Former Hillary Clinton aides, ex-intelligence officials and Senate Democrats are accusing Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe of laundering Russian disinformation before an election after Ratcliffe suggested Clinton attempted to manufacture a scandal about Russian interference in the 2016 election on behalf of President Trump.
On Tuesday, Ratcliffe, a loyalist whom Trump placed atop U.S. intelligence in the spring, sent Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) a letter claiming that in late July 2016, U.S. intelligence acquired “insight” into a Russian intelligence analysis. That analysis, Ratcliffe summarized in his letter, claimed that Clinton had a plan to attack Trump by tying him to the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee. Trump, in late July 2016, had publicly called for Russia to purloin Clinton’s emails. And both U.S. intelligence and former special counsel Robert Mueller have since attributed that hack to Russia.
None of the subsequent Trump-Russia investigations have verified the claims Ratcliffe published, although top House intelligence-committee Republican Devin Nunes of California has insisted baselessly that Clinton and not Trump colluded with Russia.
Ratcliffe stated that the intelligence community “does not know the accuracy of this allegation or to the extent to which the Russian intelligence analysis may reflect exaggeration or fabrication.” Though he subsequently insisted that his letter was not itself a disinformation campaign by Russian officials, his move to send the letter, and Graham’s decision to release it, was roundly criticized.
“DNI Ratcliffe should be ashamed of his blatant politicization of his position,” said Nick Shapiro, the former CIA deputy chief of staff to John Brennan, who was CIA director in 2016 and whose notes are cited in Ratcliffe’s summary.
Graham, who spoke to The Daily Beast on the phone Tuesday evening, said he did not know whether the information presented by Ratcliffe was true and said he was not concerned with releasing the uncorroborated allegations to the public even with the presidential election just 35 days away.
"There are allegations from the CIA that the Clinton campaign was involved in Russia. I don't know if that is true,” Graham said. “It's not about whether it is true. It's about whether the FBI took [the allegations] seriously. That's the question. I supported the Mueller investigation. I don’t get why you wouldn’t look with the same suspicion with both campaigns. The point is what did they [the FBI] do with the information?"
Graham’s post-facto rationalization was just the latest illustration of how uniformly invested Trump allies have become in the narrative that Russian involvement in U.S. politics is either overstated or deliberately fabricated as a means of delegitimizing the president. Now that belief has been adopted at the senior most level of U.S. intelligence, something Democrats and former intelligence officials greeted with alarm.
“It's all straight-up Russian disinfo,” said Jesse Lehrich, the foreign-policy spokesperson for the 2016 Clinton campaign.
Since the 2016 presidential election, U.S. intelligence officials have paid particularly close attention to the ways in which Russia uses disinformation to sow chaos among Americans. As early as March of 2019, officials in the intelligence apparatus and within the national security community have tracked how Moscow uses proxies, including journalists and Russia-friendly politicians, to propagate conspiracy theories about Biden, his son Hunter, and their dealings in Ukraine.
Several internal reports warned of the efforts of Andrii Derkach, a Ukrainian parliamentarian, to dig up dirt on the Bidens. Derkach worked closely with Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to do so, and his talking points showed up in Giuliani’s cable appearances on Fox News and One America News throughout 2019 and 2020. Last month, the Treasury Department listed Derkach as a “Russian agent” and for his attempts to meddle in the 2020 election.
Despite several warnings from the intelligence communities that Russia is actively trying to denigrate the Biden campaign and interfere in the 2020 election, Democrats now say that Graham and Ratcliffe have themselves engaged in proliferating Russian propaganda. Indeed, both the substance and the timing of the Ratcliffe summary, coming hours before the first presidential debate, drew the ire of former Clinton aides, intelligence veterans and the vice chairman of the Senate intelligence committee for politicizing intelligence.
“It’s very disturbing to me that 35 days before an election, the director of national intelligence would release unverified Russian rumint,” or rumors-intelligence, said Sen. Mark Warner, the panel’s top Democrat. Politico reported that the Senate intelligence committee, on a bipartisan basis, rejected the allegation Ratcliffe published as false. “I’m very, very proud of the bipartisan work of the intelligence committee [over] three and a half years and five volumes, and that work speaks for itself,” Warner told reporters on Tuesday.
Warner’s Democratic colleague on the panel, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, said Ratcliffe was abusing his power “exactly as I feared he would” shortly before November’s election.
“His politicization of intelligence, including through selective releases to political allies, damages the country and undermines the intelligence community he purports to lead,” Wyden said in a Tuesday statement. “Ratcliffe is even willing to rely on unverified Russian information to try to concoct a political scandal, a shocking abdication of his responsibilities to the country.”
Ratcliffe’s summary comes two days after Maria Bartiromo reported for Fox News that it was unlikely a Justice Department prosecutor scrutinizing the intelligence agencies’ origins of the Trump-Russia probe was unlikely to bring charges before the election. Attorney General William Barr claimed earlier this month that bringing charges prior to the election was a possibility, despite the long-standing policy of the Department to not announce charges so close to Election Day. Ratcliffe’s statement suggested that Barr concurred with the decision to release the summary, saying Barr “has advised that the disclosure of this information will not interfere with ongoing Department of Justice investigations.”
The office of the Director of National Intelligence did not clarify Barr’s role in the Tuesday release of the summary.
A former senior intelligence official stopped short of claiming Ratcliffe was laundering Russian disinformation, claiming a lack of familiarity with the underlying intelligence.
“This should be taken with an entire shaker of salt unless the actual documents are released,” the ex-intelligence official said. “The selective release of information is getting rather obvious. Fits right in the pattern in the Flynn case, where they are releasing every document that suggests that an individual agent had a concern.”
Representatives for the director of national intelligence did not respond when asked if they would release the material undergirding Ratcliffe’s summary.
Ratcliffe’s summary alleged that then-CIA Director John Brennan briefed President Obama and others on both the alleged Russian intelligence and a claim that Clinton had approved a plan to “vilify Donald Trump by stirring up a scandal claiming interference from Russian security forces.” That interference remains the assessment of U.S. intelligence.
Ratcliffe cited Brennan’s “handwritten notes” as the basis for that heretofore unknown assessment. Clinton’s alleged approval came, per Ratcliffe, on July 26, 2016, the day she accepted the Democratic presidential nomination—an assertion her former campaign staffers found preposterous.
“Hillary would never sign-off on manufacturing a scandal the way the alleged Russian intel, as summarized in Brennan's notes, indicate,” said Lehrich, the former Clinton campaign spokesperson. “For one thing, she would've been incensed that anyone would think she needed to cheat to beat Donald Trump.”