In­tel­li­gence chiefs’ botched Rus­sia find­ings raise ques­tions of mo­tive Re­port holds no ev­i­dence of DNC hack­ing op­er­a­tion to elect Trump

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY DAN BOY­LAN AND GUY TAY­LOR

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

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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.

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