July 3rd, 2020

On Media

Latest Trump 'scandal' may not be what some media are claiming

Erik Wemple

By Erik Wemple The Washington Post

Published Sept. 11, 2019

 Latest Trump 'scandal' may not be what some media are claiming
CNN spent a good chunk of Monday touting its exclusive story by chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto: that the United States in 2017 had pulled out "one of its highest-level covert sources inside the Russian government." It was known as an extraction or an exfiltration.

But this was more than a story about spy tradecraft. The second paragraph of Sciutto's scoop filled in the political context: "A person directly involved in the discussions said that the removal of the Russian was driven, in part, by concerns that President Donald Trump and his administration repeatedly mishandled classified intelligence and could contribute to exposing the covert source as a spy."

By Sciutto's account, the decision to extract the source took place "soon after" a scandalous May 2017 Oval Office meeting in which Trump discussed classified information with two high-ranking Russian officials.

Tweets and takes flowed therefrom. "A shocking CNN scoop confirms: Officials are defending our country from Trump," noted a colleague here at The Washington Post.

Then the New York Times challenged the connection between the exfiltration and Trump's careless work with classified information:

"The decision to extract the informant was driven 'in part' because of concerns that Mr. Trump and his administration had mishandled delicate intelligence, CNN reported. 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 U.S. government itself prompted media speculation about its sources, considering that a public January 2017 document concluded nakedly, "We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election." How did it know?

Reporting by The Post supports the New York Times' version of events, namely that Trump's May 2017 misstep with Russian officials "was not the reason for the decision to remove the CIA asset."

One detail in the New York Times account provides crucial information about the timeline for the handling of the asset:

"C.I.A. officials worried about safety made the arduous decision in late 2016 to offer to extract the source from Russia. The situation grew more tense when the informant at first refused, citing family concerns - prompting consternation at C.I.A. headquarters and sowing doubts among some American counterintelligence officials about the informant's trustworthiness. But the C.I.A. pressed again months later after more media inquiries. This time, the informant agreed."

Trump wasn't president in 2016, of course. So the initial decision on extraction couldn't have related to his presidential carelessness with classified information. CNN's initial story made no mention of the 2016 extraction offer. It did, however, note that Obama administration officials were worried about exposure: "At the end of the Obama administration, U.S. intelligence officials had already expressed concerns about the safety of this spy and other Russian assets, given the length of their cooperation with the U.S., according to a former senior intelligence official."

To sum up: There was an unsuccessful extraction offer in late 2016, followed by months of Trumpian turmoil and media activity, followed, in turn, by a successful extraction. It's plausible that concerns about Trump fed into that second extraction offer, even if they couldn't have been present for the initial one. It's also plausible that concerns about media speculation alone drove the decision.

These first drafts of history, however, will produce nothing definitive on this front. Remember: We're talking here about the motivations of the intelligence bureaucracy. Even for transparent institutions, motivations are tricky things to suss out. They're murky, mushy. They're even harder to nail down when we're talking about the most sensitive operations in U.S. intelligence.

"The informant's information was so delicate, and the need to protect the source's identity so important, that the C.I.A. director at the time, John O. Brennan, kept information from the operative out of President Barack Obama's daily brief in 2016," noted the New York Times.

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Erik Wemple is a media critic at The Washington Post.


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