Former CIA director John Brennan on Tuesday accused current intelligence chief John Ratcliffe of selectively declassifying documents ahead of the November election that benefit President Donald Trump, telling CNN that the decision to release materials gathered by the agency on Russian allegations that Hillary Clinton was planning on “stirring up a scandal” against her Republican rival in 2016 was motivated by politics.
In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Brennan responded to Ratcliffe’s recent decision to declassify notes written by the former CIA director in 2016 after he briefed then-President Barack Obama on intelligence related to Russian security service reporting that Clinton approved “a proposal from one of her foreign policy advisers to vilify Donald Trump by stirring up a scandal claiming interference by the Russian security service.”
“John Ratcliffe is anything but an intelligence professional. It is appalling his selective declassification of information. It is designed to advance the political interests of Donald Trump and Republicans who are aligned with him,” Brennan said of the director of national intelligence.
“These were my notes from the 2016 period when I briefed President Obama and the rest of the national security council team about what the Russians were up to and I was giving examples of the type of access that the US intelligence community had to Russian information and what the Russians were talking about and alleging,” he added.
The former CIA director also pushed back on Ratcliffe’s declassification of a heavily redacted CIA memo related to the investigative referral forwarded to the FBI at the time. The memo notes that the Russians allege Clinton’s effort to stir up a scandal was “a means of distracting the public from her use of a private email server.”
“If, in fact, what the Russians were alleging that Hillary was trying to highlight the reported connections between Trump and the Russians, if that was accurate and a big if, there is nothing at all illegal about that,” Brennan said.
“John Ratcliffe and others are trying to portray this as unlawful activity that deserves follow-up investigation by the FBI. No. It was a campaign activity,” he added.
Allies of the President have seized on the documents declassified by Ratcliffe, including the release of Brennan’s notes and the CIA memo, as evidence the FBI should investigate unfounded claims that Clinton committed crimes during the 2016 campaign.
They have also cited the documents in an attempt to further undermine the intelligence community’s unanimous assessment that Russia interfered in 2016 to help Trump ahead of the 2020 election – claiming, without proof, that Clinton sought to manufacture a scandal to hurt Trump.
On Tuesday, CNN confirmed that Ratcliffe declassified Brennan’s notes and the intelligence memo – a decision that comes one week after he released a letter outlining the claims about Clinton coming from Russian intelligence services.
Brennan’s notes and the CIA memo were handed over to the Senate and House intelligence committees, a democratic congressional source and Ratcliffe’s office confirmed to CNN after it was first reported Tuesday by Fox News.
In a statement to CNN, Ratcliffe said he declassified the documents at “the direction of President Trump.”
“Today, at the direction of President Trump, I declassified additional documents relevant to ongoing Congressional oversight and investigative activities,” it said.
Late night Trump tweets
Trump on Tuesday evening tweeted about the Russia investigation, vowing to declassify all related materials and documents “pertaining to the single greatest political CRIME in American History, the Russia Hoax. Likewise, the Hillary Clinton Email Scandal.”
That message came during a Twitter spree attacking former FBI Director James Comey, former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, former special counsel Robert Mueller and the FBI, where Trump said he will declassify the documents with “no redactions.” Trump was quote-tweeting Paul Sperry, a conservative journalist and fellow at the Hoover institution, who wrote that if the documents were declassified, it would show that “the FBI and CIA not only knew the Russia ‘collusion’ allegations against Trump were a political dirty trick, but that they were in on the trick.”
Yet in a later tweet, Trump said he already had declassified all the relevant intelligence – but it was unclear what he was referring to beyond the documents released by Ratcliffe in recent days.
The White House and Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to clarify the meaning of Trump’s tweets.
However, a source familiar with the situation told CNN that Ratcliffe understands the President expects him to take on a new sense of urgency when it comes to releasing additional Russia-related materials and cooperating with US Attorney John Durham’s investigation into the FBI’s handling of the Russia investigation, a message Trump has conveyed both publicly and in private.
The declassified releases from Ratcliffe and Attorney General William Barr have been frequently touted by Trump and his campaign, serving as fodder for conservatives who are frustrated that more hasn’t come from Durham’s probe, which is not expected to conclude before the election, according to sources and Barr’s own comments.
That means that unless Barr can issue an interim report from Durham, a highly unusual move for an ongoing investigation, the recourse to make public some of the information that has been part of the Durham review is to turn it over to congressional Republicans who are eager to release it before the election.
On Wednesday, Ratcliffe took a step toward expediting the intelligence community’s cooperation with Durham’s investigation, providing “almost 1,000 pages of materials to the Department of Justice in response to Durham’s document requests,” according to a statement from the DNI, confirming news first reported by Axios.
“I will continue to ensure the Intelligence Community’s responsiveness to the DOJ’s requests. We also look forward to supporting the DOJ in further declassifications consistent with their investigation. As the President has made clear, we must be appropriately transparent with the American people and give them the confidence that the extraordinary work of Intelligence professionals is never misused or politicized,” Ratcliffe said in the statement.
Yet the timing of his declassifications and decision to make the nearly 1,000 pages of materials available to the Justice Department in relation to Durham’s probe have prompted criticism from former intelligence officials, who are accusing Trump’s intelligence chief of cherry-picking information that is politically beneficial to the President ahead of the election.
Brennan emphasized that point on Tuesday, telling CNN that the memo declassified by Ratcliffe, which he characterized as a Counterintelligence Operational Lead (CIOL), is just one of several documents that were sent to the FBI related to Russian activity during the 2016 race.
“There are a lot of other CIOLs that talk about the contacts that were taking place between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russians. So he might want to think about trying to balance some of these releases by providing information to the American public about what the intelligence community had unearthed during this period of time about Russia’s interactions with those involved in the Trump campaign,” he said.
Last week, CNN reported that Ratcliffe declassified unverified Russian intelligence despite concerns being raised by the CIA and National Security Agency, according to people briefed on the matter.
Career officials in the intelligence agencies were concerned about declassifying the information because it was unverified and they believed it could reveal sources and methods. Ratcliffe overrode those concerns and sent the document to Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, the people said.
That declassified document, which includes a Russian intelligence assessment from 2016 that Hillary Clinton had approved a campaign plan to “stir up a scandal” against then-candidate Trump by tying him to Russia and the hack of the Democratic National Committee, has sparked charges from Democrats and former intelligence officials that Ratcliffe was politicizing intelligence and sharing Russian disinformation.
It was the latest in a string of declassified documents Ratcliffe and Barr have provided to Senate Republicans and others targeting the FBI’s Russia investigation ahead of the November election.
Ratcliffe noted in the summary he provided to Graham that the intelligence community “does not know the accuracy of this allegation or the extent to which the Russian intelligence analysis may reflect exaggeration or fabrication.”
Ratcliffe later issued a clarifying statement that the information “is not Russian disinformation.” But multiple intelligence and law enforcement officials say the possibility that it is disinformation hasn’t been ruled out by the intelligence agencies.
CNN’s Evan Perez and Jeremy Herb contributed reporting