Over the past few months, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, GOP senators, U.S. lobbyists and pro-Trump media organizations have been working with Russian intelligence agents to launder Russian disinformation about the Bidens and Ukraine’s alleged involvement in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. This effort is “probably” directed by Russian President Vladimir Putin himself, according to a secret CIA assessment I revealed in September.
Now, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe is working to spread Russian intelligence directly— without even bothering to launder it. On Sept. 29, he sent a letter to Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) in which he announced that he was declassifying a Russian intelligence assessment obtained by the U.S. intelligence community in late July 2016. The Russian assessment described an alleged Clinton campaign effort to “stir up a scandal” by tying then-candidate Donald Trump to Putin and Russia’s hack of the Democratic National Committee.
Ratcliffe’s letter didn’t actually say Hillary Clinton was responsible for spurring the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign’s connections with Russia, but Trump made the link that same night — in his debate with Joe Biden. Referring to the letter, Trump said: “You saw what happened today with Hillary Clinton, where it was a whole big con job.” Ratcliffe’s letter said the intelligence community didn’t know the accuracy of the Russian intel or to what extent it was “exaggeration or fabrication.” He later clarified that he doesn’t think it was “disinformation.”
On Tuesday, Ratcliffe released heavily redacted declassified notes about the Russian intelligence assessment from then-CIA Director John Brennan and a heavily redacted copy of an investigative referral sent to then-FBI Director James B. Comey and then-Deputy Assistant Director of Counterintelligence Peter Strzok about the Russian intelligence.
Pro-Trump media outlets have suggested that this Russian intel assessment adds evidence to their claim that Moscow fed former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele disinformation, prompting the FBI investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Pro-Trump lawmakers immediately celebrated the latest disclosures as a “smoking gun,” pointing to Clinton’s supposed guilt and the FBI’s refusal to investigate the Russian information.
But Strzok, who helped lead that investigation until he was fired in 2018, told me in an interview that the Ratcliffe letter offers zero new evidence that would support Trump’s claims about Clinton. Also, Strzok said, it’s impossible to know for sure what the Russians were talking about, because Ratcliffe didn’t release any information about the underlying Russian sourcing or reporting.
“There’s not anything nefarious there. [Trump’s allies] are trying to claim that Clinton spun all this up,” he said. “This is clearly false. Her campaign did not. Yes, they were highlighting the links between Trump and Russia, but that was obvious to everyone at the time.”
Brennan said Tuesday on CNN that there was nothing illegal about what Clinton was doing, even if the Russian assessment was true. “It was a campaign activity,” he said, which would not have warranted any FBI investigation.
The theory that Clinton and Steele were the source of the FBI investigation, a theory Trump often repeats, doesn’t make any sense, said Strzok. In his new book “Compromised: Counterintelligence and the Threat of Donald J. Trump,” Strzok details exactly how the FBI investigation started in 2016. An allied government informed U.S. officials that Trump aide George Papadopoulos had told an Australian diplomat Moscow had compromising information on Clinton and was offering to work with the Trump campaign to publicize it. The information from the Steele dossier came to the FBI after that.
CIA Director Gina Haspel and National Security Agency Director Paul Nakasone reportedly opposed Ratcliffe’s decision to selectively declassify information about the Russian intelligence assessment, because they believe such releases risk exposing the U.S. intelligence community’s sources and methods. Strzok told me Ratcliffe is only releasing the bits about the Russian assessment that fit Trump’s narrative, while withholding the source information, which might undermine its credibility.
“Even that letter is going to harm our intelligence community’s ability to gather intelligence and to recruit sources in particular,” he said, adding that if Ratcliffe released the sourcing information, it’s “likely going to point to the fact that these reports are not the smoking gun Ratcliffe and others want you to believe.”
The fact that Ratcliffe is willing to release sketchy Russian information from 2016 but won’t be transparent with Congress about Russian interference efforts in 2020 shows that he is prioritizing politics over national security, Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), a member of the Intelligence Committee, told me. Ratcliffe is giving the world — including the Russians — key insight into U.S. intelligence collection on Russia.
“It’s a betrayal of the fundamental premise of classification — don’t let your adversaries know what you know,” said King. “My larger concern is over the politicization of the intelligence community — it’s one of the worst things that can happen to the country.”
There’s no doubt the U.S. intelligence community made mistakes in 2016, but it is still more reliable than Putin’s, no matter what Trump or Ratcliffe says. The Trump team’s efforts to help Russia undermine confidence in our own government must end.