One of the things we’ve learned about William Barr in the four months since he was confirmed as the attorney general is that he is adept at communicating a narrative that shields the president from accountability. The most obvious example came when he released a four-page summary of the Mueller report that allowed Trump and his enablers to claim that the president had been exonerated. By the time the actual report was released almost a month later, the roots of that narrative had taken hold and the waters were sufficiently muddied.
That is why the public has good reason to be suspicious about the president granting the attorney general the authority to selectively declassify intelligence material as part of his investigation into the origins of the Mueller probe. Based on what we’ve seen from Barr, it is very likely that the material that will be released to the public will be designed to create a narrative that benefits the president and casts a shadow on those who made the difficult decision to open a counterintelligence investigation into a presidential campaign.
While the specifics of the narrative Barr intends to promote are not completely clear at this point, a recent report in the New York Times indicates one significant element.
Mr. Barr wants to know more about the C.I.A. sources who helped inform its understanding of the details of the Russian interference campaign, an official has said. He also wants to better understand the intelligence that flowed from the C.I.A. to the F.B.I. in the summer of 2016.
During the final weeks of the Obama administration, the intelligence community released a declassified assessment that concluded that Mr. Putin ordered an influence campaign that “aspired to help” Mr. Trump’s electoral chances by damaging Mrs. Clinton’s. The C.I.A. and the F.B.I. reported they had high confidence in the conclusion. The National Security Agency, which conducts electronic surveillance, had a moderate degree of confidence…
Conservative critics of the intelligence assessment and the Mueller report have questioned the conclusion that Mr. Putin actively favored Mr. Trump, as opposed to simply wanting to sow chaos and weaken Mrs. Clinton.
While Trump’s enablers have focused primarily on discrediting the Steele dossier, last September I wrote that the president should be more concerned about the Brennan dossier. Challenging the conclusions of Brennan’s assessment of the intelligence about Russia’s intentions appears to be exactly where Barr is headed.
To put this in perspective, it is helpful to remember the timeline of events. By June of 2016, it had become clear that emails at the DNC had been hacked, presumably by the Russian government, while a flurry of fake news stories that were assumed to have been generated by Moscow traveled around social media sites.
After poring over intelligence reports, CIA Director John Brennan issued a dire warning to the president.
Early last August, an envelope with extraordinary handling restrictions arrived at the White House. Sent by courier from the CIA, it carried “eyes only” instructions that its contents be shown to just four people: President Barack Obama and three senior aides.
Inside was an intelligence bombshell, a report drawn from sourcing deep inside the Russian government that detailed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race.
But it went further. The intelligence captured Putin’s specific instructions on the operation’s audacious objectives — defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.
As a result, Brennan set up a task force at CIA headquarters composed of several dozen analysts and officers from the CIA, the NSA, and the FBI. It wasn’t until after the election, on January 6, 2017, that a report from that task force was declassified with this finding.
We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments.
Prior to the release of that report, Republicans had attempted to suggest that there was some disagreement between the CIA and the FBI over whether Putin’s efforts were specifically designed to denigrate Clinton and support Trump. But in mid-September, a statement was released refuting that claim.
As the New York Times is now reporting, Attorney General Barr’s intention is to reopen that dispute, perhaps with the aim of going to the heart of Brennan’s initial warning about what Putin wanted to accomplish via his interference. That is why Barr is particularly interested in CIA sources within the Russian government—the people who provided the intelligence on which Brennan relied.
In all of the public statements Barr has made to date, he has acknowledged that Russia attempted to interfere in the 2016 election (something the president continues to question) but has studiously avoided the conclusions of both the intelligence assessment and the Mueller report documenting that they did so in support of Donald Trump.
A narrative in which Russia intervened simply to sow chaos and discord, devoid of the fact that they also did so to damage Clinton and support Trump, would undermine the entire origins of the Trump-Russia probe. It would also be an attack on former CIA Director John Brennan, who Trump has already identified as one of his primary targets.