But Ratcliffe, who had no significant background in intelligence, failed to meet his commitments when he recently declassified documents that included sensitive intelligence about Russians discussing Hillary Clinton and her 2016 presidential campaign, current and former officials said.
Ratcliffe’s disclosures, which he told lawmakers came “at the direction of the president of the United States,” amount to a disinformation operation run by the nation’s top intelligence official, in service of a president who has long accused the intelligence agencies of conspiring against him, the current and former intelligence officials said.
“What we are seeing here is the worst-case scenario that was raised by the Democrats during Ratcliffe’s confirmation of putting such a political loyalist and national security neophyte into this important position,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a former CIA officer who oversaw operations in Europe and Russia. “He is cherry-picking intelligence, and seriously risks exposing sources and methods for absolutely no reason other than to promote and protect the president before the election.”
Trump allies have seized on the intelligence as evidence that Clinton was in some way involved in ginning up an investigation of Trump to tie his campaign to Russia. The president has consistently denied the charge as a “hoax,” even though multiple investigations have documented numerous instances in which his campaign sought Russian assistance in damaging Clinton.
Trump cited the declassified intelligence, which includes handwritten notes by former CIA Director John Brennan and a referral of classified information to the FBI, in his debate with former vice president Joe Biden last month as evidence of a “coup.”
“You saw what happened today with Hillary Clinton, where it was a whole big con job,” Trump said at the debate on Sept. 29, the day Ratcliffe informed Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a prominent Trump ally, that intelligence from Russia indicated Clinton “had approved a campaign plan to stir up a scandal” against Trump “by tying him to Putin and the Russians’ hacking of the Democratic National Committee.”
According to Brennan’s notes, he informed President Barack Obama in the summer of 2016 about Russian sources who alleged that Clinton had approved “on 26 July  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.”
But the document is almost entirely redacted, and it’s not clear what level of confidence the CIA attached to the information or why Brennan thought it was important to tell the president about it. Investigators on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is led by Republicans, also reviewed the intelligence and rejected it as irrelevant to their own investigation of Russian interference, according to a U.S. official.
It also wasn’t a secret that Clinton’s campaign thought Trump was a beneficiary of Russian intervention.
On July 24, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook told CNN that “experts are telling us that Russian state actors broke into the DNC, stole these emails, and other experts are now saying that the Russians are releasing these emails for the purpose of actually helping Donald Trump.”
Vice President Pence, in his debate with Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) on Wednesday, seemed to suggest that the information showed that the Clinton campaign was responsible for helping launch the FBI probe of Russian interference and possible links to the Trump campaign.
Multiple investigations have documented that the FBI opened a counterintelligence probe after learning that a Trump campaign aide was told Moscow might release information to damage Clinton.
Senior intelligence officials objected to Ratcliffe’s disclosure of the Brennan notes and the referral to the FBI in part because they worried it could reveal sensitive information about sources and methods of intelligence-gathering, according to people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations.
Ratcliffe’s defenders said he has been careful to balance the president’s direction to declassify more information with the need to protect intelligence operations.
“Director Ratcliffe’s top priority is our nation’s security. 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,” said Amanda Schoch, the assistant DNI for strategic communications.
Cliff Sims, Ratcliffe’s senior adviser, said: “Frankly, a lot of this is projection. 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 has also provided about 1,000 pages documents to the Justice Department as part of U.S. Attorney John Durham’s investigation of the FBI probe. The documents remain classified.
“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.
The Brennan notes and referral that Ratcliffe did disclose were subjects of an interagency discussion involving the CIA, FBI and the National Security Agency and reflects a compromise about how much to reveal publicly without jeopardizing intelligence operations, people familiar with the matter said.
Those compromises didn’t satisfy some intelligence veterans.
“The problem is that it taints the reliability of the intelligence process,” said Thad Troy, who served in the CIA’s clandestine service for more than 30 years and was chief of station in four countries, including two of the CIA’s largest posts in Europe.
“These kinds of disclosures will cause sources to consider deeply what information they share with the U.S.,” Troy said. “And CIA operations officers themselves might also question how and what information to report back to headquarters for dissemination to the community if they feared it was going to be used in any kind of partisan manner. The whole system gets corrupted.”
The CIA referred the intelligence to the FBI as a possible counterintelligence concern. It’s not clear what the FBI may have found — former director James B. Comey testified recently that the had no memory of the referral — but Clinton’s efforts to tie Trump to a burgeoning public scandal amounted to campaign politics and were not a matter for the FBI to investigate, people familiar with the matter said.
What’s more, Trump had tied himself to Russian interference when he invited Russia to meddle in the election by locating emails that Clinton said she had deleted from a private server.
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he said during a news conference in Florida on July 27.