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Before Biden laptop letter, ex-CIA boss intervened on Russia collusion in 2016, Benghazi in 2012

Michael Morell was one of the first people in summer 2016 to suggest Trump was an unwitting Russian agent.

Published: April 25, 2023 8:33pm

Updated: April 26, 2023 6:57am

Just a week after then-CIA Director John Brennan warned President Barack Obama that Hillary Clinton's campaign was "stirring up" a Russia scandal to harm Donald Trump, the agency's former acting chief became one of the first high-profile intelligence community figures to claim that the 2016 Republican nominee was a possible agent of Vladimir Putin.

In an Aug. 5, 2016 op-ed in the New York Times, Michael Morell cited his CIA experience to make the Trump allegation and he also endorsed Clinton for president. "In the intelligence business, we would say that Mr. Putin had recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation," Morell wrote.

The Clinton campaign was synced with the revelation, immediately putting out an attack ad the same day sounding similar themes that Trump was "unfit" to be president and then following with a letter from 50 experts claiming it.

Even months later, Morell's strike was still being peddled by Democrats like longtime Clinton-Obama strategist Jennifer Palmierishe called it "jaw dropping" — to further a Russian collusion narrative that ultimately would be rejected by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and multiple congressional probes.

Morell's early effort to push the Trump Russia agent theory is now getting fresh scrutiny after revelations reported by Just the News last week that he organized an open letter in October 2020 falsely portraying the Hunter Biden laptop as suspected Russian disinformation after receiving a call from longtime Joe Biden adviser and current Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.

The then-director of national intelligence contemporaneously denied the laptop was Russian disinformation, and the FBI has since authenticated the laptop.

Around the time the Morell-pushed letter surfaced in fall 2020, former FBI intelligence chief Kevin Brock wrote a powerful column in The Hill newspaper alleging the spies were trying to influence the election. Not Russian, or Chinese, or Iranian — but true-blue American spies. He called the letter a clear effort by U.S. intel professionals to sway the election with their credentials even though there weren't facts to back it up.

"Why was a letter written this time?" Brock wrote in the Hill. "To help Joe Biden politically, and nothing more. The signers now probably wish they had waited a few additional days before releasing their letter, since facts have emerged surrounding the laptop that make their professional suspicions look silly."

Morell has now admitted his effort to organize the letter was "triggered" by Blinken, the letter's release was coordinated by the Biden campaign, and his intent was as Brock suspected. 

"I wanted him to win the election," Morell testified to Congress, referring to Joe Biden. 

Read the Jim Jordan letter summarizing Morell's testimony here:

To some intelligence experts, Morell's actions stands as a poster child of the danger that Brock warned about nearly three years ago: a national security apparatus suddenly intervening in elections.

Former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, who unraveled the Russia collusion narrative, said Morell's involvement in three consecutive election controversies signals there are larger issues of politicization in U.S. intelligence.

"I think you have to assume that this has permeated across basically the entire bureaucracy in Washington DC, especially in the intelligence agencies," Nunes told the Just the News, No Noise television show. "I mean, we already know and and look that shows that CIA has more problems than I think we suspected. But the big the biggest problem still at the mall is the Department of Justice, and the FBI, which continues to go unchecked with a two tier justice system."

Brock told Just the News on Tuesday evening the Russia allegation in 2016 only added to the concerns he expressed in his column back in 2020.

"Most Americans believe, and hope, that the CIA has information and intelligence that no one else has. So when a CIA executive, whether current or former, speaks out, a certain credibility attaches and there is a presumption of truth and unique insight. That’s a tremendous responsibility that shouldn’t be trifled with," the retired FBI official said.

"When a person of immense stature in the intelligence community, a person in a position of trust, makes statements that he knows are not fully credible then it becomes nothing more than a cynical manipulation of that trust.  When a disingenuous statement can have a material effect on not just policy, but on a national election, then it becomes a kind of fraud against the American people.  We need a CIA that counters foreign adversaries, not the will of the electorate.”

Just The News reached out to the Clinton Foundation and Clinton's personal press team, former Clinton presidential campaign manager Robby Mook, Morell, CBS — where Morell has been a contributor and podcast host — and MSNBC, where Brennan is a contributor, but received no reply. 

Morell, a 33-year veteran of the CIA who retired shortly after Brennan took over in 2013, has now stirred controversies in three straight elections with actions that relied in part on his intelligence community ties.

In September 2012, as Obama was seeking reelection in a close race against Republican Mitt Romney, Morell edited intelligence talking points to delete references to al Qaeda's role in the deadly attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi.

The edits ended up sending National Security Advisor Susan Rice onto the Sunday talk shows to make a false insinuation that an anti-Muslim video spurred the attack on Benghazi when in fact the CIA had strong evidence an al Qaeda-related arm had instigated it.

Republicans accused the former CIA chief of a cover-up. Morell defended his actions in testimony two years later, insisting his edits were not designed to be political but instead were well-meaning actions taken in the heat of a dramatic intelligence drama.

"These allegations accuse me of taking these actions for the political benefit of President Obama and then secretary of state Clinton," Morell testified. "These allegations are false." But by that time, the talking points had become a major controversy in the 2012 election.

In 2016, Morell's insertion into the Russia collusion narrative came as Brennan, his successor, was warning Obama the Clinton campaign was crafting a dirty trick.

In declassified notes, Brennan recounted how during a July 28, 2016 meeting with Obama he relayed a warning that there was intelligence that Clinton was trying to conjure up a Trump-Russia scandal to distract from Mrs. Clinton's email controversies. The Clinton campaign had helped fund the Steele dossier, it was later learned.

"We're getting additional insight into Russian activities from [REDACTED]," Brennan's notes read. "Cite alleged approval by Hillary Clinton of a proposal from one of her foreign policy advisers to vilify Donald Trump by stirring up a scandal claiming interference by the Russian security services." 

You can read Brennan's notes here:

Two months later, Brennan's CIA would send a similar warning to the FBI, which was investigating Russian collusion based in part on the now-discredited Steele dossier.

CIA is aware of an intercept "discussing US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's approval of a plan concerning US presidential candidate Donald Trump and Russian hackers hampering US elections as a means of distracting the public from her use of a private email server," the agency wrote in a teletype to the bureau.

You can read the CIA warning to the FBI here:

Brennan's warning to Obama was significant because just four days earlier the Clinton campaign -- where current Biden National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan served at the time as a security adviser -- put out a statement saying Russia hacked the Democrat Party documents to help Trump. Mueller's probe found no probe Trump or his team played a role in the hack.

By late October, Sullivan himself was directly involved in spreading Russia collusion allegations, releasing a claim later debunked that Russia was communicating secretly with Trump through a bank server in Moscow.

The 2020 intervention followed a similar connectivity between a presidential campaign and Morell. 

Last week, Jordan and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Turner disclosed that Morell admitted in testimony that he became involved in organizing the letter in October 2020 at the instigation of then-Biden campaign adviser and now Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Morell admitted he was trying to influence the election in favor of Biden, according to a letter the two House chairmen sent to Blinken demanding answers.

Morell testified that while Blinken didn't directly ask him to write the letter, his contact with the future secretary of state "triggered" the effort to write the memo, the campaign "helped to strategize about the public release of the statement" and the campaign later thanked Morell for getting the letter out so that Joe Biden could use it as a defense during one of the 2020 presidential debates.

You can follow John and Nick on Twitter @Jsolomonreports and @NGivasDC

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