It sure looks like the person in charge of the entire U.S. intelligence community is selectively releasing unverified intelligence so that the Democrats look bad ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
Worse still, the intelligence, at least in the minds of some critics, could indeed be Russian disinformation.
A letter sent Tuesday to Senator Lindsey Graham, director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe – a former Republican congressman from Texas and a firm ally of the president – disclosed information regarding the FBI's investigation into possible collusion campaign released between Russia and Donald Trump's President 2016.
Here is the gist of the revelation:
In late July 2016, US intelligence agencies gained insights into Russian intelligence analysis that alleged US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton approved a campaign plan to unleash a scandal against US presidential candidate Donald Trump by targeting Putin and the hackers Democrats got tied to National Committee. The IC does not know the veracity of this claim or the extent to which Russian intelligence analysis could reflect exaggeration or forgery.
Let's make it clear what this says: America received information that Russian spies believed Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign made links between Trump and the Kremlin, but US intelligence agencies could not confirm whether this was true because Moscow may just invented.
In other words, Ratcliffe admitted that he published material that would likely harm Clinton and the Democrats, and help Trump, without knowing its accuracy.
But it's getting worse: Recent news reports have revealed that Ratcliffe released intelligence against advice from apolitical US intelligence officials who feared it would "give credibility to the Kremlin-sponsored material," according to the Wall Street Journal.
As a DNI, of course, Ratcliffe doesn't have to listen to his subordinates. However, the coverage further suggests that Ratcliffe, who vigorously defended Trump during the impeachment negotiations as a then-member of Congress, gave Trump's political interests priority over those of the nation as a whole.
The letter went public just hours before Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden in the first 2020 presidential debate. And intentionally or intentionally, the disclosure had an immediate impact: during the debate, the President mentioned what Ratcliffe was making public. "You saw what happened to Hillary Clinton today where it was a very big scam," he said.
All of this is deeply worrying and threatens to politicize the intelligence services at a time when immaculate, clear information is of paramount importance. "He's been releasing information out of blatantly partiality, and underhandedly," said John Sipher, who led the CIA's Russia operations for a 28-year career with the agency's National Clandestine Service.
In one fell swoop, Ratcliffe could have ruined the reputation of American spy agencies. "The damage to US intelligence will be difficult to undo for years," said Alina Polyakova, president and CEO of the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington, DC.
"Among the Worst Sins of a Professional Intelligence Officer"
The perception of the intelligence community as a whole is only positive if it is viewed as a non-political entity that provides unbiased, fact-based information to policy makers.
This information is typically only presented after American intelligence has reviewed it and placed it in a broader context to help government officials – from the president down – to make informed decisions.
Trump's intelligence chief, who took the job after the impeachment hearings, broke this basic rule.
"Ratcliffe's actions are among the worst sins of a professional intelligence officer," Sipher said. “They know that any piece of information is meaningless without the necessary context. Publishing information without providing context is unprofessional and damages the reputation of our intelligence community. "
To understand why this is the case, the metaphor of a puzzle can be used here.
It's difficult to see the whole picture when looking at just one of the thousands of puzzle pieces. Once they are mostly in place, the final picture becomes clear and precise for everyone. The same is broadly true of intelligence. One piece is good, but more pieces are better. And when spies can show a policy maker the full puzzle picture, it will be easier for them to make informed decisions.
So many experts were surprised by Ratcliffe's decision. It is the job of intelligence officials to present as complete a picture as possible to their intended customers, not just hand over a single piece and say, "Let's go, make what you want out of it."
Let's go one step further: what if this unique puzzle piece isn't off the set at all? What if someone purposely slipped a piece into it that looks like it would fit, but not? The sooner this piece can be discounted and discarded as part of the actual puzzle you're trying to put together, the better.
That is what Republican and Democratic lawmakers did on the Senate Intelligence Committee. The Clinton-related nugget Ratcliffe was not mentioned at all in the panel's five-part report on Russia's interference in the 2016 elections. That's not to say that the committee didn't know about the treat or that it rejected it outright, but it clearly didn't fit the bigger picture.
This is in part why the government's critics took the Ratcliffe decision immediately.
"It is very disturbing to me that a director of national intelligence is releasing unconfirmed information from Russia 35 days before an election," Virginia Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told the New York Times.
After all, it is entirely possible that Russia wanted the US to “find” this piece of the puzzle in order to mislead American spies. Russian hackers wanted to sow discord in the US during the 2016 election, and few things would fuel tensions more than if the administration believed Clinton had developed an explosive conspiracy theory to beat Trump.
Ratcliffe defended his decision hours after the letter was published, saying in a statement that the intelligence agency he released "is not Russian disinformation and has not been rated as such by the intelligence community." He then briefed on the sources behind the clipping just for Graham – and not Democrats – Tuesday night, the Times reported.
Even if Ratcliffe is telling the truth about the intelligence community, the clearance more than shed light and provided Trump and his allies with a weapon ahead of the biggest event to date in the 2020 election season. And he did so when several US authorities said Russia was meddling again to improve the president's chances of re-election.
This is not the job of an impartial intelligence chief. This is a friend's job.
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