CIA clamps down on flow of Russia intelligence to White House

CIA clamps down on flow of Russia intelligence to White HouseSeptember 23, 2020

The CIA has made it harder for intelligence about Russia to reach the White House, stoking fears among current and former officials that information is being suppressed to please a president known to erupt in anger whenever he is confronted with bad news about Moscow.

Nine current and former officials said in interviews that CIA Director Gina Haspel has become extremely cautious about which, if any, Russia-related intelligence products make their way to President Donald Trump’s desk. Haspel also has been keeping a close eye on the agency’s fabled “Russia House,” whose analysts she often disagrees with and sometimes accuses of purposefully misleading her.

Last year, three of the people said, Haspel tasked the CIA’s general counsel, Courtney Elwood, with reviewing virtually every product that comes out of Russia House, which is home to analysts and targeters who are experts in Russia and the post-Soviet space, before it “goes downtown” to the White House. One former CIA lawyer called it “unprecedented that a general counsel would be involved to this extent.”

Four of the people said the change has resulted in less intelligence on Russia making its way to the White House, but the exact reason for that — whether Elwood has been blocking it, or whether Russia officers have become disillusioned and are producing less, or even self-censoring for fear of being reprimanded — is less clear.

One administration official explained the reduced Russia-related intelligence flow from CIA to the National Security Council as a matter of “quality over quantity.” Another administration official said that while the CIA is not the only agency that provides intelligence to the NSC, this official’s perception was that the CIA was “certainly” exhibiting an “abundance of caution” about the Russia intelligence it was sending to the NSC, beginning around the time of Trump’s impeachment proceedings. A whistleblower complaint about Trump from a CIA analyst, which Elwood relayed to NSC lawyer John Eisenberg at the time, is what sparked Trump’s impeachment — feeding the mistrust toward Russia-related intelligence inside the White House and among the agency’s top ranks.

The heightened scrutiny within the CIA comes as the Justice Department, through prosecutor John Durham, continues to investigate the intelligence community’s findings about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election — and particularly the conclusion drawn by Russia analysts that Russian President Vladimir Putin interfered specifically to boost Trump’s candidacy rather than just sow chaos.

Trump, who has publicly railed against the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in 2016 to bolster his candidacy, has also been working to bring the intelligence community further under his control since his impeachment acquittal in February. He has installed loyalists in top positions like director of national intelligence and the senior-most intelligence post on the NSC staff.

Current and former officials have said that in private, the president remains extraordinarily sensitive around the subject of Russian meddling — to the point where they hesitate to raise the topic. As recently as last Thursday, the president blasted his own FBI director on Twitter for testifying that Moscow was seeking to “sow divisiveness and discord” and “denigrate Vice President Biden” in a bid to influence the 2020 campaign.

A CIA spokesperson did not dispute any of the factual assertions in this article. But he pushed back on the notion that Haspel’s enhanced scrutiny was politically motivated. “Scrutinizing intelligence product and process is exactly what is expected of Director Haspel not only because it’s her job, it’s her life’s work — developing sources, vetting information, and checking assumptions — it’s in her blood,” said CIA press secretary Timothy Barrett. “She rightfully asks difficult questions and ensures intelligence is corroborated, double-checked, and then run through the wringer once more. Any suggestion of a political motive for how she leads this agency is misguided.”

Haspel’s scrutiny of intelligence coming out of the CIA’s Russia House has led to some recent dust-ups. The head of Russia House, whom officials declined to identify by name because they work undercover, was fired earlier this year, according to four of the current and former officials familiar with the matter, but remains at the agency in another mission center. It’s not clear why he was ousted, but Haspel’s personal dislike of him was clear. “Gina was not a fan,” said one of the people familiar with the matter.

Another Russia House analyst quit earlier this year after Haspel accused him of lying about intelligence — an accusation that happens fairly often, several former officials said. “She calls analysts liars all the time,” said one former CIA official. The head of the mission center itself is still in place.

More recently, Haspel “completely dismissed” Russia House analysts who brought her intelligence showing a correlation between Russia and the curious phenomenon of diplomats experiencing brain trauma, according to one current U.S. official with knowledge of the episode. The brain trauma issue first came to light in 2017 when American and Canadian embassy staff in Cuba complained of mysterious health problems that have never been definitively explained.

“She had a very defensive reaction, reacted very poorly and made some comments about needing to clean out Russia House,” the official said.

Intelligence is a two-way process: Officials at the NSC and other “consumers” in the government regularly send questions and requests to the intelligence community in what is known as a “tasking,” while “producers” in America’s spy agencies then try to provide answers.

But the Russia portfolio at the NSC has faced constant churn over the past few years: Ryan Tully is the fifth person to hold the senior director role, which previously had been held by Fiona Hill and Tim Morrison, both of whom testified in the impeachment inquiry. Joe Wang, who was deputy senior director for Europe and Russia at the NSC under Tully, left for the State Department over the summer. All that turnover “has been hard on [Russia policy],” another administration official said, “because you need someone driving it who has a consistent view — and it doesn’t seem like working on [Russia] has been a top priority.”

Critics of national security adviser Robert O’Brien say he has been prone to highlighting national security information and intelligence “that he knows the president will respond well to,” as one former White House official put it. “O’Brien doesn’t want anyone to touch things Russia-related because of the reaction,” a second former White House official said. “He just doesn’t want to rock the boat with Trump.”

An NSC spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment but an administration official pushed back and said: “Anyone who’s watched the NSC policy process over the last year knows how seriously the NSC has been working to counter Russian malign activities.”

Like other specialized units, Russia House — which remained highly compartmented even after it was integrated into the CIA’s Mission Center for Europe and Eurasia as part of a reorganization under former CIA Director John Brennan — is extremely protective of its intelligence. But some within the agency, including Haspel, have described it as too isolated and in need of an overhaul, according to several of the current and former U.S. officials.

Others describe that characterization as unfair, and say a level of secrecy and limits on collaboration with other units is necessary to protect the information from being too widely shared or manipulated. “We thought her feeling that Russia House was cliquey or insular was grossly unfair,” said a former senior CIA official. “She had preconceived notions about it, from her own time at the agency.” Haspel joined the CIA in 1985 and spent nearly her entire career working undercover as a clandestine officer, serving as chief of station in Europe and Central Eurasia and focusing at times on Russian operations, according to a CIA-issued timeline.

Some still fear, however, that Haspel’s negative perception of CIA’s Russia analysts is the result of ongoing political pressure by the Trump administration to frame them as biased and myopic because of a conclusion they drew in 2016 that has enraged the president: that Putin ordered an interference campaign specifically to bolster Trump’s candidacy. That analysis was based at least in part on information from a highly sensitive CIA asset in the Kremlin, and is now at the center of Durham’s probe.

“When I was there, Russia House was the most sensitive, most secretive organization in the building,” said Larry Pfeiffer, who served as former CIA Director Michael Hayden’s chief of staff. “They’re very protective of the information, and rightfully so. Given Russian counterintelligence efforts, and the incredible sensitivity of any sources they might have, if something were to get out it could result in the loss of the life of an asset. And given what we know of Russian security efforts, I can only surmise that those assets are few and far between.”

Some people familiar with Haspel’s enhanced scrutiny of the Russia material say it isn’t necessarily nefarious, or the result of her working to stay in Trump’s good graces. One U.S. official acknowledged that while Haspel “has been very demanding of anything Russia-related,” it’s possible that she just feels “protective” of the agency she came up in. “She knows that they’re under a microscope,” this person said. “So she feels like they need to be more precise, and airtight.” At least one CIA assessment likely to anger Trump was reportedly included in the CIA’s classified World Intelligence Review, which is disseminated to a wide array of policymakers and other stakeholders, on Aug. 31: that Putin was probably personally directing an ongoing operation to undermine Joe Biden’s candidacy.

Trump’s firing of former acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire, who made the career-ending decision to allow a deputy to brief lawmakers on Russia’s ongoing election interference, is still top of mind for many in the intelligence community who fear they could land in Trump’s crosshairs if they challenge him in any official setting.

Those fears played out on Thursday night, when Trump went on a Twitter rampage against FBI Director Christopher Wray. Wray had testified during a public congressional hearing about Russia’s ongoing attempts to undermine Biden — China is “a FAR greater threat than Russia, Russia, Russia,” Trump replied on Twitter — and the threat of white supremacist violence in the U.S. “I look at them as a bunch of well funded ANARCHISTS & THUGS who are protected because the Comey/Mueller inspired FBI is simply unable, or unwilling, to find their funding source, and allows them to get away with “murder,’” Trump tweeted in response.

Wray and other national security leaders, including Haspel, had specifically sought to avoid Trump’s wrath earlier this year by requesting that the annual Worldwide Threats hearing before Congress be held behind closed doors and out of his sight.

Haspel’s detractors say that approach has warped the agency’s mandate to deliver its unvarnished assessments of world affairs, heedless of political considerations. “The director has abdicated her responsibility to tell the president what he needs to be told, and that is in part enabled by Elwood,” said another former senior CIA official. This person said Elwood is “in virtually every meeting, making decisions and getting involved in things that are not legal issues” — including her role in reviewing all of the Russia-related material before it’s sent out to the consumer, a job usually done, if necessary, by a unit’s in-house lawyer.

Another former CIA official said Elwood showed “a lot more interest” in the agency’s counterintelligence unit than previous general counsels, and had that unit’s attorney begin reporting to her deputy. “No one is willing to challenge” Elwood or Haspel, said the former senior CIA official. He added that Haspel’s changes have “been framed by some as an effort to ‘protect the building’ — well, her job is not to protect the building, it’s to protect the country.”

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