CNN on Sept. 9 reported that in “a previously undisclosed secret mission in 2017, the United States successfully extracted from Russia one of its highest-level covert sources inside the Russian government.”
CNN wrote that “knowledge of the Russian covert source’s existence was highly restricted within the U.S. government and intelligence agencies” and that “according to one source, there was ‘no equal alternative’ inside the Russian government, providing both insight and information on [President Vladimir] Putin.”
The article claimed that the decision to remove the highly placed mole from within the Kremlin was driven, in large part, by concerns that President Donald Trump and those within his administration had mishandled classified intelligence, thereby compromising the source’s safety.
The CNN article cites a May 2017 meeting between Trump, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and then-Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak, claiming that Trump had divulged intelligence provided by Israel regarding activities by the ISIS terrorist group in Syria. This meeting came one day after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey.
The intelligence shared at the meeting involved an ISIS plot to use bombs hidden in laptops to bring down planes—a matter that the White House believed was appropriate to share with Russia, given the fact that it concerned a threat to aviation. Notably, the president has the right to declassify information at any time he chooses to do so.
The supposed classified information that CNN accused Trump of mishandling during his meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak appears almost identical to what had been publicly reported by CNN over a month previously in an April 1, 2017, article, titled “New Terrorist Laptop Bombs May Evade Airport Security, Intel Sources Say.”
The fact that CNN had previously reported on this supposed classified information—the alleged mishandling of which formed the basis of CNN’s reasoning behind the Russian source’s extraction—wasn’t mentioned in CNN’s Sept. 9 article.
In response to questions about the substance of the article during a press conference on Sept. 10, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the reporting as “egregious” and “materially inaccurate.”
“I’ve seen that reporting. The reporting is materially inaccurate. And you should know, as a former CIA director, I don’t talk about things like this very often. It is only the occasion when there’s something that I think puts people at risk or the reporting is so egregious as to create enormous risk to the United States of America that I even comment in the way that I just did. And I won’t say anything more about it. I know the CIA put out a statement. Suffice to say, the reporting there is factually wrong,” Pompeo said.
NBC News Outs Source’s General Location
On the same day as the publication of the CNN article, NBC News’ Ken Dilanian disclosed that he had personally gone to the Russian source’s home on Sept. 9. His reporting also confirmed the general location of the source’s whereabouts.
The article noted that, according to “current and former officials,” the source “will likely be moved from the place he is currently living in the interest of keeping him safe.”
New York Times Refutes Key Points of CNN Article
Later that evening, The New York Times published a more detailed article that had apparently been in the works for some time. As the newspaper noted, the article was “based on interviews in recent months with current and former officials who spoke on the condition that their names not be used discussing classified information.”
According to The New York Times, the source wasn’t part of Putin’s “inner circle,” but “saw him regularly and had access to high-level Kremlin decision-making.”
The article, which effectively discredits key points in CNN’s reporting, noted that CIA officials became concerned over the source’s safety during governmental allegations of Russian election interference, and made a decision in “late 2016 to offer to extract the source from Russia.”
The source initially refused the CIA’s offer, but after mounting media inquiries, the source agreed to the move in 2017.
Notably, the author of the CNN article, Jim Sciutto, later acknowledged on Twitter—after the New York Times article was published—that the United States had “offered extraction months earlier during Obama administration, but asset refused. Asset’s information was crucial to IC assessment that Putin had directed election interference to favor Trump.”
Source’s Information on Russia Called Into Question
According to The New York Times, the source’s initial rejection of the exfiltration offer caused no small amount of doubt and consternation among CIA officials and led them to wonder whether the informant “had been turned and had become a double agent, secretly betraying his American handlers.”
“That would almost certainly mean that some of the information the informant provided about the Russian interference campaign or Mr. Putin’s intentions would have been inaccurate,” the article read.
The New York Times also noted that “some operatives had other reasons to suspect the source could be a double agent, according to two former officials, but they declined to explain further.”
John Durham’s Investigation
On June 12, The New York Times reported that Justice Department (DOJ) officials planned to “interview senior C.I.A. officers as they review the Russia investigation,” noting that investigators are “focused partly on the intelligence agencies’ most explosive conclusion about the 2016 election: that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia intervened to benefit Donald J. Trump.”
Specifically, DOJ investigator John Durham intended to “talk with at least one senior counterintelligence official and a senior C.I.A. analyst.” The newspaper reported that both of these officials were “involved in the agency’s work on understanding the Russian campaign to sabotage the election in 2016.”
Attorney General Bill Barr reportedly wanted “to know more about the C.I.A. sources who helped inform its understanding of the details of the Russian interference campaign … [and] to better understand the intelligence that flowed from the C.I.A. to the F.B.I. in the summer of 2016.”
Concerns Began Under Obama Administration
The CNN article also provides a number of contradictions to its primary premise that the extraction of a high-level Russian asset was due to actions by Trump or his administration, noting that the “decision to pull the asset out of Russia was the culmination of months of mounting fear within the intelligence community.”
As the article notes, “At the end of the Obama administration, U.S. intelligence officials had already expressed concerns about the safety of this spy and other Russian assets, given the length of their cooperation with the U.S., according to a former senior intelligence official.”
These concerns reportedly grew in strength after the Obama administration ordered the preparation and release of the intelligence community assessment that covered Russian meddling in the 2016 election and “claimed that Putin himself ordered the operation.”
The article also noted that the “intelligence community also shared a classified version of the report with the incoming Trump administration, and it included highly protected details on the sources behind the intelligence. Senior U.S. intelligence officials considered extracting at least one Russian asset at the time, but did not do so, according to the former senior intelligence official.”
The CIA has formally denied the CNN article with Brittany Bramell, the CIA’s director of public affairs, telling the news network that “misguided speculation that the President’s handling of our nation’s most sensitive intelligence—which he has access to each and every day—drove an alleged exfiltration operation is inaccurate.”
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham told CNN that its “reporting is not only incorrect, [but also] has the potential to put lives in danger.”
CNN’s article acknowledged that, according to an unnamed official, prior to the alleged exfiltration operation, “there was media speculation about the existence of such a covert source, and such coverage or public speculation poses risks to the safety of anyone a foreign government suspects may be involved.”
“This official did not identify any public reporting to that effect at the time of this decision and CNN could not find any related reference in media reports,” the article read.
Russian Source Covered in Previous Articles?
However, several high-profile articles from The New York Times and The Washington Post had previously discussed a high-level Russian source that appears to match the description provided by CNN.
In a May 24 article, headlined “Potential Clash Over Secrets Looms Between Justice Dept. and C.I.A.,” The New York Times reported that the “most prominent of the C.I.A.’s sources of intelligence on Russia’s election interference was a person close to Mr. Putin who provided information about his involvement, former officials have said.”
“The source turned over evidence for one of the last major intelligence conclusions that President Barack Obama made public before leaving office: that Mr. Putin himself was behind the Russia hack,” the article read.
According to the newspaper, the longtime CIA source “rose to a position that enabled the informant to provide key information in 2016 about the Russian leadership’s role in the interference campaign.”
The source was reportedly so important that then-CIA Director John Brennan “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.”
The information from The New York Times appears to have been based in part on earlier reporting by The Washington Post. In a major June 23, 2017, article, headlined “Obama’s Secret Struggle to Punish Russia for Putin’s Election Assault,” the matter of a high-level Russian informant is extensively discussed:
“Early last August, an envelope with extraordinary handling restrictions arrived at the White House. Sent by courier from the CIA, it carried ‘eyes only’ instructions that its contents be shown to just four people: President Barack Obama and three senior aides.
“Inside was 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.
“But it went further. 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.”
The Washington Post claimed that the “material was so sensitive that CIA Director John O. Brennan kept it out of the President’s Daily Brief, concerned that even that restricted report’s distribution was too broad” and that “the CIA package came with instructions that it be returned immediately after it was read.”
The article noted that “it took time for other parts of the intelligence community to endorse the CIA’s view.”
“Only in the administration’s final weeks in office did it tell the public, in a declassified report, what officials had learned from Brennan in August—that Putin was working to elect Trump,” it read.
Source’s Safety Put at Risk by Obama Officials, Democrats
However, despite the supposed high levels of secrecy, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) issued a public statement on Sept. 22, 2016, that appeared to divulge precisely these details:
“Based on briefings we have received, we have concluded that the Russian intelligence agencies are making a serious and concerted effort to influence the U.S. election.”
The two Democrats said that the “orders for the Russian intelligence agencies to conduct such actions could come only from very senior levels of the Russian government” and called for Putin to “immediately order a halt to this activity.”
The Department of Homeland Security and James Clapper’s Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a more official joint statement on Oct. 7, 2016, that claimed confidence that “the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations.” The statement also noted that “based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.”
The joint statement was issued months before the Jan. 7, 2017, publication of the intelligence community assessment, which formally claimed that Putin “ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election.”
According to The Washington Post, on the same day the joint statement was released, Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice “summoned Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak to the White House and handed him a message to relay to Putin” that the newspaper describes as a “warning.”
Notably, despite these alleged concerns, there were “no meltdowns in the United States’ voting infrastructure on Nov. 8, no evidence of hacking-related fraud, crashing of electronic ballots, or manipulation of vote counts,” according to the June 23, 2017, Washington Post article.
Russian Source Mentioned by FBI Lawyer Lisa Page
There is another mention of a source that comes from the July 13, 2018, congressional testimony of former FBI lawyer Lisa Page.
Page, who served as special counsel to FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, was being questioned by Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) in relation to an Aug. 15, 2016, text sent by then-FBI agent Peter Strzok:
“I want to believe the path you threw out for consideration in Andy’s office – that there’s no way he gets elected – but I’m afraid we can’t take that risk. It’s like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before you’re 40.”
Page noted that part of the discussion that took place in McCabe’s office centered around the possible burning of sources in relation to the Crossfire Hurricane investigation:
“We, the team, again, like sort of through Director Comey, were trying to decide how aggressive or not aggressive, or do we burn sources or not burn sources or do we use X tools or Y tools, and all of that was based on the likelihood — not based on the likelihood of success but was being weighed against the likelihood of success.
“As I sort of explained, if he is not going to be President, then we don’t need to burn longstanding sources and risk sort of the loss of future investigative outlets, not in this case, but in other Russia-related matters.”
Gowdy noted that a lack of evidence would certainly influence the FBI’s “willingness to burn sources and use investigative techniques that are likely to be detected by people who are not our friends.”
Page agreed with Gowdy’s assessment, saying that at the time of the discussion between McCabe, Page, and Strzok, there was “a paucity of evidence because we are just starting down the path to figure out whether the predication is true or not true.”
Regardless of the outcome of the FBI’s decision, a matter left unclear from Page’s testimony, there was direct fallout from the January publication of the intelligence community assessment. On Feb. 15, 2017, McClatchy reported that “prosecutors under President Vladimir Putin have charged Dokuchaev [a major in Russia’s FSB security service and its Information Security Center] and his boss with treason, accusing them of collaborating with the CIA just weeks after the Obama administration made public its conclusions that Russia had meddled in the 2016 presidential election.”
Update: This article was updated on Sept. 10, 2019, with a statement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.