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Opinion Secret CIA assessment: Putin ‘probably directing’ influence operation to denigrate Biden

President Trump, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires in 2018. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his top aides are “probably directing” a Russian foreign influence operation to interfere in the 2020 presidential election against former vice president Joe Biden, which involves a prominent Ukrainian lawmaker connected to President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, a top-secret CIA assessment concluded, according to two sources who reviewed it.

On Aug. 31, the CIA published an assessment of Russian efforts to interfere in the November election in an internal, highly classified report called the CIA Worldwide Intelligence Review, the sources said. CIA analysts compiled the assessment with input from the National Security Agency and the FBI, based on several dozen pieces of information gleaned from public, unclassified and classified intelligence sources. The assessment includes details of the CIA’s analysis of the activities of Ukrainian lawmaker Andriy Derkach to disseminate disparaging information about Biden inside the United States through lobbyists, Congress, the media and contacts with figures close to the president.

“We assess that President Vladimir Putin and the senior most Russian officials are aware of and probably directing Russia’s influence operations aimed at denigrating the former U.S. Vice President, supporting the U.S. president and fueling public discord ahead of the U.S. election in November,” the first line of the document says, according to the sources.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Treasury Department have identified Derkach as a Russian agent, but it has not been publicly reported that the CIA, NSA and FBI believed Putin may be personally directing the campaign. Derkach has denied working on behalf of Moscow.

The CIA assessment described Derkach’s efforts in detail and said that his activities have included working through lobbyists, members of Congress and U.S. media organizations to disseminate and amplify his anti-Biden information. Though it refers to Derkach’s interactions with a “prominent” person connected to the Trump campaign, the analysis does not identify the person. Giuliani, who has been working with Derkach publicly for several months, is not named in the assessment.

The CIA, NSA and FBI all declined to comment, but none of the three agencies disputed any of the details of this reporting. Details about the intelligence used to form the assessment have been withheld at the agencies’ request to protect sources and methods. The White House also declined to comment.

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On Sept. 10, following calls from Democratic lawmakers, the Treasury Department sanctioned Derkach, alleging that he “has been an active Russian agent for over a decade, maintaining close connections with the Russian Intelligence Services.” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a Sept. 10 statement that “Derkach and other Russian agents employ manipulation and deceit to attempt to influence elections in the United States and elsewhere around the world.” The Treasury Department stated Derkach “waged a covert influence campaign centered on cultivating false and unsubstantiated narratives concerning U.S. officials in the upcoming 2020 Presidential Election,” which he did by releasing edited audio tapes and other unsupported information that were then pushed in Western media.

On Aug. 7, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a statement from National Counterintelligence and Security Center Director William Evanina that named Derkach as part of a Russian effort to “denigrate” Biden by “spreading claims about corruption — including through publicizing leaked phone calls — to undermine former Vice President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party.”

Last week, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray referred to Evanina’s statement in testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee without referring to Derkach by name. Wray said the FBI was tracking “very active efforts” by Russia “to both sow divisiveness and discord, and I think the intelligence community has assessed this publicly, primarily to denigrate Vice President Biden.”

Trump responded to Wray by saying he was bothered the FBI director didn’t talk about China’s interference. ODNI has also reported that China and Iran are attempting to interfere in the U.S. political process. Trump has also personally promoted the anti-Biden information Derkach is peddling. On Aug. 18, Trump retweeted a since-banned Twitter user who posted part of a purported 2016 audio tape Derkach released this year of Biden speaking with then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

The tapes Derkach released appear to show Biden linking loan guarantees to the ouster of then-Ukrainian Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin, who was accused of corruption. Giuliani, who met with Derkach in Kiev in December and in New York this year, has claimed the tapes show Biden was working to protect his son Hunter, who at the time was on the board of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma. The released tapes show no such connection.

Giuliani has admitted Derkach provided him materials as part of Giuliani’s quest to prove wrongdoing by the Bidens and his contention that the Ukrainian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election on the side of the Democrats, including by sharing evidence of corruption implicating Trump’s second 2016 campaign chairman, Paul Manafort. Manafort was later convicted of tax and bank fraud related to his Ukraine work. Derkach published some of these materials on a public website he created.

Derkach told Politico in July that he passed along packets of materials to several lawmakers and White House officials. He said he notified Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) about the material. Johnson, Grassley and Graham have denied they received information from Derkach. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) has declined to comment on whether he received materials from Derkach. Democratic leaders wrote to Wray in July to demand a briefing based on concerns that members of Congress were being used to launder information as part of a foreign interference operation.

Johnson has launched an investigation into Biden and Burisma, the results of which could be released as early as this week. The State Department provided Johnson with more than 16,000 pages of information for his investigation months ago, but only shared those documents with Congress on Friday, following a subpoena by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.).

After meeting with Derkach in December, in the middle of Trump’s impeachment proceedings, Giuliani tweeted that U.S. aid to Ukraine might face a “major obstacle” if the Ukrainian government didn’t resolve his concerns about corruption. Giuliani and Derkach’s allegations against Biden were covered extensively by the One America News Network, which sent a correspondent with Giuliani to Kiev. In February, Giuliani interviewed Derkach on YouTube, where Derkach alleged that U.S. aid to Ukraine was misspent.

Even though Derkach is a former member of a pro-Russian party who attended the Dzerzhinsky Higher School of the KGB in Moscow, Giuliani has consistently defended his relationship with Derkach. Following the Treasury Department’s announcement sanctioning Derkach, Giuliani told the New York Times he had “no reason to believe [Derkach] is a Russian agent,” but added, “How the hell would I know?”

Engel told me he is not surprised to learn that parts of the intelligence community have concluded Putin is directly trying to help Trump’s election campaign, again. But he called on the administration to publicly release these findings.

“What’s most infuriating is that the administration seems to be doing everything it can to hide the facts from Congress and the American people,” he said. “The president seems to be trying to turn the entire executive branch into an arm of his reelection campaign, dangerously politicizing foreign policy and intelligence.”

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Jennifer Rubin: Russia is actively helping Trump. Again.

Richard Blumenthal: The threat to U.S. elections is real, and frightening. The public has a right to know.