A Clash Between the Attorney General and the CIA
Over the last three to four years, rumors have persisted about the hesitancy of some people in the Trump administration to share classified information with the president. That is the critical element of a recent story from the New York Times on how the U.S. is preparing for potential cyber attacks on Russia’s power grid.
Two administration officials said they believed Mr. Trump had not been briefed in any detail about the steps to place “implants” — software code that can be used for surveillance or attack — inside the Russian grid.
Pentagon and intelligence officials described broad hesitation to go into detail with Mr. Trump about operations against Russia for concern over his reaction — and the possibility that he might countermand it or discuss it with foreign officials, as he did in 2017 when he mentioned a sensitive operation in Syria to the Russian foreign minister.
The concern being expressed by Pentagon and intelligence officials is obviously shared by our allies. Whether through ignorance or loyalty to dictators like Putin, the idea that this president poses a security threat is a constant refrain that is one of the most shocking aspects of this presidency.
The reality of that threat has been heightened by the attorney general’s insistence on examining the origins of the Mueller investigation. It is important to remember that the probe was not initiated by former FBI Director James Comey or any of the other people in the FBI that the president constantly demonizes. Nor was it prompted by the Steele dossier.
Concerns about Russian hacking and disinformation campaigns on social media took a more serious turn at Langley in the summer of 2016. Here is how Greg Miller documented those events in his book The Apprentice: Trump, Russia and the Subversion of American Democracy.
By early August, the sense of alarm had become so acute that CIA Director John Brennan called White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. “I need to get in to see the president,” Brennan said, with unusual urgency in his voice.
Brennan had just spent two days sequestered in his office reviewing a small mountain of material on Russia…There were piles of finished assessments, but Brennan had also ordered up what agency veterans call the “raw stuff” — unprocessed material from informants, listening devices, computer implants and other sources. Clearing his schedule, Brennan pored over all of it, his door closed, staying so late that the glow through his office windows remained visible deep into the night from the darkened driveway that winds past the headquarters building’s main entrance…
Brennan’s review session occurred against the backdrop of these unsettling developments. But his call to the White House was driven by something else — extraordinary intelligence that had surfaced in late July and reached deep inside the Kremlin, showing that Putin was himself directing an “active measures” operation aimed not only at disrupting the U.S. presidential race but electing Trump.
According to the Washington Post, Brennan wrote his own dossier based on that review of the intelligence that was delivered to President Obama in early August. Both Brennan’s report and an intelligence summary that was subsequently declassified in January 2017, made two main points: (1) that Putin himself was directing the interference campaign, and (2) that it was designed to support the election of Donald Trump.
Because the line separating the CIA from the FBI is that the latter is charged with handling domestic investigations, it fell to the FBI to determine whether anyone in the Trump campaign was involved. The revelation of foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos to an Australian diplomat that the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton was the impetus for Comey to take that step.
Mr. Barr wants to know more about the C.I.A. sources who helped inform its understanding of the details of the Russian interference campaign, an official has said. He also wants to better understand the intelligence that flowed from the C.I.A. to the F.B.I. in the summer of 2016.
Here is why that review is of concern to the intelligence community.
Mr. Trump said on Friday that he wanted Mr. Barr to “get to the bottom” of what the intelligence agencies knew about the investigation into his campaign. He promised, “We’re exposing everything.”
The president raised questions about C.I.A. involvement in the origins of the Russia investigation, and other officials said Mr. Barr wanted to learn more about sources in Russia, including a key informant who helped the C.I.A. conclude that President Vladimir V. Putin ordered the intrusion on the 2016 election. Mr. Trump also invoked two close allies, Australia and Britain, telling reporters he wanted the attorney general to examine their roles in sharing intelligence about Russia’s interference…
The most prominent of the C.I.A.’s sources of intelligence on Russia’s election interference was a person close to Mr. Putin who provided information about his involvement, former officials have said. The source turned over evidence for one of the last major intelligence conclusions that President Barack Obama made public before leaving office: that Mr. Putin himself was behind the Russia hack.
Long nurtured by the C.I.A., the source rose to a position that enabled the informant to provide key information in 2016 about the Russian leadership’s role in the interference campaign, the officials said.
Trump’s enablers are convinced that the informant being referred to is Christopher Steele, which would mean that Brennan relied on his dossier to reach his conclusions. Given Attorney General Barr’s willingness to embrace right-wing conspiracy theories, that is likely what he hopes to prove—or insinuate.
The president’s executive order regarding Barr’s investigation didn’t just give the attorney general the authority to declassify any material he deemed significant, it ordered the intelligence community to cooperate with the investigation. That is an odd thing to include in an executive order—unless Barr, who is reported to have requested the order, felt that such instructions were necessary.
It is growing increasingly clear that the major focus of Barr’s investigation into the origins of the Trump-Russia probe is designed to identify the CIA asset(s) who were responsible for the fact that Brennan sounded the alarm bells about Putin’s involvement in trying to get Trump elected. The question comes down to whether the CIA will provide him with that information, knowing that either (1) Trump will be informed and will likely spill the beans, or (2) Barr will decide to publicly “out” a CIA source within the Russian government. Current CIA Director Gina Haspell is probably the one who will make that call, which explains why she is currently under attack by Trump’s enablers in right-wing media.