President Trump's last days in office offer a final opportunity to declassify critical information on the Russia investigation that engulfed his lone term.
Already voluminous public records – including investigative reports from Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Congress and the Justice Department’s inspector general – have established that Trump and his associates were targeted with a baseless Russian collusion allegation. The fraudulent claim originated with the Hillary Clinton campaign, was fueled by a torrent of false or deceptive intelligence leaks, and was improperly investigated by the FBI, potentially to the point of being criminal. Despite these disclosures, key questions remain about the origins and the spread of the conspiracy theory. And with a Biden administration set to take office and Democrats taking control of both chambers of Congress, there are no guarantees that the ongoing probe of Special Counsel John Durham will fill in the remaining gaps.
Both the CIA and FBI have been slow to produce much material that Trump reportedly wants declassified. They argue that disclosure would reveal sources and methods vital to national security. Such claims arouse skepticism because they have been used in the past to cover up malfeasance – as the public learned when deceptive FISA warrant applications used to spy on Trump campaign adviser Carter Page were finally released.
Before he leaves office on Jan. 20, Trump could use his declassification authority to help clear up some of the following critical issues of the Russiagate saga:
What we were told: The FBI says it opened its Trump-Russia investigation on July 31, 2016 after learning of a potential offer of Russian assistance to junior Trump campaign volunteer George Papadopoulos. It later emerged that the offer came from a Maltese academic named Joseph Mifsud, whom US officials have suggested was acting as a Russian cutout.
What we learned: When the FBI document that opened the Crossfire Hurricane probe was finally disclosed by the DOJ Inspector General in December 2019, it turned out that the FBI’s tip was vague hearsay drawn from a London barroom chat. Australian diplomat Alexander Downer reported that Papadopoulos "suggested" that the Trump team had received "some of kind of suggestion from Russia" of possible help to the campaign "with the anonymous release of information." The FBI document acknowledged that the nature of this "suggestion" was "unclear," and that this possible Russian help could entail "material acquired publicly" – as opposed to hacked emails.
After Mifsud was identified as the man Papadopoulos allegedly spoke with, Mueller’s team depicted him as having extensive and suspect contacts with Russia. This portrayal erased the fact that Mifsud's closest public ties had been to Western governments, politicians, and institutions, including the CIA, FBI and British intelligence services. Despite Mifsud’s central role in the investigation, the FBI conducted only one brief interview with him in the lobby of a Washington, DC, hotel in February 2017. The Mueller team later claimed that Mifsud gave false statements to FBI agents yet, conspicuously, did not indict him for lying. The FBI's notes on the interview, released to the public only this past August, show that Mifsud denied having any advance knowledge of Russian hacking and that FBI agents did not press him. There is little evidence that the FBI aggressively investigated him.
Possible revelations to come: Any proof that Mifsud worked as a Russian agent. And given his central role, why didn’t the FBI grill him about his sources, methods and contacts during their brief interview? What instructions, if any, were given to the agents who spoke with him? And by whom? And what other efforts, if any, were made to surveil him?
Mifsud has gone into hiding since early 2018, reportedly in Italy. There have been reports that Mifsud has provided an audio deposition to the Durham inquiry, and that Attorney General William Barr even personally obtained his cell phones during a September 2019 trip to Rome. But all of the rumors and speculation only underscore the lack of concrete information about such a pivotal figure in the Trump-Russia saga.
What we were told: A highly placed Kremlin mole was the main source of the core claim in CIA Director John Brennan’s hastily produced 2017 "Intelligence Community Assessment" (ICA) that Russian President Vladimir Putin intervened in the 2016 election to help defeat Clinton and support Trump.
What we have learned: The ICA’s claim was widely portrayed as the consensus view of US spy agencies, but in reality it was the conclusion drawn by a small group of CIA analysts, closely managed by-then Director Brennan. Paul Sperry of RealClearInvestigations revealed that Brennan personally overruled two senior analysts who disagreed with it.
Current CIA Director Gina Haspel is said to be resisting any effort to shed light on the assessment or the mole, claiming that it would threaten sources and methods. Yet multiple outlets have already outed the mole, Oleg Smolenkov, and the circumstances of his exit from Russia in June 2017. What’s more, this supposed betrayer of the Kremlin's secrets was found to be living under his own name in a Virginia suburb.
According to the New York Times, Smolenkov's extraction from Russia was spurred by a series of leaks. The first leaks began in late 2016, when "the news media picked up on details about the C.I.A.’s Kremlin sources." This disclosure led CIA officials to become concerned about Smolenkov's safety, and to offer to remove him from Russia. When he refused, intelligence officials developed "doubts" about "the informant’s trustworthiness." In June 2017, another leak appeared in the Washington Post, which reported that the CIA had learned about Putin's supposed interference campaign "from sourcing deep inside the Russian government" – a Kremlin mole. According to the Times, it was only after this mid-2017 "news reporting" that Smolenkov finally agreed to flee.
Possible revelations to come: More information on Smolenkov – specifically what did he relay to the CIA about Putin’s intentions? Were his reports based on firsthand accounts and documents, or hearsay? What, if anything, did the CIA do to confirm his information? This would allow the American public to decide for itself if his explosive assertions were reliable. Although it is usually paramount to preserve the identity of informants, U.S. intelligence leaks have already done so much to help expose him and, in the process, raise doubts about his credibility. It is thus unclear what sensitive information, if any, there is left to protect.
Establishing the credibility or lack thereof of Smolenkov's supposed intelligence is crucial because the sourcing of another foundational source of the Russiagate hoax, the Steele dossier, has already been discredited.
What we were told: After the FBI's collusion probe got underway in July 2016, it did not rely on the Steele dossier, a series of opposition research memos prepared by former a British intelligence officer Christopher Steele for investigative leads and even source material. In his testimony to Congress in July 2019, Special Counsel Robert Mueller claimed that the dossier was "outside my purview."
What we learned: The FBI extensively relied on the Steele dossier, most egregiously to obtain a surveillance warrant on Trump campaign volunteer Carter Page. In this warrant, the FBI listed Steele as "Source #1" and described him as "credible." The FBI also concealed that the Steele dossier was funded by the Clinton campaign. For its final two renewals, the FBI also hid that Steele's so-called "Primary Subsource," Igor Danchenko, had personally informed the FBI in January 2017 that "corroboration" for the Steele dossier's claims was "zero."
According to the December 2019 report from DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz, the FBI was so eager to enlist Steele for further intelligence gathering that it offered to pay him $15,000 "just for attending" an October 2016 meeting in Rome. Remarkably, the FBI did not just rely on Steele's "intelligence," but even shared its own classified information with Steele, including, Horowitz found, that it was eyeing Papadopoulos.
Possible revelations to come: More evidence, suggested in recently declassified documents, that the Steele material played a bigger role in the Mueller investigation than previously known. Notes from an FBI meeting with Steele in October 2017 show that agents assured him that his team's "information would be going straight to Mueller" and that only "only a small group of people knew" of the ongoing FBI-Steele contacts, "including Mueller." An FBI 302 interview form also shows that Mueller team members asked former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort about the Steele dossier claims relating to him.
These disclosures are directly at odds with Mueller's July 2019 claim that the Steele dossier was "outside my purview." Further declassification could shed additional light on whether Mueller's disavowal of Steele aligns with the conduct of his investigators.
The FBI's disclosure of classified information to Steele is reportedly now a focus of Durham's criminal inquiry into how intelligence officials handled the Trump-Russia probe.
What we were told: In June 2016, CrowdStrike, a private company, first accused Russian government hackers of infiltrating the Democratic National Committee's servers. This assessment was presented as direct evidence of Russian interference in the presidential election and was later endorsed by the FBI and Mueller’s team.
What we learned: Just as with Steele and his "sub-source," CrowdStrike's highly consequential allegation has been contradicted by subsequent disclosures years after the fact. Like Steele, CrowdStrike was a Democratic Party contractor whose version of events dovetailed with the Clinton’s campaign’s apparent desire to muddy Trump with Russia connections. While the DNC allowed CrowdStrike to perform a forensic analysis of its servers, it refused to allow the FBI to examine them directly, providing only copies. In another stunning admission, U.S. prosecutors told a court in June 2019 that CrowdStrike had submitted its reports to the government in draft, redacted form. Last May, the House Intelligence Committee released a transcript of 2017 testimony given by CrowdStrike CEO Shawn Henry, who said the firm "did not have concrete evidence" that Russian hackers removed any data, including private emails from the DNC servers. "There's circumstantial evidence, but no evidence that they were actually exfiltrated," Henry said.
Possible revelations to come: The draft Crowdstrike reports that detailed the basis for its hacking attribution to Russia would indicate whether the FBI and Mueller’s team were on solid ground in asserting Russia hacked the DNC and stole its emails.
In addition, documents relating to the FBI and Mueller team’s analysis of the CrowdStrike reports and other evidence suggesting Russian hacking could shed light on recent reveleations that law enforcement may have spread unconfirmed or dubious information about the hack. In his book about the Russia probe, “True Crimes and Misdemeanors,” which relies on the recollection of several members of Mueller's team, Jeffrey Toobin reports that in January 2017, the FBI was still "trying to determine who, precisely, was behind the hacking of the DNC and Podesta emails."
At the same time, the bureau was proclaiming that a Russian intelligence agency, the GRU, was behind the attack.
Toobin adds another clue that US intelligence officials had less proof than they let on. The evidence for the DNC email hack, Toobin writes, "came into the special counsel’s office as a great, undifferentiated mass of material." Toobin reports that the evidence was contained in "[t]exts and emails (many of them in Russian) as well as technical data" that "challenged the understanding of even the most assiduous student." Yet if it was that messy and complex, how could the CIA have turned it into a finalized intelligence product – the January 2017 ICA – that accused Russia with confident certainty?
Moreover, although technical data would be a likely source of evidence, how plausible is it that proof of Russian hacking guilt was contained in "texts and emails"? If the Russian hacking operation was an elaborate feat of espionage, as it has been widely portrayed, it would seem unlikely that operatives would be documenting it in text messages and email chains. If the government possesses such smoking-gun communications Trump should order their release.
Finally, John Demers, the head of the Justice Department's National Security Division, which oversees the GRU hacking case, has openly acknowledged that it is based on non-classified evidence. "That really happened," Demers told CBS News in November 2019. "And we believe that if we had to we could prove that in court tomorrow using only admissible, non-classified evidence to 12 jurors."
Given the importance of the hacking allegation, and if its evidence is non-classified, why shouldn’t Trump direct the U.S. intelligence community to release all of it?
What we were told: The January 2017 ICA assessed "with high confidence" that the GRU "used the Guccifer 2.0 persona" to release the stolen DNC files. In its July 2018 indictment of GRU officers, the Mueller team also strongly suggested that Guccifer transferred the stolen DNC emails to WikiLeaks.
What we learned: The special counsel's final report, issued in March 2019, quietly acknowledged that it "cannot rule out that stolen documents were transferred to WikiLeaks through intermediaries" – an admission that it has no hard evidence that Guccifer 2.0 was WikiLeaks' source. It does not identify who those intermediaries might have been. Also missing from Mueller's account is the evidence used to identify Guccifer 2.0 as a Russian intelligence front. Furthermore, while WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange announced that he had "emails related to Hillary Clinton which are pending publication" on June 12, 2016, Mueller reports that Guccifer 2.0's "first contact" with WikiLeaks did not occur until June 22. Thus, Mueller's timeline asserts that Assange announced his possession of the emails before he even communicated with the Russian intelligence cutout that supposedly provided them. And while Assange did communicate with Guccifer 2.0, WikiLeaks has denied that any of the material he received from him was ultimately included in the organization's DNC email releases.
Recently unredacted sections of the Mueller report – released to the public on the eve of the November election – underscore the special counsel's failure to draw a direct tie between WikiLeaks and Russian intelligence.
"With respect to WikiLeaks and Assange,” the report stated, “this Office determined the admissible evidence to be insufficient … ." The unredacted text attributes this failure at least partly to a "lack of visibility" into "communications between the GRU officers and WikiLeaks-affiliated actors," many of which supposedly "occurred via encrypted chats."
Possible revelations to come: Mueller’s cryptic reference to “admissible evidence” suggests that his office is in possession of inadmissible evidence that ties the GRU to the WikiLeaks and the DNC emails. Given the pivotal role of Guccifer 2.0 in the Russian hacking narrative, the office should publish what it has to clarify things. This would include evidence of Guccifer 2.0’s identity. In addition, the CIA could release all documents that informed the now-suspect ICA declaration from January 2017 that the GRU was behind the DNC hack. If no one can prove today that the GRU stole the DNC emails and delivered them to WikiLeaks, why were Brennan and others so certain four years ago.
Further declassifications could confirm or undermine the prominent collusion claims of former U.S. intelligence officials.
In an appearance on CNN in November, former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe claimed that Trump himself could be exposed by damning information that has yet to come to light. "There is some very, very serious, very specific undeniable intelligence that has not come out that, if it were released, would risk compromising our access to that sort of information in the future," McCabe said. "I think it would also risk casting the president in a very negative light… It’s almost incomprehensible to me that he would want that information out. I don’t see how he spins it to his advantage because, quite frankly, I don’t believe it’s flattering." Given how devastating the disclosure of classified information has been to the collusion narrative and the intelligence officials who pursued it, McCabe's warning could well be yet one more bluff. And it’s certainly within Trump's rights to use his declassification powers and call him on it.
These public comments from former intelligence officials, with their false insinuations about a Trump-Russia connection, follow a longstanding pattern. In the early months of Trump's presidency, anonymously sourced stories fueled collusion innuendo, helped oust Michael Flynn on false pretenses, and built momentum for Mueller's appointment as special counsel. Key among them was a February 2017 report in the New York Times asserting that U.S. investigators had obtained "phone records and intercepted calls" showing that members of Trump's campaign and other associates "had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election." Four months later, Comey testified that the story was "not true." In July 2020, declassified documents showed that the FBI knew that the story was fake. In his own notes, Peter Strzok called the Times story "misleading and inaccurate ... no evidence [of this]." Further declassification could shed additional light on what the FBI knew about these fabricated leaks, and whether they were properly investigated.
Although the Russia investigation remains a bitterly partisan issue, declassification is one area where there is an overlooked precedent of convergence. In the period following Trump's election in November 2016, none other than Clinton campaign chair John Podesta advocated that the U.S. government "declassify information around Russia’s roles in the election and to make this data available to the public."
Podesta hoped then that such a disclosure could help sway the Electoral College to install Clinton instead of Trump. Four years later, disclosing such information would have a far different purpose: giving the US public a fair understanding of an unprecedented and highly consequential investigation into a sitting president, as well as the conduct of the intelligence officials who it carried out.