On Monday CNN reported that the CIA had to remove a top spy from Russia in 2017 partly because President Trump’s alleged mishandling of classified intelligence could have exposed the spy.
But a subsequent New York Times story severely undercut the CNN narrative, reporting that the longtime Kremlin asset was extracted out of concern that media reports would put him at risk.
The CIA and Sec. of State Mike Pompeo strongly disputed CNN’s version of events Monday and Tuesday, calling the story “inaccurate.”
CNN national security correspondent (and former Obama official) Jim Sciutto reported that the Russian source was removed right after Trump discussed highly classified intelligence with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and then-Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak in the Oval Office in May 2017.
According to CNN, U.S. officials worried that Trump and some in his administration would somehow reveal details about intelligence operations.
At the time, then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo told other senior Trump administration officials that too much information was coming out regarding the covert source, known as an asset. An extraction, or “exfiltration” as such an operation is referred to by intelligence officials, is an extraordinary remedy when US intelligence believes an asset is in immediate danger.The source was considered the highest level source for the US inside the Kremlin, high up in the national security infrastructure, according to the source familiar with the matter and a former senior intelligence official.
But according to the Times, the CIA first offered to remove the mole in 2016, before Trump even took office.
The individual reportedly rejected the initial offer for exfiltration, but ultimately agreed to leave Russia in 2017, after the CIA raised concerns about increased media interest in sources used by the U.S. intelligence community to conclude that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
“The news reporting in the spring and summer of 2017 convinced United States government officials that they had to update and revive their extraction plan,” the Times reported based on interviews with people familiar the matter.
“But former intelligence officials said there was no public evidence that Mr. Trump directly endangered the source, and other current American officials insisted that media scrutiny of the agency’s sources alone was the impetus for the extraction,” the Times story notes.
The Daily Caller’s Chuck Ross pointed out that there were several news reports in 2016 and 2017 that referred to a covert source who provided information about Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election.
NBC News reported on Dec. 14, 2016 that Russian assets provided intelligence that Vladimir Putin directed the efforts to hack Democrats.
The day after the report, then-FBI counterintelligence official Peter Strzok wrote in a text message that he believed other U.S. agencies had leaked information for political reasons.
“Think our sisters have begun leaking like mad. Scorned and worried and political, they’re kicking in to overdrive,” Strzok wrote.
The Washington Post also published a story referring to the source in June of 2017.
The asset, according to the Times, was recruited by the CIA decades ago, and ended up as a mid-level government official with access to the Kremlin. Although he was reportedly not in President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, the source allegedly saw the Russian president regularly.
The CIA put out an official statement on Tuesday, slamming CNN’s “misguided” and “inaccurate” narrative.
“CNN’s narrative that the Central Intelligence Agency makes life-or-death decisions based on anything other than objective analysis and sound collection is simply false,” CIA Director for Public Affairs Brittany Bramell said in the agency’s statement.
Bramwell continued: “Misguided speculation that the President’s handling of our nation’s most sensitive intelligence — which he has access to each and every day — drove an alleged exfiltration operation is inaccurate.”
When asked about the story during a news briefing Tuesday, Pompeo agreed, saying the reporting was “materially inaccurate.”
“As the former CIA director, I don’t talk about things like this very often. It is only the occasions when there’s something that I think puts people at risk, or the reporting is so egregious as to create enormous risk to the United States of America that I even comment in the way that I just did,” he said. “Suffice to say the reporting there is factually wrong.”