In the waning days of the Obama administration, the U.S. intelligence community produced a report saying Russian President Vladimir Putin had tried to swing the 2016 election to Donald Trump. The January 2017 report, called an Intelligence Community Assessment, followed months of leaks to the media that had falsely suggested illicit ties between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin while also revealing that such contacts were the subject of a federal investigation. Its release cast a pall of suspicion over Trump just days before he took office, setting the tone for the unfounded allegations of conspiracy and treason that have engulfed his first term. The ICA’s blockbuster finding was presented to the public as the consensus view of
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In the waning days of the Obama administration, the U.S. intelligence community produced a report saying Russian President Vladimir Putin had tried to swing the 2016 election to Donald Trump.
The January 2017 report, called an Intelligence Community Assessment, followed months of leaks to the media that had falsely suggested illicit ties between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin while also revealing that such contacts were the subject of a federal investigation. Its release cast a pall of suspicion over Trump just days before he took office, setting the tone for the unfounded allegations of conspiracy and treason that have engulfed his first term.
The ICA’s blockbuster finding was presented to the public as the consensus view of the nation’s intelligence community. As events have unfolded, however, it now seems apparent that the report was largely the work of one agency, the CIA, and overseen by one man, then-Director John Brennan, who closely directed its drafting and publication with a small group of hand-picked analysts.
Nearly three years later, as the public awaits answers from two Justice Department inquiries into the Trump-Russia probe’s origins, and as impeachment hearings catalyzed by a Brennan-hired anti-Trump CIA analyst unfold in Congress, it is clear that Brennan’s role in propagating the collusion narrative went far beyond his work on the ICA. A close review of facts that have slowly come to light reveals that he was a central architect and promoter of the conspiracy theory from its inception. The record shows that:
- Contrary to a general impression that the FBI launched the Trump-Russia conspiracy probe, Brennan pushed it to the bureau – breaking with CIA tradition by intruding into domestic politics: the 2016 presidential election. He also supplied suggestive but ultimately false information to counterintelligence investigators and other U.S. officials.
- Leveraging his close proximity to President Obama, Brennan sounded the alarm about alleged Russian interference to the White House, and was tasked with managing the U.S. intelligence community’s response.
- While some FBI officials expressed skepticism about the Trump/Russia narrative as they hunted down investigative leads, Brennan stood out for insisting on its veracity.
- To substantiate his claims, Brennan relied on a Kremlin informant who was later found to be a mid-level official with limited access to Putin’s inner circle.
- Circumventing normal protocol for congressional briefings, Brennan supplied then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid with incendiary Trump-Russia innuendo that Reid amplified in a pair of public letters late in the election campaign.
- After Trump’s unexpected victory, Brennan oversaw the hasty production of the tenuous Intelligence Community Assessment.
- Departing from his predecessors’ usual practice of staying above the political fray after leaving office, Brennan has worked as a prominent analyst for MSNBC, where he has used his authority as a former guardian of the nation’s top secrets to launch vitriolic attacks on a sitting president, accusing Trump of “treasonous” conduct.
Now Brennan is among the most vocal critics of the more comprehensive of the two Justice probes, the criminal investigation run by U.S. Attorney John Durham and Attorney General William Barr. “I don’t understand the predication of this worldwide effort to try to uncover dirt, real or imagined, that would discredit that investigation in 2016 into Russian interference,” he recently said on MSNBC.
The Trump-Russia collusion theory was not propagated by a few rogue figures. Key Obama administration and intelligence officials laundered it through national security reporters who gave their explosive claims anonymous cover. Nevertheless, Brennan stands apart for the outsized role he played in generating and spreading the false narrative.
‘Raised Concerns in My Mind’
The government’s official story as detailed in special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s April 18 report casts the Trump-Russia probe as an FBI operation. It asserts that the bureau launched its investigation, code-named “Crossfire Hurricane,” on July 31, 2016, after receiving information that junior Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos was informed that Russians had politically damaging information about Hillary Clinton.
But a great deal of evidence – including public testimony and news accounts – undermines that story. It indicates that the probe started earlier, with Brennan a driving force. Many of the clues are buried in public testimony and reports published by the New York Times and Washington Post, the primary vehicles for intelligence community leaks throughout the Russiagate saga.
One signal came in June when the Times reported that the Barr-Durham investigation had “provoked anxiety in the ranks of the C.I.A.” Among Barr’s aims, the paper noted, was “to better understand the intelligence that flowed from the C.I.A. to the F.B.I. in the summer of 2016.”
That intelligence “flowed from the C.I.A. to the F.B.I” underscores that the agency played a larger role in the early stages of the Trump-Russia probe than is publicly acknowledged. Late last month, the Times ran a more ominous piece suggesting that the CIA may have been a prime mover of the probe through deception. It reported that Durham has been asking interview subjects “whether C.I.A. officials might have somehow tricked the F.B.I. into opening the Russia investigation.” In anticipation of being asked such questions, the paper added, “[s]ome C.I.A. officials have retained criminal lawyers.”
If that reflects an accurate suspicion on Durham’s part, then Brennan, by his own account, has already outed himself as a key suspect. Brennan has publicly taken credit for the Russia probe’s origination and supplying critical information to the FBI after it began. “I encountered and am aware of information and intelligence that revealed contacts and interactions between Russian officials and U.S. persons involved in the Trump campaign that I was concerned about,” he told Congress in May 2017. That information, Brennan added, “raised concerns in my mind about whether or not those individuals were cooperating with the Russians,” which then “served as the basis for the FBI investigation to determine whether such collusion-cooperation occurred.”
A BBC report suggests that Brennan may be referring to April 2016 – a month before Papadopoulos allegedly mentioned Russian dirt and three months before the FBI launched its probe – when “an intelligence agency of one of the Baltic States” provided Brennan with “a tape recording” that “worried him” – “a conversation about money from the Kremlin going into the U.S. presidential campaign.”
It is not clear whether the BBC account is accurate, but the April date coincides with other activity suggesting an earlier start date to the collusion probe than the official version. Former Attorney General Loretta Lynch testified before a congressional panel that in the “late spring” of 2016 then-FBI Director James Comey briefed National Security Council principals about concerns surrounding newly appointed Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. According to the Guardian newspaper, former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele began briefing the FBI on his discredited dossier in London as early as June; after that, “his information started to reach the bureau in Washington.” In mid-July, veteran CIA and FBI informant Stefan Halper made contact with Page at a British academic conference; according to Page, the invitation had come at the end of May or early June.
Halper has also been accused of taking part in a smear operation aimed at spreading false information about National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and Russian nationals. In May, Halper was sued in the U.S. by Svetlana Lokhova, a Russian-born British academic, for defamation. Lokhova alleges that Halper, while working as a U.S. intelligence asset, spread rumors suggesting that she and Flynn had an improper relationship.
While Russiagate’s exact starting point is murky, it is clear that Brennan placed himself at the center of the action. After the investigation officially got underway in the summer of 2016, as Brennan later told MSNBC, “[w]e put together a fusion center at CIA that brought NSA and FBI officers together with CIA to make sure that those proverbial dots would be connected.” (It is not clear whether this was a Freudian slip suggesting the center included Fusion GPS, the opposition research firm hired by the Clinton campaign that produced the Steele dossier of fictitious Trump-Russia dirt – but regardless, it is likely that at least some of Brennan’s “dots” came from the firm.) According to the New Yorker, also that summer Brennan received a personal briefing from Robert Hannigan, then the head of Britain’s intelligence service the GCHQ, about an alleged “stream of illicit communications between Trump’s team and Moscow that had been intercepted.” A U.S. court would later confirm that Steele shared his reports with at least one “senior British security official.”
As Brennan helped generate the collusion investigation, he also worked to insert it into domestic American politics – at the height of a presidential campaign. Starting in August, Brennan began giving personal briefings to the Gang of Eight, high-ranking U.S. senators and members of Congress regularly apprised of state secrets. Breaking with tradition, he met them individually, rather than as a group. His most consequential private meeting was with Harry Reid.
Afterward, the Democrats’ Senate leader sent a pair of provocative public letters to FBI Director Comey. Reid’s messages – released to the public during the final months of the presidential race – made explosive insinuations of illicit ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, putting the collusion narrative into motion. “The prospect of individuals tied to Trump, WikiLeaks and the Russian government coordinating to influence our election raises concerns of the utmost gravity and merits full examination,” Reid wrote on Aug. 27. Russia, he warned, may be trying to “influence the Trump campaign and manipulate it as a vehicle for advancing the interests of Russian President Vladimir Putin.”
Two days after Comey’s “October surprise” announcement that newly discovered emails were forcing him to reopen the bureau’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server while serving as secretary of state, Reid followed up with even more incendiary language: “It has become clear,” he complained to Comey, “that you possess explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisors and the Russian government.”
Reid’s letters show the extent to which Brennan maneuvered behind the scenes to funnel collusion to a public audience. In their book “Russian Roulette,” Michael Isikoff and David Corn report that Reid “concluded the CIA chief believed the public needed to know about the Russia operation, including the information about the possible links to the Trump campaign.”
Nunes: ‘Whatever Brennan Told Reid, He Didn’t Tell Me.’
The separate briefings and the Reid letters gave rise to suspicion that Brennan was driven by what Reid, according to Isikoff and Corn, saw as an “ulterior motive.” Although Brennan has claimed publicly that he “provided the same briefing to each gang of eight member,” Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) says that is not true. Nunes, who was then the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, is quoted in journalist Lee Smith’s new book, “The Plot Against the President,” saying, “Whatever Brennan told Reid, he didn’t tell me.”
Reid’s letters also undermine a common, but false, talking point used to defend Brennan and other U.S. intelligence officials behind the Russia investigation: If they really sought to hurt the Trump campaign, they would have made their Trump-Russia collusion speculation public. As Comey put it: “If we were ‘deep state’ Clinton loyalists bent on stopping him, why would we keep it secret?” Reid’s extraordinary letters – released at the height of the campaign – were one of the ways in which Brennan did exactly the opposite.