Why the Obama intelligence assessment on Russia collusion is under investigation

John Durham, the special prosecutor, is examining the Intelligence Community Assessment as evidence that conflicts with one of its key conclusions keeps mounting.

Updated: June 15, 2020 - 8:55am

A recently declassified annex to the Obama administration’s intelligence report on Russian election interference took great pains to make clear it did not use Christopher Steele’s deeply flawed dossier to make any assessments about Moscow’s intentions.

The Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) found Steele’s evidence “highly politically sensitive” and minimally corroborated and thus not worthy of including in its analysis of Russian election interference, the annex stated.

“We have only limited corroboration of the source reporting in this case and did not use it to reach the analytic conclusions of the CIA/FBI/NSA assessment,” the memo added.

In retrospect, the exclusion of the Steele dossier in assessing Russian intentions may have been a consequential mistake, since evidence emerged just two weeks after the assessment was made public in early January 2017 that directly conflicted with one of the ICA’s key conclusions.

The outgoing Obama administration’s intelligence community leaders — FBI Director James Comey, CIA Director John Brennan, NSA Director Mike Rogers and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper — declared on July 5, 2017 that Moscow was specifically trying to help Donald Trump win the 2016 election and to defeat Hillary Clinton.

An official with direct knowledge told Just the News that U.S. Attorney John Durham, the prosecutor named by Attorney General William Barr to investigate the investigators in the Russia collusion case, is currently reviewing the conduct of officials in the ICA and their subsequent testimony to Congress.

The official said that not all intelligence community analysts felt comfortable with the conclusion about Russia’s intent to help Trump. “There was some dissent and concern that has been hidden all this time,” the official said, speaking only on condition of anonymity.

One reason for that dissent may have emerged just two weeks later. Recently declassified footnotes from Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s report reveal U.S intelligence provided multiple warnings that some of Steele’s dossier was Russian disinformation fed by Moscow’s intelligence service.

Footnote 350, for instance, revealed that the FBI received a U.S. intelligence report on Jan. 12, 2017 warning of an inaccuracy in the dossier related to Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, and warning that the material was “part of a Russian disinformation campaign to denigrate U.S. foreign relations.”

That same day, the FISA warrant against Trump adviser Carter Page was renewed for the first time.

Another U.S. intelligence report on Feb. 28, 2017 contradicted another key allegation in the Steele dossier against Trump, declaring the claims were false and the product of Russian intelligence services “infiltrat[ing] a source into the network” that contributed to the dossier.

By June 2017, according to footnote 342 in the Horowitz report, U.S. intelligence informed the FBI that Russian intelligence was aware of Steele’s opposition research work as early as July 2016, a fact experts say likely meant Steele was used to feed derogatory information on Trump to the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee.

To date, these revelations have mostly been used to call into question the FBI’s conduct in renewing the FISA warrant against Page three times without informing the court about the serious flaws in Steele’s dossier and the intelligence community’s warnings about Russian disinformation seeded within it.

But the warnings to the FBI also undercut the ICA’s conclusion on intent: If Russians were intentionally feeding false dirt to Clinton about Trump, how could they be trying to help the Republican win?

Congress is split on the issue. The Senate Intelligence Committee concluded the ICA’s basis for making its conclusions on Russian interference was solid. The GOP-led House Intelligence Committee came to a different conclusion in 2018, saying most of the intelligence tradecraft used in the ICA was solid but the conclusion about Russian intentions was flawed and contradicted.

The evidence backing the House panel’s report remains classified, part of a long report former Chairman Devin Nunes referred to the CIA inspector general. There is growing pressure inside the Trump administration to declassify Nunes’ referral.

In the meantime, former senior National Security Council official Fred Fleitz recently wrote an op-ed revealing that the nonpublic Nunes report included secret evidence suggesting that Brennan suppressed dissent inside the CIA about the conclusions on Russian intent.

“Brennan suppressed facts or analysis that showed why it was not in Russia’s interests to support Trump and why Putin stood to benefit from Hillary Clinton’s election,” Fleitz wrote. “They also told me that Brennan suppressed that intelligence over the objections of CIA analysts.”

Brennan has denied suppressing any dissent and hailed the Senate Intelligence Committee’s finding embracing the ICA’s conclusions.

But Rogers, the former NSA chief, revealed in testimony in 2017 his agency had only “moderate confidence” that Putin actively tried to help Trump win and that his agency had “an honest difference of opinion” with the FBI and CIA.

As to why the NSA was more cautious, Rogers said the conclusion about Russia helping Trump “did not have the same level of sourcing and the same level of multiple sources.”

With such differences of opinion, the Justice Department is taking a second look. Barr recently disclosed that Durham is investigating the ICA, signaling that the final fate of its conclusions remains up in the air.

“Durham is looking at the intelligence community’s ICA … and he’s sort of examining all the information that was based on, the basis for their conclusions,” Barr told The New York Times this spring. "So to that extent, I still have an open mind, depending on what he finds."

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) have joined the chorus of those questioning the ICA’s finding after the revelations from recently declassified evidence.

They said last week the newly released annex raises concerns about both the FBI’s conduct and the intelligence community’s conclusions.

“Despite the apparent absence of any initial corroboration and these mounting concerns, the FBI’s investigation continued seemingly unabated. It’s also unclear what, if any, steps were taken by the Intelligence Community to update their assessment based on the warnings,” they said.

Daniel Hoffman, the CIA’s former station chief in Moscow and one of the Agency’s top experts on Russian intelligence, told me recently that Russia’s real intention was to sow discord in American democracy, and he believes the Obama administration assessment got that wrong. He is calling for a new assessment to be conducted.

“At the end of the day, I don't think Russia influenced the outcome of the election at all,” Hoffman told the John Solomon Reports podcast. “And whatever support that they may have appeared to have given then-candidate Trump, it was discoverable. In other words, Putin wanted us to know it.

“And he knew that was the best way for Democrats and Republicans to get at each other's throats as a result, trust me. Vladimir Putin hates President Trump as much as he hates Secretary Clinton, there's no difference there."

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