Obama White House Kept Key Officials in Dark About Brennan’s Russia Intel

May 17, 2020 Updated: May 20, 2020

President Barack Obama’s White House kept three key officials in the dark about bombshell Russia intelligence received in early August 2016 from CIA Director John Brennan until after the presidential election in November of that year.

The three officials held the top roles focusing on Russia, cybersecurity, and intelligence programs at the National Security Council. Their exclusion is likely to raise new questions about the Obama administration’s involvement in the origins of the investigation of the Trump campaign that evolved into the probe by special counsel Robert Mueller.

While the Obama administration coordinated a series of so-called “small group” meetings in response to Brennan’s information, three officials were excluded who would usually be involved in high-profile work on the topics: White House Cybersecurity Coordinator Michael Daniel, Senior Director for Russia and Eurasia Celeste Wallander, and Senior Director for Intelligence Programs Brett Holmgren.

The exclusion of the officials was first documented in the third volume (pdf) of the Russia report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which noted that “several NSC officials who would normally be included in discussions of importance … were neither included in the discussions nor exposed to the sensitive intelligence until after the election.”

Holmgren told the Senate intelligence committee that he was excluded “due to the sensitivity of the intelligence reporting.” He said the “reports were briefed verbally, oftentimes by Director Brennan. So I didn’t get access to a lot of those reports until the November or December time frame.”

According to the Senate panel’s report, the Obama administration wasn’t concerned with interference in the 2016 presidential election until Brennan provided a series of secretive briefings. The intelligence Brennan relayed purportedly served as the wake-up call, triggering a series of high-level meetings to coordinate a response.

Little is known about the content of Brennan’s briefings. In public testimony, he said the content was similar to the findings in the Intelligence Community Assessment that was released to the public on Jan. 5, 2017.

“The substance of those briefings was entirely consistent with the main judgments contained in the January classified and unclassified assessments, namely, that Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton and harm her electability and potential presidency, and help President Trump’s election chances,” Brennan told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on May 23, 2017.

After the briefings at the White House, Brennan shared the information with members of the congressional Gang of Eight in a series of one-on-one meetings. Brennan briefed three of the Democrats before informing any Republicans; the sequence and format of the briefings were a departure from typical Gang of Eight procedure, in which all eight members receive the information at the same time.

Public knowledge of the finer details of the briefings is limited to anonymously sourced media reports, which claim that the intelligence came from a highly-placed CIA source within the Kremlin. One of the media articles included reporting that questioned the credibility of the source, including raising suspicions that he was a double agent for Russia.

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