Top US intelligence official releases unverified, previously rejected Russia information before presidential debate

This was the first time director of national intelligence John Ratcliffe had released material dismissed by other officials as unverified rumour. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - President Donald Trump's top intelligence official on Tuesday (Sept 29) released unverified information about the 2016 campaign that appeared to be a bid to help Mr Trump politically and was said to be disclosed over the objections of career intelligence officials who were concerned that the material could be Russian disinformation.

The disclosures were the latest by Mr John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence and previously an outspoken congressional ally of the president, that highlighted information that helped Mr Trump but that critics have called distortions.

Mr Ratcliffe sought to shore up the credibility of the material, which centred on claims about Mrs Hillary Clinton, saying that it was not a product of Russian disinformation after initially acknowledging that it could be.

But his initial disclosure, coming hours before the first presidential debate, offered fresh ammunition for Mr Trump to attack his political enemies.

In a letter to Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mr Ratcliffe laid out snippets of previously classified reports suggesting that Russian intelligence had acquired information that Mrs Clinton had approved a plan for her 2016 campaign to "stir up a scandal" against Mr Trump by tying him to the Russian hackers who had broken into Democratic servers.

Other officials - including Mr Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed by the Justice Department, and the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee - had evaluated and rejected the information in the years since, according to three current and former officials familiar with those inquiries.

An official familiar with the committee's work said that Mr Ratcliffe and Mr Graham released it over the objections of other intelligence officials.

"It's very disturbing to me that 35 days before an election, a director of national intelligence would release unverified" rumours that originated from Russia, said Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

He helped lead an exhaustive bipartisan investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign that detailed extensive contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence officials.

Mr Warner said he had never seen anything like the letter on Tuesday from another director of national intelligence.

Mr Ratcliffe conducted a classified briefing on Tuesday evening for Mr Graham about the sources behind the declassified intelligence he had released, according to people familiar with the matter. The last-minute briefing included no Democratic lawmakers; staff members for Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the ranking member of Mr Graham's committee, were blocked from attending, a deviation from normal practice for intelligence briefings on Capitol Hill.

The impromptu briefing angered Democrats. Mr Ratcliffe had promised to brief on the sources, but some congressional officials were surprised by the hasty meeting. They suggested that the scheduling reflected the need to brief Mr Graham before congressional testimony by former FBI director James Comey on Wednesday.

Democrats called the releases one of the starkest examples of politicisation of the intelligence agencies under Mr Trump.

While Mr Ratcliffe - a former congressman from Texas with little intelligence experience - promised during his Senate confirmation hearing to be nonpartisan, since taking the job he has highlighted Chinese election interference over what career officials say is a greater threat from Russia and made other declassifications similarly beneficial to the president.

"Ratcliffe is abusing his position exactly as I feared he would, and the abuse is accelerating as we near the election," Senator Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said in a statement.

The letter on Tuesday was the first time Mr Ratcliffe had released material dismissed by other officials as unverified rumour. He initially embraced that assessment, saying that "the Russian intelligence analysis may reflect exaggeration or fabrication".

The intelligence agencies have stopped short of definitively assessing the material as disinformation.

But in a statement hours after the release of the letter, Mr Ratcliffe appeared to caveat his own warning.

"To be clear, this is not Russian disinformation and has not been assessed as such by the intelligence community," he said. "I'll be briefing Congress on the sensitive sources and methods by which it was obtained in the coming days."

The snippets of information that Mr Ratliffe released included an intelligence report sent to Mr Comey on Sept 7, 2016, and handwritten notes by the CIA director at the time, Mr John Brennan, that said he had briefed President Barack Obama on the information.

A spokesman for Mr Brennan said the release amounted to "blatant politicisation".

"Russian interference in the election was real, intense and unprecedented in scale and scope. It was authorised personally by Putin to hurt Secretary Clinton and to promote the electoral prospects of Donald Trump," said Mr Nick Shapiro, Mr Brennan's former deputy chief of staff at the CIA, referring to President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

"The intelligence on this is incontrovertible and the analysis unimpeachable."

Mr Brennan was presenting a huge array of information about Russia to the White House in the summer of 2016. Including the information about what Russian intelligence was saying about Mrs Clinton's plans was not an endorsement of its accuracy, but a demonstration of how much information the United States was collecting on Moscow, a former intelligence official said.

Other officials say they believe that the intelligence could simply be Russia's analysis of American politics, suggesting not a plot by the Clinton campaign to manufacture a scandal but a legitimate political critique of the Trump campaign's stance towards Russia.

Officials said the timing was not a coincidence, pointing not only to the debate but also to Mr Comey's testimony on Wednesday before Mr Graham's committee, which is scrutinising the bureau's Russia investigation that the president has long sought to falsely portray as a plot to undermine him.

Mr Graham brushed aside concerns about the veracity and provenance of the information.

"I'm not saying whether it's true or not," he told reporters. "I'm asking Democrats, do you give a damn whether the FBI investigated, or do you only care about investigating Trump?"

He added that it was "not far-fetched to believe the Clinton campaign would do something like this."

As the election approaches, administration officials have been declassifying an array of material aimed at raising questions about the investigations of the 2016 campaign. The disclosures have mainly appeared aimed at energising Trump's political base and fuelling conspiracy theories that the national security establishment has been trying to stymie his presidency.

Last week, Attorney General William Barr provided Mr Graham with declassified documents that tried to further cast doubt on aspects of the FBI's Russia's investigation. Former FBI and Justice Department officials said the selective declassification appeared to be part of a pattern of politically motivated steps by Mr Barr to bolster Mr Trump's allegations about the inquiry.

Mr Donald Trump Jr., the president's son, seized on Mr Ratcliffe's disclosure, writing on Twitter that it showed that Mrs Clinton was behind what he called "the Russia Hoax".

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