Intelligence chiefs’ botched Russia findings raise questions of motive Report holds no evidence of DNC hacking operation to elect Trump
Fourteen days before President Trump took the oath of office, the Obama administration’s intelligence chiefs made public a unanimous assessment claiming Russian operatives, under orders from President Vladimir Putin, had orchestrated an influence campaign to help Mr. Trump win the presidential contest.
It was a watershed moment: the CIA, National Security Agency and FBI challenging the legitimacy of a U.S. presidential victory.
The conclusions in the Jan. 6 document were sharp, but the findings unraveled 10 months later, raising questions about the basis for the evidence and the motives of the Obama appointees leading the nation’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
“It left me scratching my head,” said one intelligence source with personal access to former Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper and former CIA Director John O. Brennan, two of the men who had signed off on the assessment.
The 15-page document presented to the president-elect at Trump Tower in Manhattan was mostly filler — a republication of a years-old CIA analysis of the Kremlin’s global television network Russia Today. A mere five pages were dedicated to charges that Moscow blended cyberhacking with state-backed propaganda and social media trolls to defeat Mr. Trump’s Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
There was no supporting documentation of how America’s top spies arrived at the brazen conclusion that Russians had “gained access to” and “exfiltrated large volumes of data” from Democratic National Committee computers, an explosive claim that sent shock waves across the U.S. political and intelligence landscapes.
The five pages of the report have hung over Mr. Trump’s presidency ever since, hurting his credibility abroad and at home and shaping the narrative of five ongoing federal and congressional investigations into suspected Russian meddling, even though the document’s core conclusion looks increasingly weak in hindsight. Both Democrats and Republicans now say that Russian efforts were intended not to elect Mr. Trump but to sow chaos in American politics no matter who emerged as the victor.
In interviews The Washington Times conducted with more than a dozen U.S. intelligence and national security sources at the highest levels as well as foreign diplomats, the overlooked and disturbing question about the lack of evidence has emerged repeatedly.
“I actually called them both the day after it came out and asked, ‘Why was it so thin?’” said the source close to Mr. Clapper and Mr. Brennan. “The answer I got was simple: There was a serious counterintelligence operation going on.”
U.S. spies were neck-deep in an elaborate counterintelligence operation, and they didn’t want to jeopardize it by revealing too many details, according to various officials inside and outside the intelligence community. Mr. Trump saw it differently. To him, the Obama-era intelligence chiefs were conducting a political smear job of the highest order, and, based on their public report, they had nothing to back it up.
But intelligence sources said that since early 2015, when Washington first began grasping the scope of Russia’s meddling operation, a clandestine network of American operatives and their most trusted international allies had been scrambling to identify and counter threats to U.S. computer networks and government personnel.
They were covertly watching for Russian espionage, sabotage and, at the most extreme, blackmail. They also might have been using Mr. Trump as a chess piece in their counterintelligence game against the Kremlin, according to a veteran former U.S. intelligence strategist with decades of service.
Other sources said secrecy was paramount.
Stephen Slick, a former CIA Clandestine Service officer, told The Times that the Obama administration’s intelligence chiefs knew they would be taking a major risk by exposing the operation in a publicized assessment.
Mr. Slick, who now directs the Intelligence Studies Project at the University of Texas at Austin, said he had no specific knowledge of what went into the assessment and noted that the publicly released document was based on “a highly classified assessment that was longer”and much more detailed. But he is familiar with the sensitivities associated with counterintelligence.
“From the moment the Russian security services initiated these ‘active measures,’ they would have monitored closely the U.S. government’s reaction to learn if their involvement had been detected — and how,” said Mr. Slick, who served as special assistant to President George W. Bush. “In drafting the unclassified [Jan. 6 assessment], the authors were walking a fine line by including enough evidence to persuade readers that their conclusions were sound, but not enough data that would reveal the actual sources or the means by which they linked these activities to the Russian government.”
Mr. Clapper and Mr. Brennan declined repeated requests to comment for this report. Echoing Mr. Putin, Russian diplomats interviewed by The Times dismissed the entire hacking controversy as a politicized fraud designed to cover up Democratic Party infighting and the party’s stunning loss at the ballot box.
They ‘hated each other’
For years, scholars will debate what exactly occurred on Friday, Jan. 6, 2017, when Mr. Trump met in Trump Tower with the Obama-era intelligence chiefs for the first and last time.
Trump Tower is the Manhattan property developer’s crowning achievement and, upon his election victory, it drew an unprecedented parade of power and celebrity coming to meet the president-elect. Bill Gates showed up. So did hip-hop musician Kanye West, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and inventor Elon Musk.
Flamboyant headlines surrounded their appearances.
But no photos exist of that Friday visit by Mr. Clapper, Mr. Brennan, NSA Director Michael Rogers and FBI Director James B. Comey, whom Mr. Trump would fire five months later citing his unhappiness with the Russia meddling investigation. The four, who boasted almost 140 years of military, law enforcement and spying experience, had dodged the assembled paparazzi in the lobby before gathering for about two hours with Mr. Trump and his advisers in a Trump Tower conference room.
Mr. Comey said they visited Trump Tower not to explain to the president-elect their vision of the world, nor to outline future global threats. Instead, their sole purpose was to brief Mr. Trump on a sensitive and soon-to-be-published intelligence community assessment.
The atmosphere was not amicable. Simply put, the president-elect and President Obama’s intelligence chiefs “hated each other,” said a former official who worked with both camps.
Mr. Trump had first crossed swords with the Department of Justice as a young man while working for his property developer father, whom Washington lawyers accused of racially discriminatory housing practices. The younger Mr. Trump fought the charges for years, and the experience stuck with him.
During his victorious presidential campaign, Mr. Trump perfected the art of goosing the Washington establishment with personal insults, populist rants and tweets dismissing topics he disliked as “fake news.”
On repeated occasions, he insinuated that Obama-era intelligence operatives were trying to “rig the election” for Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. He also dismissed outright reports that the Kremlin had orchestrated hacks of the Democratic National Committee’s computer network in 2015 and 2016.
A massive documents dump to WikiLeaks in July 2016 of Democratic National Committee internal emails purportedly stolen in the hack exposed hypocrisy, pettiness and infighting between the camps of Mrs. Clinton and primary rival Bernard Sanders. The news had damaged Ms. Clinton’s credibility on the campaign trail, polls showed.
As Election Day approached, Mr. Trump suggested that the hack and the leak were products of Democratic Party infighting and perhaps even products of FBI or CIA foul play that had nothing to do with Russia.
Last month, Mr. Bennan’s successor, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, met privately with William Binney, the former intelligence official and whistleblower who published an analysis directly challenging the Russian hacking story and arguing that the DNC files were compromised by an employee inside the party organization. The Intercept.com said Mr. Pompeo — who has said he accepts the Russian hacking narrative — agreed to meet with Mr. Binney at the urging of Mr. Trump.
Mr. Binney told the website, “I was
FBI Director James B. Comey (left), with Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, was vague in Senate testimony about Russian intelligence activities, but it was shocking and perplexing in hallways of U.S. spy agencies.