Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe has reviewed the classified intelligence from a 2018 Republican-led House Intelligence Committee report on Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The trip to view the document, which criticized the analytic tradecraft in the 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment’s conclusions about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s motivations in 2016, was revealed amid a flurry of declassifications related to the Trump-Russia investigation and following public calls from President Trump and his Senate allies for more information to be made public.
Trump even tweeted Tuesday night that he “fully authorized the total Declassification of any & all documents pertaining to the single greatest political CRIME in American History, the Russia Hoax. Likewise, the Hillary Clinton Email Scandal. No redactions!”
Citing current and former officials, the New York Times reported on Friday that “some of the additional intelligence” that Ratcliffe, Trump, and Republican Rep. Devin Nunes of California “want to disclose” is “contained in secret documents based on” the House GOP intelligence report released in 2018 when Nunes was the chairman. The article said “the secret documents contain Republican allegations of wrongdoing by senior officials in the Obama administration,” “sensitive material about intelligence sources that the CIA relied on,” and “material from the FBI and the National Security Agency.”
In addition, the report said “the information is so sensitive” that House Republicans keep the records “in a lockbox in a vault” at CIA headquarters which intelligence officials have taken to describing as a “turducken.” Ratcliffe’s office “sought, and received, permission from the committee to read the secret documents and annexes related to the report” in early August, and Ratcliffe “visited Langley at least once, in August, to open the lockbox and read the Republican documents,” according to the report.
Ratcliffe, a former Republican congressman and member of the House Intelligence Committee who has overseen the nation’s 17 spy agencies since May, sent a letter to the panel in June noting he “made a commitment to review the intelligence underlying the 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment regarding Russian activities and intentions in the 2016 U.S. elections” during his Senate confirmation. Ratcliffe said he requested an unredacted copy of the House GOP report “in order to facilitate my review.”
The January 2017 assessment from the CIA, NSA, and FBI concluded with “high confidence” that Putin “ordered an influence campaign in 2016” and that Russia worked to “undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate former Secretary of State [Hillary] Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency” and “developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.” Adm. Mike Rogers of the NSA diverged from CIA Director John Brennan and FBI Director James Comey on one key aspect, expressing only “moderate confidence” rather than “high confidence” that Putin “aspired to help” Trump’s election chances by “discrediting” Clinton “and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.”
Rogers talked about his view on the assessment during testimony before the Senate in May 2017, noting that sourcing was a factor in his judgment.
“I wouldn’t call it a discrepancy. I’d call it an honest difference of opinion between three different organizations, and in the end, I made that call,” Rogers said. “When I looked at all of the available data, I was struck by, for every other key judgment in the report, I had multiple sources, multiple disciplines, and I was able to remove almost every other alternative rationale that I could come up with in my mind for, well, could there be another reason to explain this. In the case of that one particular point, it didn’t have the same level of sourcing and the same level of multiple sources from different perspectives.”
In Brennan’s new memoir, Undaunted, he revealed that he overruled two senior managers from the CIA mission center responsible for Russia “who questioned the confidence level on the judgment in the assessment related to Russia favoring Mr. Trump’s candidacy.”
The Senate Intelligence Committee released a bipartisan report in April defending the 2017 assessment, saying it “presents a coherent and well-constructed intelligence basis for the case of unprecedented Russian interference.” The senators also found that “the differing confidence levels on one analytic judgment are justified and properly represented.”
But a report from the Republicans leading the House Intelligence Committee in 2018 concluded that “judgments on Putin’s strategic intentions did not … employ proper analytic tradecraft.” The report said GOP investigators “identified significant intelligence tradecraft failings that undermine confidence in the ICA judgments regarding Putin’s strategic objectives.”
The Democrats on the panel, led by then-ranking member Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, released their own report saying they “found no evidence that calls into question the quality and reliability of the ICA’s … assessment about President Putin’s desire to help candidate Trump.”
Ratcliffe announced last week that he declassified two heavily redacted Russia-related documents, including handwritten notes from Brennan showing he briefed then-President Barack Obama in 2016 on an unverified Russian intelligence report claiming Clinton planned in July 2016 on tying then-candidate Trump to Russia’s hack of the Democratic National Committee to distract from her improper use of a private email server.
The declassifications led to accusations that Ratcliffe is casting aside national security and putting at risk sources and methods in a bid to give a leg-up to Trump before the election that is less than a month away. Brennan responded to Ratcliffe’s declassification move on CNN on Tuesday, saying, “It is appalling, his selective declassification of information that clearly is designed to advance the political interests of Donald Trump and Republicans who are aligned with him.”
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence rejected the notion that Ratcliffe was politicizing intelligence.
“Director Ratcliffe’s top priority is our nation’s security,” Amanda Schoch, the assistant DNI for Strategic Communications, told the Washington Examiner. “Those who are being critical of his declassification decisions don’t have visibility into these documents or the stringent process ODNI uses to protect sources and methods.” And Cliff Sims, a senior adviser to the DNI, said, “If the DNI were trying to politicize intelligence, you’d see him on TV all the time like certain former senior intelligence officials whose actions have justifiably drawn scrutiny as transparency has increased.”
Ratcliffe also revealed last week that he handed over nearly 1,000 pages of documents to assist in the Justice Department’s inquiry into the Trump-Russia investigators being led by U.S. Attorney John Durham, whom Attorney General William Barr confirmed this summer is looking into the 2017 intelligence community assessment.
Durham has interviewed Rogers and Brennan and is looking into whether the CIA director took politicized actions to pressure the rest of the intelligence community to match his conclusions about Putin’s motivations. The prosecutor is reportedly reviewing Brennan’s handling of a secret source said to be close to the Kremlin, and Durham wants to know what role that person’s information played in the assessment. Durham is also said to have scrutinized Brennan along with the FBI in relation to British ex-spy Christopher Steele’s discredited dossier.
“Sending a thousand pages of documents to Durham instead of just releasing them publicly is pretty obvious evidence that Ratcliffe isn’t playing politics,” a senior intelligence official said.
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