President Trump'sAttorney General William Barr with sweeping declassification authorities has seeded a simmering conflict between the Department of Justice and the intelligence community that centers on the president's long-held objections to investigations launched into links between his 2016 campaign and Russia.
Mr. Trump on Thursday granted Barr "full and complete authority" to declassify government secrets and instructed the intelligence community to "quickly and fully" cooperate with Barr's review of the investigation into Russia's 2016 interference.
In doing so, the president is allowing Barr to declassify information of which other agencies — including the CIA, FBI and NSA — are the custodians, and whose public release would typically be determined by the Director of National Intelligence (DNI).
In a carefully-worded statement released Friday, DNI Dan Coats seemed to assert some of his own jurisdiction by indicating the intelligence community would provide the Department of Justice with all "appropriate" information related to its review, while implying excessive, inappropriate or politically-motivated demands would meet with pushback.
"I am confident that the Attorney General will work with the [intelligence community] in accordance with the long-established standards to protect highly-sensitive classified information that, if publicly released, would put our national security at risk," Coats said.
"The [intelligence community] will continue to faithfully execute its mission of providing timely, apolitical intelligence to the president and policymakers," he said.
For almost as long as he has been in office, the president has maintained that his campaign was. With encouragement from supporters in congress and conservative media, he has inched closer to publishing classified materials he believes will prove his assertions.
Critics of the president warn that Barr could use his power to selectively release information that, devoid of context, supports the president's case while damaging some of Mr. Trump's self-identified nemeses — individuals Trump believes were politically motivated to derail his campaign.
Those opposed to the move say they see in it echoes of the attorney general's handling of the release of special counsel Robert Mueller's findings — which Barr at first distilled into a mostly favorable, abbreviated summary before releasing the far more damaging but still redacted full report itself.
Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner said the attorney general had "already shown that he has no problem selectively releasing information in order to mislead the American people."
"People risk their lives to gather the intelligence material that President Trump and Attorney General Barr are so eager to politicize," the Democrat, who represents Virginia, said.
Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California, who serves as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, called Mr. Trump's move an "abuse of power" whose underlying intention was to "weaponize and politicize the nation's intelligence and law enforcement entities." He said the committee would conduct "vigorous oversight" of any steps to "selectively reveal and distort classified information."
But allies of the president, including Republican Rep. Devin Nunes of California have previously urged Mr. Trump to take the steps he has now deputized Barr to take. Nunes is the former chairman and now ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee. He has claimed the roughly 20 classified pages of a surveillance warrant application for former Trump campaign associate Carter Page could undermine the FBI's work and suggest an abuse of procedure.
In September the president indicated in a pair of tweets that he was close to declassifying a number of items related to the Russia probe, but after a meeting with the Justice department and calls from unspecified "key allies" declined to move forward. He told Fox News in an interview at the time, "I want to wait until after the election."
During remarks to reporters on Friday, Mr. Trump explicitly named countries he suggested had played a role in triggering or fueling the investigation.
"I hope [Barr] looks at the [United Kingdom] and I hope he looks at Australia and I hope he looks at Ukraine. I hope he looks at everything, because there was a hoax that was perpetrated on our country," Mr. Trump said.
Both the United Kingdom and Australia are part of the "Five Eyes" intelligence-sharing group that also includes the United States, Canada and New Zealand. Mueller's report confirmed that the FBI's inquiry was triggered by an Australian diplomat's tip that former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos knew before it was public that Russians had damaging information on Hillary Clinton. The two met in 2016 in London, where CIA director Gina Haspel was station chief at the time.
Former national security officials said the public disclosure of intelligence contributions made by allies could damage those strategic relationships.
"It is yet another step that will raise questions among our allies and partners about whether to share sensitive intelligence with us," said CBS News senior national security contributor Michael Morell, who served as the CIA's deputy director and is now the host of Intelligence Matters.
He added that the president's move overall had led to a further "destruction of norms that weakens our intelligence community."
"It's very unusual — unprecedented in my experience — for a non-intelligence community officer to be given absolute declassification authority over the intelligence community," said David Kris, who led the DOJ's national security division and now heads the Culper Partners consulting firm.
"This extraordinary assignment and the reaction it has provoked show how far we have moved from historical norms," he said.