Comments made by Attorney General William Barr about extraordinary arrangements regarding the original handling of the Russia investigation may take on more significance in light of a previous report showing a high and unusual degree of compartmentalization in the Obama-era intelligence community’s initial intel set up of the Russia probe.
In an interview with Fox News that aired Friday, Barr commented that the intelligence community’s early handling of the Russia investigation may raise questions. He noted it was first handled at a “very senior level” and then by a “small group.”
The thing that’s interesting about this is that this was handled at a very senior level of these departments. It wasn’t handled in the ordinary way that investigations or counterintelligence activities are conducted. It was sort of an ad hoc, small group — and most of these people are no longer with the FBI or the CIA or the other agencies involved. I think there’s a misconception out there that we know a lot about what happened. The fact of the matter is, Bob Mueller did not look at the government’s activities.
Deep inside a 7,700-plus word Washington Postarticle published June 23, 2017, the newspaper detailed the highly compartmentalized nature of the original Russia interference investigation and the manner in which other U.S. intelligence agencies were deliberately kept in the dark.
According to the newspaper, in the summer of 2016, CIA Director John Brennan convened a “secret task force at CIA headquarters composed of several dozen analysts and officers from the CIA, the NSA and the FBI.”
The Post described the unit as so secretive it functioned as a “sealed compartment” hidden even from the rest of the U.S. intelligence community; a unit whose workers were all made to sign additional non-disclosure forms.
The unit reported to top officials, the newspaper documented:
They worked exclusively for two groups of “customers,” officials said. The first was Obama and fewer than 14 senior officials in government. The second was a team of operations specialists at the CIA, NSA and FBI who took direction from the task force on where to aim their subsequent efforts to collect more intelligence on Russia.
The number of Obama administration officials who were allowed access to the Russia intelligence was also highly limited, The Post reported. At first only four senior officials were involved: Brennan, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Attorney General Loretta Lynch and then-FBI Director James Comey. Their aides were all barred from attending the initial meetings, The Post stated.
The newspaper continued :
Gradually, the circle widened to include Vice President Biden and others. Agendas sent to Cabinet secretaries — including John F. Kerry at the State Department and Ashton B. Carter at the Pentagon — arrived in envelopes that subordinates were not supposed to open. Sometimes the agendas were withheld until participants had taken their seats in the Situation Room.
Adding another layer of secrecy, the newspaper reported that when the closed Cabinet sessions on Russia began in the White House Situation Room in August, the video feed from the main room was cut off during the meetings.
The feed, which allows only for video and not audio, is usually kept on so that senior aides can see when a meeting takes place.
The paper reported:
The blacked-out screens were seen as an ominous sign among lower-level White House officials who were largely kept in the dark about the Russia deliberations even as they were tasked with generating options for retaliation against Moscow.
The compartmentalization may help to explain why it was only Brennan’s CIA, Comey’s FBI and the NSA that penned the January 6, 2017 U.S. Intelligence Community report alleging Russian interference in the presidential race. Numerous news media reports originally falsely claimed the report was authored by all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies.
In the IC report, the NSA assessed the conclusion that Putin favored Trump and worked to get him elected only with a classification of “moderate confidence,” while the FBI and CIA gave it a “high confidence” rating.
A Republican House Intelligence Committee’s 250-page report on alleged Russian collusion released in April of last year raised questions about the “high confidence” assessment by the FBI and CIA, perhaps shedding some light on why the NSA didn’t share the conclusion when it came to Russian intentions regarding Trump during the election.
The House report found that the IC assessment of Putin’s strategic intentions for allegedly interfering in the U.S. election to aid Trump “did not employ proper analytic tradecraft” and contained “significant intelligence tradecraft failings that undermine confidence” in the judgments, including the failure to “be independent of political considerations.”
Clapper, Brennan feud over dossier and IC report
Comey, Brennan and Clapper are the subjects of a dispute over which top Obama administration officials advocated for the infamous Christopher Steele dossier to be utilized as evidence in the Russia collusion investigation.
The argument erupted into the open with a Brennan surrogate being quoted in the news media last week opposing Comey not long after Barr appointed a U.S. attorney to investigate the origins of the Russia collusion claims.
The Steele dossier was produced by the controversial Fusion GPS firm, which was paid for the dossier work by Trump’s main political opponents, namely Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) via the Perkins Coie law firm.
The fiasco was kicked into high gear after Fox News cited “sources familiar with the records” pointing to an email chain from late-2016 showing Comey allegedly telling FBI employees that it was Brennan who insisted that the anti-Trump dossier be included in a January 6, 2017 U.S. Intelligence Community report, known as the ICA, assessing Russian interference efforts.
A former CIA official, clearly defending Brennan, shot back at the assertion, instead claiming that it was Brennan and Clapper who opposed a purported push by Comey to include the dossier charges in the ICA.
“Former Director Brennan, along with former [Director of National Intelligence] James Clapper, are the ones who opposed James Comey’s recommendation that the Steele Dossier be included in the intelligence report,” the official told Fox News.
“They opposed this because the dossier was in no way used to develop the ICA,” the official added. “The intelligence analysts didn’t include it when they were doing their work because it wasn’t corroborated intelligence, therefore it wasn’t used and it wasn’t included. Brennan and Clapper prevented it from being added into the official assessment. James Comey then decided on his own to brief Trump about the document.”
The official was addressing the reported email from Comey fingering Brennan as insisting that the dossier be utilized in the ICA report on Russian interference.
Discussing the issue during a segment on Fox News, former GOP Rep. Trey Gowdy said on “The Story with Martha MacCallum” that “Comey has a better argument than Brennan, based on what I’ve seen.”
One day earlier, Gowdey stated on Fox News, “Whoever is looking into this, tell them to look into emails” from December 2016 concerning both Brennan and Comey.
Gowdy told Fox News, where he is now a contributor, that his comments on the matter were based on sensitive documents that he reviewed while he served as chairman of the Republican-led House Oversight Committee.
Contrary to the ex-CIA official’s assertion that the dossier was not included in the intel community’s ICA Russia report, there have been testimony and media statements involving key players saying that it was part of the overall assessment.
Last December, Comey outright contradicted Brennan’s own testimony that the anti-Trump dossier was, as Brennan put it, “not in any way used as the basis for the intelligence community’s assessment” that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
In testimony before the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees, Comey stated that material from the Steele dossier was indeed utilized in the IC report. Internally, the FBI referred to the dossier as “crown material.”
“So do you recall whether any quote, crown material or dossier material was included in the IC assessment?” Gowdy asked Comey at the time.
“Yes,” Comey replied. “I’m going to be careful here because I’m talking about a document that’s still classified. The unclassified thing we talked about earlier today, the first paragraph you can see of exhibit A, is reflective of the fact that at least some of the material that Steele had collected was in the big thing called the intelligence community assessment in an annex called annex A.”
Annex A in the report was titled, “Russia—Kremlin’s TV Seeks To Influence Politics, Fuel Discontent in US.”
The annex, like the rest of the report, contains the following disclaimer:
This report is a declassified version of a highly classified assessment; its conclusions are identical to those in the highly classified assessment but this version does not include the full supporting information on key elements of the influence campaign.
Comey went on to describe a conversation that he said he had with Brennan about how to include the dossier material in the IC assessment:
Gowdy: Do you recall the specific conversation or back and forth with then-Director Brennan on whether or not the material should be included in the IC assessment?
Comey. Yes. I remember conversation — let me think about it for a second. I remember there was conversation about what form its presentation should take in the overarching document; that is, should it be in an annex; should it be in the body; that the intelligence community broadly found its source credible and that it was corroborative of the central thesis of the intelligence community assessment, and the discussion was should we put it in the body or put it in an attachment.
I’m hesitating because I don’t remember whether I had that conversation — I had that conversation with John Brennan, but I remember that there was conversation about how it should be treated.
Comey’s descriptions are at direct odds with a statement Brennan made during May 2017 testimony before the House Intelligence Committee in which Brennan claimed the dossier was “not in any way used as the basis for the intelligence community’s assessment” on alleged Russian interference. Brennan repeated that claim during numerous news media interviews.
Comey is not the only former top official involved in the IC report to say that the dossier played a role in the report’s conclusions.
As RealClearPolitics.com documents, former NSA Director Rogers wrote in a classified letter that the dossier played a role in the IC’s assessment and a dossier summary was included in an initial draft appendix:
In a March 5, 2018, letter to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, Adm. Rogers informed the committee that a two-page summary of the dossier — described as “the Christopher Steele information” — was “added” as an “appendix to the ICA draft,” and that consideration of that appendix was “part of the overall ICA review/approval process.”
Meanwhile Clapper, who served as director of National Intelligence under the Obama administration, conceded during a previous CNN interview that the IC assessment was able to corroborate “some of the substantive content of the dossier,” implying that the dossier itself was a factor.
“I think with respect to the dossier itself, the key thing is it doesn’t matter who paid for it,” Clapper said. “It’s what the dossier said and the extent to which it was — it’s corroborated or not. We had some concerns about it from the standpoint of its sourcing which we couldn’t corroborate.”
“But at the same time, some of the substantive content, not all of it, but some of the substantive content of the dossier, we were able to corroborate in our Intelligence Community assessment which from other sources in which we had very high confidence to it,” he added.
It was Clapper’s agency that released the Intelligence Community report.