U.S. Attorney John Durham, tasked to look into the origins of the FBI’s “Crossfire Hurricane” investigation, is now “investigating CIA resistance to sharing Russian secrets,” according to a Feb. 13 report in The New York Times.
According to the article, “Durham appears to be pursuing a theory that the C.I.A., under its former Director John O. Brennan, had a preconceived notion about Russia or was trying to get to a particular result—and was nefariously trying to keep other agencies from seeing the full picture lest they interfere with that goal.”
Additionally, Durham is reportedly looking into “whether and how information from foreign governments or the C.I.A. played any role in stoking suspicions at the F.B.I. about Trump campaign links to Russia.”
It had previously been reported that Durham was expected to seek an interview with Brennan as well as former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, following an expansion of his investigation.
Brennan’s Role in Disseminating Foreign Intelligence
In late 2015, Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) was involved in collecting information regarding then-candidate Donald Trump and transmitting it to the United States. The GCHQ is the UK equivalent of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA).
Brennan appears to have played an instrumental role in passing on unofficial foreign intelligence—primarily from the UK, but also from other Five Eyes members, such as Australia—to the FBI.
Brennan stated that during a May 23, 2017, congressional testimony:
“I made sure that anything that was involving U.S. persons, including anything involving the individuals involved in the Trump campaign, was shared with the [FBI],” Brennan said in his testimony.
Brennan also stated that it was his intelligence that helped establish the FBI investigation:
“I was aware of intelligence and information about contacts between Russian officials and U.S. persons that raised concerns in my mind about whether or not those individuals were cooperating with the Russians, either in a witting or unwitting fashion, and it served as the basis for the FBI investigation to determine whether such collusion [or] cooperation occurred,” Brennan said.
According to The NY Times, one area of specific focus for Durham is the Intelligence Community Assessment, or ICA, which was the last of three reports produced by Brennan and Clapper and was released on Jan. 6, 2017.
The final report, “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections,” significantly propelled the allegation that Trump had colluded with Russia into the public sphere. Notably, Adm. Mike Rogers, who at the time was director of the National Security Agency, publicly dissented from the findings of the ICA, assigning it only a moderate confidence level.
Justice Department (DOJ) Inspector General Michael Horowitz recently determined that, despite repeated assurances by members of the Intelligence Community to the contrary, “unverified information from Steele’s dossier”—referring to the opposition research paid for by Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee—was used “in an interagency assessment of Russian interference in the U.S. 2016 elections.”
Horowitz did note that the CIA was somewhat reluctant to include Christopher Steele’s reporting in their assessments but that “the FBI, including [Director James] Comey and [Deputy Director Andrew] McCabe, sought to include the reporting in the ICA [intelligence community assessment].”
While Brennan has publicly denied using the dossier for the ICA, he did attach a two-page summary of the dossier to the intelligence community assessment that he, along with Clapper and Comey, delivered to President Barack Obama on Jan. 5, 2017.
According to Horowitz, former FBI Director James Comey said that Brennan and Clapper “thought it was important enough and consistent enough that it ought to be part of the package in some way, and so they had come up with this idea to make an [appendix].”
Brennan has claimed that he didn’t see the dossier until “later” in 2016. He also stated in his congressional testimony that the CIA didn’t rely on the Steele dossier and that it “was not in any way used as a basis for the intelligence community assessment that was done.”
However, this claim was countered during the July 16, 2018, testimony of former FBI lawyer Lisa Page, when the following discussion took place regarding Brennan’s August 2016 briefing of then-Sen. Harry Reid:
Rep. Mark Meadows: “We have documents that would suggest that in that briefing the dossier was mentioned to Harry Reid and then, obviously, we’re going to have to have conversations. Does that surprise you that Director Brennan would be aware of [the dossier]?”
Lisa Page: “Yes, sir. Because with all due honesty, if Director Brennan – so we got that information from our source, right? The FBI got this information from our source. If the CIA had another source of that information, I am neither aware of that nor did the CIA provide it to us if they did.”
The Russian Source
The NY Times notes that over the last several months, “Durham and his team have examined emails among a small group of intelligence analysts from multiple agencies, including the C.I.A., F.B.I., and National Security Agency, who worked together to assess the Russian operation.”
Durham has reportedly interviewed these analysts and has specifically focused on information that the CIA reportedly attempted to withhold from other agencies—including the identity and placement of a CIA source inside the Kremlin.
The article noted that intelligence analysts at the NSA wanted to know more about the “identity and placement” of a specific Russian source, in order “to weigh the credibility of his information.” But, according to the article, the CIA “was initially reluctant to share details about the Russian’s identity but eventually relented.”
The New York Times noted in the article that the source was “outside of Mr. Putin’s inner circle, but saw him regularly and had access to high-level Kremlin decision-making — easily making the source one of the agency’s most valuable assets.”
But the article also noted that there were some doubts within the CIA. Following the refusal of extraction in late 2016, some officials within the CIA “wondered whether the informant had been turned and had become a double agent, secretly betraying his American handlers.”
The CIA’s Russian source was apparently highly regarded by Brennan, who felt the identity of the source was so important that, according to the NY Times article, he “kept information from the operative out of President Barack Obama’s daily brief in 2016.”
“Instead, Mr. Brennan sent separate intelligence reports, many based on the source’s information, in special sealed envelopes to the Oval Office,” according to the article.
But the nature of the source raises some significant questions. If, for example, the source was indeed so highly placed, why then was the United States so seemingly ill-informed regarding many of Russia’s foreign policy actions, particularly in Syria or Crimea, when Russia forcibly annexed the peninsula from Ukraine?
And if this asset was indeed so highly placed, how is it that Russia was able to hack the DNC’s servers and extract their emails without the CIA’s advance knowledge of the alleged Russian activities?
A June 2017 article from The Washington Post had previously touched on the existence of a “Russian source,” noting that Brennan had received “an intelligence bombshell, a report drawn from sourcing deep inside the Russian government that detailed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race.”
The Post noted that “the intelligence captured Putin’s specific instructions on the operation’s audacious objectives—defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.”
This was the same information that Brennan reportedly conveyed “in special sealed envelopes to the Oval Office.” However, as the Post noted, “despite the intelligence the CIA had produced, other agencies were slower to endorse a conclusion that Putin was personally directing the operation and wanted to help Trump.”
There is another significant problem, as well. The Mueller report, after two lengthy years of investigation, concluded there was no evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, thereby proving a key part of the alleged Russian activities incorrect.
Did CIA Withhold Information From FBI?
Another reported area of focus for Durham is regarding the raw information that was in the CIA’s possession. Although it isn’t entirely clear what this information is, it appears there was some disagreement over whether the CIA needed “to filter the data to mask names and other identifying details about Americans and American organizations” before handing the information to analysts at the National Security Agency (NSA).
The CIA was reportedly arguing in favor of masking, a restriction that would have made analysis difficult for NSA analysts. Unmasking rules “permit exceptions in cases where the identities are necessary to understand the information.”
The disagreement between the CIA and NSA analysts over the need to mask names seems potentially suspect and event-specific, given the reported level of unmaskings that took place during the latter portion of the Obama administration.
This was documented in a July 27, 2017, letter sent by then-House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) to then-Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, noting “current and former government officials had easy access to U.S. person information and that it is possible that they used this information to achieve partisan political purposes, including the selective, anonymous leaking of such information.”
Nunes continued, “The Committee also understands that Obama-era officials sought the identities of Trump transition officials within intelligence reports. However, there was no meaningful explanation offered by these officials as to why they needed or how they would use this U.S. person information, and thus, the Committee is left with the impression that these officials may have used this information for improper purposes, including the possibility of leaking.”
In addition to the disagreements regarding unmaskings, there were reportedly some internal conflicts over “access to unclassified emails of American officials that the Russian government had previously hacked, including at the White House and State Department.”
It isn’t clear if that’s a reference to either the DNC server or emails from the private email server that Clinton utilized while at the State Department.
The NY Times also reported that a foreign ally of the United States had “obtained its own copy of the stolen messages and provided drives with another reproduction of them to the United States government.”
The FBI wanted to examine these emails, which reportedly included emails from Obama, along with some members of Congress. According to the article, “Obama’s White House counsel, W. Neil Eggleston, decided that investigators should not open the drives, citing executive privilege and the possibility of a separation-of-powers uproar if the F.B.I. sifted through lawmakers’ private messages.”
Several messages sent by former FBI agent Peter Strzok, who was part of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation, appear to hint at some inter-agency conflict. In December of 2016, Strzok sent a text to former FBI lawyer Lisa Page that read, “Think our sisters have begun leaking like mad. Scorned and worried, and political, they’re kicking into overdrive.”
In April 2017, Strzok again made a potential reference to the CIA in an email, noting, “I’m beginning to think the agency got info a lot earlier than we thought and hasn’t shared it completely with us. Might explain all these weird/seemingly incorrect leads all these media folks have. Would also highlight agency as source of some of the leaks.”
Durham’s Investigation Moves Forward
According to an Oct. 19, 2019, NY Times article, Durham has already interviewed “about two dozen former and current F.B.I. officials” and the “number of interviews shows that Mr. Durham’s review is further along than previously known.” The paper also reported that Durham’s efforts were being aided by “two former senior F.B.I. agents” who were assisting with the review.
In addition to the dozens of FBI interviews, Durham’s investigative team has also reportedly “questioned officials in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence,” although Clapper doesn’t appear to have been among those interviewed. Reportedly, FBI agents who worked on the Mueller investigation along with CIA agents involved in the Crossfire Hurricane investigation are also among those recently interviewed by Durham.
The most recent article from the NY Times notes that Durham has also interviewed “around a half-dozen current and former officials and analysts at the National Security Agency, including its former director, the retired Adm. Michael S. Rogers, last summer and again last fall.”
According to a Dec. 20, 2019, article from The Intercept, Rogers has met with Durham “on multiple occasions.” The Intercept noted that while “the substance of those meetings is not clear, Rogers has cooperated voluntarily.”
The number of interviews conducted, as well as the widening scope, suggests that Durham has been gathering all available facts, evidence, and data prior to approaching central figures such as Brennan and Clapper in his inquiry.