Written by Julian E. Barnes, Katie Benner, Adam Goldman and Michael S. Schmidt
Justice Department officials intend to interview senior CIA officers as they review the Russia investigation, according to people briefed on the matter, indicating they are focused partly on the intelligence agencies’ most explosive conclusion about the 2016 election: that President Vladimir Putin of Russia intervened to benefit Donald Trump.
The interview plans are the latest sign the Justice Department will take a critical look at the CIA’s work on Russia’s election interference. Investigators want to talk with at least one senior counterintelligence official and a senior CIA analyst, the people said. Both officials were involved in the agency’s work on understanding the Russian campaign to sabotage the election in 2016.
While the Justice Department review is not a criminal inquiry, it has provoked anxiety in the ranks of the CIA, according to former officials. Senior agency officials have questioned why the CIA’s analytical work should be subjected to a federal prosecutor’s scrutiny. Attorney General William Barr, who is overseeing the review, assigned the U.S. attorney in Connecticut, John H. Durham, to conduct it.
The Justice Department has not submitted formal written requests to talk to the CIA officers, but law enforcement officials have told intelligence officials that Durham will seek the interviews, two of the people said. Communications officers for both the CIA and the Justice Department declined to comment.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has previously interviewed several of the CIA officers the Justice Department is seeking to talk to, according to a person familiar with the matter. The committee found no problems with their work or the origins of the Russia inquiry.
CIA Director Gina Haspel has told senior officials that her agency will cooperate — but will still work to protect critical pieces of intelligence whose disclosure could jeopardize sources, reveal collection methods or disclose information provided by allies, according to current and former U.S. officials.
Haspel will not block the interviews and has told the agency that talking with Durham need not jeopardize secrets and is consistent with cooperating with Barr’s inquiry.
Barr, who was sworn in four months ago, has said he wanted to review why the FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign to determine whether law enforcement officials abused their power.
Justice Department officials have given only broad clues about the review but did note that it is focused on the period leading up to the 2016 vote. Barr has been interested in how the CIA drew its conclusions about Russia’s election sabotage, particularly the judgment that Putin ordered that operatives help Trump by discrediting his opponent, Hillary Clinton, according to current and former U.S. officials.
Barr wants to know more about the CIA sources who helped inform its understanding of the details of the Russian interference campaign, an official has said. He also wants to better understand the intelligence that flowed from the CIA to the FBI in the summer of 2016.
During the final weeks of the Obama administration, the intelligence community released a declassified assessment that concluded that Putin ordered an influence campaign that “aspired to help” Trump’s electoral chances by damaging Clinton’s. The CIA and the FBI reported they had high confidence in the conclusion. The National Security Agency, which conducts electronic surveillance, had a moderate degree of confidence.
Last month, Trump granted Barr broad powers to declassify intelligence as part of his examination. Critics of the administration say the review is simply an attempt to discredit the Russia inquiry that was taken over by Robert Mueller, the special counsel, and could threaten to reveal closely guarded secrets. They have pointed to Barr’s adoption of “spying,” a term invoked by critics of the Russia inquiry, to describe investigative activities.
Supporters of Barr say the review is merited and the attorney general can be trusted to focus it on investigators who overreached their mandate or how improper conclusions were made.
The review is unlikely to be confined only to the activities of the FBI and CIA. It could also look into the work of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and other agencies. The people whom Durham intends to interview offer some hints about what he is interested in learning.
One of the CIA officers he wants to question works at the agency’s counterintelligence mission center that would have been one conduit for the CIA to pass intelligence to the FBI about Russian attempts to reach out to the Trump campaign, or information that the agency uncovered about Moscow’s interference campaign. CIA officers at the center work closely with the FBI on complex cases like hunting down traitors and helping validate the agency’s informants.
The senior analyst whom the Justice Department wants to talk to was involved in the CIA assessment of Russian activities in 2016, the people familiar with the inquiry said.
The ties between the efforts by the CIA and the FBI to examine Russia’s election interference are broader. In the summer of 2016, the intelligence community formed a task force housed at the CIA to investigate Russian interference. The group shared intelligence with FBI investigators who opened the bureau’s Russia inquiry in an effort to determine whether any Americans were working with the Russians on their interference during the election.
People familiar with the setup said the FBI would ask the task force for information on certain names, for instance, but agents did not share anything about the Americans under investigation.
The CIA focuses on foreign intelligence and is not supposed to investigate Americans suspected of wrongdoing. It is supposed to pass on to the FBI any information it acquires in the course of its espionage work about the actions of Americans.
In a letter to Congress this week, the Justice Department wrote that while Barr has the power to declassify intelligence, it was of great importance to “protect classified information.” The review team had asked intelligence agencies to preserve information and “ensure the availability of witnesses,” wrote Stephen E. Boyd, an assistant attorney general.
Conservative critics of the intelligence assessment and the Mueller report have questioned the conclusion that Putin actively favored Trump, as opposed to simply wanting to sow chaos and weaken Clinton.
“Putin is all about Russia’s interest, which is destabilization,” Andrew McCarthy, a former assistant U.S. attorney and contributing editor at National Review, a conservative publication, said at a House Intelligence Committee hearing on Wednesday. McCarthy, who was called as a witness for the Republicans, added that it was “a mistake to portray him on one side or another.”
But the Senate Intelligence Committee has endorsed the intelligence community’s full assessment, calling it sound and saying the varying confidence levels among agencies “appropriately represents analytical differences.” And the 448-page report released in April by Mueller also reinforced the conclusion that Russian officials were trying to benefit Trump.
And there is ample evidence that Russia intervened to favor Trump, whether it be hacking Democratic servers and publicly releasing the contents it found or the social media campaign that broadly sowed division by exploiting divisive issues but also included the purchase of advertisements that promoted Trump and the staging of pro-Trump rallies in the United States.
Justice Department officials have said Durham’s review is not a criminal inquiry, but if he finds criminal wrongdoing he can pursue it. Boyd called the review a “collaborative” effort with the intelligence agencies.
Haspel’s willingness to cooperate — shared by Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence — could be influenced by a perception in the agency that Durham has treated the CIA fairly in the past. He has previously investigated the CIA and the actions of Haspel, and twice exonerated agency officials.
In 2010, Durham concluded an investigation into the destruction of videotapes that depicted the torture of suspected terrorists without bringing any criminal charges, officials have confirmed. His report remains secret. Haspel was the chief of staff to the CIA official who ordered the destruction of the tapes.
The attorney general at the time, Eric Holder, had expanded the inquiry to examine questions about the CIA’s mistreatment of detainees. Durham focused on the deaths of two terrorism suspects in CIA custody, but ultimately decided no criminal charges were warranted.