Did Intelligence Officials Politicize Russiagate?

A recent series of articles in the Columbia Journalism Review details a “symbiotic relationship” between the media and the intelligence community

FBI Director James Comey, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan before the Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee in 2017. Image Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In his critique of the media’s performance on “Russiagate” for the Columbia Journalism Review, journalist Jeff Gerth provides a detailed account of shoddy reporting, confirmation bias and wishful thinking, especially from The New York Times. Although not the main focus of Gerth’s expose, the intelligence community’s performance also comes under scrutiny in this account. Indeed, his story reveals the “symbiotic relationship between the media and the national security apparatus,” especially the mutual reliance on leaks and “anonymous sources” and “senior U.S. government officials.”

But more significantly, Gerth’s article underscores how central to the Russiagate story was the fateful decision by intelligence community leadership to give credence to the “Steele Dossier,” opposition research commissioned by Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign aimed at disparaging her rival Donald Trump. The article raises renewed questions about the judgment and motivation of senior intelligence officials in 2017. While questions remain, six years later, we now have a clearer idea of what happened and how much the scandal damaged the intelligence community’s credibility.

The genesis of the Russiagate story is well known. The Clinton campaign began publicly accusing Donald Trump of having Russia ties in the summer of 2016. Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s emails demonstrated that the intelligence community had underestimated the threat. Russian contacts of some Trump campaign aids and the candidate’s own ill-advised statements about Russian President Vladimir Putin made the idea of a collusion conspiracy at least plausible. That summer, former acting CIA director Michael Morell, a Clinton ally, asserted that Putin had recruited Trump as “an unwilling agent of the Russian federation.” At roughly the same time, FBI director James Comey launched a counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign, known as “Crossfire Hurricane.”

On December 5, 2016, President Obama ordered a quick assessment of Russian influence during the election campaign, to be delivered shortly before President-elect Trump’s inauguration. The CIA would lead the analysis, with contributions from the FBI and NSA, and directed by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). Shortly after work began, a government official leaked to The Washington Post that this Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) would state that Russia wanted Trump to win. Initially, Gerth notes, the FBI believed Russian hacking intended to disrupt the election rather than support a specific candidate, a typical Russian “active measures” or disinformation campaign. But later it signed on to the ICA’s conclusion that the Russians wanted to help Trump win.

On January 6, 2017, at Trump Tower in Manhattan, three intelligence chiefs and director of national intelligence, James Clapper, briefed President-elect Trump on Russia’s attempt to disrupt the election for his benefit. Gerth reports the FBI wanted the dossier’s reporting included in the ICA, but the CIA had reservations. CIA director John Brennan claimed it didn’t inform the report’s analytic judgments, although NSA director Mike Rogers acknowledged the dossier was included in the intelligence product’s review. An unclassified version of the ICA was released the same day with the same conclusions.

President-elect Trump had welcomed intelligence community briefings, despite his public criticism of some of its past conclusions and controversies. In his insightful book “Getting To Know the President,” respected CIA historian and former agency inspector general John Helgerson relates how Trump in the briefing respectfully acknowledged the ICA’s message that Russia attempted to interfere with the election.

In a follow-on private meeting with Trump, Comey briefed the president-elect on the Steele dossier itself, which claimed, among other things, that Trump had worked closely with Moscow to discredit Clinton. In his memoir “A Higher Loyalty,” Comey believed he had a duty to warn Trump about the contents. This was a fateful decision, because it is clear from Gerth’s and Helgerson’s accounts that Trump’s reaction to the dossier soured his relationship with the intelligence community.

The Dodgy Dossier

The Steele dossier, a 35-page collection of raw reporting from vague and unnamed sources, was compiled by retired British intelligence operative Christopher Steele, who had also cooperated in the past with the FBI. His report argued that Trump and Russia were colluding to smear presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and to assist his own campaign. Among its wilder claims was that gas firm Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin offered Trump campaign volunteer Carter Page and other Trump allies the brokerage rights to 19% of the company to get Russian sanctions lifted. The dossier also asserted Russian spies had the goods on Trump, possessing a tape of his sexual activities in a Moscow hotel.

The dossier’s unidentified sourcing, fuzzy details and “too-good-to-be-true” claims should have been enough to dismiss it as a legitimate intelligence source. When it cropped up in the media, I was working for a private intelligence firm. We recognized the dubious reporting right from the start. One of the firm’s partners joked that we should call Chris Steele and ask for the list of his clients, because he wouldn’t be needing them anymore. According to Barry Meier in his book “Spooked,“ many private intelligence professionals had similar reactions to the dossier’s shoddiness. It was no surprise to later learn that the dossier was complied by one single source, who reported barroom talk from contacts with limited or no access to Trump campaign staffers or senior Russian officials, and which Steele then wrote up, no questions asked.

Most of the media also doubted the veracity of the dossier, although Fusion GPT, the firm that originally hired Steele, and Steele himself hawked the story aggressively with some media outlets. According to Gerth, Bob Woodward disparaged the dossier as “garbage reporting,” and thought The Washington Post should ignore it.

Some FBI agents were already moving in that direction. Meier notes that a senior FBI official told him that from the start they couldn’t take the dossier seriously. Through its “Crossfire Hurricane” investigation, by late 2016 the FBI already knew that the dossier’s key allegation of a Trump backchannel to Moscow was false. Gerth says the Bureau urged Steele to corroborate the dossier, but he failed to do it.

Despite the fact that the dossier’s credibility was falling apart, the FBI still thought it should be added to an important intelligence assessment. And according to the 2019 FBI Inspector General report, it also improperly used the dossier to justify a warrant to wiretap an American citizen, Trump campaign volunteer Carter Page. In fact, FBI leadership decided their application with the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Court would have failed without the dossier as evidence. And they failed to explain to the court that the allegations they were pulling from the dossier were paid for by Trump’s political rivals.

Linking the dodgy dossier to a finished intelligence community assessment was poor analytic tradecraft. Comey, whose FBI had once seen Steele as a valued confidential source, officially sanctioned the dossier by reviewing its contents with Trump and having it appended to the ICA. In his own memoir, Clapper also credits the dossier as coming from a reliable source. Clapper insists that by briefing the president-elect, he and the other intelligence leaders were doing their duty to “speak truth to power” despite its contents being “politically inconvenient.” But coupling the dossier’s sensational message with the rest of the sober-minded, well-sourced ICA gave weight to the dossier and thus to the collusion theory.

A Disputed Assessment

Although the media covered the ICA uncritically, as Gerth relates, not all experts agreed with the ICA’s conclusion that Russia aimed to help Trump. Russia expert Masha Gessen thought the intelligence agencies misread Putin’s alleged support for Trump and considered the supporting points in the ICA to be based on conjecture or even a mistranslation. A strong Putin critic, Gessen thought it was overreaching to portray Trump as “some sort of foreign agent rather than a home-grown demagogue.” Similarly, Russia journalist David Satter opined the dossier looked like Russian disinformation and that the ICA only established that Russia was continuing in its attempts to undermine our political system.

Some senior CIA analysts also disagreed with the ICA’s assessment that Russia favored Trump. Brennan acknowledged in his memoir “Undaunted” that two senior CIA managers pushed back on the analytic line. Former CIA director Mike Pompeo, who attended the briefing, believed the Russia disruption effort was real but considered the assessment a political document rather than an objective analysis. In his recent memoir, “Never Give an Inch,” Pompeo also says Clapper, Comey and Brennan sought “to provide a foundational myth that Trump and his team were tainted by Russian ties.” As director he discovered that “senior analysts who had been working on Russia for nearly their entire careers were made bystanders” in the ICA drafting process. CIA analysts objected to the dossier being in the assessment, but Brennan and Comey compromised and put a summary of it in the classified versions annex, a fact Brennan acknowledges in his own account.

With the briefing and the ICA, the intelligence community, wittingly or not, had given the media the green light to proceed with publishing the dossier. According to Gerth, “The dam broke two days later when CNN disclosed the Comey briefing.” Hours later, BuzzFeed News posted the full dossier. “Both outlets cited the government use of the dossier to justify their going ahead,” Gerth writes.

After the briefing leak, Trump complained to his intelligence briefer that the intelligence community “was out to destroy him.” He believed the community was behind the dossier itself, according to Helgerson’s book “Getting To Know the President.” Some media accounts supported this suspicion about the use of the dossier. Gerth cites reporter Richard Engel who said a senior source told him the intelligence community wanted to drop the dossier on Trump to “put him on notice” about his alleged Russia ties.

Having retired senior intelligence officers like Morell attack him in the media probably contributed to Trump’s conclusion that they were out to get him. Moreover, in an unprecedented move, still-CIA director Brennan had publicly criticized President-elect Trump over his intention to abandon the Iran nuclear agreement, calling it “disastrous,” according to Helgerson, a political intervention that raised eyebrows at the CIA.

Original Sin

If Moscow intended to stoke America’s disunity, these intelligence agency heads may have unwittingly contributed to it. Former acting CIA director Morell later acknowledged to journalist David Rohde that the public attacks by senior retired intelligence officials on Trump led to the perception that the CIA was political and violated the Church-era norms of keeping intelligence agencies out of politics. And in a book warning about Trump’s own politicization of intelligence, former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden admitted many Americans probably perceive leaders like himself as “the public voice of a deep state intelligence community.”

But including the dossier in an important intelligence assessment was the original sin of the Russiagate affair. Likewise, the haste in delivering an ICA to the president-elect that questioned the legitimacy of his victory suggests, but does not prove, a political motive. (Trump and his allies certainly saw it as such.) Brennan’s previous public criticism of Trump doesn’t necessarily mean he tried to influence the ICA’s message, but his partisanship hurt its credibility. Intelligence community leaders would have been wise to take more time and ensure more analysts’ views were included in the process, if not to produce a better analysis, then at least to avoid the appearance of bias.

Politicization remains a lingering issue in the intelligence community . The ODNI’s ombudsman report of 2021 cited not only politicization on the part of Trump’s intelligence officials—who were still pushing back on the Russiagate narrative—but also on the part of rank-and-file analysts, not political appointees, who opposed the president’s foreign policy agenda.

As for the FBI, perception of politicization can be especially damaging. After all, field agents need to maintain a trusted relationship with the general public to carry on their work. Since 2017, according to a Gallup poll last October, fewer than a third of Republicans and fewer than half of all independents think the FBI is doing a good or excellent job. The CIA and FBI’s rating with the public took a serious hit during the peak Russiagate years, and although it has improved lately, it is not back to where it was before 2016. New intelligence community leadership seems to want to reinforce their institutions’ former apolitical role, but that conviction hasn’t been stress-tested.

Finally, the Russiagate story demonstrated how much Russia’s disinformation campaigns rely on uncritical journalism and partisan intelligence leadership. In his useful book on Russian disinformation “Active Measures,” Thomas Rid quotes a former spy as saying, “what would active measures be without the journalist?” And where would active measures be without an intelligence community that ignores sound analytic tradecraft?

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