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Justice Dept review of intel in Russia probe fuels fears of politicization

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A mix of concern, confusion and defiance has spread through elements of the intelligence community as a murky picture emerges of Attorney General William Barr's review of its investigative and analytical work on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

In particular, current and former intelligence officials are questioning the purpose and propriety of the attorney general's intention, first reported by The New York Times, to enlist John Durham, the U.S. attorney for the District of Connecticut, in scrutinizing the analytical judgments that led a group of agencies to conclude that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign to boost then-candidate Trump's electability.

That judgment, put forth in a declassified Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) commissioned by former president Barack Obama and released in January 2017, pooled the findings of the CIA, FBI and NSA. The CIA and FBI expressed "high confidence" in that conclusion, while the NSA had "moderate confidence."

"I see no problem with a DOJ review of whether the CIA and other intelligence community agencies lived up to their legal and regulatory responsibilities related to how they handled any information related to U.S. persons – U.S. citizens and U.S. nationals," said Michael Morell, a former CIA deputy director who is a CBS News senior national security contributor. "Having said that, I see a DOJ review of whether or not the intelligence analysts made the right call as wholly inappropriate. I cannot ever remember a DOJ review of analysis."

"[Durham] and his team have no experience with, or knowledge of, the process of intelligence analysis," Morell said. "He and his team could well impose a law enforcement standard in coming to a conclusion — a much higher bar than exists in the intelligence community for analytic judgments." 

Both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees have already examined the process by which the ICA was assembled and offered their declassified assessments.

In their March 2018 final report on Russia's active measures, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee — without describing what kind of evidence was examined — said "most" of the ICA's analysis "held up to scrutiny." But they criticized its judgment on Putin's strategic objectives for having "failed to meet most of the analytic standards set forth in the primary guiding document for IC analysis." (The committee's Democrats dissented from that view.)

That document – Intelligence Community Directive 203 – stipulates, among other things, that analytic products should be "objective," "timely," and "independent of political consideration." 

But in July, the Senate Intelligence Committee — whose leadership has maintained a vastly more united and bipartisan front than the fractious panel in the House — issued a declassified summary of a months-long assessment that found the ICA to be a "sound intelligence product." The committee said it had reviewed "thousands of pages of source documents and conducted interviews with all the relevant parties — including agency heads, managers, and line analysts — who were involved in developing the analysis and drafting the assessment."

"In all the interviews of those who drafted and prepared the ICA, the Committee heard consistently that analysts were under no politically motivated pressure to reach any conclusions," the summary said. "All analysts expressed that they were free to debate, object to content, and assess confidence levels, as is normal and proper for the analytic process."

Analytical disagreement, the committee said, was "reasonable, transparent, and openly debated."

The Senate panel is expected to release a declassified version of a far more extensive report on the ICA in the coming months, though the bulk of their assessment is likely to remain classified.

Asked whether the Justice Department's review was duplicative of the panel's work, a spokeswoman for the Senate Intelligence Committee declined to comment.

Morell said a DOJ probe into analysts' conclusions could have a "chilling effect" on the analytic process.

"Any analyst asked to submit to an interview with Durham's investigators will want to have their own personal attorney at their side," he said. "Imagine that — needing an attorney to explain an analytic judgment."

"This will all be watched closely inside the IC and the prospect that DOJ prosecutors may ask questions about how an analyst came to a conclusion could well lead analysts to demur," Morell said.

A Democratic House Intelligence Committee official who requested anonymity to discuss ongoing, sensitive matters said the panel had engaged at multiple levels with multiple intelligence agencies and had "heard a sense of anxiety" and "palpable unease."

The official expressed concern that "purposeful overreach" by DOJ could undermine what have been shown to be sound conclusions, and that normal differences of opinion raised in the course of discussion that would go into crafting an analytical judgment could be exploited for political purposes.

In this case, the official said, in what could be a politically motivated effort to score-settle with former CIA Director John Brennan — has been sharply critical of President Trump — routine, healthy discussion could be cast as Brennan putting his thumb on the scale.

"There is no evidence that was the case. These assessments have withstood continued scrutiny for more than two years, and have only been buttressed by continued analysis and collection," the official said.

A spokesman for Mr. Brennan declined to comment. The CIA and NSA declined to comment. The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The House Intelligence Committee's Democratic chairman, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, said at the National Press Club this week that he had met personally with Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, but the committee has otherwise had "very little visibility" into the scope and progress of the review. A Senate Intelligence Committee official also said that panel was in close communication with the intelligence community and similarly had not been offered details about the review beyond the contents of a letter the Department of Justice sent earlier this month.  

In its letter, sent in response to an earlier inquiry from the House Judiciary Committee, DOJ indicated the review was "broad in scope and multifaceted, and is intended to illuminate open questions regarding the activities of U.S. and foreign intelligence services as well as non-governmental organizations and individuals." It did not explicitly mention a review of analytic processes or the ICA itself.

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