commanded. That volunteer unit was already looking into Obama’s birth certificate.
Investigators went to the Seattle area to speak with Montgomery. They brought back some of his data on more than 50 hard drives.
Records show that Montgomery was paid at least $40,000 as an informant. While he was being paid, he was supposed to help sheriff’s officials build a case around the data. He also was working on the birth-certificate investigation.
Additionally, Montgomery also produced evidence he said proved that Judge G. Murray Snow was colluding with the U.S. Department of Justice against Arpaio. That detail, first reported in New Times, became part of Arpaio’s federal trial. Snow, on the stand, asked Arpaio whether his office had indeed investigated him. Arpaio admitted he had.
But, over time, sheriff’s officials became frustrated that Montgomery was not providing verifiable evidence.
In January 2014, Montgomery wrote in an email to Zullo that he had discovered that U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky had been the target of hacking. He also said medical issues made it hard for him to keep working.
The allegations unravel
Zullo, in an email reply, called it a great revelation, but he said the office needed Montgomery to provide a solid piece of evidence in order to keep the payments coming.
“I just need you to finish something,” Zullo wrote to Montgomery.
Zullo forwarded the email conversation to Sgt. Travis Anglin, whom the sheriff assigned to investigate the Montgomery information. Zullo included a note. “I knew it was all BS,” Zullo wrote. “He’s back in play. Working me for money.”
By July 2014, Fox News’ Cameron told Montgomery in an email that the station was not doing the story because Montgomery had not provided evidence.
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“I am surprised that a guy as smart as you, who insists ‘data trumps rhetoric’ would keep insulting my intelligence with empty rhetoric instead of the data you promised for months,” Cameron wrote.
Montgomery sent that email to Zullo, who sent it to other sheriff’s commanders. Anglin wrote in reply, “I hope the sheriff sees this.”
In November, a sheriff’s detective assigned to the Cold Case Posse named Brian Mackiewicz received an email from Thomas Drake, an ex-NSA man. Drake said he and another former NSA colleague, Kirk Wiebe, had analyzed the data Montgomery had given the Sheriff’s Office.
“We have found that he is a complete and total FRAUD,” Drake wrote.
“All he has done is provide you with readily available lists of e-mail addresses, names, phone numbers of both individuals and businesses and a lot of framed-up information, data and code BUT NO PROOF OF WHENCE THEY CAME and a whole lot of faked and made-up documents and analysis.”
By December, Zullo reached his breaking point with Montgomery. “No more games to be played,” he wrote. “You never had anything you said you did…lot was uncovered on those worthless drives…Like I told you it was a very bad day for you…Time for the BS to end.”
Yet, two years later, Zullo saw that data in a new light during his appearances on “Infowars,” a website and broadcast that Jones said reaches 40 million to 50 million people each week..
Days after Zullo’s appearance, Jones told his audience, “I told you they were spying on Trump.” Jones said excerpts of the data were on his website and the fact the NSA had not ordered them taken down proved their validity.
“Can you imagine if I was publishing false NSA documents?” he asked his audience. “How big a news story that’d be in the news?”
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