Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe on Tuesday declassified a Russian intelligence assessment that was previously rejected by Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee as having no factual basis, according to two sources familiar with the matter.
The extraordinary disclosure, released to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) earlier Tuesday, rankled Democrats, who said the move effectively put Russian disinformation into the public sphere in order to boost President Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated claims about the government’s efforts to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election.
And several former senior intelligence officials described Ratcliffe’s move as incendiary and irresponsible, given the manner in which he was publicly releasing unverified information from a foreign adversary.
The assessment claims that Hillary Clinton, then a Democratic candidate for president, personally approved an effort “to stir up a scandal against U.S. Presidential candidate Donald Trump by tying him to Putin and the Russians’ hacking of the Democratic National Committee.” But in his letter to Graham, Ratcliffe noted that the U.S. intelligence community “does not know the accuracy of this allegation or the extent to which the Russian intelligence analysis may reflect exaggeration or fabrication.”
The Senate Intelligence Committee issued five reports on Russia’s sweeping effort to meddle in the 2016 election to boost Trump, ranging across thousands of pages. The panel was made aware of that allegation early on in its investigation, and quickly dismissed it, the sources said.
According to Ratcliffe, former CIA Director John Brennan briefed former President Barack Obama on the Russian assessment, which included the allegation that Clinton approved the plan to tie Trump to the hack of the DNC after it was proposed by one of her foreign policy advisers.
Asked about Ratcliffe’s claims, Nick Merrill, a spokesperson for Clinton, said in a text message that the allegations were “baseless bullshit.”
A spokesperson for Brennan did not immediately respond to questions about Ratcliffe’s claims.
After the pushback to the declassified material, Ratcliffe said in a statement released after his letter: “To be clear, this is not Russian disinformation and has not been assessed as such by the Intelligence Community. I’ll be briefing Congress on the sensitive sources and methods by which it was obtained in the coming days.”
In his own statement, Graham asserted that the accuracy of the assessment was irrelevant, but rather, “[t]he question is did the FBI investigate the allegations against Clinton like they did Trump? If not, why not?”
Democrats slammed Ratcliffe and Graham for making the Russian assessment public.
“This is Russian disinformation,” Rachel Cohen, a spokeswoman for Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.), wrote on Twitter, adding that it was “laundered by the Director Of National Intelligence and Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.”
It has long been known that the Russians were trying to stir up false narratives about Clinton through similar avenues.
A former senior intelligence official said it was “a surprising choice to release this information — that is not new and that seems unconfirmed — now and in an unclassified letter,” adding: “I don’t know what good purpose is served.”
In recent days, Trump’s allies have been dripping out several disclosures related to the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, and other information aimed at denigrating Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
Graham’s committee will hear from former FBI Director James Comey on Wednesday as part of that sweeping GOP-led probe. Graham also announced on Tuesday that former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe will testify before the panel next week. McCabe agreed to appear voluntarily, according to an aide. McCabe’s lawyer said earlier Tuesday that he was being denied access to his old files that he says are necessary for him to prepare for his testimony.
The president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., was among those on the right who spotlighted Tuesday’s disclosure, writing on Twitter: “The Russia hoax was Hillary’s plan, and the Obama-Biden White House was briefed on it.”
Natasha Bertrand contributed to this report.