LONDON — While the world was looking for Joseph Mifsud, the Maltese professor who allegedly delivered word of Hillary Clinton’s stolen emails to Donald Trump's campaign, his passport and wallet sat for 17 months in a lost-and-found office in a Portuguese airport.
The items were found by police in a picturesque coastal town in Madeira, a Portuguese island off the coast of Morocco that's popular with tourists and best known for being the birthplace of soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. The passport and wallet were found on Aug. 5, 2017, some three months before Mifsud disappeared from public view and six months after he was questioned by FBI officers investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The bizarre discovery, reported here for the first time, is the latest crumb encountered on the trail of the elusive academic.
A police report reviewed by BuzzFeed News shows that Malta’s embassy in Lisbon was notified of the missing passport on Jan. 24 this year. But a senior Maltese official said that authorities back in Malta did not become aware that a passport belonging to Mifsud had been found in Portugal until late October.
It’s not known whether the items were dumped on purpose or simply mislaid.
Portuguese police said the passport and wallet had been sent to Madeira airport after being found in the town of Câmara de Lobos, and the Maltese embassy was only informed once the time period for them to be claimed had expired.
Mifsud, who turns 60 next year, remains one of the most mysterious — and in many ways bizarre — characters in former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the US election. He went to ground days after his identity as the unnamed “overseas professor” at the center of the Trump-Russia probe was revealed — and his whereabouts have been unknown since.
Described as “a Russian agent” by former FBI director James Comey, in recent weeks Mifsud has become central to an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory pushed by some of Trump’s allies and right-wing media outlets that claims Mifsud was a Western intelligence asset and FBI informant used to entrap the Trump campaign. Others claim, less excitingly, that he is a charlatan.
Last month, nearly two years to the day he vanished, three Italian news outlets — La Repubblica, Corriere della Sera, and Adnkronos — received an audio recording out of the blue from someone claiming to be Mifsud.
The voice in the recording categorically denies any wrongdoing and knowingly having any links to intelligence services. He repeatedly insists that he was just a “networker” who brought people together.
“I tried to do nothing else except as I have always done, put A in contact with B, B in contact with C, for purely academic purposes,” the man says in English.
Analysis by Bellingcat suggests that the voice in the recording does belong to Mifsud.
Following the publication of the audio, BuzzFeed News was contacted by an individual who works for a private intelligence company in Rome, who noted that the audio file hosted on the domain of one of the three media outlets was considerably longer than the clip published by Corriere della Sera. BuzzFeed News has verified that this is the case.
Bellingcat has also established that different versions of the recording were sent to the three Italian news outlets.
The newspapers Corriere della Sera and La Repubblica received an amateurishly edited version lasting about six minutes, while the press agency Adnkronos was sent a version more than double that length which abruptly cuts off after 13 and a half minutes. All three outlets also published concluding remarks contained in a separate 50-second clip. According to La Repubblica, Adnkronos received its recording some four hours after the newspapers.
In the longer version of the audio, which includes an additional middle section that has not been previously reported, the man believed to be Mifsud says that he is preparing “a full text of all my thinking and of all the issues that I feel have taken place.”
He rambles on for several minutes about how all he has ever done since he was young is “network.”
"Network[ing] means trying to get one think tank to speak with another think tank, one group of thinking with another group of thinking,” he says. “I have always done this all my life since I was a child."
The man believed to be Mifsud adds that he has never been paid to intrude into the privacy of others. "I am not the radical in the sense that I have tried to put somebody in touch with somebody without his or her permission," he says.
The voice on the recording insists that there had been “no pressure” to disappear from “nobody in any way or form,” and he had only been advised by friends to keep a low profile.
A central claim of the unfounded theory that Mifsud was a Western intelligence asset is that he was pressured and helped to hide by Italian intelligence agencies. The Department of Justice is expected to debunk the conspiracy theory that Mifsud was an FBI informant in a report due later this month.
"I have not been given any instruction by anybody. I have not been forced to do anything by anybody. I have not been paid to do anything by any group. I categorically again emphasize that I have not been with one party against another party or with one group against another group. That was not my intent," the man in the recording says.
Directly addressing accusations that have been leveled against Link Campus, the Rome university where Mifsud worked, the man in the recording stresses multiple times that the university has nothing to do with his ordeal and holds no connection to intelligence services.
He later apologizes for any hurt he may have unintentionally caused and laments the fact that he hasn’t been able to work or stay in contact with his family, saying he has had to live “without any human contact” in the many months away.
The audio provides no indication of the professor’s current whereabouts, nor is an explanation given for why it was sent to Italian media
BuzzFeed News contacted the email address that sent the audio clips to the three Italian outlets but received no response.
The passport found in Madeira matches travel documents used by Mifsud to fly to Ukraine and Russia in 2017, based on a visa issued to Mifsud and other evidence seen by BuzzFeed News. Seven days after the passport was found in Portugal, the Maltese professor was issued a new passport, another document seen by BuzzFeed News shows. Two months after that passport was issued, he was in Moscow, according to a different visa application.
Mifsud was last seen in public on Oct. 31, 2017, at Link Campus in Rome where he gave an interview to La Repubblica that was published the next day. Italian media revealed last month that Mifsud hid away at the house of an associate of the university’s in Esanatoglia, a small village in the Marche hills about 130 miles north-east of Rome, until the end of 2017. The university has repeatedly stated it has no knowledge of his whereabouts.
According to Mueller’s investigation, Mifsud told Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos that the Russians had thousands of emails from the Democrats in April 2016, two months before the party itself was aware that its computer system had been hacked. Mifsud told Papadopoulos he’d learned of the emails during a trip to Russia, but who told him is still not known.
Papadopoulos, who served 12 days in prison for lying to the FBI during the probe and is now among those peddling the unfounded theory that Mifsud was a Western intelligence asset, is said to have later shared the information with the Australian high commissioner to the UK, whose government passed the information to US authorities after WikiLeaks began publishing the emails in July 2016. That information sparked the FBI to launch the investigation that Mueller led. His report concluded that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 election in "sweeping and systematic fashion."