U.S. intelligence officials past and present offered harsh criticism Tuesday of a CNN report on the handling of a high-level U.S. informant in the upper reaches of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin, warning that even discussing sensitive details of the case put U.S. security and future intelligence operations at risk.
The cable news network and the CIA were at a furious impasse over the accuracy of the report, in which CNN reported that the Russian agent was “extracted” and brought to the United States in 2017 in part because intelligence officials feared President Trump might blow the agent’s cover. CNN stood by its reporting, which a CIA spokeswoman labeled as “misguided speculation” and “inaccurate.”
“The reporting is materially inaccurate,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Mr. Trump’s first CIA chief, told reporters at a White House briefing. “And you should know, as the former CIA director, I don’t talk about things like this very often.”
But many intelligence insiders were more upset about the airing of the report in the first place and the impact it may have on future undercover operations. Some said the motivation of the leakers appeared to be first and foremost to damage Mr. Trump.
“If the story is true, the sources who leaked it, whoever they are, should be ashamed of themselves,” said Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA Moscow station chief. “Something like this is out of bounds because it blows a story into the open that is not verified, fueled by speculation, and could ultimately and dangerously expose classified U.S. intelligence gathering methods and sources.
“Journalists wouldn’t have this story if someone wasn’t leaking it,” he said. “These are leakers who are giving out classified information that is not in the realm of what people should be talking about because it puts people [who are] behind enemy lines, who are sources to American intelligence, into a place where they’re saying, ‘What the heck am I doing working with Washington? Am I going to be found out and have my own information put through a political meat grinder like this?’”
Stephen Slick, a former CIA Clandestine Service officer who heads the Intelligence Studies Project at the University of Texas at Austin, told The Times that “no one with knowledge of these events should be discussing them, and no one without knowledge should be speculating about them.”
David Maxwell, a retired U.S. Special Forces officer with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said any current or former officials leaking about intelligence operations are “not only breaking the law, but are truly unpatriotic.”
In a rare public denial, the CIA disputed key parts of the CNN account.
“Misguided speculation that the President’s handling of our nation’s most sensitive intelligence — which he has access to each and every day — drove an alleged exfiltration operation is inaccurate,” said Brittany Bramell, CIA director of public affairs.
“CNN’s narrative that the Central Intelligence Agency makes life-or-death decisions based on anything other than objective analysis and sound collection is simply false,” she said.
Despite the criticism, Mr. Maxwell suggested that the controversy could have “some positive benefits.”
“If this report is any way true, the U.S. intelligence community made a decision to protect an asset in a very extreme way. We did not leave this important asset out in the cold,” he told The Times. “It demonstrates our commitment to American values and that if you serve the U.S., you will be protected. … This also sends a powerful message to those who are being recruited to spy for the U.S.”
Regardless of any “positive benefits,” Mr. Maxwell said, “it still pains me that American officials or former American officials would put partisan politics above U.S. national security.
“Their efforts to bring political harm to the president may cause greater harm to our national security. And, given the current state of politics, they will likely not achieve the effects they desire as [Mr. Trump] sure appears to be like a ‘Teflon man’ concerning any kind of scandal — nothing sticks to him.”
CNN’s report said the CIA had received intelligence on the Kremlin for more than a decade from the informant in Russia, including “images of documents” on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desk.
The New York Times reported that the informant became one of the CIA’s most important and highly protected assets as U.S. officials realized that Russia was trying to sabotage the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The Russian agent was brought out of Russia sometime after a fateful May 2017 meeting Mr. Trump held with Russia’s foreign minister and ambassador. Critics said the president inadvertently disclosed classified information on U.S. intelligence findings.
Russian officials were dismissive of the CNN account, and Russian news outlets and government officials published the name of the onetime Putin government official said to now be living in the U.S.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the government-run Tass news service that “no one shared any state or even non-state secrets with anyone during” the Oval Office meeting.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow that “speculations in U.S. media outlets” were amounting to “a kind of pulp fiction.” He confirmed to reporters that the suspected U.S. informant had worked in the Putin government but said he was fired in the 2016 to 2017 time frame “through an internal instruction.”
Mr. Lavrov claimed he knew nothing of the suspected spy.
“I have never seen him, I have never met him, and I have neither kept track of his career nor his movements,” the Russian foreign minister said.