Officials Abused Classification to Shape Russia Narrative, Ex-Intel Chief Says

May 28, 2020 Updated: May 29, 2020

Government officials buried parts of the story about the investigation of the Trump campaign beneath the veil of classification in order to conceal what really happened from the American people, according to former acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell.

Grenell, who had completed his term as the acting head of the intelligence community, told radio show host Mark Levin that government elites in Washington routinely “overclassify” official records in order to protect reputations.

“Certain parts of investigation were tamped down through classification and edited through classification, and then the public misses the whole story. They only see part of it, on purpose,” Grenell said on May 27.

“It angers me, because what happens is you take information and you weaponize it, and it’s an elite thing where you keep the information in the back, and you pretend like the public doesn’t need it. This is a problem. We can’t overclassify things just to protect reputations.”

During his three-month term, Grenell declassified a number of documents connected to the investigation of the Trump campaign that cast a damning light on senior Obama-administration officials. He also significantly reduced the size of the intelligence bureaucracy, in line with recommendations of career officials who had conducted four studies on the matter.

Among the records declassified by Grenell is an extensive list of so-called unmasking requests involving the communications of President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn. The list features requests from the top brass of the Obama administration, including CIA Director John Brennan, FBI Director James Comey, and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

The FBI opened the investigation of the Trump campaign in July 2016 and added Flynn as a target in August of that year. The investigation—codenamed Crossfire Hurricane—was tainted with bias among the key officials involved and the discovery of a long list of serious errors in applications to spy on Trump campaign associate Carter Page. Recently declassified documents also strongly suggest that top FBI officials were out to entrap Flynn. Grenell called what transpired “an outrage.”

The troubling details remained classified for years despite an aggressive push for transparency from Congress and the private sector. Crossfire Hurricane in May 2017 evolved into the special counsel investigation by Robert Mueller that polarized the nation for 22 months.

“In the Russian collusion investigation, early on, there were people who raised red flags. And many of those people were silenced or their words classified and put away,” Grenell said.

“So we’ve seen that through some of the stuff that’s come out. But I believe that if we want the American public to believe in the intelligence agencies and grow our intelligence agencies, because they’re good and they’re going to protect the United States, then we have to improve the reputation of the current process.

“It’s really important for people to come clean and let the public realize the mistakes that were made—that’s how you improve the reputation.”

Grenell’s term as acting head of the intelligence community concluded on May 26 with the swearing-in of Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe.

Levin, the conservative radio host Grenell spoke with, was the first to sound the alarm on spying on the Trump campaign. Levin’s comments are believed to have led to Trump’s first public statement on the matter.

Grenell noted that the problem traced back to a “few bad apples” at the top tier of government in Washington.

“As much as I think that it’s just a few bad apples, there’s also a culture of what I would [call] middle management that looks the other way. And it’s this process in Washington, D.C., where it gets layered on and layered on year after year, and it’s very hard for an outsider to come into the system,” he said.

Grenell harshly criticized lawmakers on both sides of the aisle for manipulating classified intelligence. During his term in office, he pioneered the practice of leaving unclassified versions of intelligence briefings with politicians so there’s little leeway to reshape the message via a leak.

“We have got a real problem, and I heard this from career intelligence officials, where the Hill in general, both sides of the aisle, have manipulated the raw intelligence. Intelligence is an estimate—we get it right, and sometimes we get it wrong. Sometimes we underestimate and sometimes we overestimate,” he said.

“I have been dealing with career intelligence officials who literally have been saying they don’t want to brief the Hill because they don’t want their careers to be ruined. We’ve had several people refuse to go to the Hill and brief because the atmosphere is so toxic, where what they have to say is so manipulated and leaked and cherry-picked.”

Zack Stieber contributed to this report.

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