President Trump’s new executive order giving the attorney general broad authority to declassify government secrets threatens to expose U.S. intelligence sources and could distort the FBI and CIA’s roles in investigating Russian interference in the 2016 elections, current and former U.S. officials said.
On Thursday, Trump allowed Attorney General William P. Barr to declassify information he finds during his review of what the White House called “surveillance activities during the 2016 Presidential election.”
Trump has long complained that the U.S. government engaged in illegal “spying” on his campaign, alleging without evidence that his phones were tapped and that American officials conspired with British counterparts in an effort to undermine his bid for the White House.
It appeared unprecedented to give an official who is not in charge of an intelligence agency the power to reveal its secrets. Current and former intelligence officials said they were concerned that Barr could selectively declassify information that paints the intelligence agencies and the FBI in a bad light without giving a complete picture of their efforts in 2016.
Officials are also concerned about the possible compromise of intelligence sources, including those deep inside the Russian government.
Ordinarily, any review of intelligence activities would be done by the Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats. But in giving that authority to Barr, the president has turned to someone he perceives as a loyalist and who has already said that he thinks the government spied on the Trump campaign.
“This is a complete slap in the face to the director of national intelligence,” said James Baker, the former FBI general counsel. “So why is the attorney general doing the investigation? Probably because the president trusts the attorney general more,” said Baker, now a director at the R Street Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.
Trump has never considered Coats a close or effective adviser, and earlier this year administration officials said they thought the president might fire him.
Michael Morell, a former CIA deputy director, called it “potentially dangerous” to let Barr decide what to declassify, because “the DNI is in the best position to judge the damage to intelligence sources and methods.”
“This is yet another destruction of norms that weakens our intelligence community,” said Morell, now the host of the Intelligence Matters podcast. “It is yet another step that will raise questions among our allies and partners about whether to share sensitive intelligence with us.”
Trump told reporters Friday that the Russia probe was “an attempted coup or an attempted takedown of the president of the United States.” He said he hoped Barr would investigate several foreign countries, including two of the United States’ closest allies.
“I hope he looks at the U.K. and I hope he looks at Australia and I hope he looks at Ukraine,” Trump said. “I hope he looks at everything, because there was a hoax that was perpetrated on our country.”
Others questioned whether Barr would take intelligence officials’ advice or act on his own when deciding what he might make public.
“The part of this order that I find the most troubling says that the attorney general should consult with intelligence community elements on declassification ‘to the extent he deems it practicable,’ ” said Robert Litt, who is a former general counsel for the office of the director of national intelligence and is now with the law firm Morrison & Foerster. “He apparently doesn’t have to consult with them if he thinks that would be impracticable.”
In a statement, Coats signaled that he expected Barr and the agencies to work together.
“Much like we have with other investigations and reviews, the Intelligence Community will provide the Department of Justice all of the appropriate information for its review of intelligence activities related to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election,” Coats said. “As part of that process, I am confident that the Attorney General will work with the IC in accordance with the long-established standards to protect highly-sensitive classified information that, if publicly released, would put our national security at risk.”
A senior official said Barr has expressed concerns privately that the CIA may not have done much to try to use its own source networks in Russia to figure out whether allegations in a document written by British former intelligence officer Christopher Steele were accurate.
Trump and his allies in Congress have seized on the document, often called “the dossier,” as evidence that the Obama administration built an investigation of Trump predicated on unsubstantiated and salacious claims.
A former senior CIA official said the dossier played no role in an intelligence community assessment, released in January 2017, that concluded Russia tried to help Trump win.
“First, the CIA was falsely accused of using the dossier in the [assessment], and once people finally realized they did not use it, now the CIA is being criticized for not investigating the dossier,” said the former official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.
“It is not the CIA’s job to investigate a document that was in the hands of the FBI and floating around the media,” the former official said. “The CIA was focused on trying to identify what the Russians were doing to interfere in our election. The FBI is who was focused on counterintelligence concerns with respect to U.S. persons.”
Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III found that the FBI began an investigation into potential coordination between Russia and Trump campaign associates in July 2016, after an Australian diplomat told U.S. officials that a Trump adviser claimed to know about incriminating information Russia possessed about Hillary Clinton. Earlier that month, emails that Russian government hackers stole from the Democratic National Committee had been published by WikiLeaks.
Republican lawmakers have previously demanded information about the FBI investigation that has revealed the identity of an informant and led to the partial disclosure of an application for surveillance of a former Trump campaign aide, Carter Page. Those disclosures came after lengthy negotiations between Justice Department officials and members of Congress.
Now, Barr has the authority to declassify such information on his own.
“This extraordinary assignment and the reaction it has provoked shows how far we have moved from historical norms,” said David Kris, a former head of the national security division at the Justice Department and the founder of Culper Partners, a consulting firm. “Since the mid-1970s, the country has expected the attorney general to help oversee and enforce a system of intelligence under law, appropriately respectful of privacy and rigorously apolitical.
“Now, because of the president’s relentless efforts to politicize law enforcement, many observers fear that the attorney general is a threat to apolitical intelligence under law.”
Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.