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Ex-CIA director John Brennan criticizes silence of top Republicans on Russian interference

  • NEW YORK TIMES / MAY 23, 2017
                                Former CIA director John Brennan speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington.

    NEW YORK TIMES / MAY 23, 2017

    Former CIA director John Brennan speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington.

WASHINGTON >> In the final days of the Obama administration, intelligence officials laid out evidence of Russia’s 2016 election interference campaign to congressional leaders, prompting Nancy Pelosi, then the House minority leader, to press for Moscow to be punished.

“This can’t happen again,” she said. Two Republicans, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Sen. Richard M. Burr, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, concurred.

But two other Republicans — Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, and Rep. Devin Nunes, then the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee — remained silent, according to a new account of the so-called Gang of Eight meeting by John O. Brennan, the former CIA director.

“I was not surprised that McConnell and Nunes, early and ardent partisan defenders of Mr. Trump, were silent in the face of what everyone else recognized was a clear national security threat,” Brennan wrote in his forthcoming book, “Undaunted.” The New York Times obtained an excerpt from the memoir, which The Washington Post first reported on.

Brennan’s book, and the early excerpt, amount to salvos in the continuing political tug of war over the 2016 Russian interference campaign and the subsequent investigations of the Trump campaign’s ties to Moscow.

The next few months are shaping up to be a season of warring accounts about the events of 2016 and the intelligence agencies’ reports about Russian interference. Brennan’s book is scheduled to be published in October by Celadon Books, and other former law enforcement officials who investigated Russia’s interference are writing books due out in September.

Attorney General William Barr, who has harshly criticized the early efforts to examine ties between the Trump campaign and Russia’s interference, declined this week to commit to waiting until after the election to release any report by the criminal prosecutor he appointed to look at the origins of the Russia investigation. That prosecutor, John H. Durham, the U.S. attorney in Connecticut, is said to be examining the role of Brennan in helping shape the Obama administration’s assessment of the Russian interference campaign, according to current and former officials.

Many Republicans now view the early 2017 intelligence community assessment, which Brennan was instrumental in helping craft, as flawed, especially the view that President Vladimir Putin of Russia favored Trump. They hope the Durham investigation will show that concern over Russian support for Trump was overblown and the result of political opposition to him.

Representatives of neither McConnell nor Nunes returned requests for comment about the intelligence briefing.

Brennan portrayed himself in the excerpt as deeply skeptical of Trump and his ability to keep secrets. He said that even before the election he was convinced of Trump’s “dishonesty, unabashed self-aggrandizement and demagogic rhetoric.”

The congressional briefing occurred a day after President Barack Obama was told about the intelligence agencies’ assessment and just hours before officials briefed Trump, then the president-elect. He expressed skepticism and doubts about the findings on Russian interference.

Brennan wrote that he had decided ahead of time not to share details with Trump about how the CIA learned about Russian intentions or interference efforts. Sources and methods of information-gathering are among the intelligence agencies’ most closely held material.

“I had serious doubts that Donald Trump would protect our nation’s most vital secrets,” Brennan wrote.

During the briefing, Trump’s questions “revealed that he was uninterested in finding out what the Russians had done or holding them to account,” Brennan wrote. Instead, Brennan said, Trump seemed intent on challenging the intelligence and the agencies’ judgment that Russia had interfered in the election.

Brennan said in the book that he believed that Trump was seeking to learn what the CIA knew and how the agency had gathered the intelligence. “This deeply troubled me, as I worried about what he might do with the information he was being given,” Brennan wrote.

Soon after he stepped down as the CIA director, Brennan began criticizing Trump vociferously in appearances on MSNBC, where he became a contributor, and on Twitter. In 2018, after Trump’s joint news conference with Putin where he expressed skepticism about Russian interference in the election, Brennan wrote that the president’s comments were “nothing short of treasonous.”

Brennan’s book has been cleared for publication by the CIA, but he was not allowed to review any classified materials while he researched it.

In 2018, the White House ordered Brennan’s security clearance stripped. Brennan wrote that his clearance was never revoked but that the White House had also ordered intelligence agencies to block his access to classified material, which the CIA did.

Brennan, unlike previous directors who have written memoirs, was able to review only redacted, declassified versions of his calendars and other notes.

In his opening chapter, Brennan expressed disappointment that one of his successors, Gina Haspel, did not respond to his letter to discuss his access.

“So much for my fervent hope that interactions with my successors would be unencumbered by Washington’s partisan waters,” Brennan wrote.

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