- President Donald Trump’s decision to grant Attorney General William Barr sweeping authority to declassify intelligence related to the Russia investigation has stunned current and former intelligence officials.
- Trump’s directive “is a direct insult to the leadership of the intel community,” one CIA and NSA veteran told INSIDER.
- It also endangers US sources and methods, officials say.
- “There’s a reason why the CIA is so vigilant about guarding its sources,” a former covert operative told INSIDER. “It’s because lives are on the line. The AG is either ignorant of that fact, or he doesn’t care. Either way, it’s horrifying.”
- This isn’t the first time intelligence officials have raised concerns about their work being manipulated.
- But there’s one significant difference between then and now: Trump’s order confers a tremendous amount of authority on a singular figure – the attorney general – to declassify sensitive intelligence for purely political ends.
- Read more stories like this on Business Insider’s homepage.
President Donald Trump’s decision to grant vast authority to Attorney General William Barr to declassify intelligence as he investigates the origins of the Russia investigation stunned national-security veterans and has the Justice Department hurtling toward a clash with the US intelligence community.
Trump announced on Twitter that at Barr’s request, he “directed the intelligence community to quickly and fully cooperate” with an internal investigation into “surveillance activities” that took place during the 2016 US election.
The move marks another flashpoint in Trump’s ongoing attack on the FBI and US intelligence community.
The president, Barr, and their loyalists argue the inquiry constitutes a legitimate look at whether the US government abused its authority for political motives. But detractors say the move is another partisan attempt by the president to thwart his own intelligence community and weaponize the Justice Department against his perceived enemies.
Robert Deitz, a former top lawyer at the CIA and the National Security Agency, characterized Trump’s order as a “direct insult to the leadership of the intel community.”
Typically, in such an investigation, Barr would prepare a report on the matter and ask senior leaders at the NSA, CIA, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and other agencies to declassify specific documents without harming the intelligence-gathering process.
Barr’s course of action “puts the cart before the horse in a dangerous way,” Deitz said.
‘Lives are on the line’
More importantly, current and former officials say, Trump’s order represents a direct threat to the lives and safety of US intelligence sources abroad.
The New York Times reported this week that Barr wanted to know more about the CIA’s foreign assets in Russia in 2016, and what those informants were telling the agency about how Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to interfere in the 2016 election.
“There’s a reason why the CIA is so vigilant about guarding its sources,” one former covert operative, who requested anonymity to freely discuss how the agency handles sensitive information, told INSIDER. “It’s because lives are on the line. The AG is either ignorant of that fact, or he doesn’t care. Either way, it’s horrifying.”
The politicization of sources and methods could also have far-reaching effects on agencies’ ability to gather intelligence in the first place.
“Why would a source want to cooperate with us if we cannot protect his or her identity?” former FBI agent Frank Montoya Jr., who retired in 2016, told INSIDER. “Or, just as importantly, the information they share with us? It will endanger the lives of sources if their identities or that information becomes public.”
Asha Rangappa, a former FBI special agent, largely agreed.
“Make no mistake: If Barr discloses the identities of CIA and [counterintelligence] sources providing information on Russia he is disabling our intelligence capacities to Russia’s advantage,” Rangappa wrote. “It puts sources providing intelligence in danger and cripples the [intelligence community’s] ability to recruit new sources.”
‘The inquiry has been pre-cooked’
Trump’s directive will also negatively impact interagency relationships, which Montoya said have “already been strained in terms of how much ‘shared’ information has been exposed in public venues, whether it’s in news accounts or at congressional hearings, or in the Oval Office.”
To be sure, then FBI director James Comey took the extraordinary step of revealing the existence of the Russia investigation in March 2017 because of intense public interest on the subject.
Since then, the Justice Department has turned over to Congress thousands of pages of intelligence related to the investigation, and it is in the process of turning over more counterintelligence and foreign intelligence documents related to the Mueller probe to the House Intelligence Committee.
Meanwhile, Trump himself invited significant public backlash when it was reported that he revealed classified information provided to the US by Israeli intelligence to Russian officials during an Oval Office meeting in 2017.
It’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time intelligence officials have raised concerns about their work being manipulated. Indeed, Deitz told INSIDER in an earlier interview, the US intelligence community has long been a “whipping toy” for lawmakers.
But there’s one significant difference between then and now. Trump’s order confers a tremendous amount of authority on a singular figure – the attorney general – to declassify sensitive intelligence for purely political ends.
“The President has an outcome in mind that he would like to see,” Deitz said. “And since Barr was so accommodating over the Mueller report, asking him to conduct an investigation, and then giving him declassification authority, suggests that the inquiry has been pre-cooked.”
Sharing sensitive information with Barr ‘is tantamount to sharing it with Trump, which is tantamount to sharing it with our adversaries’
California Rep. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, characterized Trump’s directive as a “corrupt escalation of the President’s intention, with the assistance of the Attorney General, to weaponize and politicize the nation’s intelligence and law enforcement entities.”
Schiff added that his committee will “conduct vigorous oversight of any steps to selectively reveal and distort classified information, abuse the declassification process, and place at risk sources and methods” in a way that could jeopardize US national security.
Rangappa wrote that Trump’s move amounts to “collusion in plain sight” because it would “enable Russia’s efforts by thwarting our own.”
The ripple effects, moreover, go beyond just Russia – Trump’s and Barr’s actions will likely prompt US sources and foreign allies to withhold information out of fear of it being released or politicized. That could significantly hamper the country’s ability to work with partners on critical issues like counterterrorism and cybersecurity.
The bottom line, Montoya said, is that “sharing source data from CIA and NSA with Barr is tantamount to sharing it with Trump, which is tantamount to sharing it with our adversaries.”
“One can only hope Barr handles whatever data he gets … with some sense of responsibility to sources and methods,” and that he “doesn’t turn it into political fodder,” Montoya added. “But given his track record so far as a shill for Trump (as opposed to a defender of the presidency), it is, admittedly, a feeble hope.”