Obama’s Other Intelligence Operation

Now that it’s apparent to all but Donald Trump’s most deranged critics that Barack Obama’s FBI was indeed spying on the president’s 2016 campaign, we find ourselves at long last in the scandal’s “What did he know and when did he know it” phase.

So it’s worth pointing out that, in addition to the FBI’s “Crossfire Hurricane” operation, the Obama Administration was running a concurrent, higher-level counterintelligence investigation into alleged Russian efforts to put Trump in the White House. Details of the second, less-discussed investigation were leaked by senior Obama Administration officials for a June 2017 Washington Post story, “Obama’s secret struggle to punish Russia for Putin’s election assault.” That story hasn’t received anywhere near the attention it deserves.

An Official Narrative
The Post says its story is based mostly on anonymous interviews “with more than three dozen current and former U.S. officials in senior positions in government, including at the White House, the State, Defense and Homeland Security departments, and U.S. intelligence services.”

The article is mainly an approving regurgitation of a tale that top-level Obama Administration officials obviously wanted told, according to which their failure to stop the Russian election interference we’re supposed to believe cost Hillary Clinton the election is entirely the fault of Republican obstruction.

The article reads more like an Obama Administration press release than journalism. We’re informed that “Obama’s approach to national security challenges was deliberate and cautious,” and “often seemed reducible to a single imperative: Don’t make things worse” and of his “determination to avoid politicizing the Russia issue.”

Meantime, CIA Director John Brennan “moved swiftly to schedule private briefings with congressional leaders,” but “getting appointments with certain Republicans proved difficult.” The White House was “[s]tung by the reaction” of Republicans, having “hoped that a bipartisan appeal to states would be more effective.”

Naturally, Republican objections are described as “partisan squabble.”

The anonymously sourced details of meetings only attended by a handful of intelligence bureau chiefs and their inner thoughts and objectives could have only been provided by people in the uppermost echelon of the intelligence community under Obama, including Brennan, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and FBI Director James Comey.

But in the midst of their naked attempt to absolve themselves and President Obama of any blame for failing to stop the alleged Russian meddling, which was aimed at discrediting the trove of negative information WikiLeaks released about Hillary Clinton during the election and then to undermine Trump’s presidency after she lost, we learn about Crossfire Hurricane’s more-distinguished but less-discussed elder brother.

Brennan’s “Intelligence Bombshell”
According to the Post, sometime in the summer of 2016, John Brennan received,

a report drawn from sourcing deep inside the Russian government that detailed Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race.

But it went further. The intelligence captured Putin’s specific instructions on the operation’s audacious objectives—defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.

The Post is cagey about exactly when the CIA chief received this “intelligence bombshell.” All we know for sure is that it must have been in or before “early August,” since that’s when we’re told it was sent to the White House “by courier from the CIA,” in an envelope that “carried ‘eyes only’ instructions that its contents be shown to just four people: President Barack Obama and three senior aides.”

But it’s hard to believe Brennan waited very long before apprising President Obama of such vital information. In all likelihood, Brennan received the momentous intelligence report in late July or early August.

In response, presumably under instructions from and certainly with the consent of Obama, Brennan,

convened a secret task force at CIA headquarters composed of several dozen analysts and officers from the CIA, the NSA and the FBI.

The unit functioned as a sealed compartment, its work hidden from the rest of the intelligence community. Those brought in signed new non-disclosure agreements to be granted access to intelligence from all three participating agencies.

They worked exclusively for two groups of “customers,” officials said. The first was Obama and fewer than 14 senior officials in government. The second was a team of operations specialists at the CIA, NSA and FBI who took direction from the task force on where to aim their subsequent efforts to collect more intelligence on Russia.

Since Crossfire Hurricane began on July 31 and Brennan notified Obama of his intelligence on Putin in early August, the two parallel investigations must have begun at around exactly the same time.

Even apart from Brennan having chosen some of his team from the FBI, we know that James Comey was fully involved in Brennan’s investigation from its inception. According to the Post story, the evidence produced initially was evaluated by only a handful of Obama Administration officials that included Comey, Clapper, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

Moreover, it appears that Peter Strzok, who according to Lisa Page’s testimony initiated Crossfire Hurricane, also happened to be a member of the team working on Brennan’s parallel investigation. The Washington Post tells us that the Obama Administration’s January 6, 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment alleging that the Russians conducted cyber-espionage to put Trump in the White House “was based largely on the work done by” Brennan’s secret task force. This is confirmed by Clapper’s testimony to the Senate, in which he says the ICA was the result of work done by “two dozen” “hand-picked analysts” from the CIA, FBI and NSA. Apart from the Post using the words “several dozen” instead of “two dozen,” this is exactly how the paper described the team handpicked by Brennan.

But, according to investigative reporter Paul Sperry, “[a] source close to the House [of Representatives Intelligence Committee Russia] investigation” reports that “[Peter] Strzok was the intermediary between Brennan and Comey, and he was one of the authors of the ICA.”

Independent of Sperry’s source, before he was fired we know that Strzok was chief of the FBI’s counterespionage section. So it makes sense that he would be one of the FBI agents handpicked by Brennan who served as Comey’s representative. And Sperry’s source received further confirmation recently when Catherine Herridge reported on text messages between former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and Lisa Page discussing a meeting between Strzok and Clapper in the weeks before the ICA was released.

Given that (1) Comey was intimately involved in the higher-level investigation that ran concurrently with the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane operation, (2) Brennan had agents from the FBI on his team, and (3) it appears Strzok was as one of them, contra Obama Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes’ recent assertion, it becomes very hard to believe that a hard partition was kept around the FBI investigation. And the question is raised of exactly what information might have been shared and how much about the FBI investigation made its way towards President Obama.

What About the Steele Dossier?
Evidence has emerged that the Clinton campaign-funded Steele dossier was used to justify the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane investigation. And the fact that Brennan’s task force was responsible for the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment raises questions about whether portions of the Steele dossier might also have comprised the “intelligence bombshell” Brennan used to justify his investigation.

Paul Sperry also reported that Obama’s National Security Agency chief, Admiral Michael Rogers, “stated in a classified letter to Congress” that the Steele Dossier played a role in producing the January 2017 ICA. Indeed, according to Sperry, Rogers told congress “a two-page summary of the dossier” appears as an appendix to the classified version of the ICA.

As Sperry notes, Clapper appeared to confirm in an interview with CNN that Brennan’s task force made use of the Steele dossier.

But the Washington Post story also reports Rogers was “reluctant to view” the intelligence that Brennan used to justify his investigation “with high confidence” because it came from another country. The Steele dossier is, of course, named after former British spy Christopher Steele, who authored the 17 memos it comprises. According to a November 15, 2017 story in the Guardian, Brennan received the report used to justify his investigation from none other than British intelligence agency GCHQ’s then head, Robert Hannigan, who “flew to the US to personally brief CIA chief John Brennan.”

The Washington Post tells us that the “intelligence bombshell” Brennan received from Britain came from a highly-placed source within the Russian government who alleged that Putin had instigated a cyber-intelligence operation whose aim was to “defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.” As it happens, Steele’s first memo, dated June 20, alleges the existence of a Russian espionage operation to help Trump’s election bid that was “supported and directed by Russian President Vladimir Putin” based on information from a “former senior [Russian] intelligence officer.” Indeed, Steele’s August 5 memo describes this operation as designed “to aid Trump and,” using the Post’s exact words, “damage Clinton.”

Steele’s July 19 memo goes on to claim that these efforts included “state-sponsored cyber operatives working in Russia.” In short, everything the Post tells us was included in the report from British intelligence used to justify Brennan’s investigation happens to have been included in the memos Steele had already produced at the time Brennan received it.

Much attention has been paid to Crossfire Hurricane and rightly so. But it’s well past time that Congress and the Department of Justice began looking into the other higher-level shadow investigation into Russia’s alleged efforts to put Trump in the White House. Americans deserve to know what information was shared between the two efforts, if the operation directed by Brennan also involved any spying on Trump’s campaign, and whether it was justified by the utterly discredited, Clinton-funded Steele dossier.

Photo Credit: Marcelo del Pozo/Getty Images

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