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Former intelligence officials condemn Trump administration's selective releases about Russia investigation as a risk to sensitive sources

Jenna McLaughlin
·National Security and Investigations Reporter
·6-min read

WASHINGTON — As the Trump administration continues to declassify selective CIA documents regarding the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, former intelligence officials are expressing concern that the releases are politically motivated and potentially damaging for national security.

Over recent days, President Trump’s director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, has declassified bits and pieces of highly redacted CIA notes and memos related to Russian officials’ internal discussions of the 2016 U.S. election, including a Russian allegation that then-Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was planning to tie Trump to Russia to distract from the ongoing controversy over her use of a private email server.

The highly selective disclosures, which tread dangerously close to the CIA’s sources and methods, and which Ratcliffe notes the intelligence community is not sure are accurate, reveal little additional substance about the investigation into Russian meddling or the Trump campaign, say former intelligence officers. Instead, they say, the release serves as a dangerous example of Ratcliffe politicizing intelligence and putting the CIA’s sources at risk without reason, as well as distracting the American public from other issues just weeks before the election.

“It runs the risk of being politically motivated,” explained Dan Hoffman, a retired CIA officer and a Fox News contributor. “In intelligence, you collect human intelligence from sources, and then you marry that with signals intelligence, overhead reconnaissance, everything you’ve got.” That is followed by a rigorous analytic assessment.

Trying to narrowly release bits of raw intelligence “is a problem for folks in the intelligence community,” Hoffman said, comparing it to the George W. Bush administration and the Iraq War, when senior officials would pull out one or two pieces of raw intelligence and make decisions based on that, rather than the agency’s vetted analytic conclusions.

Larry Pfeiffer, a former senior CIA officer and the director of George Mason University’s Hayden Center, told Yahoo News that the decision to publish the memos fell into a pattern on the part of the White House, “more of same,” but is made additionally disturbing because of the danger of revealing the agency’s sources and methods inside Russia. “This release can’t be thought of in isolation. We don’t know what pieces of the puzzle Russia already has,” Pfeiffer noted. And if the intelligence comes from technical access, the information could be coming “from outside Russia” and the release could be “damaging more broadly in terms of collection access,” he said.

Last week, Ratcliffe shared an investigative referral document with the Senate Judiciary Committee that mentions Clinton approving “a plan concerning U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump and Russian hackers hampering U.S. elections.” A second release, declassified on Tuesday, features handwritten notes by former CIA Director John Brennan concerning a discussion in Russia about Clinton’s alleged “plan” to tie Trump to Russia the summer before the election — around the same time Trump infamously called upon “Russia, if you’re listening” to find Clinton’s “missing” emails during a July news conference.

John Brennan, Former CIA Director appears on "Meet the Press" in Washington, D.C., Sunday October 6, 2019. (William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
Former CIA Director John Brennan on "Meet the Press" in October 2019. (William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)

It’s unclear whether Brennan’s notes on Russian discussions about Clinton’s political strategy were derived from a human source or perhaps another intelligence gathering method, like tapping into Russian electronic communications.

Ratcliffe noted he is releasing the documents, most of which remain redacted, in response to requests from the president and congressional overseers. Republican lawmakers were quick to draw attention to the release, alleging that the new information shed important light on problems with the FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign and its ties to Russia, a matter already investigated by former special counsel Robert Mueller, the Department of Justice inspector general and Congress.

However, the notes and referral have nothing to do with criminal activity on the part of the Clinton campaign, explained Brennan during a discussion on the CBS podcast “Intelligence Matters,” hosted by former acting CIA Director Michael Morell.

Brennan, the author of the handwritten notes and the director at the time of the referral to the FBI, explained that he briefed President Barack Obama on the Russian discussions about Clinton’s political plans for several reasons: first, to “give President Obama and others a sense of the extent of our access and our intelligence collection capabilities against the Russians,” and second, out of a desire to share all ongoing intelligence about the Russians’ involvement in the election, whether it concerned Republicans or Democrats.

“I didn’t care whether or not the Russians were talking about a Republican or a Democrat or one candidate or the other — I wanted to make sure that I was blind to that political issue,” Brennan said.

Brennan also made clear that if the Clinton campaign did want to publicly link Trump to Russia, that kind of political messaging would not be illegal and would not be the reason the CIA would send a criminal referral to the FBI, suggesting that something still redacted in the memo was the real reason the agency passed it along.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton during the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri on October 9, 2016. (Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images)
Donald Trump listens to Hillary Clinton during a presidential debate on Oct. 9, 2016. (Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images)

“I’m not saying that’s what Secretary Clinton had approved, but even if she had, there is nothing illegal about that, and that would not have been the basis for the CIA to refer that report to the FBI for follow-up investigation for possible criminal activity,” Brennan said.

During the interview, Brennan also noted that the particular memo Ratcliffe released was one he was already asked to address when interviewed by federal prosecutor John Durham, who is reviewing the FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign and Russian interference. It’s unclear whether the notes will factor into Durham’s review or what his conclusions will be, though Democrats have frequently criticized the investigation as a partisan vendetta on behalf of Trump.

Brennan described Ratcliffe’s disclosures as an “outrageous, appalling and blatant act of politicization” designed to further tar the intelligence community’s investigation into Russian meddling.

Current and former intelligence officers agreed that the disclosure was potentially concerning. One current official told Yahoo News that Ratcliffe, previously a vocal Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, has not properly performed or demonstrated his understanding of the role of the director of national intelligence.

Ratcliffe’s latest disclosure fits into a broader concern on the part of Democratic lawmakers that the White House and administration officials loyal to Trump are downplaying Russian interference in both 2016 and the current presidential election. Ratcliffe recently threatened to cancel all in-person briefings to Congress relating to election interference.

After Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., acting chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, spoke to Ratcliffe, he ultimately reversed course.

Representative Elissa Slotkin, a Democrat from, a Democrat from Michigan, speaks during a House Homeland Security Committee security hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020. (Chip Somodevilla/Bloomberg via Getty images)
Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on Sept. 17. (Chip Somodevilla/Bloomberg via Getty images)

On Wednesday, the ongoing disclosures led Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a Democrat from Michigan and former intelligence officer herself, to send a letter to Ratcliffe questioning the agency’s potential political motivations. She argued that the latest disclosures appeared to be part of a larger political effort.

“Your actions appear intent at distracting from the primary threat to our democratic process posed by Russia, and instead amplifying claims about China’s influence efforts,” she wrote. “My primary concern is that you are seeking to bolster a future case by President Trump, if he loses, that Chinese interference caused his loss.”

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