Yet another violation of norms by the 45th President.
There is considerable hand-wringing over President Trump’s giving his Attorney General the power to selectively release intelligence documents relating to the Russia investigation.
WaPo’s Shane Harris:
President Trump’s new executive order giving the attorney general broad authority to declassify government secrets threatens to expose U.S. intelligence sources and could distort the FBI and CIA’s roles in investigating Russian interference in the 2016 elections, current and former U.S. officials said.
On Thursday, Trump allowed Attorney General William P. Barr to declassify information he finds during his review of what the White House called “surveillance activities during the 2016 Presidential election.”
Trump has long complained that the U.S. government engaged in illegal “spying” on his campaign, alleging without evidence that his phones were tapped and that American officials conspired with British counterparts in an effort to undermine his bid for the White House.
It appeared unprecedented to give an official who is not in charge of an intelligence agency the power to reveal its secrets. Current and former intelligence officials said they were concerned that Barr could selectively declassify information that paints the intelligence agencies and the FBI in a bad light without giving a complete picture of their efforts in 2016.
Officials are also concerned about the possible compromise of intelligence sources, including those deep inside the Russian government.
Ordinarily, any review of intelligence activities would be done by the Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats. But in giving that authority to Barr, the president has turned to someone he perceives as a loyalist and who has already said that he thinks the government spied on the Trump campaign.
“This is a complete slap in the face to the director of national intelligence,” said James Baker, the former FBI general counsel. “So why is the attorney general doing the investigation? Probably because the president trusts the attorney general more,” said Baker, now a director at the R Street Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.
Trump has never considered Coats a close or effective adviser, and earlier this year administration officials said they thought the president might fire him.
Michael Morell, a former CIA deputy director, called it “potentially dangerous” to let Barr decide what to declassify, because “the DNI is in the best position to judge the damage to intelligence sources and methods.”
“This is yet another destruction of norms that weakens our intelligence community,” said Morell, now the host of the Intelligence Matters podcast. “It is yet another step that will raise questions among our allies and partners about whether to share sensitive intelligence with us.”—“Barr could expose secrets, politicize intelligence with review of Russia probe, current and former officials fear”
Trump told reporters Friday that the Russia probe was “an attempted coup or an attempted takedown of the president of the United States.” He said he hoped Barr would investigate several foreign countries, including two of the United States’ closest allies.
Julian E. Barnes and David E. Sanger of the NYT add:
President Trump’s order allowing Attorney General William P. Barr to declassify any intelligence that led to the Russia investigation sets up a potential confrontation with the C.I.A. It effectively strips the agency of its most critical power: choosing which secrets it shares and which ones remain hidden.
Mr. Trump said on Friday that he wanted Mr. Barr to “get to the bottom” of what the intelligence agencies knew about the investigation into his campaign. He promised, “We’re exposing everything.”
The president raised questions about C.I.A. involvement in the origins of the Russia investigation, and other officials said Mr. Barr wanted to learn more about sources in Russia, including a key informant who helped the C.I.A. conclude that President Vladimir V. Putin ordered the intrusion on the 2016 election. Mr. Trump also invoked two close allies, Australia and Britain, telling reporters he wanted the attorney general to examine their roles in sharing intelligence about Russia’s interference.
The declassification order served as Mr. Trump’s counterpunch to the special counsel’s investigation. Since the release of the Mueller report, the president has been trying to focus attention on his accusations that the F.B.I. and intelligence agencies spied on his campaign. The new order, former officials said, could be intended to give more ammunition to that effort.
The intelligence agencies signaled on Friday that they would not easily give up their secrets. Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, pledged to cooperate with the review but also warned that the secrets of the intelligence community, or I.C., must be protected.
“I am confident that the attorney general will work with the I.C. in accordance with the long-established standards to protect highly sensitive classified information that, if publicly released, would put our national security at risk,” Mr. Coats said in a statement.
Though the ultimate power to declassify documents rests with the president, Mr. Trump’s delegation of that power to Mr. Barr effectively stripped Mr. Coats and the C.I.A. of control of their secrets. The move could endanger the agencies’ ability to keep the identities of their sources secret, former intelligence officials said.
Mr. Coats and Gina Haspel, the C.I.A. director, will fight hard to ensure that their most valuable secrets — the identities of sources — are protected, former officials have said. Ms. Haspel has been described as a fierce political infighter, but she has also been careful to cultivate a strong working relationship with Mr. Barr, former officials said.
Traditionally, the C.I.A. has been effective at intramural governmental fights, in large measure because its power comes from its information and its closely guarded secrets. By taking that power from the intelligence agencies, Mr. Trump and Mr. Barr may have weakened the C.I.A.
The intelligence agencies already have a degree of unease over the Justice Department’s ability to keep the identity of sources secret. The name of the F.B.I. informant involved in the initial investigation of the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia was inadvertently made public.
“If you compromise agents, lives can be lost. That is why this is so sensitive,” Senator Angus King, the Maine independent who is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in an interview. “It is important to be exceedingly careful in this area. That is my only concern, and I hope Mr. Barr realizes that.”—“Potential Clash Over Secrets Looms Between Justice Dept. and C.I.A.”
I prefer Harris’ framing here. Indeed, if the question is merely whether the President or the CIA should decide which information remains secret, I would under ordinary circumstances say “The President, of course.”
In this case, however, we have a President who has repeatedly demonstrated that his only value is self-interest and an Attorney General who has made it clear he believes his only duty is to protect the President and that, in any case, the President is above the law. That rather changes the equation.
I have no doubt that the FBI and/or CIA investigated Russian interference in the 2016 election and any possible coordination with the Trump campaign. Indeed, we were repeatedly told during the campaign that multiple US intelligence agencies were sure Russia was illegally interfering, including by hacking into the computer systems of various Democratic operatives and leaking embarrassing information.
I’m not sure what the President hopes to gain by this investigation. Or why said investigation wasn’t launched two-plus years ago when the information was fresher and more salient.
Do I trust that Barr will oversee a fair investigation? Sadly, no.
Do I trust that he will do everything in his power to avoid compromising sources and methods? Sadly, no.
Do I think people are likely to get killed? Probably not.
Are our allies going to be as likely to trust us with their secrets? Definitely not.