Justice Department rules limit supplying politically sensitive information to the White House, a review of attorney general guidelines for domestic FBI intelligence investigations has found.
A prohibition contained in the 2008 guidelines is a central focus of the ongoing House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence probe into Russian election meddling and unauthorized disclosures of sensitive U.S. intelligence communications intercepts.
The prohibitions in guidelines may explain why the FBI so far has refused to cooperate with the House committee’s investigation. Specifically, as of Wednesday, the FBI still has not responded to a request for documents that could explain how the White House was able to “unmask” the names of Americans incidentally spied on during a foreign electronic intelligence operation that ran from November to January — the same months the Trump transition team was working.
FBI spokesman Andrew Ames would not say why the bureau has not met the House committee’s document request. “The FBI will continue to work with our congressional oversight committees on their requests,” he told Inside the Ring.
According to congressional sources, the investigation is trying to determine if Susan E. Rice, President Obama‘s national security adviser, was involved in a clandestine political spying operation using foreign surveillance as cover.
Ms. Rice is expected to be a central witness in the coming weeks before committee investigators to explain the unmasking and wide dissemination of what the committee chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes, has called improper electronic surveillance of Trump transition team officials.
Mr. Nunes has said dozens of electronic intelligence reports appear to have revealed that information on Americans was improperly and widely disseminated throughout government during the presidential transition.
The attorney general guidelines for the FBI state that “compromising information concerning domestic officials or political organizations, or information concerning activities of United States persons intended to affect the political process in the United States, may be disseminated to the White House only with the approval of the attorney general.”
The sharing of compromising FBI information also must be “based on a determination that such dissemination is needed for foreign intelligence purposes, for the purpose of protecting against international terrorism or other threats to the national security, or for the conduct of foreign affairs.”
The acting attorney general at the time was Sally Q. Yates, and the House committee is expected to question her in addition to Ms. Rice about the FBI’s role in the intelligence-gathering controversy.
The guidelines also list six categories of sensitive information that can be routinely shared with the White House. They include information on foreign spy activities in the United States, signs of an imminent foreign attack or cyberattack, data on foreign leadership changes and information about foreign economic or political events that could have an impact on national security.
The FBI can also share information with the White House if the information is outlined in regularly published national intelligence requirements.
The guidelines were expanded in a bid to shift the FBI’s mission from being mainly a law enforcement agency to a domestic intelligence agency with both national security and law enforcement missions.
Ms. Rice has denied engaging in political spying on Donald Trump or his team and has denied leaking any classified information.
However, she suggested during an MSNBC interview on April 4 that she had requested the names of Americans redacted in foreign intelligence reports.
“There were occasions when I would receive a report in which a U.S. person was referred to, name not provided,” Ms. Rice said. “Sometimes in that context, in order to understand the significance of the report and assess its significance, it was necessary to request the information as to who that person was.”
The New York Times reported in March that the Obama administration officials were “scrambling” during the final days to collect and disseminate intelligence on any ties between Mr. Trump and his team and Russia, fearing that once in office the president would destroy compromising information gathered by U.S. spies.
The Obama administration also loosened rules on sharing raw electronic intelligence gathered by the National Security Agency on Dec. 15 — weeks before Mr. Obama left office. A 26-page directive signed by then-Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper has been criticized by privacy groups as posing new risks that Americans’ rights will be violated.
CHINA, RUSSIA ADVANCE HYPERSONIC WEAPONS
China recently disclosed details of its high-priority program to build ultra-high-speed maneuvering missiles, as Russia is advancing its hypersonic weapons.
The Chinese program, which had been shrouded in secrecy, includes a nationwide research and technology program that has achieved what experts say is rapid advancement toward fielding weapons capable of defeating strategic missile defenses.
China’s disclosures were made in early March during a conference on space planes and hypersonic systems, Aviation Week reported from China.
“While progress in some specific defense areas — most notably the recent flight tests of the DF-ZF/WU-14 hypersonic glide vehicles — was not discussed, the progress indicated by the underlying research makes it readily apparent that China is making strides in hypersonic capability much faster than previously thought,” the magazine reported on April 14.
The Chinese for the first time showed off an image of a scramjet-powered missile that can fly at speeds of up to Mach 7 (5,370 miles per hour) and at an altitude of 18.7 miles.
China’s other system is the DF-ZF, a hypersonic glider that launched on a missile and maneuvers to its target. That system has been tested six times and has raised concerns in the U.S. military.
Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten, Strategic Command commander, told Congress this month that China’s development of hypersonic weapons was undermining U.S. nuclear deterrence strategy.
In Russia, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said on April 20 that Moscow’s high-speed arms development is comparable to those of the United States.
“We have said about it before, about the fact that we are developing our own systems within the framework of the issues related not to supersonic, but to hypersonic weapons on an equal level with the United States,” Mr. Rogozin said.
“However, I would not like to comment on every leak connected to some sources in the defense industry or in the defense ministry.”
He was referring to reports on Moscow’s Zircon hypersonic cruise missiles.
Russia’s Defense Ministry announced April 16 that some hypersonic weapons and other advanced arms will be deployed with the Russian military by 2025.
The Pentagon is developing a space plane that could be used as a hypersonic weapon. It is also researching a scramjet-powered hypersonic missile and a hypersonic attack glider.
PENTAGON: RUSSIA DID NOT TARGET U.S. CRUISE MISSILES
One of the questions being asked inside the Pentagon is why Russia did not attempt to shoot down U.S. cruise missiles fired during the recent Tomahawk strike on a Syrian airfield.
A total of 59 Tomahawk missiles were fired on the Shayrat Air Base on April 6, the airfield used by Syrian government jets to conduct a chemical weapons attack that killed civilians. Russia has deployed S-400 and S-300 anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems at the Tartus naval supply base and the Khmeimim air base to protect its forces supporting the Bashar Assad regime.
The S-400s are capable of shooting down a variety of missiles, and the Tomahawks, fired from the guided missile destroyer USS Ross from the Mediterranean, passed through the target envelope of the S-400s, according to U.S. military officials.
However, officials said the Russians did not fire at the missiles and did not turn on any targeting radar used by the S-400s during the U.S. strike, something that could have revealed the system’s capabilities.
Asked about the issue, Central Command spokesman Air Force Col. John J. Thomas said: “We told the Russians a short time in advance we were going to strike. What they did or didn’t do with that information — or what their range, capabilities and intent are — is something you’d have to ask them.”
Russia did not say why it didn’t shoot at the Tomahawks, but Moscow complained that the attack disrupted U.S.-Russian relations.
Moscow temporarily shut down a communications channel with the Pentagon used to avoid conflicts by Russian and U.S. aircraft over Syria after the strike.
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.