Impact of Barr’s Declassification Authority Triggers Political, Media Panic

May 25, 2019 Updated: June 14, 2019

News Analysis

On May 23, 2019, President Trump issued a Memorandum giving declassification authorization to Attorney General William Barr. The memo noted that AG Barr has full authority to “declassify, downgrade, or direct the declassification or downgrading of information or intelligence that relates to the Attorney General’s review.”

The memo was addressed to the Secretaries of the State, Treasury, Energy, Defense, and Homeland Security Departments—along with the Directors for National Intelligence and the CIA. Also included was the Attorney General, which by default inherently covers the FBI.

The subject line, “Agency Cooperation with Attorney General’s Review of Intelligence Activities Relating to the 2016 Presidential Campaigns,” was particularly notable in its use of plurals, denoting the investigation was potentially looking at interference into campaigns beyond that of just President Trump.

President Trump himself sent out a related release from his Press Secretary, Sarah Sanders:

“Today, at the request and recommendation of the Attorney General of the United States, President Donald J. Trump directed the intelligence community to quickly and fully cooperate with the Attorney General’s investigation into surveillance activities during the 2016 Presidential election. The Attorney General has also been delegated full and complete authority to declassify information pertaining to this investigation, in accordance with the long-established standards for handling classified information.

Today’s action will help ensure that all Americans learn the truth about the events that occurred, and the actions that were taken, during the last Presidential election and will restore confidence in our public institutions.”

The language, “that all Americans learn the truth about the events that occurred”, carries a certain implication of the knowledge and information already obtained by AG Barr. Also notable was reference to the genesis of the declassification order—“At the request and recommendation of the Attorney General of the United States.” AG Barr apparently asked President Trump for the declassification authority.

The President has been stating for several weeks that he re-intended to declassify everything, after first raising the prospect of declassification during an April 25 interview with Sean Hannity, telling him, “Everything is going to be declassified and more, much more than what you just mentioned. It will all be declassified.”

In a May 2 interview with Catherine Herridge of Fox News, Trump addressed the pending declassification a second time:

Catherine Herridge: “Is there a timeline on when the public will see these Russia records declassified?”

President Donald Trump: “Yes, I’m going to be allowing declassification pretty soon. I didn’t want to do it originally because I wanted to wait, because I know what they—you know, I’ve seen the way they play. They play very dirty. So I decided to do it, and I’m going to be doing it very soon, far more than you would have even thought.”

Ms. Herridge: “May, June, July?”

Mr. Trump: “No, soon. I mean whenever they need it. Whenever they need it, I’ll be doing it. But I will be declassifying it. Everything.”

At the time of his comments, it was not entirely clear whether the president was referring to investigators such as DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz. With hindsight, President Trump’s comments of “whenever they need it” suddenly make sense.

Despite these overt warnings, the President’s actual order appeared to catch many in our nation’s capital by surprise. Olivia Gazis, the Intelligence and national security reporter for CBS News, said she was told by “an intel source that the president’s order came as a complete surprise and generated widespread concern within the community about this trajectory.”

In a stroke of irony, the New York Times rushed out a story decrying Barr’s investigation and the pending declassification, citing potential risk to a CIA Asset from the declassification. The reality is the article by the New York Times appeared to be designed to actually burn that same CIA source in advance of the pending declassification.

The description provided by the New York Times—male, still alive, long-nurtured by the CIA, close to Putin, highly placed and provided information to the CIA about his involvement in Russia’s 2016 election interference—appears sufficient to allow for foreign intelligence agencies to determine the source’s underlying identity.

The source being discussed by the New York Times was not your run-of-the-mill CIA asset. Former CIA Director John Brennan viewed this source as so important that he “would bring reports from the source directly to the White House, keeping them out of the president’s daily intelligence briefing for fear that the briefing document was too widely disseminated, according to the officials. Instead, he would place them in an envelope for Mr. Obama and a tiny circle of aides to read.”

The article—and the description of the CIA asset provided in the article—appears to be a preemptive move to get information into the public domain in front of the impending release from Barr’s investigation.

There have been other recent references to sources as well. On Oct. 11, 2016, dossier author Christopher Steele met with Kathleen Kavalec, then-deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, just 10 days prior to the FBI obtaining a FISA warrant on Trump campaign adviser Carter Page on Oct. 21, 2016. Also present at this meeting was Tatyana Duran, who was referenced as being with Steele’s firm Orbis Security.

Notes taken by Kalevec of the meeting, of which a redacted version was made public earlier in May, show that Steele provided her with a full rundown of the unverified information compiled in his dossier to that date. Also included in her notes from the Steele meeting were two names—Trubnikov and Surkov—that were noted as “sources” for Steele.

Vyacheslav Trubnikov is the former First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and the former Director of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service. Notably, Trubnikov has ties to FBI spy Stefan Halper, having participated in courses co-taught by Halper in 2012 and 2015.

Vladislav Surkov, a shadowy figure in Russian politics, is reported to be an aide of Vladimir Putin and the personal adviser to President Vladimir Putin on Ukraine. He has been referred to as a “political technologist”—one who engages in the shaping and reshaping public opinion.

Both of these men fit the generalized profile provided in the New York Times article. The ramifications would prove profound should either man prove to be the source for Brennan, while concurrently serving as a source for Steele.

The Washington Post also published an article describing the dangers posed by President Trump’s Executive Order, claiming the declassification authority given to AG Barr “threatens to expose U.S. intelligence sources and could distort the FBI and CIA’s roles in investigating Russian interference in the 2016 elections.” The Post included a lead quote from former FBI General Counsel James Baker who noted, “This is a complete slap in the face to the director of national intelligence.”

Left unsaid by the Washington Post was the fact that Baker is currently the subject of a criminal leak investigation that has been going on for over 18 months and is currently being led by John H. Durham, the United States Attorney for the District of Connecticut. Also left unsaid is the simple fact that both the Washington Post and the New York Times have been the primary outlets for anonymous leaks from the intelligence community over the last several years.

Meanwhile, Democrats continue to attempt to frame the ongoing declassification efforts in as negative a light as possible. And in doing so, the strategy behind the ongoing attacks and smear attempts against AG Barr became more apparent—they were being established as a defensive narrative against whatever was to be disclosed by Barr. Take for example a recent quote from Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, Vice Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee:

“The President has granted sweeping declassification powers to an Attorney General who has already shown that he has no problem selectively releasing information in order to mislead the American people.”

Sen. Warner was far from the only one attempting to portray Barr’s investigation in a negative light. Rep. Adam Schiff recently tweeted out a somewhat illogical statement, claiming that with the pending declassification President Trump was stonewalling the “public from learning the truth about his obstruction of justice,” and noted the “coverup has entered a new and dangerous phase.”

Schiff, who failed to explain how declassification would help to maintain an ongoing coverup, also ignored his own previous position on declassification from Dec. 2016:

“President Obama can and must declassify as much as possible about Russia hacking our elections. Rest assured, Trump won’t.”

Admittedly, the Democrats’ approach to declassification has been a somewhat perplexing one. It was just a few short weeks ago that Democrats were threatening to impeach AG Barr if he did not fully declassify the Mueller report.

Democrat leadership, who had managed to ignore that a nearly fully-unredacted version of the report was available to them in a secured facility or SCIF, were insisting that Barr unredact the very portions that Special Counsel Mueller himself had redacted. Notably, Mueller had referred a number of investigations to the Southern District of New York and a number of the redactions were in place to protect those specific investigations.

Now, with the broader declassification authority in place, Democrats are crying foul over the pending disclosure of a much broader set of information, making one question exactly what they might not want the public to see.

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