john ratcliffe
In this Dec. 9, 2019, file photo, Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, during the House impeachment inquiry hearings in Washington.
Doug Mills/The New York Times via Associated Press
  • The director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, released a number of declassified intelligence documents on Tuesday that national security veterans warned could be part of a Russian disinformation campaign.
  • The documents included handwritten notes from former CIA director John Brennan in 2016, shortly after he briefed then-President Barack Obama on US intelligence reporting on what Russian security services were saying.
  • Specifically, according to Brennan’s notes, Russian intelligence operatives were claiming Hillary Clinton concocted a plan “to vilify Donald Trump by stirring up a scandal claiming interference” by Russia during the 2016 election.
  • The president and his allies immediately latched onto the declassified notes as evidence of an Obama-era plot to undermine Trump’s campaign.
  • But former US officials said Ratcliffe compromised national security and US sources and methods by selectively declassifying the documents to boost Trump’s narratives about the Russia probe.
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Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe released a slew of documents Tuesday that former US officials and national security veterans said are likely part of a Russian disinformation campaign.

Included in the documents that Ratcliffe released Tuesday were handwritten notes from 2016 by then CIA director John Brennan after he briefed then-President Barack Obama on a US intelligence assessment of narratives that Russian security services were pushing at the time.

“We’re getting additional insight into Russian activities from [REDACTED],” Brennan wrote, according to the notes, which were first reported on by Fox News. They also detailed an alleged “plan” that a foreign policy adviser to then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton cooked up “to vilify Donald Trump by stirring up a scandal claiming interference by the Russian security service.”

The US intelligence community assessed with high confidence in early 2017 that the Russian government waged an unprecedented and elaborate campaign to interfere in the 2016 election to hurt Clinton and propel Trump to the Oval Office. That conclusion has been corroborated by a bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report as well as the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s meddling.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin and other officials maintain that the Kremlin did not interfere in the 2016 election in favor of Trump and that the Clinton campaign engineered the theory to distract from her own controversies. Putin also suggested that Ukraine, not Russia, was responsible for meddling in the election as part of an effort to get Clinton elected president.

Ratcliffe first revealed the existence of the information contained in Brennan's notes in a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham last month, in which he described a "Russian intelligence analysis" about the claim. The DNI declassified the information despite the fact that the US intelligence community "does not know the accuracy of this allegation or the extent to which the Russian intelligence analysis may reflect exaggeration or fabrication," according to his letter.

According to another document Ratcliffe released Tuesday summarizing the CIA's intelligence to transmit to the FBI, the purported plan was meant to link Trump and Russia "as a means of distracting the public from [Clinton's] use of a private email server."

Still, the president and his allies seized on the declassified documents as evidence that the Obama administration masterminded the "Russia hoax" to denigrate then-Republican candidate Trump and, later, to undermine his presidency.

After Ratcliffe's release, President Donald Trump ordered the declassification of all documents pertaining to Russian interference in the 2016 election and the FBI's investigation into the matter, which included looking at whether members of Trump's campaign conspired with the Russian government to tilt the race in his favor.

The president and his allies have long referred to the politically charged investigation as a "hoax," language that he echoed in a tweet Tuesday evening.

"I have fully authorized the total Declassification of any & all documents pertaining to the single greatest political CRIME in American History, the Russia Hoax. Likewise, the Hillary Clinton Email Scandal. No redactions!" the tweet said.

Trump went on a Twitter spree all evening following Ratcliffe's release, at one point retweeting a meme calling for Attorney General William Barr to arrest officials involved with investigating Russia's election interference and the Trump campaign.

Brennan, meanwhile, told CNN's Jake Tapper that Ratcliffe's "selective declassification of information" was "appalling."

"It is designed to advance the political interests of Donald Trump and Republicans who are aligned with him," the former CIA chief said.

Ned Price, a former senior director on Obama's National Security Council, expressed similar sentiments, writing, "Trump installed Ratcliffe to do his political bidding, and that's precisely what he's been up to. But this is particularly egregious bc it explicitly pits source protection (and our national security) against Trump's political agenda. Ratcliffe chose Trump."

Andrew Weiss, a Russia specialist who is the James Family Chair and vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment, described Ratcliffe's decision as "total national security malpractice," adding that the information he released was "unenlightening/unconvincing cherrypicked snippets of CIA docs to hype [the] false claim that Russian interference in 2016" was a "hoax" perpetrated by Clinton, Brennan, and other Obama-era officials.

Ratcliffe and his predecessor, former acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell, "badly abused their oath of office and responsibilities to this country," Brennan told Business Insider in an interview Monday. Ratcliffe's decision to send the letter was "a very selective release of information that was designed to promote the interests, objectives, and goals of Donald Trump. So it was very disappointing."

He also pointed out Ratcliffe's reputation as one of Trump's biggest attack dogs on Capitol Hill before he took over as head of the intelligence community. Indeed, Trump nominated the former Texas congressman for the DNI post after Ratcliffe berated and attacked the special counsel Robert Mueller last year over his findings in the FBI's investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election.

"He was a very partisan supporter of Donald Trump when he was in Congress," Brennan said of Ratcliffe. "And he's just continuing to play that role as director of national intelligence."

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