CNN claimed that a two-page synopsis of the memos was included in last Friday’s briefing, partly because the British ex-spy who gathered the material is seen as credible by U.S. intelligence. NBC claimed yesterday that the synopsis was prepared but not shared with Trump, and furthermore that it was prepared merely as an example of “disinformation,” potentially to show him how unreliable private intelligence is.
Who’s right? Here’s what Clapper said last night:
This evening, I had the opportunity to speak with President-elect Donald Trump to discuss recent media reports about our briefing last Friday. I expressed my profound dismay at the leaks that have been appearing in the press, and we both agreed that they are extremely corrosive and damaging to our national security.
We also discussed the private security company document, which was widely circulated in recent months among the media, members of Congress and Congressional staff even before the IC became aware of it. I emphasized that this document is not a U.S. Intelligence Community product and that I do not believe the leaks came from within the IC. The IC has not made any judgment that the information in this document is reliable, and we did not rely upon it in any way for our conclusions. However, part of our obligation is to ensure that policymakers are provided with the fullest possible picture of any matters that might affect national security.
President-elect Trump again affirmed his appreciation for all the men and women serving in the Intelligence Community, and I assured him that the IC stands ready to serve his Administration and the American people.
He doesn’t say explicitly what was and wasn’t shared with Trump at the briefing but that boldfaced line hints that they did bring up the memos to him at some point out of an abundance of caution, to make sure he was aware that they were circulating at high levels of government. It’s possible that they were presented to him as an example of “disinformation,” as NBC claimed — but you would expect Clapper to mention that forthrightly in his statement if it were so. Why go on being publicly agnostic about the memos’ credibility if you have reason to believe they’re not credible? If they’ve been debunked, say so. That’s the best thing Clapper could do to repair relations between Trump and the IC, after all. Instead he refuses to say either way whether they should be believed. Advantage: CNN, I guess?
Both the NYT and Michael Isikoff of Yahoo News have sources claiming that Christopher Steele, the British ex-spy who allegedly prepared the memos, is trusted by U.S. intelligence, which also jibes with CNN’s report. He’s so trusted, in fact, that the FBI used Steele to help them investigate corruption at FIFA. Isikoff also provides a motive for why Clapper shared the material in the memos with Trump:
Still, U.S. officials said the allegations were not easily dismissed, in part because Steele was a known quantity who had produced reliable information about Russia in the past. “He’s a meticulous professional, and there are no questions about his integrity,” said one U.S. official who has worked with Steele. “The information he provided me [about Russia] was valuable and useful.”
A senior law enforcement official declined to talk about the nature of Steele’s relationship with the FBI. But the official confirmed that he was known to the FBI and that the bureau had already obtained copies of his reports months before Sen. John McCain handed FBI Director James Comey a dossier of Steele’s material in December. Asked why a two-page summary of the uncorroborated reports was included as part of last week’s intelligence briefing on Russian hacking, the official said that “it was an intelligence community decision” to do so after officials learned that his reports had been widely circulating among members of Congress and journalists. “It seemed very clear that these were going to see the light of day in the next couple of weeks,” the official said. The conclusion was that “it might be a good idea to tell [Trump] about them before they were publicly released.”
CNN suggested that the information was shared with Trump because the allegations might be credible, having come from a credible source; NBC claimed that it was prepared as an example of disinformation, to show Trump why it was important to only trust U.S. government intelligence; and now here’s Isikoff with a third theory, that the IC brought it to Trump’s attention because it was about to become a political problem for him. They were warning him in advance that it was likely to leak, irrespective of whether it was true. That seems like the most likely explanation and it squares with the key line in Clapper’s statement last night. If the president-elect is about to have damning accusations against him appear in print, it’s worth giving him a heads-up.
As for Steele, the NYT claims that because he used to spy for Britain in Russia, he couldn’t do any legwork himself inside that country on Trump’s supposed connections with Moscow. He had to hire native Russian speakers to contact informants, which means he got much of his information secondhand. (The Times notes that he did make “surreptitious contact” with some sources himself.) The Daily Mail is reporting today that Steele fled his home after he was identified yesterday as the probable author of the memos, which I assume is out of fear of Russia, not out of fear of diehard Trump fans (although who knows anymore). Despite the high praise for Steele in Isikoff’s piece, a source quoted by the Daily Mail called him “slightly more showy and less grounded in reality than you might expect a former SIS person to be.” Take that for whatever it’s worth.
One more tidbit. Watch this short clip from yesterday of a BBC correspondent claiming that he asked the CIA about the memos in November and got a message back through an intermediary that “the allegations were regarded as credible” and that there was more than one source for them, not just Steele. There’s also supposedly more than one damaging tape of Trump, not just video but audio. Natsec reporter Marc Ambinder (yes, that Marc Ambinder) claimed on Tuesday night via his own sources that the synopsis prepared for Trump last week wasn’t just a summary of the BuzzFeed memos but included everything the IC has learned about Russia’s efforts to compromise him. According to him, the BuzzFeed dossier “wasn’t the entirety (or even the bulk) of their info.” That jibes with the BBC clip, which suggests that there was more to the synopsis than Steele’s research. Hmmm.