By Aaron Maté
In the waning days of the Obama administration, the U.S. intelligence community produced a report saying Russian President Vladimir Putin had tried to swing the 2016 election to Donald Trump.
The January 2017 report, called an Intelligence Community Assessment, followed months of leaks to the media that had falsely suggested illicit ties between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin while also revealing that such contacts were the subject of a federal investigation. Its release cast a pall of suspicion over Trump just days before he took office, setting the tone for the unfounded allegations of conspiracy and treason that have engulfed his first term.
The ICA's blockbuster finding was presented to the public as the consensus view of the nation's intelligence community. As events have unfolded, however, it now seems apparent that the report was largely the work of one agency, the CIA, and overseen by one man, then-Director John Brennan, who closely directed its drafting and publication with a small group of hand-picked analysts.
Nearly three years later, as the public awaits answers from two Justice Department inquiries into the Trump-Russia probe’s origins, and as impeachment hearings catalyzed by a Brennan-hired anti-Trump CIA analyst unfold in Congress, it is clear that Brennan’s role in propagating the collusion narrative went far beyond his work on the ICA. A close review of facts that have slowly come to light reveals that he was a central architect and promoter of the conspiracy theory from its inception. The record shows that:
- Contrary to a general impression that the FBI launched the Trump-Russia conspiracy probe, Brennan pushed it to the bureau – breaking with CIA tradition by intruding into domestic politics: the 2016 presidential election. He also supplied suggestive but ultimately false information to counterintelligence investigators and other U.S. officials.
- Leveraging his close proximity to President Obama, Brennan sounded the alarm about alleged Russian interference to the White House, and was tasked with managing the U.S. intelligence community's response.
- While some FBI officials expressed skepticism about the Trump/Russia narrative as they hunted down investigative leads, Brennan stood out for insisting on its veracity.
- To substantiate his claims, Brennan relied on a Kremlin informant who was later found to be a mid-level official with limited access to Putin’s inner circle.
- Circumventing normal protocol for congressional briefings, Brennan supplied then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid with incendiary Trump-Russia innuendo that Reid amplified in a pair of public letters late in the election campaign.
- After Trump's unexpected victory, Brennan oversaw the hasty production of the tenuous Intelligence Community Assessment.
- Departing from his predecessors’ usual practice of staying above the political fray after leaving office, Brennan has worked as a prominent analyst for MSNBC, where he has used his authority as a former guardian of the nation’s top secrets to launch vitriolic attacks on a sitting president, accusing Trump of "treasonous" conduct.
Now Brennan is among the most vocal critics of the more comprehensive of the two Justice probes, the criminal investigation run by U.S. Attorney John Durham and Attorney General William Barr. "I don’t understand the predication of this worldwide effort to try to uncover dirt, real or imagined, that would discredit that investigation in 2016 into Russian interference," he recently said on MSNBC.
The Trump-Russia collusion theory was not propagated by a few rogue figures. Key Obama administration and intelligence officials laundered it through national security reporters who gave their explosive claims anonymous cover. Nevertheless, Brennan stands apart for the outsized role he played in generating and spreading the false narrative.
'Raised Concerns in My Mind'
The government’s official story as detailed in special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s April 18 report casts the Trump-Russia probe as an FBI operation. It asserts that the bureau launched its investigation, code-named “Crossfire Hurricane,” on July 31, 2016, after receiving information that junior Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos was informed that Russians had politically damaging information about Hillary Clinton.
But a great deal of evidence – including public testimony and news accounts – undermines that story. It indicates that the probe started earlier, with Brennan a driving force. Many of the clues are buried in public testimony and reports published by the New York Times and Washington Post, the primary vehicles for intelligence community leaks throughout the Russiagate saga.
One signal came in June when the Times reported that the Barr-Durham investigation had "provoked anxiety in the ranks of the C.I.A." Among Barr's aims, the paper noted, was "to better understand the intelligence that flowed from the C.I.A. to the F.B.I. in the summer of 2016."
That intelligence "flowed from the C.I.A. to the F.B.I" underscores that the agency played a larger role in the early stages of the Trump-Russia probe than is publicly acknowledged. Late last month, the Times ran a more ominous piece suggesting that the CIA may have been a prime mover of the probe through deception. It reported that Durham has been asking interview subjects "whether C.I.A. officials might have somehow tricked the F.B.I. into opening the Russia investigation." In anticipation of being asked such questions, the paper added, "[s]ome C.I.A. officials have retained criminal lawyers."
If that reflects an accurate suspicion on Durham's part, then Brennan, by his own account, has already outed himself as a key suspect. Brennan has publicly taken credit for the Russia probe's origination and supplying critical information to the FBI after it began. "I encountered and am aware of information and intelligence that revealed contacts and interactions between Russian officials and U.S. persons involved in the Trump campaign that I was concerned about," he told Congress in May 2017. That information, Brennan added, "raised concerns in my mind about whether or not those individuals were cooperating with the Russians," which then "served as the basis for the FBI investigation to determine whether such collusion-cooperation occurred."
A BBC report suggests that Brennan may be referring to April 2016 – a month before Papadopoulos allegedly mentioned Russian dirt and three months before the FBI launched its probe – when “an intelligence agency of one of the Baltic States" provided Brennan with "a tape recording" that "worried him" – "a conversation about money from the Kremlin going into the U.S. presidential campaign."
It is not clear whether the BBC account is accurate, but the April date coincides with other activity suggesting an earlier start date to the collusion probe than the official version. Former Attorney General Loretta Lynch testified before a congressional panel that in the “late spring” of 2016 then-FBI Director James Comey briefed National Security Council principals about concerns surrounding newly appointed Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. According to the Guardian newspaper, former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele began briefing the FBI on his discredited dossier in London as early as June; after that, "his information started to reach the bureau in Washington." In mid-July, veteran CIA and FBI informant Stefan Halper made contact with Page at a British academic conference; according to Page, the invitation had come at the end of May or early June.
Halper has also been accused of taking part in a smear operation aimed at spreading false information about National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and Russian nationals. In May, Halper was sued in the U.S. by Svetlana Lokhova, a Russian-born British academic, for defamation. Lokhova alleges that Halper, while working as a U.S. intelligence asset, spread rumors suggesting that she and Flynn had an improper relationship.
While Russiagate's exact starting point is murky, it is clear that Brennan placed himself at the center of the action. After the investigation officially got underway in the summer of 2016, as Brennan later told MSNBC, "[w]e put together a fusion center at CIA that brought NSA and FBI officers together with CIA to make sure that those proverbial dots would be connected." (It is not clear whether this was a Freudian slip suggesting the center included Fusion GPS, the opposition research firm hired by the Clinton campaign that produced the Steele dossier of fictitious Trump-Russia dirt – but regardless, it is likely that at least some of Brennan's "dots" came from the firm.) According to the New Yorker, also that summer Brennan received a personal briefing from Robert Hannigan, then the head of Britain’s intelligence service the GCHQ, about an alleged "stream of illicit communications between Trump's team and Moscow that had been intercepted." A U.S. court would later confirm that Steele shared his reports with at least one "senior British security official."
As Brennan helped generate the collusion investigation, he also worked to insert it into domestic American politics – at the height of a presidential campaign. Starting in August, Brennan began giving personal briefings to the Gang of Eight, high-ranking U.S. senators and members of Congress regularly apprised of state secrets. Breaking with tradition, he met them individually, rather than as a group. His most consequential private meeting was with Harry Reid.
Afterward, the Democrats’ Senate leader sent a pair of provocative public letters to FBI Director Comey. Reid's messages – released to the public during the final months of the presidential race – made explosive insinuations of illicit ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, putting the collusion narrative into motion. "The prospect of individuals tied to Trump, WikiLeaks and the Russian government coordinating to influence our election raises concerns of the utmost gravity and merits full examination," Reid wrote on Aug. 27. Russia, he warned, may be trying to "influence the Trump campaign and manipulate it as a vehicle for advancing the interests of Russian President Vladimir Putin."
Two days after Comey's "October surprise" announcement that newly discovered emails were forcing him to reopen the bureau’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server while serving as secretary of state, Reid followed up with even more incendiary language: "It has become clear," he complained to Comey, "that you possess explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisors and the Russian government."
Reid’s letters show the extent to which Brennan maneuvered behind the scenes to funnel collusion to a public audience. In their book "Russian Roulette," Michael Isikoff and David Corn report that Reid "concluded the CIA chief believed the public needed to know about the Russia operation, including the information about the possible links to the Trump campaign."
Nunes: 'Whatever Brennan Told Reid, He Didn’t Tell Me.'
The separate briefings and the Reid letters gave rise to suspicion that Brennan was driven by what Reid, according to Isikoff and Corn, saw as an "ulterior motive." Although Brennan has claimed publicly that he "provided the same briefing to each gang of eight member," Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) says that is not true. Nunes, who was then the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, is quoted in journalist Lee Smith’s new book, "The Plot Against the President," saying, "Whatever Brennan told Reid, he didn’t tell me."
Reid’s letters also undermine a common, but false, talking point used to defend Brennan and other U.S. intelligence officials behind the Russia investigation: If they really sought to hurt the Trump campaign, they would have made their Trump-Russia collusion speculation public. As Comey put it: "If we were 'deep state' Clinton loyalists bent on stopping him, why would we keep it secret?" Reid's extraordinary letters – released at the height of the campaign – were one of the ways in which Brennan did exactly the opposite.
After Trump's election victory in November, Brennan's CIA was the source of yet more leaks. Reports in early December claimed that the agency had assessed that Russia interfered in the 2016 election with the explicit aim of helping Trump. The leaks sparked worry inside the FBI.
"Think our sisters have begun leaking like mad," Peter Strzok, the lead FBI agent on the Russia probe, texted his colleague Lisa Page on Dec. 15. "Scorned and worried and political, they're kicking in to overdrive." In an April 2017 email to colleagues, Strzok worried the CIA was deceiving both the bureau and the public. "I'm beginning to think the agency got info a lot earlier than we thought and hasn't shared it completely with us," he wrote. "Might explain all these weird/seemingly incorrect leads all these media folks have. Would also highlight agency as a source of some of the leaks."
‘We Needed More’
At the same time that he was sharing his "concerns" about alleged Trump-Russia contacts with the FBI and Congress, Brennan was raising alarm bells at the White House about an alleged Russian interference campaign. In the process, he went to significant lengths to safeguard his claims from internal scrutiny.
In early August, Brennan told the White House about supposed intelligence from a Kremlin mole that Vladimir Putin had personally ordered an interference operation to hurt Clinton and install Trump in the White House. Brennan, the New York Times reported, "sent separate intelligence reports, many based on the source’s information, in special sealed envelopes to the Oval Office." Brennan made sure that those envelopes evaded scrutiny.
On Brennan’s orders, Greg Miller of the Washington Post reported, "no information on Russia's interference was ever included in the president's daily brief." Brennan's purported fear was that even a highly restrictive distribution list might prove too leaky for the CIA’s explosive claims about Putin’s supposed secret orders to elect Trump.
Miller also reported that Brennan holed up in his office to pore over the CIA's material, "staying so late that the glow through his office windows remained visible deep into the night." Brennan ordered up, not just vetted, "'finished' assessments – analytic reports that had gone through “layers of review and revision," but also "what agency veterans call the 'raw stuff,' the unprocessed underlying material," Miller adds.
To former CIA analyst and whistleblower John Kiriakou, all of this raises "a very big red flag" that suggests Brennan circumvented his colleagues and normal intelligence safeguards. "As a matter of practice, you never, ever give the raw data to the policymaker," Kiriakou says. "That was something that was done during the George W. Bush administration where Vice President Cheney demanded the raw intelligence. But more often than not raw intelligence is just simply incorrect – it’s factually incorrect, or it’s the result of the source who’s a liar, or it’s the result of the source who has only part of the story. And so you can’t trust it. You have to vet it and compare it to the rest of your all-source information to see what’s true, what’s not true, and then only the true information you use in your analysis. For the director of the CIA to be using the raw data is highly unusual because that’s what you have a staff of thousands to do for you."
The timing of Brennan's supposed delivery of the information sourced to the mole – later identified as Oleg Smolenkov – also raises questions. Although it is unclear when Smolenkov would have conveyed his intelligence to the CIA, the Washington Post reported Brennan delivered it to the White House in early August 2016 – just days after the FBI officially launched its Russia investigation. But if Smolenkov was able to capture Putin's orders to conduct a sweeping election interference campaign – which allegedly began in March – it would be odd that this information arrived only after the U.S. election interference investigation began, and not – at minimum – months earlier, when Putin's supposed operation would had to have been ordered.
When Brennan's material did reach eyes outside Obama's inner circle, "other agencies were slower to endorse a conclusion that Putin was personally directing the operation and wanted to help Trump," the Washington Post reported. “‘It was definitely compelling, but it was not definitive,' said one senior administration official. 'We needed more.'" Faced with that skepticism, Brennan "moved swiftly" to brief congressional leaders -- including Reid.
The internal doubts about Brennan's claims now make more sense in light of the recent outing of the supposed Kremlin mole that he relied on to make them.
Smolenkov has been revealed to be a mid-level Kremlin official who was outside of Putin's inner circle. According to Russian media, Smolenkov disappeared during a visit to Montenegro in June 2017, in what other reports call a CIA extraction over fears that a loose-lipped Trump could put him in peril. After that, Smolenkov turned up in the U.S., remarkably living under his own name – easily discoverable in public records – in the Virginia suburbs.
Even putting aside Putin’s reputation for having operatives abroad hunt down and assassinate those who cross him, Kiriakou said this open visibility is "astounding." CIA informants, Kiriakou says, "were never, ever resettled in their own names and they were almost never resettled in the Washington area. That tells me a couple of things: one, this source wasn’t as sensitive as we may have been led to believe; or, two, even if he was sensitive, the information that he provided either has been overtaken by events, or isn’t really that important in the long run."
Nevertheless, Brennan’s Kremlin mole remains the only known direct source for a central claim that Putin worked to elect Trump.
Brennan has countered questions about the intelligence process he directed by insisting that his conclusions were broadly shared and corroborated. That is misleading.
During private briefings to Congress in December 2016, it was the CIA that aggressively pushed the belief that Putin had ordered a secret campaign to elect Trump, while FBI officials said that the intelligence was not conclusive. An unnamed official told the Washington Post that "a secret, new CIA assessment" made "direct and bald and unqualified" statements that the Russian government sought to elect Trump. But days later, "a senior FBI counterintelligence official" appearing before the committee gave "fuzzy and "ambiguous" remarks on the same issue. "It was shocking to hold these [CIA] statements made about Russian intentions and activities, and to hear this guy basically saying nothing with certainty and allowing that all was possible," an official who attended the briefing told the Post.
A March 2018 report from Republican members of House Intelligence Committee fleshed out these concerns. It determined that the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment, which Brennan managed, was subjected to an "unusually constrained review and coordination process, which deviated from established CIA practice." Contrary to the widespread portrayal of a vetted, consensus-based intelligence product, the ICA was in fact "drafted by CIA analysts" working under Brennan and merely "coordinated with the NSA and the FBI." The report found that the ICA also suffered from "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."
Another question is whether the Steele dossier influenced the ICA's production. Brennan has insisted in congressional testimony that the dossier was "not in any way used as the basis for the intelligence community's assessment," and that he was unaware of the fact that Hillary Clinton's campaign had funded it. But multiple accounts, including in RealClearInvestigations, report that the dossier was inserted as an appendix to the ICA, and that Brennan personally advocated its inclusion. In an October 2017 interview with CNN, where he works as analyst, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper acknowledged that "some of the substantive content of the dossier we were able to corroborate in our Intelligence Community Assessment" – suggesting that it was indeed relied on.
President Obama's role in U.S. intelligence is yet one more mystery. In both the final months of his presidency and in the period since, Obama has said very little publicly about the Russia investigation. But he attended various meetings with top officials about Trump-Russia theories. It’s not clear what he said, but their efforts ramped up in the months that followed.
Most of Obama’s documented efforts occurred during his final days in office. On Jan. 5, 2017 he convened a meeting where he and top principals decided to withhold details about the ongoing FBI investigation of the incoming Trump administration. A week later his administration issued a new rule allowing the NSA to disseminate throughout the government “raw signals intelligence information.” Republicans viewed this as an effort to make it easy to leak damaging information against Trump and harder to identify the leakers. Also after the election, Obama made the curious decision to nix a proposal from inside his own administration to form a bipartisan commission that would have scrutinized Russian interference and the U.S. response.
‘I Think I Suspected More Than There Actually Was’
Since stepping down from the CIA in January 2017, Brennan's incendiary rhetoric has fanned the flames. From MSNBC to the New York Times to Twitter, Brennan has denounced Trump as "treasonous," "in the pocket of Putin," and dismissed the president's now substantiated "claims of no collusion," as "hogwash." In the final weeks of the Mueller probe, Brennan boldly predicted a wave of indictments against Trump's inner circle for a Russia conspiracy. When Mueller completed his probe with no such indictments, Brennan changed his tone: "I don’t know if I received bad information, but I think I suspected there was more than there actually was," he told MSNBC.
The Mueller report accepted Brennan’s claim that Russia meddled in the 2016 election. But as a previous RCI investigation found, the report's evidence failed to support its claim of a "sweeping and systematic" interference campaign. Nor did it show that such interference impacted the outcome.
It is still not clear why the Obama administration, with major media playing along, not only embraced the false Trump-Russia narrative but also used it as a rationale to spy on a presidential campaign and then on a presidency. Brennan’s reasons also remain opaque.
One early motivation may have been the intelligence community’s broad dislike of Flynn – Trump’s first national security adviser, who was one of the earliest targets of the collusion narrative.
Flynn had served as Obama’s head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, but fell out of favor by 2014, in part because of his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal and the CIA's arming of anti-Assad militants in Syria. Obama had specifically warned Trump against hiring Flynn.
A longtime critic of the bureaucracy, Flynn earned particular enmity from Brennan’s CIA with an effort to create a new Pentagon spy organization, Foreign Policy reported in 2015.
One of Trump’s first high-profile supporters, Flynn was also the subject of the first news articles – starting in February of 2016 – portraying members of the Trump campaign as overly sympathetic to Russia. In February 2017, “nine current and former officials” from multiple agencies leaked about him to the Washington Post over his contacts with the Russian ambassador -- an article that helped the Post win a Pulitzer Prize with the New York Times. The episode also brought Flynn much grief, including a widely questioned “process crime” conviction for lying to the FBI, which he is now trying to reverse. Meanwhile, a CIA “whistleblower” hired and placed in the White House by Brennan has provided the impetus for the current Democrat-led impeachment effort against President Trump.
The Barr-Durham probe is set to determine, among other things, whether Brennan’s actions and faulty information amounted to incompetence or something considerably worse.