Attorney General Bill Barr has ordered an investigation into whether the CIA was correct to determine that Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to boost Donald Trump during the 2016 election.
But that question has already been asked and answered at the CIA’s highest levels — by Mike Pompeo, a Trump loyalist, according to three people familiar with the matter.
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Just after Pompeo took over as CIA director in 2017, he conducted a personal review of the CIA’s findings, grilling analysts on their conclusions in a challenging and at times combative interview, these people said. He ultimately found no evidence of any wrongdoing, or that the analysts had been under political pressure to produce their findings.
“This wasn’t just a briefing,” said one person familiar with the episode. “This was a challenging back and forth, in which Pompeo asked the officers tough questions about their work and how they determined Putin’s specific objectives.” Pompeo also asked about CIA’s work with the FBI on the Russia probe in 2016. Two U.S. officials further confirmed to POLITICO that the interview occurred and was robust.
Additionally, a congressional official said Pompeo and his deputies never gave any indication to lawmakers, even behind closed doors, that the CIA had acted improperly or drawn incorrect conclusions about Putin’s desire to help Trump get elected. Special counsel Robert Mueller and the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee also separately reaffirmed the intelligence community’s assessment of Moscow’s motivations in 2016.
Still, Barr in May tapped John Durham, the U.S. attorney in Connecticut, to investigate many of these same questions. Barr said he wanted to find out whether there was inappropriate government “spying” on the Trump campaign that drove suspicions of a Kremlin link.
But the wide latitude he’s given Durham to also examine analytic conclusions drawn by CIA officers has alarmed some in the national security community who worry about its effect on the apolitical nature of intelligence gathering. And given Pompeo’s prior review — not to mention that of Mueller and Congress — the move has sparked cries of hypocrisy from those who say Trump is seeking his own “do-over,” something the president frequently accuses Democrats of attempting with their ongoing congressional hearings on the subject and mounting subpoenas of Mueller’s witnesses.
Michael Morell, the former acting CIA director, said the Justice Department is “absolutely the wrong organization to do the review.”
“The Justice Department’s job is to see whether a crime has been committed, not to assess the quality of intelligence analysis,” said Morell, who now hosts the Intelligence Matters podcast. “They have no training or experience in that.”
Jeffrey Edmonds, a former CIA analyst who served as a Russia adviser on the National Security Council during both the Trump and Obama administrations, said he is “worried” that Durham’s CIA inquiry “is a political attempt to undermine the intelligence community’s assessment.”
“It’s telling that Pompeo walked away from [his] review agreeing with the agency’s high confidence assessment” about Putin’s objectives, Edmonds added.
Indeed, the congressional official said, Pompeo’s own examination of the CIA’s analysis “really does call into question the purpose of the entire Durham exercise.”
In a statement, a person familiar with the situation said that Pompeo “routinely asks employees for their unvarnished assessments and opinions on important issues. Although no votes were changed, Secretary Pompeo agrees with the Intelligence Community’s report that the Russian government attempted to sow discord in our democracy and undermine our election process.”
The intelligence community has not made an assessment either way about whether the Russian meddling campaign altered actual votes.
The CIA declined to comment.
Trump’s allies have been fixated on the question of how the intelligence community determined that Russia intervened specifically to help Trump win rather than to just sow chaos and distrust in the Democratic process.
At the heart of their criticism is the “Intelligence Community Assessment of Russian Activities and Intentions” released in January 2017. In it, the CIA and FBI concluded with high confidence that “Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.” The NSA reached the same conclusion with moderate confidence.
Notably, though, the FBI did not open its counterintelligence investigation into members of the Trump campaign because the CIA found that Putin was interfering to boost Trump’s candidacy, according to a person with knowledge of the probe. In fact, the CIA analysis of Putin’s motives appears to have followed, not preceded, the FBI’s probe, the person said.
House Intelligence Committee Republicans said in a report last year that the intelligence agencies “did not employ proper analytic tradecraft” when making those judgments about Putin’s motives. They stood by that assessment even after Putin announced during a joint news conference with Trump that he wanted the reality TV star to win “because he talked about bringing the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal.”
The Senate Intelligence Committee, which reportedly interviewed CIA officers directly about the subject, implicitly rebuffed the House GOP in its own report.
“The Committee has spent the last 16 months reviewing the sources, tradecraft and analytic work underpinning the Intelligence Community Assessment and sees no reason to dispute the conclusions,” the committee’s chairman, Republican Sen. Richard Burr, said at the time.
Mueller reaffirmed the intelligence community’s assessment, as well. His investigation determined that Russia “worked to secure” a Trump presidency, which it perceived would be more beneficial to the Kremlin, according to his final report.
In addition to Durham’s investigation, the DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General and Utah U.S. Attorney John Huber are also conducting their own probes into the origins of the Russia probe and related matters. Barr appointed Durham around the time Mueller was wrapping up his two-year-long Russia probe, which did not establish a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russian intermediaries to disrupt the 2016 election.
It’s unclear what mandate Durham is operating under and whether he is looking at the intelligence agencies with an eye to recommending criminal charges. He has not been appointed to lead a criminal investigation, and the Justice Department has formally described the inquiry only as a “review.” Durham also won’t be leaving his day job in Connecticut.
It’s a setup that has unnerved intelligence veterans across the political spectrum.
“I don’t think this is an appropriate job for the Justice Department,” said John McLaughlin, who served as the CIA’s deputy director and acting director under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
“Analysis inevitably includes an element of judgment on top of whatever hard data is amassed,” he added. “It’s not something you can assess confidently with a standard prosecutorial yardstick.”
“Because they’re prosecutors, when they come knocking on an analyst’s door and say, ‘We want to talk to you about your judgment,’ it has a chilling effect,” he said. “Analysts might think twice in the future about making a tough call.”