Entrenched officials in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) are refusing to declassify key documents related to the Trump-Russia affair more than three months after President Trump granted his attorney general the power to declassify the documents, Paul Sperry of RealClearInvestigations reported on Wednesday.
The office is in limbo in the wake of the resignations last month of its director, Dan Coats, and principal deputy, Sue Gordon, who is reportedly a close ally of former CIA Director John Brennan. According to sources, “establishment officials in that agency are still dragging their feet.”
Before stepping down, Coats resisted the president’s declassification order after getting pushback from the intelligence bureaucracy; sources say it is protective of its turf from Justice Department encroachment, and concerned about being implicated in the attorney general’s ongoing investigation of “political surveillance” that he says was aimed at the Trump campaign and presidential transition.
“There’s been a huge impasse in getting key documents to Congress and declassified during the Russia investigation,” a source close to the situation told Sperry. “Several House members, especially Devin Nunes [ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee] and Mark Meadows [of the House Oversight Committee] were upset that Coats refused to cooperate in releasing this explosive material to Congress.”
“It was clear Coats was not acting on the president’s behalf and had been co-opted by the intelligence bureaucracy,” the source added.
The ODNI, located in McClean, Virginia, is the gatekeeper of virtually all classified information in the federal government with the power to declassify and publicly release intelligence files.
According to Sperry’s sources, the materials still being withheld include:
- Evidence that President Obama’s CIA, FBI, and Justice Department eavesdropped illegally on the Trump campaign—cases separate from the FBI’s disputed FISA court-approved surveillance of Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
- An August 2016 briefing CIA Director John Brennan hand-delivered in a sealed envelope to Obama, containing information from what Brennan claimed was “a critical informant close to Putin.” The informant is believed to have actually been a Russian source recycled from the largely debunked dossier compiled by ex-British agent Christopher Steele for the Hillary Clinton campaign.
- An email exchange from December 2016 between Brennan and FBI Director James Comey, in which Brennan is said to have argued for using the dossier in early drafts of the task force’s much-hyped January 2017 intelligence assessment. That spread the narrative that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the alleged Clinton campaign hacking to steal the election for Trump.
- Copies of all FBI, CIA and State Department records related to Joseph Mifsud, the mysterious Maltese professor whose statements regarding Trump campaign volunteer George Papadopoulos allegedly triggered the original Russia-collusion probe.
- Transcripts of 53 closed-door interviews of FBI and Justice Department officials and other witnesses conducted by the House Intelligence Committee. The files were sent to the agency in November.
- The transcripts “demonstrate who was lying and expose the bias that existed against Trump before and after his election,” said U.S. Representative Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) of the House Judiciary Committee. They also reportedly contain evidence of a Democratic National Committee attorney maintaining Russia-related contacts with the CIA during the 2016 campaign.
For the time being, intelligence officials are not in any trouble, according to sources, as Attorney General Bill Barr has only requested, rather than demanded, the documents. Barr is hoping for their cooperation. But that could soon change.
Frustrated with intelligence agency officials’ resistance, President Trump orchestrated a shake-up of senior leadership in ODNI, leading to the departures of Coats and Gordon.
President Trump in July nominated Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) to replace Coats as his director of national intelligence, but withdrew the nomination a week later after it “got a chilly reception from Senate Republicans who questioned his intelligence experience,” according to Sperry. Ratcliffe was one of the key Republicans leading the GOP-run congressional investigations into the Russia hoax and had played a central part in interrogating FBI and Justice Department officials on how it all began.
Instead, the post has been temporarily filled by former Navy Vice Admiral Joseph Maguire, who left his position as the head of the National Counterterrorism Center, leaving Trump with another intelligence-related spot to fill.
The president is expected to make a decision on a permanent replacement for Coats after the Senate returns from recess on September 9.
“A new director might help break the logjam in declassifying documents for Barr’s investigation,” said Christopher C. Hull, a national security consultant and former senior congressional aide. It’s now “toweringly obvious that some portion of U.S. intelligence worked to undermine Trump,” Hull added.
The president has as many as eight candidates under consideration. But his short list includes Peter Hoekstra, the current U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands and the former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee; and Fred Fleitz, a 20-year veteran of the CIA who also worked for Hoekstra on the House intelligence panel as staff director and, most recently, for Trump in the White House as an adviser on national security.
Hoekstra declined comment—”I’m going to pass on this, thanks for asking”—but sources say the president recently interviewed him for the top ODNI job. Hoekstra, who worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign, appears to be the front-runner. “He’s great,” Trump said of the former GOP congressman.
Hoekstra has questioned the Obama administration’s decision not to brief candidate Trump about alleged Russian election interference during the 2016 campaign, suggesting “politics” overrode any national security concerns. He has also said he would like to see an investigation of “actions taken by the Obama administration,” including the “increase in surveillance and the unmasking of Americans,” including Trump campaign figures, in foreign intercepts during the election.
Fleitz has 25 years experience serving in various U.S. national security positions, including the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Department of State, the CIA, and as a senior staff member with the House Intelligence Committee.
He has advocated “sharply scaling back or eliminating” the ODNI “to make American intelligence great again.”
The president first raised the possibility of the DNI job with Fleitz back in February and Fleitz reportedly considered taking the position.
Fleitz met with the president again on August 5, according to sources and has also been interviewed for the position by White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.
The insider sources said Trump and Fleitz have discussed in more than one meeting foreign policy regarding Iran and North Korea, as well as concerns about determined “resistance” from deeply entrenched bureaucrats and Obama holdovers in the intelligence community — along with the need to “streamline” and “reform” ODNI.
Fleitz would not confirm he is in the running for the position, but he also hasn’t denied it.
“I will say it was a great honor to serve President Trump as a member of his NSC [National Security Council] staff,” he told Sperry. “I have told the president that if he needs me to return to the administration, I would be happy to do so.”
General Joseph Dunford, the departing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has also been mentioned as a candidate for the top intelligence post.