President Barack Obama was briefed in the summer of 2016 about an unverified Russian intelligence analysis that claimed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was then the Democratic presidential nominee, approved an effort to tie candidate Donald Trump to Russia’s hack of the Democratic National Committee, the nation’s top spy chief revealed on Tuesday.
A one-page letter Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe sent to and released by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham said U.S. intelligence agencies obtained, in late July 2016, “insight into Russian intelligence analysis alleging that U.S. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had approved a campaign plan to stir up a scandal against U.S. Presidential candidate Donald Trump by tying him to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and the Russians’ hacking of the Democratic National Committee.” But, Ratcliffe stressed, the intelligence community “does not know the accuracy of this allegation or the extent to which the Russian intelligence analysis may reflect exaggeration or fabrication.”
The release of this information, just hours before the first debate between Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden and one day before former FBI Director James Comey testifies before Graham’s committee, was met with instant condemnation by Democrats in Congress.
“It’s very disturbing to me that 35 days before an election, a director of national intelligence would release unverified Russian rumint,” Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, told reporters.
“This is Russian disinformation,” Rachel Cohen, the communications director for Warner, tweeted. “Laundered by the Director Of National Intelligence and Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. This is extraordinary.” Cohen did not immediately respond to the Washington Examiner’s question about what she was basing her claim on and whether any intelligence assessment existed concluding this was Russian disinformation.
Ratcliffe released a statement to the Washington Examiner less than two hours after Graham unveiled his letter to address the backlash. “To be clear, this is not Russian disinformation and has not been assessed as such by the intelligence community. I’ll be briefing Congress on the sensitive sources and methods by which it was obtained in the coming days,” he said.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, did not immediately respond to the Washington Examiner’s request for comment.
“This latest information provided by DNI Ratcliffe shows there may have been a double standard by the FBI regarding allegations against the Clinton campaign and Russia,” Graham said on Tuesday. “Whether these allegations are accurate is not the question. The question is did the FBI investigate the allegations against Clinton like they did Trump? If not, why not? If so, what was the scope of the investigation? If none, why was that?”
Ratcliffe’s letter said that handwritten notes by former CIA Director John Brennan show he briefed Obama and other top national security officials on the Russian intelligence, including the “alleged approval by Hillary Clinton on July 26, 2016 of a proposal from one of her foreign policy advisors to vilify Donald Trump by stirring up a scandal claiming interference by Russian security services.”
Nick Shapiro, the former deputy chief of staff to Brennan, told the Washington Examiner that “Russian interference in the election was real, intense, and unprecedented in scale and scope. It was authorized personally by Putin to hurt Secretary Clinton and to promote the electoral prospects of Donald Trump. The intelligence on this is incontrovertible and the analysis unimpeachable.” He added: “DNI Ratcliffe should be ashamed of his blatant politicization of his position.” Shapiro did not answer the Washington Examiner‘s question about whether the CIA or the intelligence community at large had assessed the veracity of the Russian intelligence analysis revealed by Ratcliffe.
Ratcliffe, a former Republican member of the House Intelligence Committee who became director of national intelligence in late May, said that U.S. intelligence officials also forwarded an investigative referral to Comey and then-Deputy Assistant Director of Counterintelligence Peter Strzok on Sept. 7, 2016, regarding “U.S. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s approval of a plan concerning U.S. Presidential candidate Donald Trump and Russian hackers hampering U.S. elections as a means of distracting the public from her use of a private email server.”
Ratcliffe noted that Attorney General William Barr “has advised that the disclosure of this information will not interfere with ongoing Department of Justice investigations” and told Graham that “additional declassification and public disclosure of related intelligence remains under consideration; however, the IC welcomes the opportunity to provide a classified briefing with further detail at your convenience.”
Clinton spokesperson Nick Merrill told Politico that the claims were “baseless bullshit.”
“I appreciate DNI Ratcliffe responding to my request for any information concerning all things Russia in the 2016 campaign, not just alleged Trump-Russia involvement,” Graham said in a statement. “Director Ratcliffe will make this information available in a classified setting. I will try to review the material as early as today.”
The South Carolina Republican added: “I look forward to speaking with Director Comey about this latest information, and many other topics, at tomorrow’s hearing.”
After a two-year investigation, former special counsel Robert Mueller released a report in April 2019 that said his team “identified numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump Campaign” and that the Russians interfered in the 2016 election in a “sweeping and systematic fashion.” However, Mueller wrote that his team “did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government.”
As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Graham is leading an investigation into Crossfire Hurricane, the code name of the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia that was later wrapped into Mueller’s investigation.
The senator recently made public declassified documents showing the FBI had previously investigated the main source used by British ex-spy Christopher Steele in his anti-Trump dossier, revealed to be U.S.-based and Russian-trained lawyer Igor Danchenko, as a possible “threat to national security.” A newly declassified footnote from DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s December report on Crossfire Hurricane, relayed by Barr last week, states that “the Primary Sub-source was the subject of an FBI counterintelligence investigation” from May 2009 to March 2011 that “assessed his/her documented contacts with suspected Russian intelligence officers.”
Earlier this year, it was revealed that Danchenko had cast doubt on the reliability and credibility of the former MI6 agent’s Trump-Russia reporting in January 2017, which the bureau concealed from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Graham claims the bureau misled the Senate Intelligence Committee about the reliability of Steele’s dossier in 2018. Records also show the FBI even considered pursuing FISA surveillance against Steele’s source years prior.
FBI notes of an interview conducted with Danchenko in early 2017 show he told the bureau that he didn’t know where some of the dossier claims attributed to him came from and that his Russian sources never mentioned some of the allegations. Steele’s source told the FBI that Steele mischaracterized at least one of his own Russian source contacts too. Danchenko noted that much of what he gave to Steele was “word of mouth and hearsay” and that some of the claims stemmed from a “conversation that [he] had with friends over beers.” He also said the most salacious Trump allegations may have been made in “jest.”
Horowitz said FBI interviews with Steele’s primary sub-source “raised significant questions about the reliability of the Steele election reporting” and cast doubt on some of its biggest claims, noting Danchenko’s account “was not consistent with and, in fact, contradicted the allegations of a ‘well-developed conspiracy’” in Steele’s dossier. Horowitz’s lengthy December report criticized the Justice Department and the FBI for at least 17 “significant errors and omissions” related to the FISA warrants against former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, who was never charged with a crime and has denied any wrongdoing, and for the bureau’s reliance on Steele’s Democratic-funded and unverified dossier.
Steele had been working for Putin-linked Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska prior to being hired by Fusion GPS in June 2016. The opposition research firm had itself been hired by Clinton campaign lawyer Marc Elias of Perkins Coie after its initial anti-Trump research effort had been funded by the conservative publication Washington Free Beacon. Declassified footnotes now show the FBI was aware that Steele’s dossier might have been compromised by Russian disinformation.
Bill Evanina, who leads the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, released an intelligence assessment in early August warning that Russia is “using a range of measures to primarily denigrate” Biden, including that Russian intelligence-connected Ukrainian lawmaker Andriy Derkach “is spreading claims about corruption — including through publicizing leaked phone calls — to undermine” the 2020 Democratic nominee. The same statement also said China “prefers” that Trump not win reelection and is “expanding its influence efforts ahead of November 2020.” The counterintelligence official also said Iran “seeks to undermine” Trump’s presidency.
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