Ratcliffe declassified intelligence from 2016, which showed that Russian intelligence analysts then believed the Clinton campaign planned on linking Republican then-candidate Trump to Russia’s hack of the Democratic National Committee. Ratcliffe added that then-CIA Director John Brennan briefed President Barack Obama on the intelligence and that the CIA referred the matter to the FBI. Last week, Ratcliffe released heavily redacted versions of Brennan’s notes of his briefing of Obama and the CIA referral to the FBI.
The president’s political allies have taken this information even further, arguing that the allegation of Russian interference in the 2016 election was concocted by the Clinton campaign. Vice President Pence made this exact point during the vice-presidential debate last week after Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) correctly pointed out that Russia interfered to help then-candidate Trump in 2016.
We have four reactions to the specific intelligence released by Ratcliffe. First, it does not show that the Clinton campaign created the story of Russian interference in the election or that there was a plan linking Trump to the hack of the Democratic National Committee. It shows only that Russian analysts believed there was. Big difference.
Second, there is good reason to believe that the intelligence itself is Russian disinformation. Our experience tells us that it most likely is. Indeed, Ratcliffe’s declassified letter carried the following caveat: “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.”
Third, Brennan has since publicly stated that he briefed the information to Obama not because he thought Clinton had done something wrong but because he wanted to highlight for the president the CIA’s collection capabilities and because he wanted to send the message that the CIA was going to follow intelligence no matter who the candidate happened to be. The CIA, Brennan wanted to demonstrate, was in no way politicizing its work on the 2016 election.
Fourth, Brennan has also strongly hinted that the referral to the FBI dealt with another matter contained in the same stream of intelligence. And he has correctly pointed out that even if the Russian analysts were right that Clinton wanted to use the Russian attack on our democracy politically, it would in no way be a crime. It would not require the CIA to make a referral to the FBI. And it would not require an FBI investigation.
So, what is really going on here? It seems that this is a simple attempt to distract voters from the issues dragging down Trump’s reelection campaign, namely the government’s response to covid-19 and the accompanying economic depression.
This also seems to be another attempt by the Trump administration to argue that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 election because the president somehow sees that as calling the legitimacy of his victory into question. It is as if the president is still standing in Helsinki accepting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials over the view of his own intelligence officers.
If this is just politics, why are two career intelligence officers writing about it? Because Trump and Ratcliffe are using the intelligence community as a political weapon.
Not only is such politicization directly contrary to the values of the intelligence community, it is inconsistent with the promise Ratcliffe made to the Senate Intelligence Committee during his confirmation hearings that he would not have a political agenda in the job.
He either lied at the time or changed his mind. Two of his predecessors under Trump — Dan Coats and Joseph Maguire — were under similar pressure to politicize intelligence, and they did not cave. It seems Ratcliffe did; in fact, it seems he led the charge. In either case, we think both Republicans and Democrats should demand his resignation.
If people believe that our intelligence community is politicized, it will lose its credibility. Its views on important issues will carry less weight with policymakers and the American people, and it will therefore be less effective in warning of threats to our national security. We will all be less safe as a result.