As President Donald Trump and his allies continue to publicly dispute the outcome of the election, they are also quietly seeking to discredit the Russia investigation that has cast a dark cloud over the administration for more than four years.
Before Election Day, senior career intelligence officials and congressional Democrats braced for Trump’s handpicked director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, to release highly classified documents related to the FBI’s Russia probe, which they feared would expose critical sources and methods.
Those concerns roared back this week in the wake of a flurry of personnel changes at the National Security Agency – and the Pentagon – as Trump installed political loyalists in key positions where they could help turn the tide in the behind-the-scenes battle over declassifying documents, which has raged for weeks.
Trump believes the documents in question will undermine the intelligence community’s unanimous finding that Russia interfered in the 2016 race to help him win, by exposing so-called “deep state” plots against his campaign and transition during the Obama administration, according to multiple current and former officials.
But CIA and National Security Agency career officials have strenuously objected to releasing certain information from the Russia interference assessment, arguing that it would seriously damage sources and methods in a way that the intelligence community doesn’t believe can be easily repaired.
Both agencies have also cited concerns about cherry-picking information to release and the politicization of their work as they fight against Ratcliffe’s recent efforts to satisfy Trump’s promises to declassify thousands of pages of documents.
Multiple sources familiar with the classified materials have downplayed the significance of these documents, telling CNN the administration won’t make political hay by releasing them despite the President’s fixation.
While Ratcliffe and former acting DNI Richard Grenell have sought to declassify documents related to the Russia probe and Hillary Clinton’s emails, CIA Director Gina Haspel and National Security Agency chief Gen. Paul Nakasone have fought those moves.
Several batches of documents have been declassified, including the release of unverified Russian intelligence from 2016 that suggested Clinton’s presidential campaign was trying to tie Trump to Russia. Trump and his allies have seized on the documents to attack the Obama administration – and President-elect Joe Biden – during the 2020 campaign.
The National Security Agency and the CIA have repeatedly opposed Ratcliffe’s declassification of the unverified intelligence.
Behind the scenes, Haspel has defended the work of career officials who have come under criticism from Trump and allies over 2016-era intelligence work behind the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 US election.
Haspel’s job in jeopardy while Trump elevates loyalists
The standoff has led the President to become increasingly frustrated with Haspel, in particular, who he blames for delaying the release of these documents despite the fact that he and Ratcliffe have the authority to declassify the additional intelligence at their own discretion. At the end of the day, if Trump wanted these documents declassified, he could do it himself.
A senior administration official and three former administration officials with knowledge of the situation told CNN they expect the President to fire his CIA director, as he did Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, have attempted to protect Haspel from Trump’s wrath in recent days, providing public displays of support for the CIA director amid speculation of her possible ouster.
Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas voiced his support for Haspel in a tweet Tuesday, saying: “Intelligence should not be partisan. Not about manipulation, it is about preserving impartial, nonpartisan information necessary to inform policy makers and so the can protect the US.”
The post prompted immediate backlash from the President’s son Donald Trump Jr, who called Haspel a “trained liar.”
“Have you or @marcorubio or @senatemajldr actually discussed this with anyone in the Admin. who actually works with her, like @DNI_Ratcliffe or @MarkMeadows or @robertcobrien, to get their perspective, or are you just taking a trained liar’s word for it on everything?” he tweeted, tagging McConnell and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who serves as acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
While Haspel’s immediate future as CIA director remains uncertain, Trump moved several political allies into new roles at the Pentagon and National Security Agency this week – placing them in career positions, which come with civil service protections. They could also have an immediate impact on the release of classified documents.
Michael Ellis, an official on the National Security Council, shifted over to the National Security Agency as legal counsel, which puts him in a civil servant role at an agency at the forefront of the declassification dispute.
Ellis is widely considered to be a partisan Trump loyalist and has little intelligence experience despite being elevated to the job of the White House’s top national security lawyer under the President.
He was part of several White House controversies, including overruling career officials over classified information in the book written by former national security adviser John Bolton.
CNN has previously reported that Ellis came under scrutiny for his alleged roundabout role in providing information to GOP Rep. Devin Nunes of California, then-chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, which showed members of Trump’s team were included in foreign surveillance reports collected by US intelligence.
Another former Nunes aide, Kash Patel, will become chief of staff to acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller, according to an administration official and a US defense official.
The House impeachment inquiry uncovered evidence connecting Patel to the diplomatic back channel led by Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, and the efforts to spread conspiracy theories about Biden and coerce Ukraine into announcing an investigation of the former vice president.
A third Trump loyalist with ties to Nunes, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, was also elevated to a senior role at the Pentagon this week.
Cohen-Watnick gained notoriety in March 2017 for his alleged involvement with Ellis in providing intelligence materials to Nunes, who went on to claim that US intelligence officials improperly surveilled Trump associates.
In his new post as the Pentagon’s acting under secretary for intelligence, Cohen-Watnick could find himself at odds with Nakasone, a military officer, if he pushes for additional classified materials to be released.
While it remains to be seen if Trump will ultimately fire Haspel, the elevation of officials like Ellis and Patel has raised concerns that the President is clearing the way to release documents despite previous objections from intelligence leaders.
“The motives of his recent moves at DoD and NSA remain unclear and are of course speculative, although the partisan personnel he put in place certainly suggest that he is stacking the deck, ultimately to win the fight over further declassification of intel related to the 2016 Russian investigation,” Marc Polymeropoulos, a former CIA officer who oversaw operations in Europe and Russia before retiring last summer, told CNN.
“If he did the same at CIA, install a new hyper-partisan director who would agree to further declassification efforts, it would not only expose and compromise highly classified sources and methods, but also taint the agency in the eyes of our international partners. Simply put, that puts America at great risk,” he added.
House Republicans leading campaign to declassify secret documents
Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee have also pushed the narrative that Haspel is personally preventing certain documents from being released.
Nunes, the panel’s top Republican, repeatedly made that claim on Lou Dobbs’ Fox Business program last month, while alleging that the “intelligence services in this country have been corrupted by the Democratic national party and their propaganda arm in the media.”
Some of the additional intelligence Nunes wants released comes from classified documents based on a report compiled by Republicans on the committee he chaired in 2018, according to a source familiar with the materials.
The House Republican report on the Russia investigation disputes the intelligence community’s finding that Russia was trying to help Trump in the 2016 campaign, raising issues about the tradecraft behind the intelligence assessment.
The Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee, however, confirmed the intelligence community’s assessment in its bipartisan investigation into Russia’s 2016 election interference.
Current and former officials have maintained that if there were something revelatory in the documents that remain classified, it would have been included in either the unclassified House or Senate reports and in a way that did not compromise sources and methods.
Yet House Republicans and Trump still believe the information in these secret documents will help validate their criticism of the CIA and FBI’s handling of the probe – raising more questions about whether this is just an attempt to cherry-pick intelligence.
Either way, the documents are so sensitive that they remain under lock and key at CIA headquarters in Langley, according to a source familiar with the matter. House Republicans on the Intelligence Committee stored the materials in a lockbox, which this source compared to a gun safe. The lockbox was then placed in a CIA vault – prompting some officials to characterize it as a “turducken” or a “safe within a safe.” The New York Times first reported on the “turducken.”
Republicans on the House panel have long accused the CIA of blocking access to the documents and have encouraged Ratcliffe to declassify the materials despite objections by the CIA and the the National Security Agency, multiple sources told CNN.
In a letter sent to the intelligence community’s inspector general last month, Ratcliffe said he has asked that the documents undergo a formal declassification review at the request of Nunes but also has asked the watchdog to review whether the 2017 intelligence community assessment on Russian interference “adhered to proper analytical tradecraft.”
At the same time, Republicans on the Senate Homeland Security Committee have accused Haspel of stonewalling their oversight efforts by refusing to produce CIA documents that were requested as part of the panel’s own review of the Russia probe.
CNN’s Jeremy Herb contributed to this report.