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Former CIA director denounces "appalling" politicization by Trump's spy chief

FBI director on Russian election interference
FBI director warns of Russian interference in 2020 election 08:52

Former CIA Director John Brennan called Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe's recent decision to declassify sensitive documents related to Russia's 2016 election interference a "blatant act of politicization," accusing Ratcliffe of "selectively" releasing information in an effort to fuel partisan objectives beneficial to President Trump.

"I thought it was a[n] outrageous, appalling and blatant act of politicization that [Ratcliffe] released, very selectively, some intelligence that was provided then to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is right now engaged in, I think, a very partisan effort to try to debunk the necessary investigative efforts of the FBI that looked into Russian interference in the 2016 election," Brennan said.  

In an interview with "Intelligence Matters" host and CBS News senior national security contributor Michael Morell, with whom Brennan has worked closely, the former director said Ratcliffe's letter, sent on September 29 to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, misleadingly suggested that the CIA had referred information about then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to the FBI for possible criminal investigation.

"Ratcliffe's memo implies that, since it was sent to the FBI as part of a larger report ... it basically implies that Secretary Clinton was engaged in illegal activity by doing it," Brennan said. "I'm not saying that that's what Secretary Clinton had approved, but even if she had, there is nothing illegal about that. And that would not have been the basis for CIA to refer that report to the FBI for follow-up investigation, for possible criminal activity."

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"I can say definitively that at least what was quoted in the Ratcliffe memo was not a basis for any type of potential criminal referral," Brennan told Morell. The interview was conducted on Monday, the day before the president tweeted that he had "fully authorized" the declassification of all documents related to the Russia investigation.

In his September 29 letter, Ratcliffe described a piece of "Russian intelligence analysis" that was tracked by U.S. intelligence agencies in 2016 and which described a plan, allegedly approved by Ms. Clinton, to "stir up a scandal" against Donald Trump by tying his campaign to Russia's hack of the Democratic National Committee. The letter specified that the U.S. agencies did "not know the accuracy" of the allegation, nor whether the Russian analysis reflected "exaggeration or fabrication."

The unverified details contained in Ratcliffe's letter were released over the objections of senior intelligence officials from the CIA, NSA and Office of the Director of National Intelligence, people familiar with the matter confirmed to CBS News, and elicited swift condemnation from Democrats on the Senate and House Intelligence Committees. The Senate panel had previously evaluated the Russian analysis as part of its years-long, bipartisan investigation into Moscow's efforts to undermine the 2016 election and determined it to be without merit, according to a committee aide.

Ratcliffe later briefed members of both intelligence committees on the analysis, but only after he delivered a separate, hastily arranged briefing that included Graham, the Judiciary chairman, while excluding Democratic staff from Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein's office and from the House Intelligence Committee, congressional officials familiar with the matter said. Ratcliffe's first briefing took place on the eve of expected testimony from former FBI Director James Comey, scheduled as part of Graham's ongoing review of the FBI's 2016 counterintelligence probe of the Trump campaign's connections to Russia.    

Comey later testified that he had "trouble understanding" Ratcliffe's letter, and that the CIA's referral as described in it did not "ring any bells [with me]."

"I don't understand Mr. Ratcliffe's letter well enough to comment," Comey said. "It's confusing, it contains within it a statement that it's unverified information. I really don't know what he's doing." 

A heavily redacted version of the CIA's referral, as well as largely redacted copies of Brennan's handwritten notes following a briefing he delivered on the Russian intelligence to President Obama and his senior aides, were obtained and first reported by Fox News on Tuesday.  

"We're gaining additional insight into Russian activities from [REDACTED]," Brennan's notes read in part, and later describe "alleged approval by Hillary Clinton on 26 July a proposal from one of her foreign policy advisors to [vilify] Donald Trump by stirring up a scandal claiming interference by the Russian security services."

Brennan told Morell he briefed Mr. Obama and senior officials on the Russian materials because he wanted to offer "a sense of the extent of our access and our intelligence collection capabilities against the Russians." He also said he did it to demonstrate the agency was following intelligence where it led, irrespective of the charged politics surrounding Russia and the campaigns. "I wanted to make sure that I was blind to that political issue," he said. 

The CIA's referral, which was addressed to Comey and then-Deputy Assistant Director of Counterintelligence Peter Strzok, said the information it included was provided "for the exclusive use of your bureau for background investigative action or lead purposes as appropriate." 

Both documents were declassified by Ratcliffe and provided on Tuesday to the House and Senate Intelligence committees, congressional aides confirmed.

In a statement provided to CBS News, Ratcliffe said he had declassified the additional documents "at the direction of President Trump."  

Late on Tuesday, Mr. Trump tweeted that he had "fully authorized the total Declassification of any & all documents pertaining to the single greatest political CRIME in American History, the Russia Hoax. Likewise, the Hillary Clinton Email Scandal. No redactions!"

The president's reelection campaign also seized on the declassified documents, citing the Fox News report and calling on Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden to provide a "full accounting of his knowledge and his conversations about Clinton's scheme," according to a statement from Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh. 

Brennan has had a uniquely adversarial relationship with Mr. Trump since he left the agency's helm in 2017. He has frequently issued sharply worded criticisms of Mr. Trump on Twitter and in media interviews. The president has also launched highly personal attacks on Brennan, at one point in 2018 demanding Brennan be stripped of his security clearance. The former director is among several former senior intelligence officials — including Morell, who endorsed Clinton in 2016 — who have been critical of Ratcliffe's recent declassifications.  

Since being confirmed by a historically slim margin as director of national intelligence in late May, Ratcliffe has declassified, chiefly at the request of Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, several rounds of documents related to the FBI's investigation into the Trump campaign. He has simultaneously declined to engage in a traditionally held, annual public hearing on worldwide threats and has ended all-member, in-person congressional briefings on election security.

A former federal prosecutor who was elected to Congress in 2015, Ratcliffe initially withdrew his own candidacy for the directorship days after he was first nominated by Mr. Trump last August amid bipartisan questions about his qualifications for the role.

Brennan, who was interviewed in August by U.S. Attorney John Durham as part of a separate Justice Department review of the origins of the FBI's investigation into Russia's 2016 election interference, said the Clinton materials were part of "a number of documents" about which Durham's investigators had inquired. Brennan said he had been largely denied access to classified information and did not recall what other records were sent to the FBI as part of the agency's referral.

Durham's review, now no longer expected to be released before the presidential election, had previously stoked concerns among intelligence officials after it emerged Durham's team was scrutinizing the intelligence community's 2017 assessment of Russia's election interference, and in particular Brennan's role in preserving a "high-confidence" judgment by the CIA that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign to benefit then-candidate Trump.

Brennan said two senior CIA officials from the Russia Mission Center at one point urged him to lower the confidence level in that judgment, but that he opted to defer to the analysts who had drafted it.

"[W]hat I wasn't going to do was to overrule the considered and consensus judgment of those CIA analysts who were involved in this issue and had authored that assessment," Brennan said. "And I know that there's some press reports out there saying that I overruled those two senior officers — no, I didn't. I decided that I was not going to overrule the analysts who wrote that." 

"I would have been roundly and rightly criticized for overturning that judgment just because two CIA officers came in and weighed in with me," he said.  

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