The story appeared to confirm the worst fears about Donald Trump and his sometimes reckless public discourse. CNN’s Jim Sciutto reported yesterday that the CIA was forced to exfiltrate a mole deep within the Kremlin after Trump revealed too much intelligence in a one-on-one meeting with Vladimir Putin in 2017. The loss of this asset meant that Trump had essentially blinded the CIA just at a time when Russian aggression had escalated.
Sounds damning — except that wasn’t how it happened at all, both the New York Times and Washington Post report this morning. The exposure of the asset didn’t come from Trump, but instead from media reporting on Russian election interference from intel sources that revealed enough to put the asset at risk. The Post explicitly rejects Sciutto’s conclusions:
The exfiltration took place sometime after an Oval Office meeting in May 2017, when President Trump revealed highly classified counterterrorism information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador, said the current and former officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive operation.
That disclosure alarmed U.S. national security officials, but it was not the reason for the decision to remove the CIA asset, who had provided information to the United States for more than a decade, according to the current and former officials.
We’ll get back to the Post’s account, but the NYT corroborated the point, albeit a bit more ambiguously in regard to Trump:
As American officials began to realize that Russia was trying to sabotage the 2016 presidential election, the informant became one of the C.I.A.’s most important — and highly protected — assets. But when intelligence officials revealed the severity of Russia’s election interference with unusual detail later that year, the news media picked up on details about the C.I.A.’s Kremlin sources.
C.I.A. officials worried about safety made the arduous decision in late 2016 to offer to extract the source from Russia. The situation grew more tense when the informant at first refused, citing family concerns — prompting consternation at C.I.A. headquarters and sowing doubts among some American counterintelligence officials about the informant’s trustworthiness. But the C.I.A. pressed again months later after more media inquiries. This time, the informant agreed.
The move brought to an end the career of one of the C.I.A.’s most important sources. It also effectively blinded American intelligence officials to the view from inside Russia as they sought clues about Kremlin interference in the 2018 midterm elections and next year’s presidential contest.
It takes a while in the NYT report to get to CNN’s mistake:
The decision to extract the informant was driven “in part” because of concerns that Mr. Trump and his administration had mishandled delicate intelligence, CNN reported. But former intelligence officials said there was no public evidence that Mr. Trump directly endangered the source, and other current American officials insisted that media scrutiny of the agency’s sources alone was the impetus for the extraction.
That may not be entirely true, either. Returning to the Post’s account, presidential action may have been the catalyst for the need to exfiltrate the asset. However, CNN chose the wrong president:
In January 2017, the Obama administration published a detailed assessment that unambiguously laid the blame on the Kremlin, concluding that “Putin ordered an influence campaign” and that Russia’s goal was to undermine faith in the U.S. democratic process and harm Clinton’s chances of winning.
“That’s a pretty remarkable intelligence community product — much more specific than what you normally see,” one U.S. official said. “It’s very expected that potential U.S. intelligence assets in Russia would be under a higher level of scrutiny by their own intelligence services.”
“It’s quite likely,” the official continued, “that the U.S. intelligence community would already be taking a hard look at extracting any U.S. assets who would have been subject to increased levels of scrutiny” after the assessment’s publication. Part of it relied on communications intercepts and human intelligence, the official said. The Russians “undoubtedly would have been conducting a review as to who within Putin’s inner circle would have had access to the information.”
At the time, the Obama administration was reeling from the voters’ rebuke in the 2016 election and had lots of reasons to pull a dog-in-the-manger ploy with Trump. That impulse led to this release of intelligence by the White House, which as the Post notes provided a road map back to those potential sources. Within a month, the NYT notes, both they, NBC, and the Washington Post had uncovered enough about the source to expose his identity:
News agencies, including NBC, began reporting around that time about Mr. Putin’s involvement in the election sabotage and on the C.I.A.’s possible sources for the assessment.
Knowing how Putin deals with dissenters, let alone moles, the CIA would have been very, very motivated to protect its source and show that it can protect future sources as well. It was at that point, not in May 2017 at the Trump-Putin Oval Office meeting, that the CIA updated its exfiltration plans and worked to get their source out of Russia. The exfiltration itself took place the following month, but it had been in the works for months.
Needless to say, the CIA was not amused by the CNN report:
The Central Intelligence Agency on Monday evening slammed what it called CNN’s “misguided” and “simply false” reporting, after the cable channel’s chief national security correspondent authored a hole-filled piece claiming that the CIA had pulled a high-level spy out of Russia because President Trump had “repeatedly mishandled classified intelligence and could contribute to exposing the covert source as a spy.”
The extraordinary CIA rebuke came as The New York Times published a bombshell piece late in the evening, which largely contradicted CNN’s reporting. According to the Times, CIA officials “made the arduous decision in late 2016 to offer to extract the source from Russia” — weeks before Trump even took office. …
“CNN’s narrative that the Central Intelligence Agency makes life-or-death decisions based on anything other than objective analysis and sound collection is simply false,” CIA Director for Public Affairs Brittany Bramell said in the agency’s statement.
Bramwell continued: “Misguided speculation that the President’s handling of our nation’s most sensitive intelligence — which he has access to each and every day — drove an alleged exfiltration operation is inaccurate.”
One has to wonder whether CNN’s sources are the same people that decided to rush out the intel assessment in January 2017 in order to paint Trump as illegitimate. After all, former ODNI James Clapper works for CNN as a contributor. Couldn’t he have cleared this up for Sciutto before it went on the air — or did he participate in its dissemination?
Update: Speaking of irresponsible media reporting, here’s NBC News:
A former senior Russian official is living in the Washington area under U.S. government protection, current and former government officials tell NBC News. …
[T]he former Russian government official, who had a job with access to secrets, was living openly under his true name.
An NBC News correspondent went to the man’s house in the Washington area and rang the doorbell. Five minutes later, two young men in an SUV came racing up the street and parked immediately adjacent to the correspondent’s car.
The men, who identified themselves only as friends of the Russian, asked the correspondent what he was doing there.
A former senior national security official said the men were likely U.S. government agents monitoring the Russian’s house.
Gee, ya think? It’s been almost exactly 18 months since Sergei Skripal almost got rubbed out by Russian hit men using a weapon of mass destruction that contaminated a British town. Are reporters trying to get this man killed? What was the point of going to his door, especially ostentatiously enough that it drew attention?