Fourteen days before President Trump took the oath of office, the Obama administration’s intelligence chiefs made public a unanimous assessment claiming Russian operatives, under orders from President Vladimir Putin, had orchestrated an influence campaign to help Mr. Trump win the presidential contest.
The conclusions in the Jan. 6 document were sharp, but the findings unraveled 10 months later, raising questions about the basis for the evidence and the motives of the Obama appointees leading the nation’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
“It left me scratching my head,” said one intelligence source with personal access to former Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper and former CIA Director John O. Brennan, two of the men who had signed off on the assessment.
The 15-page document presented to the president-elect at Trump Tower in Manhattan was mostly filler — a republication of a years-old CIA analysis of the Kremlin’s global television network Russia Today. A mere five pages were dedicated to charge that Moscow blended cyberhacking with state-backed propaganda and social media trolls to defeat Mr. Trump’s Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
There was no supporting documentation of how America’s top spies arrived at the brazen conclusion that Russians had “gained access to” and “exfiltrated large volumes of data” from Democratic National Committee computers, an explosive claim that sent shock waves across the U.S. political and intelligence landscapes.
The five pages of the report have hung over Mr. Trump’s presidency ever since, hurting his credibility abroad and at home and shaping the narrative of five ongoing federal and congressional investigations into suspected Russian meddling, even though the document’s core conclusion looks increasingly weak in hindsight. Both Democrats and Republicans now say that Russian efforts were intended not to elect Mr. Trump but to sow chaos in American politics no matter who emerged as the victor.
In interviews The Washington Times conducted with more than a dozen U.S. intelligence and national security sources at the highest levels as well as foreign diplomats, the overlooked and disturbing question about the lack of evidence has emerged repeatedly.
“I actually called them both the day after it came out and asked, ‘Why was it so thin?’” said the source close to Mr. Clapper and Mr. Brennan. “The answer I got was simple: There was a serious counterintelligence operation going on.”
U.S. spies were neck-deep in an elaborate counterintelligence operation, and they didn’t want to jeopardize it by revealing too many details, according to various officials inside and outside the intelligence community.
Mr. Trump saw it differently.
To him, the Obama-era intelligence chiefs were conducting a political smear job of the highest order, and, based on their public report, they had nothing to back it up.
But intelligence sources said that since early 2015, when Washington first began grasping the scope of Russia’s meddling operation, a clandestine network of American operatives and their most trusted international allies had been scrambling to identify and counter threats to U.S. computer networks and government personnel.
They were covertly watching for Russian espionage, sabotage and, at the most extreme, blackmail. They also might have been using Mr. Trump as a chess piece in their counterintelligence game against the Kremlin, according to a veteran former U.S. intelligence strategist with decades of service.
Other sources said secrecy was paramount.
Stephen Slick, a former CIA Clandestine Service officer, told The Times that the Obama administration’s intelligence chiefs knew they would be taking a major risk by exposing the operation in a publicized assessment.
Mr. Slick, who now directs the Intelligence Studies Project at the University of Texas at Austin, said he had no specific knowledge of what went into the assessment and noted that the publicly released document was based on “a highly classified assessment that was longer”and much more detailed. But he is familiar with the sensitivities associated with counterintelligence.
“From the moment the Russian security services initiated these ‘active measures,’ they would have monitored closely the U.S. government’s reaction to learn if their involvement had been detected — and how,” said Mr. Slick, who served as special assistant to President George W. Bush. “In drafting the unclassified [Jan. 6 assessment], the authors were walking a fine line by including enough evidence to persuade readers that their conclusions were sound, but not enough data that would reveal the actual sources or the means by which they linked these activities to the Russian government.”
Mr. Clapper and Mr. Brennan declined repeated requests to comment for this report. Echoing Mr. Putin, Russian diplomats interviewed by The Times dismissed the entire hacking controversy as a politicized fraud designed to cover up Democratic Party infighting and the party’s stunning loss at the ballot box.
They ‘hated each other’
Trump Tower is the Manhattan property developer’s crowning achievement and, upon his election victory, it drew an unprecedented parade of power and celebrity coming to meet the president-elect. Bill Gates showed up. So did hip-hop musician Kanye West, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and inventor Elon Musk.
Flamboyant headlines surrounded their appearances.
But no photos exist of that Friday visit by Mr. Clapper, Mr. Brennan, NSA Director Michael Rogers and FBI Director James B. Comey, whom Mr. Trump would fire five months later citing his unhappiness with the Russia meddling investigation. The four, who boasted almost 140 years of military, law enforcement and spying experience, had dodged the assembled paparazzi in the lobby before gathering for about two hours with Mr. Trump and his advisers in a Trump Tower conference room.
Mr. Comey said they visited Trump Tower not to explain to the president-elect their vision of the world, nor to outline future global threats. Instead, their sole purpose was to brief Mr. Trump on a sensitive and soon-to-be-published intelligence community assessment.
The atmosphere was not amicable. Simply put, the president-elect and President Obama’s intelligence chiefs “hated each other,” said a former official who worked with both camps.
Mr. Trump had first crossed swords with the Department of Justice as a young man while working for his property developer father, whom Washington lawyers accused of racially discriminatory housing practices. The younger Mr. Trump fought the charges for years, and the experience stuck with him.
During his victorious presidential campaign, Mr. Trump perfected the art of goosing the Washington establishment with personal insults, populist rants and tweets dismissing topics he disliked as “fake news.”
On repeated occasions, he insinuated that Obama-era intelligence operatives were trying to “rig the election” for Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. He also dismissed outright reports that the Kremlin had orchestrated hacks of the Democratic National Committee’s computer network in 2015 and 2016.
A massive documents dump to WikiLeaks in July 2016 of Democratic National Committee internal emails purportedly stolen in the hack exposed hypocrisy, pettiness and infighting between the camps of Mrs. Clinton and primary rival Bernard Sanders. The news had damaged Ms. Clinton’s credibility on the campaign trail, polls showed.
As Election Day approached, Mr. Trump suggested that the hack and the leak were products of Democratic Party infighting and perhaps even products of FBI or CIA foul play that had nothing to do with Russia.
Last month, Mr. Bennan’s successor, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, met privately with William Binney, the former intelligence official and whistleblower who published an analysis directly challenging the Russian hacking story and arguing that the DNC files were compromised by an employee inside the party organization. The Intercept.com said Mr. Pompeo — who has said he accepts the Russian hacking narrative — agreed to meet with Mr. Binney at the urging of Mr. Trump.
Mr. Binney told the website, “I was willing to meet Pompeo simply because it was clear to me the intelligence community wasn’t being honest here. I am quite willing to help people who need the truth to find the truth and not simply have deceptive statements from the intelligence community.”
To the Obama-era intelligence chiefs, figures at the top of the Washington establishment who, despite being political appointees considered themselves above partisanship, Mr. Trump’s questioning of their conclusions and his overall hatred of Washington were unfathomable.
Skepticism or disparagement?
In interviews, current and former intelligence officials who have worked for both Republican and Democratic administrations said they were astounded that America had elected for the first time in its 240-year history a president with no government or military experience.
Mr. Trump’s use of provocative, emotional language on Twitter and in public speeches suggested an unpredictability and a limited understanding of global geopolitics that could be dangerous. While some intelligence professionals said they had deep reservations about his ability to lead the country, most refused to air such comments, even in deep-background conversations.
Mr. Obama’s top intelligence advisers, however, struggled to restrain themselves in their final days in power.
A day before heading to Trump Tower in early January, Mr. Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee that policymakers, and especially “Policymaker No. 1,” should have healthy skepticism toward the intelligence community. But the retired 75-year-old Air Force general with a shaved head and mild Midwestern accent tartly added that there was “a difference between skepticism and disparagement.”
He was right. No federal authorities had ever examined the DNC’s hacked server. The FBI, the CIA and the broader intelligence community had all relied upon a private firm closely linked to the DNC to determine that Russians were responsible for the hack. Mr. Trump’s follow-up tweet the night of Jan. 5 — the day before the fateful Trump Towergathering — was even more pointed: “So how and why are they so sure about hacking if they never even requested an examination of the computer servers? What is going on?”
‘Personally sensitive’ information
One of the intelligence community’s specialties is the use of psychological tactics to negotiate and interrogate in classic “good cop/bad cop” fashion. But Mr. Trump’s reaction to the news they brought him on Jan. 6 astonished them.
The assessment rested upon the basic premise that Russian operatives had used cybertactics to influence American voters toward electing Mr. Trump. On its face, it meant Mr. Obama’s intelligence chiefs believed Mr. Trump’s election victory was tainted and perhaps even illegitimate.
A source who knows Mr. Comey, Mr. Clapper and Mr. Brennan told The Times that all three were perplexed during the aftermath of the meeting at Trump Tower, where Mr. Trump had dismissed their premise outright and declared to them, “We don’t have a Russia problem; we have a cyber problem.”
It’s still unclear whether the intelligence chiefs were using the briefing to examine, as they saw it, what the president-elect may have known of Russia’s meddling on his behalf.
After the initial meeting with Mr. Trump broke up, Mr. Comey remained behind to brief the president-elect further.
The FBI director, who at 6 feet 8 inches tall towered over Mr. Trump by 6 inches, has since revealed how he stayed for a private discussion with the president-elect to review some “personally sensitive” information that the intelligence chiefs hadn’t included in the public version of the Russian meddling assessment.
Mr. Comey told lawmakers in June that the “sensitive” material in question consisted of portions of what would later become known as the Trump-Russia dossier, financed in part by the Clinton campaign and Democratic Party and compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele.
Full of unverified claims, the dossier, among other things, maintained that Russian intelligence had schemed to get Mr. Trump elected and that Kremlin spies had compiled sexual blackmail material on him during a 2013 trip he made to Moscow for the Miss Universe beauty pageant.
The ultimate chess piece
In his June testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Mr. Comey maintained that Mr. Clapperhad asked him to be alone with Mr. Trump to “personally do this portion of the briefing” for two reasons.
The first was that among those in the Obama-era intelligence inner circle who were present at Trump Tower that day, Mr. Comey was the one who would be staying on at his position and would have dealings with the new president, given the nominal 10-year term FBI directors are given.
The second, according to Mr. Comey’s testimony, was because “the material implicated the FBI’s counterintelligence responsibilities.”
“It is important to understand that FBI counterintelligence investigations are different than the more commonly known criminal investigative work,” said the former FBI director, implying that the entire meeting at Trump Towerthat day was actually part of a high-stakes espionage operation.
Mr. Comey’s comments — vague as they may have sounded in Senate testimony — turned heads in the back hallways of America’s spy agencies.
What exactly was he getting at? Was he publicly revealing that there were serious concerns at the highest levels of U.S. intelligence that the president-elect may truly have been compromised by the Russians and could be vulnerable to Kremlin blackmail?
Or was Mr. Comey revealing something else: that he and the other intelligence chiefs were using Mr. Trump as a chess piece in their counterintelligence operation against the Kremlin by feeding him salacious and unverified information from the dossier to see how Moscow might react?
According to Mr. Comey, it was all very simple. He and his colleagues “knew the media was about to publicly report on the material” and felt they needed to inform Mr. Trump about it. That way, “to the extent there was some effort to compromise an incoming president, we could blunt any such effort with a defensive briefing,” the former FBIdirector said.
He also said FBI leaders had discussed among themselves whether to inform Mr. Trump that the bureau was not actively investigating him personally. Without Mr. Trump directly asking the question, Mr. Comey said, he told the president-elect he was not under investigation.
Almost immediately after Mr. Comey left Trump Tower, his car hit midtown traffic in Manhattan, where, according to his testimony, he fished out his laptop and typed his recollections of the interaction with Mr. Trump. The former FBIdirector maintains he engaged in this practice after all subsequent meetings with Mr. Trump until the president fired him in May amid tensions resulting from the Russian meddling investigation.
‘Thinner than thin’
A few hours after Mr. Comey and the other intelligence chiefs had slipped undetected past the media scrum at Trump Tower, Mr. Clapper’s office released a declassified version of the assessment on Russian meddling in the election.
Mr. Slick — who watches the intelligence community closely — said he, like everyone else, jumped on it.
“The [assessment’s] authors knew full well that their paper would be urgently scrubbed in Moscow,” said Mr. Slick, who added that the goal would be to discover “how U.S. intelligence collected the information on these activities and, perhaps more important, what analytic techniques the U.S. side used to attribute the actions not only to the Russian government, but directly to President Putin.”
When approached about the assessment recently, two high-level Russian officials told The Times that they and others ran to a secure facility to read and discuss the paper upon its release.
Much to their disappointment, there was little to be gleaned from the document.
“It was thinner than thin,” one of the officials said. “Of course, the American spies today would argue that they kept it thin because they didn’t want to expose American sources to the Russians.”
The other Russian envoy shook his head. “I believe it was a total fraud and it was very badly concocted, to say the least,” he said. “It was clearly done to divert attention away from all the infighting and backstabbing that was going on inside the Democratic Party. It was also a perfect move to place the blame on someone else — a foreign power — for Hillary’s defeat.”
The Russian disappointment may have been genuine or merely a parroting of arguments that had become popular in pro-Trump conservative circles during the days immediately following the assessment’s release.
Fred Fleitz, a 19-year CIA veteran who served as a chief of staff for John R. Bolton during the George W. Bush administration, first laid out the argument in a Fox News op-ed the day after the assessment was made public.
The entire purpose of the report was apparently “to undermine the legitimacy of Trump’s election,” Mr. Fleitz wrote on Jan. 7. He called the assessment “rigged for political purposes” and lamented that it contained “serious accusations of Russian interference” but “did not back them up with evidence.”
Mr. Trump evidently shared that feeling. Hours after the assessment was released, the president-elect’s transition team flatly disputed its major conclusions and, one day later, put out a statement announcing that Mr. Clapperwould be replaced as director of national intelligence by former Republican Sen. Daniel Coats.
Then came the storm
Late on Tuesday, Jan. 10 — roughly a half-hour after the wintery Manhattan sunset and about two miles south of Trump Tower — editors at the online news service BuzzFeed published the Trump-Russia dossier.
Within minutes, Mr. Trump turned to his twitter account to vent his rage. “FAKE NEWS – A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!” he wrote.
Early the following morning, the president-elect swung again with a 4:48 a.m. tweet: “Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to ‘leak’ into the public. One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?”
After breakfast, Mr. Trump prepared to go downstairs to Trump Tower’s marble atrium to hold his first press conference in 167 days. It took just five sentences before he was talking about the dossier, dismissing it outright and slamming intelligence officials by again accusing them of leaking it.
But observers reading between the lines of Mr. Trump’s hourlong performance that day came away with something else. For months, he had been dismissing the notion that it was Russia that hacked the DNC and Clinton campaign emails.
Now, he suddenly changed his tune. “As far as hacking,” he said. “I think it was Russia.”