Former CIA director John Brennan is having trouble keeping his Trump-Russia stories straight. On Meet the Press this past Sunday, host Chuck Todd asked MSNBC’s new national security analyst about George Papadopoulos, a volunteer adviser to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, and his reputed ties to Russia.
The question should have been a simple one to answer, for anyone who has been following the twists and turns of the Russiagate narrative. For over a year, press reports had proclaimed that the FBI’s July 2016 investigation into the Trump campaign’s Russia connections had originated with a dossier compiled by an impeccable British intelligence source who alleged that Russia had compromising material on the Republican candidate. Further, the document alleges that Trump aides had committed serious crimes in coordination with Russian officials. But the so-called Steele dossier, named for the former British spy Christopher Steele, who allegedly authored it, proved to be opposition research that the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee paid the Washington, D.C. strategic communications firm Fusion GPS millions of dollars to produce and distribute to the press.
Just as the dossier’s credibility began to wane—none of the allegations regarding Trump have been verified—a New York Times article from Dec. 30, 2017 corrected the record to show that the FBI’s inquiry into the Trump team’s possible ties to Russia in fact had nothing to do with the Steele dossier, or Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, as the paper had been reporting for the past year. No, it began after a meeting between Papadopoulos and the Australian ambassador to the United Kingdom, Alexander Downer, in a London bar, back in May 2016. At that meeting, Papadopoulos, who, according to the Times, was in contact with Russian figures who were apparently connected to official Russian channels, told Downer that he had inside information the Russians were about to release thousands of emails damaging to Hillary Clinton. After the hacked DNC emails appeared in June and July, according to the Times, the Australians decided to pass on news of Papadopoulos’s boasts to their “American counterparts.”
Todd asked Brennan if the intelligence on Papadopoulos came “through the C.I.A. via the Five Eyes thing,” referring to the intelligence-sharing relationship between the five English-speaking powers, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. Brennan’s response, though, went off-script.
He wasn’t “going to get into details about how it was acquired,” he explained. “But the F.B.I. has a very close relationship with its British counterparts. And so the F.B.I. had visibility into a number of things that were going on involving some individuals who may have had some affiliation with the Trump campaign.”
British counterparts? The Times report, based on interviews with former and current U.S. and foreign officials, had claimed that the Australians passed on the tip. Did the Times get that part of its story wrong? Perhaps Downer, Australia’s former foreign minister, had told British police who passed it to the FBI. Or maybe Brennan misspoke, or misremembered.
What seems more likely is that the former CIA director told the truth. Informed sources in Washington have been whispering for months that Britain’s intelligence service, the Government Communications Headquarters, the U.K.’s version of America’s National Security Agency, was intercepting the emails and phone calls of Trump officials. “It’s not impossible,” a former high-ranking U.S. intelligence officer told me, “that the information came from the Brits. Under certain circumstances, we can search their database, and they can search ours. Our intelligence-sharing relationship with the U.K. is much closer than it is with anyone else, by far the closest we have. But something like that wouldn’t be routine in our relationship.”
Luke Harding of the Guardian, apparently one of the few journalists with access to Steele, first reported April 13 that the GCHQ had played a central part in uncovering Trump’s possible ties to Russia, and forwarding the information they had directly on to John Brennan. The next day CNN published a similar report.
Citing U.S. and U.K. intelligence sources, Harding wrote, “GCHQ played an early, prominent role in kickstarting the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation, which began in late July 2016.” According to one account, reported Harding, “GCHQ’s then-head, Robert Hannigan, passed material in summer 2016 to the CIA chief, John Brennan. The matter was deemed so sensitive it was handled at ‘director level.’ After an initially slow start, Brennan used GCHQ information and intelligence from other partners to launch a major inter-agency investigation.”
Brennan has himself previously taken credit for initiating the inquiry. While on Meet the Press, Brennan suggested that the British sent their intelligence on to the FBI, in his May testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, he indicated it came from him directly.
“I was aware,” Brennan said in May, “of intelligence and information about contacts between Russian officials and U.S. persons that raised concerns in my mind about whether or not those individuals were cooperating with the Russians, either in a witting or unwitting fashion, and it served as the basis for the FBI investigation to determine whether such collusion—cooperation occurred.”
Brennan continued: “I wanted to make sure that every information and bit of intelligence that we had was shared with the bureau [FBI] so that they could take it. It was well beyond my mandate as director of CIA to follow on any of those leads that involved U.S. persons. But I made sure that anything that was involving U.S. persons, including anything involving the individuals involved in the Trump campaign, was shared with the bureau.”
In other words, the FBI investigation didn’t start when the Australians, according to the Times—or the Brits, according to Brennan’s most recent version of the story—contacted the FBI after the Papadopoulos-Downer meeting. No, it started when the director of the CIA decided to start an investigation, when Brennan passed on information and intelligence to the FBI, and signaled that the bureau better act on it.
The former CIA director has some questions to answer, then. What precisely was his role in initiating the FBI probe into the Trump team’s possible ties to Russia? Will he disclose where the intelligence actually came from? Was it volunteered by one of America’s closest allies, or did U.S. officials request to search allies’ databases for the communications of American citizens? If so, under what authority were American allies being used to help an American intelligence agency spy on a domestic political campaign?
Newly disclosed evidence from the House Intelligence Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee shows that the FBI and Department of Justice used the Steele dossier—opposition research paid for by the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign—to secure a FISA warrant on Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. The warrant allowed the FBI to intercept not only the communications of Page, but also anyone in contact with Page whose metadata—phone number, email, etc.—might have signaled a pattern interpreted by FBI analysts as potentially meaningful to a counterintelligence investigation. In other words, the warrant was a backdoor giving the FBI access to spy on the entire Trump campaign.
Given the potential consequences, legal and institutional, of violating the fourth amendment rights of an American citizen for the sake of enabling one presidential campaign to spy on another, it’s hardly surprising Brennan would want to put some distance between himself and the Steele dossier. He told Chuck Todd that while he heard lots of rumors about it, he didn’t see it until December 2016. “Well, it was not a very well-kept secret among press circles for several months before it came out,” said Brennan. “And it was in late summer of 2016 when there were some individuals from the various U.S. news outlets who asked me about my familiarity with it. And I had heard just snippets about it. I did not know what was in there.”
That makes no sense. In July, Brennan alerted the FBI to the possibility that Russia is seeking to interfere in the presidential election. In August, he briefed the White House and then congressional leaders on Russia’s attempts to influence the election for the purpose of putting Trump in the White House. In December, the CIA assessed that Russia had done exactly that. But for five months, Brennan didn’t bother to look at a document widely discussed for months by the Washington press corps that deals explicitly with the issue that has the director of the Central Intelligence Agency setting off fire alarms at the FBI, Congress, and the White House?
Nonsense. Brennan’s problem now is that the more distance he tries to put between himself and the sketchy dossier, the more he highlights the CIA director’s role in promoting the collusion narrative inside the Beltway bureaucracy.
So, for a moment, let’s forget all the other juicy details surrounding Russiagate—Christopher Steele, Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson, the role of FBI and DOJ officials, the partisan jockeying of congressional committee chairs, leaks to the media and the press’ many errors in reporting. Indeed, even put aside for a second whether you think Donald Trump or his circle might have actually colluded with Vladimir Putin to steal the 2016 election from Hillary Clinton. Let’s concentrate, for a moment, on the Director of the CIA, and how he spent the last half of 2016. Here’s a timeline:
• In July 2016, Brennan, according to his own testimony, initiated the Russia investigation and pushed the FBI to get on the case.
• In early August 2016, Brennan briefed Obama on Russian interference. He explained that Putin’s explicit purpose is to aid Trump. That assessment, according to the Washington Post story describing the meetings, was not yet endorsed by other intelligence agencies, including the FBI.
• In late August, Brennan briefed congressional leaders on the same topic. The briefings, according to a New York Times report, “reveal a critical split last summer between the C.I.A. and counterparts at the F.B.I., where a number of senior officials continued to believe through last fall that Russia’s cyber-attacks were aimed primarily at disrupting America’s political system, and not at getting Mr. Trump elected.”
• After an Aug. 25 briefing for Harry Reid in which “Brennan indicated that Russia’s hackings appeared aimed at helping Mr. Trump win the November election,” the Sen. Minority Leader was so alarmed that, on August 27, he fired off a letter to FBI director James Comey, in which he expressed his “concern that the threat of the Russian government tampering in our presidential election is more extensive than widely known.”
• On Oct. 30, Reid writes another letter to Comey, upbraiding him for reopening the Clinton email investigation, while sitting on “explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisors, and the Russian government.” Reid knew Comey had the goods on Trump from his communications with Comey and “other top officials in the national security community.” It seemed that Brennan was again berating Comey through Reid.
Yet in spite of Brennan’s efforts to maneuver Comey toward his position, with a little more than a week before the election, the FBI officially concluded that there was no clear link between the Trump campaign and Russia.
• After Trump won the election, Brennan continued to play the same note, even louder. On Dec. 9, the Washington Post reported that the CIA had issued a secret assessment finding that Putin interfered with the purpose of electing Trump. A week later, after Brennan met with Comey, the FBI finally agreed with the CIA. After five months of being harangued privately and publicly, the FBI director at last concluded that yes, just like Brennan had been saying all along, Putin wanted Trump in the White House. That assessment, made by the CIA and FBI in “high confidence,” was then documented in the January Intelligence Community report on Russian involvement in the 2016 elections.
Yet even today, Brennan can’t help but point a finger at Comey, who, it seems, never really got with the program. “I do think it was up to the F.B.I. to see whether or not they could verify any of [the Steele dossier],” Brennan said Sunday on Meet the Press. “I think Jim Comey has said that it contained salacious and unverified information. Just because it was unverified didn’t mean it wasn’t true. And if the Russians were involved in something like that, directed against individuals who are aspiring to the highest office in this land, there was an obligation on the part of the F.B.I. to seek out the truth on it.”
Why is John Brennan still so mad at James Comey? Because from Brennan’s perspective, the target of the information operation commonly referred to as Russiagate wasn’t just the 2016 GOP candidate. Sure, the Obama administration spied on the Trump team, but they regularly spied on their political opponents. Brennan’s CIA spied on U.S. Senators, a fact he first lied about and then grudgingly admitted to Congress and apologized for. The Obama White House abused the foreign intelligence surveillance system to spy on opponents of the Iran deal. Obama’s National Security Council staff had a 15-year CIA analyst, Ned Price, briefing—and purposefully misleading—the press and public, which had no idea he was a spy, regarding Obama administration policy. The White House spied on the Trump team. The point is that the main target of Brennan’s campaign was Comey.
Maybe Brennan always had it in for Comey. It’s as easy to imagine a rivalry as it is a friendship between two ambitious middle-class Irish Catholic kids who were born in Bergen County, New Jersey only a few years apart. Maybe as master practitioners of the Beltway arts, in which self-promotion ranks highly, they were always destined to wind up on opposite sides of a political battle.
Former CIA officers who worked with Brennan say he’s very political, a characteristic that agency employees seem to disdain as much as partisanship. One former NSC staffer in the Bush administration remembers that Brennan’s constant presence in the hallways became a running joke. “He was always looking for the next person who was going to advance him.” Congressional staffers who’ve worked with Comey describe him in very similar terms. “He’s not partisan,” says one Hill aide, “he’s a Comeyist, always looking out for what’s best for James Comey.”
There was also a history of sorts between the two highly political animals, whose careers first intersected with the June 25, 1996 Khobar Tower bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 American servicemen and one Saudi national and wounded another 498 of various nationalities. Comey was lead prosecutor of the FBI’s case. In June 2001, he won indictments of 13 individuals working on behalf of the pro-Iran terrorist group Saudi Hezbollah. Iran was identified as the main culprit behind the attack.
In a sense, Brennan was on the other side. Brennan became the CIA’s station chief in Riyadh reportedly just after the attack. His appointment was unusual, says one retired CIA senior case officer. Brennan was from the agency’s analytical side, the directorate of intelligence. The former CIA officer explains that Brennan’s assignment was part of an initiative of then-director George Tenet to send analysts out in the field as station chiefs. “There is required training for operations officers who deploy overseas,” says the retired case officer. “Training to learn how to recruit spies and steal secrets. I’m not sure why the Director felt the need to send an officer overseas who was an analyst and not an operator who had operational training and experience.”
The answer is because Brennan had won the trust not only of his immediate boss, Tenet, whom he first served as executive assistant when Tenet went to Langley, but also that of the CIA’s customer-in-chief, Bill Clinton. Brennan had given Clinton his presidential daily briefing from 1994 to 1995. Brennan knew Riyadh, as he’d been posted to Saudi Arabia for two years starting in 1982. He also knew that rapprochement with Tehran was a foreign policy goal of the Clinton White House, which was hopeful that the election of “reformist” cleric Mohammad Khatami to the presidency would lead to restored relations with the Islamic Republic.
So, while the FBI, then led by Louis Freeh, kept pushing the White House to come down hard on Iran for its role in the bombing, the White House, especially National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, kept pushing back. Presumably, part of Brennan’s job in Riyadh was keeping tabs on the FBI agents investigating leads on the bombing that might lead back to Iran, and blow up the president’s hoped-for diplomacy. Clinton ended his term without reaching an accommodation with Tehran, but Brennan had done his job, protecting the interests not only of the CIA but also those of the Clinton White House.
Brennan isn’t a Clinton loyalist; the director of the CIA works for the president. The point is that Brennan had proven his bona fides to the Clintons by the time the 2016 presidential campaign came around. He must have assumed that he had a pretty good chance of keeping his job because he assumed, like everyone else, that Hillary Clinton was destined to be the next president.
Comey, only three years into a 10-year term, no doubt figured the same, except he had a big problem—Hillary Clinton, or, more precisely, a long trail of questionable activities during her time at the State Department that led directly back to the secretary herself. Chief among them was her private email account, which first came to light in March 2013 when the Romanian hacker “Guccifer” broke into the account of longtime Clinton operative Sidney Blumenthal and leaked emails Blumenthal had sent to Clinton regarding the Sept. 11, 2012 attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi. Two years later, the New York Times reported that Clinton had used a private email server during her entire tenure as secretary of state. Had she mishandled classified intelligence by exposing it to possible hacking on an unsecure server? When asked by investigators to turn over her emails, Clinton explained that she’d deleted half of the 60,000 emails exchanged during her time as America’s top diplomat.
Yet there was no way that Clinton or her aides were ever going to be prosecuted for mishandling classified intelligence, because, as former Department of Justice lawyer Andrew McCarthy has written, President Obama would have been implicated, too. “Obama, using a pseudonymous email account, had repeatedly communicated with Secretary Clinton over her private, non-secure email account,” writes McCarthy. “If Clinton had been charged, Obama’s culpable involvement would have been patent.”
For John Brennan, Clinton’s emails were a problem not only for the woman he may serve, but also for the president he was already serving. Even after the July 5 press conference in which Comey cleared Clinton of any charges—she was “extremely careless,” said Comey, but there was no evidence that she had willfully mishandled classified information—the White House was watching Comey carefully.
Newly released texts between FBI lawyer Lisa Page and bureau counterintelligence chief Peter Strzok dated Sept. 2, 2016 show that Obama himself was watching. Page texted Strzok that she was briefing Comey because “potus [President of the United States] wants to know everything we’re doing.”
The text, says a congressional report, “raises additional questions about the type and extent of President Obama’s personal involvement in the Clinton email scandal and the FBI investigation of it.” Perhaps the text is about the email issue, but Comey had cleared Clinton two months before.
The problem was that just as the FBI put the email story to rest, Russian hackers re-animated Clinton’s email problem with the June and July leaks of hacked emails from the Clinton campaign and the DNC. Most of the voting public did not distinguish between the classified emails on Hillary’s private server, and emails hacked from her party and her campaign. They heard “emails” and figured Clinton was in the news for the wrong reasons.
Russiagate simplified and re-contextualized the email issue by identifying a villain, or two villains—Russia and Trump. Both Trump-Russia origin stories—the dossier and the Papadopoulos meeting—tie Trump advisers to the leaked emails from the DNC and Clinton campaign. Among other purposes it was put to, the collusion story was a very elegant piece of political judo that turned Clinton’s email problems against Trump.
Was Brennan, during his protracted campaign to get Comey to bear down on Trump-Russia ties, freelancing? The Sept. 2 text suggests he wasn’t. The letter Reid wrote Comey a week before on Aug. 27 about the Russia investigation had been prompted by Brennan’s briefing. And Brennan worked for the president, who wanted to know everything.
Comey was a concern not because he was secretly sympathetic to Trump, but because he was running an agency whose rank and file had been dealing with the Clintons and their various improprieties for a quarter of a century. Even if some of the charges against Bill and Hillary Clinton were ridiculously politicized, the list of Clinton-related improprieties is long—Whitewater, Travelgate, Monica, Benghazi, the Clinton Foundation’s questionable practices, and now the emails—and not all of them were drummed up out of thin air for political gain. Comey had an entire building at his back that was tired of cleaning up after the Clintons, often at the expense of the laws that agents had sworn to uphold.
On Oct. 28, eleven days before the election, the FBI re-opened the Clinton email investigation. Glenn Simpson was “shocked” and “angry,” as he explained in his Nov. 14 testimony to the House intelligence committee. “At that point I felt like the rules had just been thrown out and that Comey had violated the sort of one of the more sacrosanct policies, which is not announcing law enforcement activity in the closing days of an election,” he said. “And so, we began talking to the press again about—we decided that if James Comey wasn’t going to tell people about this investigation that, you know, he had violated the rules, and we would only be fair if the world knew that both candidates were under FBI investigation.”
Simpson was upset because he was hired, in part, to disseminate a Clinton-funded Trump-Russia collusion theory to the press for the purpose of turning the email narrative away from Clinton and toward Trump. Then the email story came back. Christopher Steele was mad, too, said Simpson. Then the former British spy who was hired in order to credential the smear campaign as an authentic intelligence report that would have credibility inside the bureau left the country after the FBI found out he was briefing the press on his findings.
The institutional reputation of the FBI is rightly going to take a hit over its handling of the Russiagate affair, especially for its interactions with the FISA court. But the FBI itself was not the problem. Rather, it was James Comey. It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for Comey, or at least for the circumstances he found himself in. But because he would not stand up to John Brennan, the former FBI Director did terrible damage to his institution, and to the country as a whole.
By signing a FISA warrant based on paid political opposition research to intercept Carter Page’s communications, he violated the privacy of an American citizen in order to advance a conspiracy theory that would benefit one presidential candidate at the expense of another. By enabling a political campaign to use the FBI as a vehicle to abuse the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Comey endangered U.S. national security, and turned both the bureau and the FISA Court into partisan instruments and brought their activities into disrepute.
The consequences are likely to be wide-ranging and long-lasting. Congressional leaders, civil libertarians, and millions of American citizens on both the left and the right are soon likely to demand substantial changes—perhaps better yet, an end—to surveillance programs protecting us from terrorism that are plainly susceptible to widespread, top-down extra-constitutional abuse. If not, Americans across the political spectrum should accustom themselves to the fact that some top officials will invariably take it as invitation to augment their own power at the expense of our democratic processes and institutions. They will see it as confirmation that they are above the law.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).