Barr Says Investigation into CIA’s Russia Findings Continues

John Brennan
John Brennan
Former CIA diretor John Brennan (Credit: Jefferson Morley(

Even a global plague won’t stop Attorney General Bill Barr from pursuing former CIA director John Brennan.

The latest on the investigation of U.S Attorney John Durham comes from the Washington Examiner:

Durham was appointed last year by Barr to review possible misconduct by federal law enforcement and intelligence officials in the Russia investigation. The review upgraded into a criminal investigation in the fall, allowing Durham the power to impanel a grand jury and hand down indictments. Democrats have criticized the review as a politically motivated scheme to undermine the work of former special counsel Robert Mueller and attack President Trump’s perceived enemies.

The legal question is whether Brennan (or other top national security policymakers in the Obama White House) violated any laws while pressing for an investigation of scores of contacts between Trump’s campaign and presumed Russian state agents.

Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz reviewed the criminal investigation of Trump’s entourage and concluded there was no political bias. But Horowitz did find the government’s application for a continuing wiretap on Trump adviser Carter Page was riddled with bad information that was unfairly used. Civil liberties activists and libertarians have long warned that the FISA courts are prone to abuse by law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The case of Carter Page proved they are right.

Many of the policymakers and pundits who defended the FISA process as fair and functional are the same people who defend Brennan as a public servant. If they misjudged the intelligence/law enforcement system, they might have a blind spot about one of its leaders.

There’s no doubt that Barr has politicized the Justice Department and is deploying it in service of an unfit and autocratic president. But Barr’s abuses do not necessarily mean Brennan is innocent of wrongdoing.

Troll fantasies aside, there is zero chance Brennan will be charged with “treason,” a crime that only be committed in wartime. Brennan will not be charged with mounting a “hoax,” because that is not a criminal charge either.

Brennan might be vulnerable on two points of law.

  1. The handling of classified information. Clearly, some high-level former intelligence officials shared classified information with certain news reporters before and after President Trump was elected. The Justice Department has used the Espionage Act to prosecute whistleblowers like Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden. If Brennan or some other top official were found to have given information to an unauthorized person, a creative and aggressive prosecutor might be able to construct a criminal indictment.
  2. Violations of privacy. Brennan was alarmed both before and after Trump’s election about his campaign’s contacts with the Russians. He knew of the FBI’s ongoing investigations. He and other senior officials had the right, under U.S. law, to “unmask” the names of Americans picked up on NSA surveillance. President Trump has claimed, without evidence, that Obama wiretapped Trump Tower. Did Brennan or others go beyond authorized “unmasking?” If they did, they might be vulnerable to criminal charges.

Trump Kills FISA Reform

While President Trump routinely savages Brennan, he recently demonstrated how his “deep state” discourse is fundamentally unprincipled.

It happened when Democrats and Republicans in Congress agreed on some measures to fix FISA. As Lawfare explains:

On March 11, the House passed H.R. 6172, a compromise on the FISA reform issues, on a bipartisan 278-to-136 vote. H.R. 6172 would extend the relevant surveillance authorities through 2023 but also includes reforms aimed at limiting existing authorities. Attorney General Bill Barr supported the House bill—but notwithstanding Barr’s endorsement, President Trump issued a veto threat by tweet on March 12.

In other words, President Trump personally killed FISA reform. He had to fix the system that abused his former adviser Page. He had a chance to reform the very “deep state” agencies he demonizes–and he refused.

Brennan Under Scrutiny

So should we sympathize with John Brennan as he is pursued by a politicized Attorney General and an unprincipled president?

Brennan is more abrasive than sympathetic. I personally am glad that he admires Colin Kaepernick but wokeness should not put us to sleep. Brennan has injected himself into the arena of presidential politics like no former CIA chief since George H.W. Bush. He can’t be surprised he’s a political target.

Nor can Brennan (and his defenders) be surprised that many Americans, not just Trump and Barr, fear that “deep state” actors might compromise democracy.

Senior CIA officials have illicitly spied on Americans in the past. CIA director Richard Helms presided over Operation CHAOS, a massive domestic spying program, from 1967-1974.

In the 1980s, CIA director William Casey (and former director George H.W. Bush) helped organized the Iran-Contra conspiracy to bypass the Congress and the constitution. Four top CIA officials were indicted (and pardoned.)

(Want to know more about the Iran-Contra conspiracy? It was a “milestone in post-truth politics.” For the whole story, try listening to the Luminary podcast.)

Brennan himself authorized an illicit break-in at the offices of the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee in 2015 (a burglary scarily dramatized in the taut Adam Driver thriller, The Report.)

Close law enforcement scrutiny of senior CIA officials is appropriate. It is not necessarily a “witch hunt.”

The Carter Page FISA debacle is a symptom of a dysfunctional national security system that grants enormous leeway to senior intelligence officials without much accountability. Brennan deserves the presumption of innocence until we see what Durham finds.

Source: Barr says John Durham’s Russia investigation persists during coronavirus outbreak

How the U.S. Intelligence Community Is Intervening in the 2020 Election

Bernie Sanders
Brennan & Haspel
Former CIA director John Brennan and current CIA director Gina Haspel at the funeral of President George H. W. Bush, Washington DC, December 5, 2018. (Credit: CNN)

President Trump’s ongoing purge of the intelligence community, along with Bernie Sanders’ surge in the Democratic presidential race, has triggered an unprecedented intervention of U.S. intelligence agencies in the U.S. presidential election on factually dubious grounds.

Former CIA director John Brennan sees a “full-blown national security crisis” in President Trump’s latest moves against the intelligence community. Brennan charges, “Trump is abetting a Russian covert operation to keep him in office for Moscow’s interests, not America’s.” But congressional representatives, both Democratic and Republican, who heard a briefing by the intelligence community about the 2020 election earlier this month say the case for Russian interference is “overstated.”

On February 21, it was leaked to the Washington Post that “U.S. officials,” meaning members of the intelligence community, had confidentially briefed Sanders about alleged Russian efforts to help his 2020 presidential campaign.

Special prosecutor Robert Mueller documented how the Russians intervened on Trump’s behalf in 2016, while finding no evidence of criminal conspiracy. Mueller did not investigate the Russians’ efforts on behalf of Sanders, but the Computational Propaganda Research Project at Oxford University did. In a study of social media generated by the Russia-based Internet Research Agency (IRA), the Oxford analysts found that the IRA initially generated propaganda designed to boost all rivals to Hillary Clinton in 2015. As Trump advanced, they focused almost entirely on motivating Trump supporters and demobilizing black voters. In short, the Russians helped Trump hundreds of thousand times more than they boosted Sanders.

The leak to the Post, on the eve of the Nevada caucuses, gave the opposite impression: that help for Trump and Sanders was somehow comparable. The insinuation could only have been politically motivated.

What’s driving the U.S. intelligence community intervention in presidential politics is not just fear of Trump, but fear of losing control of the presidency. From 1947 to 2017, the CIA and other secret agencies sometimes clashed with presidents, especially Presidents Kennedy, Nixon and Carter. But since the end of the Cold War, under Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama, the secret agencies had no such problem.

Under Trump, the intelligence community has seen a vast loss of influence. Trump is contemptuous of the CIA’s daily briefing. As demonstrated by his pressure campaign on Ukraine, his foreign policies are mostly transactional. Trump is not guided by the policy process or even any consistent doctrine, other than advancing his political and business interests. He’s not someone who is interested in doing business with the intelligence community.

The intelligence community fears the rise of Sanders for a different reason. The socialist senator rejects the national security ideology that guided the intelligence community in the Cold War and the war on terror. Sanders’ position is increasingly attractive, especially to young voters, and thus increasingly threatening to the former spy chiefs who yearn for a return to the pre-Trump status quo. A Sanders presidency, like a second term for Trump, would thwart that dream. Sanders is not interested in national security business as usual either.

In the face of Trump’s lawless behavior, and Sanders’ rise, the intelligence community is inserting itself into presidential politics in a way unseen since former CIA director George H.W. Bush occupied the Oval Office. Key to this intervention is the intelligence community’s self-image as a disinterested party in the 2020 election.

Former House Intelligence Committee chair Jane Harman says Trump’s ongoing purge of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is a threat to those who “speak truth to power.” As the pseudonymous former CIA officer “Alex Finley” tweeted Monday, the “‘Deep state’ is actually the group that wants to defend rule of law (and thus gets in the way of those screaming ‘DEEP STATE’ and corrupting for their own gain).”

Self-image, however, is not the same as reality. When it comes to Trump’s corruption, Brennan and Co. have ample evidence to support their case. But the CIA is simply not credible as a “defender of the rule of law.” The Reagan-Bush Iran-contra conspiracy, the Bush-Cheney torture regime, and the Bush-Obama mass surveillance program demonstrate that the law is a malleable thing for intelligence community leaders. A more realistic take on the 2020 election is that the U.S. intelligence community is not a conspiracy but a self-interested political faction that is seeking to defend its power and policy preferences. The national security faction is not large electorally. It benefits from the official secrecy around its activities. It is assisted by generally sympathetic coverage from major news organizations.

The problem for Brennan and Co. is that “national security” has lost its power to mobilize public opinion. On both the right and the left, the pronouncements of the intelligence community no longer command popular assent.

Trump’s acquittal by the Senate in his impeachment trial was one sign. The national security arguments driving the House-passed articles of impeachment were the weakest link in a case that persuaded only one Republican senator to vote for Trump’s removal. Sanders’ success is another sign.

In the era of endless war, Democratic voters have become skeptical of national security claims—from Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction, to the notion that torture “works,” to “progress” in Afghanistan, to the supreme importance of Ukraine—because they have so often turned out to be more self-serving than true.

The prospect of a Trump gaining control of the U.S. intelligence community is scary. So is the intervention of the U.S. intelligence community in presidential politics.

Trump’s Intelligence Purge Rattles National Security Establishment

John Brennan
John Brennan
John Brennan’s crisis (Credit: Jefferson Morley)

Former CIA director John Brennan calls it a “full blown national security crisis.”

Soon to be ex-acting Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Joseph Maguire says Congress that Russia is seeking to influence in the 2020 presidential election on behalf of President Trump.

Trump is replacing Maguire with Richard Grenell, a former spokesman for U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Grenell, now serving as U.S. ambassador to Germany, has no intelligence experience. In Germany, he mostly ingratiated himself with Germany’s far-right Afd party.

Other major changes at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence are coming, according to the Daily Beast.

According to several sources, including one former high-ranking intelligence official, ODNI Principal Executive Andrew Hallman is departing, as is ODNI General Counsel Jason Klitenic. Klitenic’s last day is March 2, a DNI spokesperson said.

Klitenic offended the White House last September when he favored sending the complaint of a CIA whistleblower about Trump’s Ukraine policy to Congress. Bill Barr’s Justice Department sought to block the complaint, a decision denounced by dozens of inspectors general in the federal government.

The DNI, created in 2004, is not an intelligence agency itself but it oversees the work of 17 U.S. intelligence agencies, whose collective budgets amount to $75 billion annually.

With CIA director Gina Haspel cheering his State of the Union address, Trump seems closer to gaining control of the U.S. intelligence community that he was a month ago.

The problem facing Brennan and other critics from the intelligence community is that Trump has weaponized official secrecy and policy failures to demonize them in the eyes of his supporters. Conservative Republicans who long supported the CIA and other secret agencies now fear them as a “deep state cabal” out to get the president.

Brennan charges “Trump is abetting a Russian covert operation to keep him in office for Moscow’s interests, not America’s.” There’s evidence this is true but the key pieces of CIA’s reporting remains secret, making it difficult to confirm the allegation. The latest Senate intelligence Committee report still redacts the details of the 2016 finding that led to the investigation of Trump, Mueller’s probe, and impeachment.

Brennan, personally, has credibility problems. His role in the CIA’s breaking into the offices of the Senate Intelligence Committee during its investigation of the CIA’s torture regime rankled Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the intelligence committee at the time. (The story of the burglary and Brennan’s role in it is accurately dramatized in the movie, “The Report,” starring Annette Bening as Feinstein.).

Brennan’s bullying still bothers Democrats uncomfortable with a former spy intervening in presidential politics. If Brennan and friends savage Trump, what will they do to President Bernie Sanders or President Elizabeth Warren who promise to break with 70 years of national security dogma?

As a cable news pundit, Brennan overstated the case for Trump’s collusion with Russian state actors, which Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller concluded did not involve a criminal conspiracy. Brennan’s criticisms of Trump’s ignorance and mendacity were accurate enough (and his shoutout to Colin Kaepernick showed his wokeness). But he never proved “treason.”

The larger problem for Brennan and Co. is that “national security” has lost its power to mobilize public opinion. The national security arguments driving the House passed articles of impeachment were the weakest link in a case that persuaded only one Republican senator to vote for Trump’s removal.

In the era of endless war, the public has become skeptical of national security claims–from Iraq’s non-existent WMD, to the notion that torture “works,” to “progress” in Afghanistan, to the supreme importance of Ukraine–because they have so often turned out to be more self-serving than true.

The prospect of a Trump gaining control of the U.S. intelligence community is scary. The awesome power of the CIA in the hands of an authoritarian executive with foreign patrons is a frightening prospect. The ongoing, unacknowledged failures of U.S. national security doctrine are paving his way.

The CIA’s ‘Wake-Up Call’ for Obama on Russian Hacking Is Still Classified

John Brennan
John Brennan
John Brenna’s classified warning came in the summer of 2016. Four years later, it’s still secret. (Credit: Jefferson Morley.)

The American people still don’t know some of the most significant details of Russia’s intervention in the 2016 election. Four years after the fact, the story is still redacted.

The Washington Examiner extracted that revelation from the latest Senate Intelligence Committee report on Russian intervention in U.S. elections.

“The administration was not fully engaged until some key intelligence insights were provided by the intelligence community, which shifted how the administration viewed the issue,” the Senate report concluded, noting that Obama officials then guarded that secretive late July or early August intelligence as closely as the preparations for the raid on Osama bin Laden.

The Examiner is generally pro-Trump but this report is not slanted.

The specific information that jolted the Obama administration into action is hidden within a blacked-out section titled “[Redacted] Intelligence Was The ‘Wake Up’ Call.” The information appears to have been revealed to Obama officials by Brennan, based on a nonredacted footnote citing his June 2017 Senate testimony and on paragraphs noting that the information was “briefed by Director Brennan.”

Exactly what Obama national security adviser Susan Rice recalled from that briefing is redacted, but the report states that, “within an hour or two of learning of the information, Ambassador Rice advocated for the material to be briefed to President Obama.”

So the “wake-up call” seems to have been the predicate to the CIA-NSA-FBI finding of January 2017 that Russia had interfered in the election. That finding enraged Trump who fired FBI director James Comey. That led to led the appointment of a special prosecutor Robert Mueller and his two tw year investigation, which lead to House impeachment of the President and Senate acquittal.

Yet we still don’t know the information that started these falling dominos. One report holds that the CIA obtained intelligence indicated the Russian President Vladimir Putin was knowledgable about the Russian hacking, something that has never been confirmed.

I’m not suggestion there wasn’t a good reason for the investigation of Trump, only that the official secrecy makes it difficult for the voting public to understand the issue. Secrecy makes people cynical.

You can read the Senate Intelligence Committee report here.

Source: ‘Wake-up call’: Secretive CIA report to Obama revealed 2016 Russia hacks

Haspel and Brennan Disagree on Assassinating Soleimani

John Brennan
Trump and Haspel
Gina Haspel’s swearing in ceremony (Credit: Evan Vucci/AP)

Two CIA directors have two very different views about the legality of the U.S. assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani last month.

In a detailed look at how U.S. policymakers have handled the question of assassinating enemies, the The New Yorker reports the views of current CIA director Gina Haspel.

Intelligence officials told Trump that Suleimani was planning attacks that had the potential to kill hundreds of Americans in the region, though precise details were unknown. The C.I.A. director, Gina Haspel, told Trump that Iran was unlikely to respond to Suleimani’s death with large-scale retaliation, and that more Americans were at risk of being killed in attacks that Suleimani was allegedly planning than in the likely Iranian response to his death. “The risk of inaction outweighs the risk of action,” she said.

In an appearance at Fordham University, his alma mater, former CIA director John Brennan said last week that the assassination of Soleimani had no “legal basis.”.

Brennan made a clear distinction between an “unlawful combatant,” such as the leader of a terrorist group, and an individual acting on behalf of a sovereign state, such as a military general. He said that according to the Geneva Convention and “a lot of other important foundations,” a non-state actor is not afforded the same protections as a state actor working on behalf of a sovereign state.

“We’re not at war with Iran,” said Brennan. “We have struck Al-Qaeda terrorists numerous times, but they are unlawful combatants. I see no equivalency, either in …  a domestic or international law, that striking a government official of a foreign country that you’re not in war with has a legal basis.”

Brennan’s point is that the United States has an interest in observing international norms. Haspel’s point is that international law should not limit American actions.

Source: Qassem Suleimani and How Nations Decide to Kill | The New Yorker