WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s order allowing Attorney General William Barr to declassify any intelligence that sparked the opening of the Russia investigation sets up a potential confrontation with the CIA, effectively stripping the agency of its most critical power: choosing which secrets it shares and which ones remain hidden.
On Friday, National Intelligence Director Dan Coats said the agencies under his purview would give the Justice Department “all of the appropriate information” for its review. But Coats also included a not-so-subtle warning that his agency’s secrets must be protected.
“I am confident that the attorney general will work with the IC in accordance with the long-established standards to protect highly sensitive classified information that, if publicly released, would put our national security at risk,” Coats said, referring to the intelligence community.
Trump granted Barr’s request for sweeping new authority to conduct his review of how the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia were investigated. The president ordered the CIA and the other intelligence agencies to cooperate, granting Barr the authority to unilaterally declassify their documents and thus significant leverage over the intelligence community.
Trump defended his decision, telling reporters as he left for a trip to Japan that the declassification would be sweeping. “What are we doing, we are exposing everything,” he said. “We are being transparent.” He expressed no qualms about national security implications.
As Coats’ comments suggested, intelligence officials believe the danger of Trump’s move was that it could endanger the agency’s ability to keep the identities of its sources secret.
The most prominent source among them may well be a person close to Russian President Vladimir Putin who provided information to the CIA about his involvement in Moscow’s 2016 election interference.
The concern about the source, who is believed to still be alive, is one of several issues raised by Trump’s decision to use the intelligence to pursue his political enemies. It has also prompted fears from former national security officials and Democratic lawmakers that other sources or methods of intelligence gathering — among the government’s most closely held secrets — could be made public, not because of leaks to the news media that the administration denounces, but because the president has determined it suits his political purposes.
Intelligence officials have feared before that their findings were being twisted to political agendas — notably concerns during the run-up to the Iraq war that information about Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction was being cherry-picked to justify combat. But Trump’s decision is different.
It allows Barr, who has used the charged term “spying” to describe efforts to investigate the Trump campaign, sole discretion to declassify the intelligence behind the FBI’s decision to begin investigating whether any Trump aides or associates were working with the Russians. It also raises the specter that officials ranging from the FBI to the CIA to the National Security Agency, which was monitoring Russian officials, will be questioned about their sources and their intent.
The order could be tremendously damaging to the CIA and other intelligence agencies, drying up sources and inhibiting their ability to gather intelligence, said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif. “The president now seems intent on declassifying intelligence to weaponize it,” Schiff said in an interview.
Trump has long held that he was a target of the “deep state,” at various points accusing former President Barack Obama without evidence of tapping his phones, the FBI of secretly trying to undermine his candidacy and past intelligence chiefs of bending their findings to prove Russian involvement in his election victory.
He has repeatedly appeared to side with Putin’s contention that there is no evidence of a Russian campaign to sabotage the 2016 election, even though the Mueller report left no question that the Russian leadership was behind both the theft and publication of e-mails and other data from Democrats and a social media campaign that ultimately worked to boost Trump’s candidacy, as well as efforts to tamper with election registration systems.