Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe testifies before a Senate Intelligence Committee nomination hearing on May 5, 2020, in Washington, DC. | Andrew Harnik-Pool/Getty Images
It sure looks like the guy who’s in charge of the entire US intelligence community is selectively declassifying unverified intelligence to make Democrats look bad ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
Even worse: The intelligence, at least in the minds of some critics, may actually be Russian disinformation.
In a letter sent on Tuesday to Sen. Lindsey Graham, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe — a former Republican congressman from Texas and a staunch ally of the president — declassified information relating to the FBI’s probe into possible collusion between Russia and Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Here’s the core of the disclosure:
In late July 2016, U.S. intelligence agencies obtained insight into Russian intelligence analysis alleging that U.S. Presidential candidate Hillary 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 IC does not know the accuracy of this allegation or the extent to which the Russian intelligence analysis may reflect exaggeration or fabrication.
Let’s be clear about what this says: America obtained information that Russian spies believed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign fabricated ties between Trump and the Kremlin, but the US intelligence community couldn’t confirm whether that was true because Moscow may have just made it up.
In other words, Ratcliffe acknowledged he released material that would likely be harmful to Clinton and the Democrats — and helpful to Trump — without knowing its veracity.
But it gets worse: Recent news reports have revealed that Ratcliffe declassified the intelligence against the advice of nonpolitical, career US intelligence officials who feared his doing so “would give credibility to Kremlin-backed material,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
As DNI, Ratcliffe doesn’t have to listen to his subordinates, of course. But the reporting further suggests that Ratcliffe, who fiercely defended Trump during the impeachment hearings as a then-member of Congress, prioritized Trump’s political interests over the interests of, well, the entire country.
The letter went public mere hours before Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden squared off in the first 2020 presidential debate. And, intentionally or not, the disclosure had an immediate impact: During the debate, the president mentioned what Ratcliffe released. “You saw what happened today with Hillary Clinton, where it was a whole big con job,” he said.
All of this is deeply troubling and threatens to politicize the intelligence community at a time when untainted, clear information is at a premium. “He has declassified information for patently partisan reasons, and he has done so in an underhanded manner,” said John Sipher, who ran the CIA’s Russia operations during a 28-year career in the agency’s National Clandestine Service.
In one fell swoop, then, Ratcliffe may have tainted the reputation America’s spy agencies try so hard to build. “The damage to US intelligence will be difficult to undo for years,” said Alina Polyakova, president and CEO of the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington, DC.
“Among the worst sins of a professional intelligence officer”
Perceptions of the intelligence community as a whole are positive only when it’s seen as an apolitical entity offering unbiased, fact-based information to policymakers.
That information is typically presented only when America’s intelligence agencies have verified and placed it within a broader context to help government officials — from the president on down — make informed decisions.
Trump’s intelligence chief, who took the job after the impeachment hearings, broke that cardinal rule.
“Ratcliffe’s actions are among the worst sins of a professional intelligence officer,” Sipher told me. “They know that a single piece of information is meaningless without having the necessary context. To release one piece of information without providing context is unprofessional and damages the reputation of our intelligence community.”
To understand why that’s the case, it’s apt to use the metaphor of a puzzle here.
It’s hard to see the full picture by looking at just one of thousands of puzzle pieces. Once they’re mostly in place, the final image becomes clear and evident to all. The same, roughly speaking, goes for intelligence. One piece is good, but more pieces are better. And if spies can show a policymaker the entirety of the puzzle image, it’s easier for them to make informed decisions.
That’s why many experts were surprised by Ratcliffe’s decision. It’s the job of intelligence officials to present as full a picture as possible to their intended customers, not just hand over a single piece and say, “Here you go, make of it what you will.”
Let’s go a step further: What if that singular puzzle piece isn’t from the set at all? What if someone purposefully slipped in a piece that looks like it fits but doesn’t? Well, the earlier that piece can be discounted and discarded as not being part of the actual puzzle you’re trying to put together, the better.
That’s what Republican and Democratic lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee did. The Clinton-related nugget Ratcliffe declassified didn’t feature at all in the panel’s five-part report on how Russia interfered in the 2016 election. That’s not to say the committee was unaware of the tidbit or dismissed it entirely, but it clearly didn’t fit into the overall picture.
This is partly why the administration’s critics immediately seized on Ratcliffe’s decision.
“It’s very disturbing to me that 35 days before an election, a director of national intelligence would release unverified” information coming from Russia, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told the New York Times.
After all, it’s entirely possible Russia wanted the US to “find” that puzzle piece to mislead American spies. Russian hackers aimed to sow discord in the US during the 2016 election, and few things would ratchet up tensions more than having the government believe Clinton created an explosive conspiracy theory to beat Trump.
Ratcliffe defended his decision hours after releasing the letter, saying in a statement the intelligence he declassified “is not Russian disinformation and has not been assessed as such by the intelligence community.” He then provided a briefing on the sources behind the snippet just for Graham — and no Democrats — on Tuesday night, the Times reported.
Even if Ratcliffe is telling the truth about the intelligence, declassifying it obscured more than illuminated and clearly provided Trump and his allies a weapon ahead of the biggest event in the 2020 election season so far. And he did so even as multiple US agencies say Russia is once again interfering to aid the president’s reelection chances.
That’s not the work of an impartial intelligence chief. That’s the work of a crony.
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