As the nation’s top spies prepared to brief President Obama and President-elect Donald Trump on Russian interference in the 2016 election, they faced an excruciatingly delicate question: Should they mention the salacious allegations that had been circulating in Washington for months that Moscow had compromising information on the incoming president?
Ultimately, they concluded they had no choice. A 35-page dossier packed with details of supposed compromising personal information, alleged financial entanglements and political intrigue was already in such wide circulation in Washington that every major news organization seemed to have a copy.
“You’d be derelict if you didn’t” mention the dossier, a U.S. official said. To ignore the file, produced by a private-sector security firm, would only make the supposed guardians of the nation’s secrets seem uninformed, officials said, adding that many were convinced that it was only a matter of time before someone decided to publish the material.
Their decision appears to have hastened that outcome, triggering coverage of politically charged allegations that news organizations had tried to run down for months but could find no basis for publishing until they were summarized and included alongside a classified report.
INTELLIGENCE VS. INNUENDO
U.S. officials said Wednesday that the decision had been unanimous to attach the two-page summary of the dossier to a sweeping report on Russian election interference commissioned by the White House and briefed to Obama, Trump and congressional leaders.
The U.S. official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk about sensitive discussions, said the nature of the summary “was fully explained” to Trump and “put into context,” to make clear that it was not produced by the government and was unverified.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper Jr., CIA Director John Brennan, FBI Chief James Comey and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers all concurred that both Obama and Trump should know that U.S. spy agencies were aware of the claims about compromising information on Trump and had investigated or explored them to some degree.
U.S. officials emphasized that the summary was merely an annex to the main report, that the allegations it contained have never been substantiated and did not appear in the main body of the report or influence its conclusions that Russia sought to sabotage the 2016 race and help elect Trump.
But linking a collection of unsubstantiated allegations to a classified report that is supposed to convey the intelligence community’s firmest conclusions about Russian election interference has blurred the distinction between corroborated intelligence and innuendo.
Former U.S. intelligence officials described the inclusion of the summary – drawn from “opposition research” done by a political research firm – as highly unusual.
“It would be extraordinary if not unprecedented to bring to the attention of a president and president-elect a private document for which you had no reason to believe the allegations made in it,” said Michael Morell, the former deputy director of the CIA and a Clinton supporter.
Spokesmen for the CIA, FBI and the director of national intelligence declined to comment.
The handling of the matter also seemed to deepen the level of distrust between Trump and the intelligence community.
MEDIA DIDN’T CONFIRM ALLEGATIONS
The material in the dossier was assembled by a former British intelligence officer, Christopher Steele, whose security and investigations firm was hired to assist a political research firm in Washington that was initially working for Trump’s opponents in the Republican primaries but later offered its services to Democrats. Steele’s role was first reported Wednesday by the Wall Street Journal. Since 2009, he and another former British intelligence officer have jointly operated a Britain-based firm called Orbis Business Intelligence. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
The dossier was provided to multiple news outlets, including The Washington Post, which pursued leads, but could not substantiate its allegations.
The document was also at some point delivered to the FBI. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., acknowledged in a public statement Wednesday that late last year he had “received sensitive information that has since been made public” and, unable to assess its accuracy, delivered the file to Comey.
Other officials said that the FBI had obtained the dossier even before McCain’s involvement and that U.S. officials had met with Steele, the former British spy, at least twice – once in August and again in mid-October, after Clapper had released a public statement accusing Russia of interfering in the election.
Those meetings were part of a broader effort by the FBI and other agencies to evaluate the claims about Russia and compromising material on Trump.