Just how much can we actually glean about an investigation from a limited subset of questions being asked, leaked by those who are annoyed at answering them? That question hangs over a New York Times report about the ongoing probe helmed by John Durham over the potential politicization of intelligence during the 2016 Russian interference operation. Last night’s analysis that Durham seemingly intends to target high-ranking intelligence officials for manipulating information and protecting other sources depends on an assumption that we have the full set of questions — and comprehend all the motives for asking them:
Trump administration officials investigating the government’s response to Russia’s election interference in 2016 appear to be hunting for a basis to accuse Obama-era intelligence officials of hiding evidence or manipulating analysis about Moscow’s covert operation, according to people familiar with aspects of the inquiry.
Which “people” would that be? The people running the inquiry, or the potential subjects and targets of the probe? Needless to say, that matters as to whether we get a complete picture of what Durham is doing, or whether we’re just getting a preview of the defense case down the road.
Since his election, President Trump has attacked the intelligence agencies that concluded that Russia secretly tried to help him win, fostering a narrative that they sought to delegitimize his victory. He has long promoted the investigation by John H. Durham, the prosecutor examining their actions, as a potential pathway to proving that a deep-state cabal conspired against him.
Questions asked by Mr. Durham, who was assigned by Attorney General William P. Barr to scrutinize the early actions of law enforcement and intelligence officials struggling to understand the scope of Russia’s scheme, suggest that Mr. Durham may have come to view with suspicion several clashes between analysts at different intelligence agencies over who could see each other’s highly sensitive secrets, the people said.
Mr. Durham appears to be pursuing a theory that the C.I.A., under its former director John O. Brennan, had a preconceived notion about Russia or was trying to get to a particular result — and was nefariously trying to keep other agencies from seeing the full picture lest they interfere with that goal, the people said.
This uses a fallacy that we often see when analyzing Supreme Court hearings. Questions asked do not necessarily equate to conclusions drawn. In fact, sometimes questions get asked to preclude the conclusions that they imply. A proper investigation asks lots of questions in multiple directions with plenty of overlap, in order to get to the truth. That will make people uncomfortable, to be sure, but a criminal investigation isn’t supposed to make people comfortable. It’s supposed to make them uncomfortable, off-balance, and for those who have something to hide, afraid.
If the leaks coming out of the intel community over Durham’s investigation are an indication, it looks like he’s succeeding. That doesn’t mean he’ll find anything criminal took place, but it does mean that Durham appears to be conducted a broad and comprehensive investigation that will settle that question once and for all. The NYT includes this as a hint of Durham’s success in this regard:
The Durham investigation has rattled current and former intelligence officers. Little precedent exists for a criminal prosecutor to review the analytic judgment-making process of intelligence agencies, said Michael Morrell, a former acting C.I.A. director who left the government in 2013.
“This whole thing is so abnormal,” Mr. Morrell said.
So was taking an oppo-research effort and turning it into a counter-intelligence operation, and then turning that into a criminal investigation. That was the problem from the start of Operation Crossfire Hurricane. In order to get to the bottom of those decisions, Durham has to walk backwards through all those decisions to determine whether laws were broken and intelligence politicized to interfere with an election.
We won’t know what Durham’s really thinking, or what he’s finding, until he closes out his investigation. What we should know is that we can’t characterize it by assuming we’re getting the whole truth from leaks coming from the people Durham’s investigating.