- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 18, 2019

Attorney General William P. Barr’s review of the Obama-era conclusion that Russia interfered in the election to help Donald Trump sets up a struggle between the nation’s top spies and Mr. Trump’s skeptical Republican allies.

On one side are President Trump’s past two CIA directors and his current chief of national intelligence. All have publicly endorsed the January 2017 intelligence community assessment that Russian President Vladimir Putin interfered to help Mr. Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton.

But there are dissenters, and they are close to the White House.

Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the ranking Republican on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, issued a report last year that found no Russian-Trump conspiracy. Special counsel Robert Mueller confirmed the finding in March.

Mr. Nunes made a less noticed finding. He said intelligence chiefs violated good tradecraft by writing the assessment section on Mr. Putin’s intentions. What’s more, Fred Fleitz, who served inside the White House as National Security Adviser John R. Bolton’s chief of staff, has written a series of columns casting doubt on the section about Mr. Putin’s role in the election.

Mr. Fleitz is being considered as a possible replacement for Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, whose job is in jeopardy because of testimony this year on North Korea, a White House adviser told The Washington Times.

Mr. Coats reportedly angered the president by telling Congress that U.S. intelligence agencies don’t believe North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will give up his nuclear weapons, despite the president’s groundbreaking diplomatic outreach to Pyongyang and its leader. He gave the Senate testimony on the eve of Mr. Trump’s second summit with Mr. Kim in Vietnam in February.

Axios first reported this month on Mr. Coats’ shaky status, and Mr. Fleitz has been interviewed in the Oval Office by Mr. Trump and Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.

Mr. Trump has always bristled at the intelligence community findings that Mr. Putin helped him win the presidency.

The assessment came from two Obama loyalists who have since become Mr. Trump’s most ardent critics on CNN and MSNBC: former CIA Director John O. Brennan and former Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper. Also signing off was another fierce Trump critic, then-FBI Director James B. Comey.

Mr. Brennan and Mr. Clapper have accused the president of being an agent for Russia. The Mueller report, which looked at “any links” between Trump allies and Russians, made no mention of Trump connections to the Kremlin as some kind of operative.

Former intelligence officials told The Times that Mr. Barr wants to determine whether there was any political influence to skew the conclusions of the intelligence community assessment.

Mr. Coats seemed to confirm that Mr. Barr is conducting a wide-ranging investigation of intelligence agency activities. After Mr. Trump announced in May that he had granted Mr. Barr wide powers to collect information and declassify material, Mr. Coats issued his own statement in response.

“Much like we have with other investigations and reviews,” the statement read, “the intelligence community … will provide the Department of Justice all of the appropriate information for its review of intelligence activities related to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.”

Casting a wide net

Mr. Barr’s search for material on “intelligence activities related to Russian interference” indicates that he is casting a wide net.

Senior Trump aides back the intelligence community assessment, including former CIA director and now Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, one of Mr. Trump’s closest advisers.

Asked by Sen. Kamala D. Harris, California Democrat, at his Senate CIA confirmation hearing, “Do you fully accept its findings? Yes or No.” Mr. Pompeo answered, “I’ve seen nothing to cast any doubt on the findings in the report.”

He later told the intelligence committee, “Everything I’ve seen suggests to me that the report has an analytical product that is sound.”

Likewise, Gina Haspel, a career spy who succeeded Mr. Pompeo as director of the CIA, endorsed the intelligence community assessment.

Then there was the Helsinki episode that prompted Mr. Coats to immediately weigh in publicly.

A year ago, Mr. Trump stood alongside Mr. Putin when a reporter asked about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

“I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be,” Mr. Trump said.

The answer astonished the intelligence community, which thought the issue was settled.

Back at the White House, Mr. Trump said he had mangled his answer. He wanted to say “wouldn’t be” surprised to hear of Russian attempts to interfere.
Mr. Coats then posted a statement to reaffirm the intelligence community assessment.

“We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security,” the statement read in part.

Former intelligence officials told The Times it appears the order on Mr. Barr’s powers will allow the Justice Department to hunt for any documentation of a political motive in writing the Russian assessment. The report’s authors said they had “high confidence” in their findings.

But people close to Mr. Trump have their doubts.

Mr. Nunes has said he found great fault in how the Obama appointees wrote the intelligence community assessment on Mr. Putin’s intentions.

“While the committee found that most ICA analysis held up to scrutiny, the investigation also identified significant intelligence tradecraft failings that undermine confidence in the ICA judgments regarding Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategic objectives for disrupting the U.S. election,” his 2018 report said.

“CIA analysts and their draft was subjected to an unusually constrained review and coordination process, which deviated from established practice.”

The Wall Street Journal and other news sites reported that Mr. Barr is reviewing the assessment.

Focus of investigation

Mr. Barr’s main stated focus is to determine how the FBI investigation into the Trump colleagues began and what role Western intelligence services played in surveilling campaign workers. Mr. Barr appointed John Durham, the U.S. attorney in Connecticut, to head the investigation. Republicans in Congress wonder whether FBI informants were put into place for the sole purpose of getting a Trump ally to say something that could justify an investigation.

Stefan Halper, an academic and longtime Washington national security scholar, was an FBI informant assigned to spy on at least two Trump associates: George Papadopoulos and Carter Page. The FBI also assigned a flirtatious woman of mystery who assumed the role of office assistant to Mr. Halper.

FBI agent Peter Strzok formally opened the investigation on July 31, 2016, after an Australian diplomat in London reported that Mr. Papadopoulos told him that the Russians had obtained Mrs. Clinton emails.

Mr. Papadopoulos heard the gossip from another mysterious figure, Joseph Mifsud, a Maltese professor who traveled in Russian and Western circles. He has not been seen in public for months.

Mr. Papadopoulos said he believes Mr. Mifsud was a Western plant; the FBI believes he was a Russian agent but has produced little evidence.

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