CIA conduct during Russia assessment may be next boomerang in probe of investigators

DNI hints new declassification coming soon. Some want it to be a congressional complaint to the CIA inspector general questioning the Obama intelligence assessment on Russian intentions.

Updated: August 31, 2020 - 3:11pm

By his own admission, ex-CIA Director John Brennan chafed at being questioned earlier this month by federal prosecutor John Durham about the Obama administration's intelligence assessment that Russia’s meddling in 2016 election was designed to help Donald Trump.

Brennan "questioned why the analytic tradecraft and the findings of the ICA are being scrutinized by the Department of Justice, especially since they have been validated by the Mueller Report and the bipartisan Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Review," a statement issued by his spokesman Nick Shapiro said.

The answer, according to multiple officials familiar with the evidence, is that the House intelligence committee in 2018 sent a secret report to the CIA inspector general that called into question the tradecraft used in the Brennan-led assessment.

Specifically, the officials said, it highlighted dissent and doubts by some intelligence community analysts about Vladimir Putin's intentions in intervening in the 2016 election. Some believed it was to help Trump; others believed it was simply to sow chaos without picking a winner, and still others saw evidence Putin might have preferred Hillary Clinton, the officials said.

In other words, an assessment that was portrayed as unanimous when it was made public in early January 2017 was anything but at the analyst level, according to Fred Fleitz, a longtime intelligence officer who was briefed on the House intelligence committee's concerns when he served as chief of staff in the National Security Council.

"When I was briefed on the House Intelligence Committee report on the January 2017 ICA, I was told that John Brennan politicized this assessment by excluding credible intelligence that the Russians wanted Hillary Clinton to win the 2016 election and ordered weak intelligence included that Russia wanted Trump to win, Fleitz told Just the News.

"I also was told that Brennan took both actions over the objections of CIA analysts. I am concerned about what happened to these analysts and worry that they may have been subjected to retaliation by CIA management," he added. "These analysts are true whistleblowers, and they should come to the congressional intelligence committees to tell their stories and set the record straight on the ICA."

Officials said the Director of National Intelligence, John Ratcliffe, who was a member of the House Intelligence Committee before joining the Trump administration, is considering declassifying parts or all of the House Intelligence Committee report to the inspector general.

Ratcliffe hinted Sunday new releases of information are imminent. "I'm optimistic that I'll be declassifying additional documents soon,” Ratcliffe told Fox News host Maria Bartiromo on Sunday.

Ratcliffe added he has been coordinating his plans for releasing more classified documents in the Russia probe with Durham to ensure he doesn't jeopardize any criminal investigative work.

"He's looking at the same documents that I am," Ratcliffe said. "He's not sharing his findings or the work that he's doing. But I'm coordinating with him to make sure that he has the intelligence documents that he needs to do his work. And what I don't want to do is declassify something that might prejudice his work."

If Ratcliffe declassifies the House intelligence panel's complaint to the CIA inspector general, it will signal that Durham does not believe the release would impact any prosecution and could mean no charges are forthcoming concerning the assessment.

But the release of the report would be significant nonetheless, since both Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the Senate Intelligence Committee have sided with Brennan and agreed Russia was trying to help Trump win.

The belated emergence of evidence — such as dissenting analysts — that calls into question a three-year-old finding would be jarring, especially if it occurred before the election.

One person unlikely to be surprised by questions about the assessment is Daniel Hoffman, the CIA's former station chief in Moscow and one of the United States' premier Russia spy tradecraft experts.

Hoffman for nearly two years has challenged the CIA's assessment, saying Putin preferred neither Clinton nor Trump and simply wanted to sow discord in American democracy when he meddled in the election.

"Lots of people ask the question, 'Was Russia trying to interfere on behalf of one candidate or the other?' That's a superfluous question. They weren't," Hoffman told Just the News earlier this year in an interview on the John Solomon Reports podcast

"And our own report from the director of National Intelligence in January 2017 shows that we could never determine the impact, if any, that Russia made. But Vladimir Putin just wants to influence the dialogue. He wants Democrats and Republicans at each other's throats, and that's what he got," Hoffman said.

Several government officials interviewed said evidence that has been declassified in recent months adds to the doubts that Putin intended to help Trump.

For instance, they said, the  summer 2016 Trump Tower meeting in which a Russian lawyer on a special Justice Department parole visa visited with the president's eldest son wasn’t a typical spy operation to help the Trump campaign and instead had the hallmark of a "discoverable influence operation" designed to sow doubts in the American government.

"If the Russians were helping Trump, they would have kept it secret and wouldn't have used a woman flagged by the Justice Department as the conduit," one government official said. "They most likely wanted that meeting to be discovered so the FBI was scratching its head and raising red flags."

Likewise, the CIA alerted the FBI early in the Crossfire Hurricane probe that some anti-Trump evidence that dossier author Christopher Steele had provided agents was, in fact, disinformation from Russian intelligence services, according to recently declassified footnotes from a Justice Department inspector general report.

"If the Russians wanted to help Trump win, why were they feeding disinformation to Clinton's opposition research team to dirty up Trump?" the government official observed. "This evidence, if reevaluated, might turn out to be classic Russian mischief designed to sow discord and doubts in democracy."

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