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Intelligence agency pushes back on reports that it said Russia is actively aiding Trump

Washington — The Office of the Director of National Intelligence pushed back Monday on reports that a senior intelligence official told lawmakers that the Russian government was actively aiding President Trump's reelection, though it did not specify what the official did say at a classified, now-contentious briefing before the House Intelligence Committee on February 13.  

"During the [February 13] briefing, the Intelligence Community did not state that Russia is aiding the re-election of President Trump," a senior official from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) told CBS News. "This was an interagency briefing with pre-coordinated messages that had been briefed to other congressional committees."

The senior official also said that the briefing, which focused on election security, was broad and covered threats from adversaries beyond Russia.

The official's pushback was a rare effort by ODNI, which serves as the head of the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, to dispel inaccurate accounts that have emerged of an intelligence assessment delivered at the House briefing by Shelby Pierson, the Intelligence Community Election Threats Executive. Pierson, a former national intelligence manager for Russia who coordinated election security efforts in 2018, was accompanied at the briefing by representatives from multiple agencies, including the FBI, CIA and NSA.

Multiple sources familiar with the briefing told CBS News that Pierson had not stated that Russia was actively aiding Mr. Trump's reelection. Rather, those sources said, the assessment she delivered, which drew from intelligence collected over a period of months from several agencies, indicated that the Russian government had established a preference for Mr. Trump.

The subtle but important distinction, sources pointed out, was in Moscow demonstrating a desire for a given outcome — while not yet taking concerted steps to bring it about.

Lawmakers from both parties in the briefing requested the raw intelligence that supported the assessment, sources familiar with the briefing said, and briefers indicated that they would follow up to provide relevant materials. It is unclear how long that process might take or what level of detail might be included; intelligence agencies have discretion over what they share with members of congress to protect their sources and methods.

The briefing — which included Democrats and Republicans on the committee — infuriated Mr. Trump, who, notified of the briefing by House Republicans, summoned then-acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire to explain why Maguire had allowed Democratic lawmakers, including committee chairman Adam Schiff, to be briefed on alleged Russian efforts to interfere in the upcoming election.

Schiff served as the lead House manager during the impeachment proceedings that ended in Mr. Trump's acquittal by the Senate last month.  

Maguire, who assumed the role of acting Director of National Intelligence in August, resigned his post last week after the president announced Maguire would be replaced on a temporary basis by U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell. Mr. Trump has since announced that he is considering several candidates to take the role permanently. Any permanent replacement would have to be confirmed by the Senate.

Administration officials have contended that Maguire's ouster was unrelated to the president's displeasure with the House briefing.

On Sunday, National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien said on "Face the Nation" that Maguire was "always planning on leaving within the next couple of weeks" and praised his tenure as acting intelligence chief. O'Brien also repeatedly denied seeing "any intelligence" that supported what he characterized as "reports that were leaked out of the House."

"I haven't seen any intelligence that there's any active measures by the Russians to try and get the president re-elected," O'Brien said — a statement consistent with the specific denial now issued by ODNI, but does not fully address other potential intelligence on Russia's preferences.  

O'Brien did say he had "heard from the FBI" that "Russia would like Bernie Sanders to win the Democrat nomination," without offering further specifics about the origin of that information.

Sanders, who in recent weeks has surged in the primary contest to become the Democratic front-runner, said Friday he had been briefed "about a month ago" about Russia's efforts to assist his presidential campaign, and warned Moscow to "stay out of American elections." Lawmakers had also been informed of Russia's efforts to assist Sanders' campaign, CBS News confirmed last week.

Russia was known to have boosted Sanders' previous presidential campaign against Hillary Clinton in 2016. An indictment of over a dozen Russian individuals issued by special counsel Robert Mueller in 2018 described a multi-platform social media push that was designed to denigrate Clinton with the simultaneous aim of assisting Sanders.

One official familiar with the House briefing and the underlying intelligence said the intelligence that informed the assessment about Russia's preferences had been shared with senior administration officials and with the intelligence committees in both the House and Senate. The official, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

It was not immediately clear what other congressional committees might have received a similar briefing. A spokeswoman for the Senate Intelligence Committee declined to confirm whether that panel had been briefed in similar fashion, citing a tradition of not commenting on classified briefings or confirming whether they have taken place.

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