The CIA in 2016 asked the FBI to investigate whether Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign had approved a plan to distract from her email troubles by “stirring up a scandal” claiming Russian interference in the election, according to new information declassified Tuesday.
Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, in a letter to Congress, said the referral went to then-FBI Director James B. Comey and Deputy Assistant Director of Counterintelligence Peter Strzok.
The referral was based on information American intelligence gleaned from Russian intelligence alleging that Mrs. Clinton “had approved a campaign plan to stir up a scandal against U.S. Presidential candidate Donald Trump by tying him to Putin and the Russians’ hacking of the Democratic National Committee.”
The intelligence community did not initially take a position on the accuracy of the claims about Mrs. Clinton, and raised the possibility it was a Russian fabrication.
But Mr. Ratcliffe said former CIA Director John O. Brennan did brief President Barack Obama on the claims in late July 2016.
According to Mr. Brennan’s handwritten notes, the briefing covered “alleged approval by Hillary Clinton on July 26, 2016 of a proposal from one of her foreign policy advisors to vilify Donald Trump by stirring up a scandal claiming interference by Russian security services.”
And by early September, the intelligence community referred the matter to the FBI, citing “U.S. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s approval of a plan concerning U.S. Presidential candidate Donald Trump and Russian hackers hampering U.S. elections as a means of distracting the public from her use of a private mail server.”
Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, complained Tuesday that Mr. Ratcliffe made the disclosure.
“It’s very disturbing to me that 35 days before an electio,n a director of national intelligence would release an unverified Russian rumor,” he told reporters.
But Mr. Ratcliffe, in his own statement, said it was “not Russian disinformation, and has not been assessed as such by the intelligence community.”
In late July 2016, as Mr. Obama was being briefed, Democrats were holding their presidential convention in Philadelphia.
The party was riven by revelations from the hack of the DNC’s emails showing how much officials had put their thumb on the scale in favoring Mrs. Clinton over her chief rival for the nomination, Sen. Bernard Sanders.
Mrs. Clinton was also still reeling from revelations that, while secretary of state, she used a secret email account tied to a private server kept at her home in New York, exchanging classified information on the insecure server and shielding her activities from public disclosure.
Mr. Ratcliffe’s memo mentions both email scandals as possible reasons for her to create a distraction.
Five days after Mr. Brennan’s briefing of Mr. Obama, the FBI opened the Crossfire Hurricane investigation looking into whether the Trump team was working with Russia.
The investigative referral to Mr. Comey and Mr. Strzok, meanwhile, was made Sept. 7, 2016.
Mr. Comey is slated to testify to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, and Chairman Lindsey Graham said the fired FBI chief will have to answer questions about the referral he received.
“Whether these allegations are accurate is not the question. The question is did the FBI investigate the allegations against Clinton like they did Trump? If not, why not? If so, what was the scope of the investigation? If none, why was that?” said Mr. Graham, South Carolina Republican.
American intelligence analysts have concluded that Russia did attempt to interfere in the 2016 election, sowing chaos but also with a particular focus on denigrating Mrs. Clinton.
And accusations of cooperation between Mr. Trump’s team and Russia, fed by the now-discredited Steele Dossier, would roil the new president, sparking his firing of Mr. Comey, which led to the nearly two-year special counsel’s investigation.
That investigation did not substantiate any Trump-Russia conspiracy.
Mr. Strzok was ousted from the FBI in 2018 after the inspector general revealed extensive text messages between him and Lisa Page, at the time an FBI lawyer. The two were having an affair and also, according to their own messages, seeking to “stop” Mr. Trump from winning the White House.
They were both also involved in the probes into Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump.
Tuesday’s Ratcliffe memo is the latest in a steady drip of information from government agencies looking back at how they handled the 2016 election.
The Justice Department last week declassified part of an inspector general’s report that showed the FBI knew by late 2016 that the “primary sub-source” used by Christopher Steele, the ex-British spy being paid by the Clinton team to dig up dirt on Mr. Trump, had ties to Russian intelligence.
In fact, the sub-source — who has not been publicly identified by the government — was at one point himself the subject of a counterintelligence investigation, and the FBI had pursued a secret wiretap, but the person’s visa expired and he left the U.S. before the wiretap was approved.
The Steele dossier was used by the FBI to bolster its investigation into Russia-Trump cooperation, and was a key element in the FBI obtaining a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court to spy on Trump campaign figure Carter Page.