Trump and Putin fail in achieving their shared goal of lifting sanctions

The New York Times reports: Throughout 2016, both Donald J. Trump and President Vladimir V. Putin complained that American-led sanctions against Russia were the biggest irritant in the plummeting relations between the two superpowers. And the current investigations, which have cast a shadow over Mr. Trump’s first six months in office, have focused on whether a series of contacts between Mr. Trump’s inner circle and Russians were partly about constructing deals to get those penalties lifted.

Now it is clear that those sanctions not only are staying in place, but are about to be modestly expanded — exactly the outcome the two presidents sought to avoid.

How that happened is a story of two global leaders overplaying their hands.

Mr. Putin is beginning to pay a price for what John O. Brennan, the former C.I.A. director, described last week as the Russian president’s fateful decision last summer to try to use stolen computer data to support Mr. Trump’s candidacy. For his part, Mr. Trump ignited the movement in Congress by repeatedly casting doubt on that intelligence finding, then fueled it by confirming revelation after revelation about previously denied contacts between his inner circle and a parade of Russians.

If approved by Congress this week, Mr. Trump has little choice, his aides acknowledge, but to sign the toughened sanctions legislation that he desperately wanted to see defeated.

Just days ago, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson and other top officials were lobbying fiercely to preserve Mr. Trump’s right to waive Russia sanctions with a stroke of the pen — just as President Barack Obama was able to do when, in negotiations with Iran, he dangled the relaxation of sanctions to coax Tehran to agree to sharp, decade-long limits on its nuclear activity.

As one of Mr. Trump’s aides pointed out last week, there is a long history of granting presidents that negotiating leverage when dealing with foreign adversaries.

But by constantly casting doubt on intelligence that the Kremlin was behind an effort to manipulate last year’s presidential election, Mr. Trump so unnerved members of his own party that even they saw a need to curb his ability to lift those sanctions unilaterally.

On Sunday, Mr. Trump’s new communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, repeated the White House position that Mr. Trump remains unconvinced by the evidence Russia was the culprit behind the election hacking. He said that when the subject comes up, Mr. Trump cannot separate the intelligence findings from his emotional sense that the issue is being used to cast doubt on his legitimacy as president.

“It actually in his mind, what are you guys suggesting?” Mr. Scaramucci said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “You’re going to delegitimize his victory?”

If so, Mr. Trump is the only one with access to the best intelligence on the issue who still harbors those doubts.

Last week at the Aspen Security Forum, four of his top intelligence and national security officials — including Mike Pompeo, the C.I.A. director — said they were absolutely convinced that the Russians were behind the effort to influence the election.

“There is no dissent,” Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, said on Friday at the Aspen conference. The Russians, he said, “caught us just a little bit asleep in terms of capabilities” the Kremlin could bring to bear to influence elections here, in France and Germany. The Russians’ goal was clear, he said: “They are trying to undermine Western democracy.” [Continue reading…]

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Syrian rebels feel betrayed by U.S. decision to end CIA support: ‘It will weaken America’s influence.’

The Washington Post reports: Syrian rebel commanders said Thursday that they were disappointed in the Trump administration’s decision to end a covert CIA weapons and training program for opposition fighters, an initiative that began under President Barack Obama but fizzled out amid battlefield losses and concerns about extremism within rebel ranks.

“We definitely feel betrayed,” said Gen. Tlass al-Salameh of Osoud al-Sharqiya, a group affiliated with the Free Syrian Army. Salameh and his deputies say that they have received CIA support to rout the Islamic State from areas of eastern Syria but that they have also fought battles against pro-government ­forces.

“It feels like we are being abandoned at a very difficult moment,” Salameh said. “It feels like they only wanted to help when we were fighting [the Islamic State]. Now that we are also fighting the regime, the Americans want to withdraw.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump ends covert CIA program to arm anti-Assad rebels in Syria, a move sought by Moscow

The Washington Post reports: President Trump has decided to end the CIA’s covert program to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels battling the government of Bashar al-Assad, a move long sought by Russia, according to U.S. officials.

The program was a central plank of a policy begun by the Obama administration in 2013 to put pressure on Assad to step aside, but even its backers have questioned its efficacy since Russia deployed forces in Syria two years later.

Officials said the phasing out of the secret program reflects Trump’s interest in finding ways to work with Russia, which saw the anti-Assad program as an assault on its interests. The shuttering of the program is also an acknowledgment of Washington’s limited leverage and desire to remove Assad from power.

Just three months ago, after the United States accused Assad of using chemical weapons, Trump launched retaliatory airstrikes against a Syrian air base. At the time, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, said that “in no way do we see peace in that area with Assad at the head of the Syrian government.”

Officials said Trump made the decision to scrap the CIA program nearly a month ago, after an Oval Office meeting with CIA Director Mike Pompeo and national security adviser H.R. McMaster ahead of a July 7 meeting in Germany with Russian President Vladimir Putin. [Continue reading…]

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Trump misrepresents intelligence findings on Russian interference in U.S. election

The New York Times reports: President Trump said on Thursday that only “three or four” of the United States’ 17 intelligence agencies had concluded that Russia interfered in the presidential election — a statement that while technically accurate, is misleading and suggests widespread dissent among American intelligence agencies when none has emerged.

The “three or four” agencies referred to by Mr. Trump are the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the F.B.I. and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, all of which determined that Russia interfered in the election. Their work was compiled into a report, and a declassified version was released on Jan. 6 by the director of national intelligence. It said that all four agencies had “high confidence” that Russian spies had tried to interfere in the election on the orders of President Vladimir V. Putin.

The reason the views of only those four intelligence agencies, not all 17, were included in the assessment is simple: They were the ones tracking and analyzing the Russian campaign. The rest were doing other work.

The intelligence community is a sprawling enterprise that includes military officers who track enemy troop movements, accountants who analyze the finances of Islamist militants and engineers who design spy satellites. There are soldiers, sailors and Marines; tens of thousands of civilian government employees and tens of thousands of private contractors.

Asked about Russia’s election meddling during a news conference on Thursday in Poland, Mr. Trump repeated his familiar refrain that “it could” have been Russia or other countries that interfered in the election, and then appeared to suggest that there was hardly an intelligence community consensus on the matter.

“Let me just start off by saying I heard it was 17 agencies,” he said when asked about the intelligence assessment.

“I said, ‘Boy, that’s a lot.’ Do we even have that many intelligence agencies, right? Let’s check it. And we did some very heavy research,” Mr. Trump continued. “It turned out to be three or four — it wasn’t 17 — and many of your compatriots had to change their reporting, and they had to apologize, and they had to correct.”

Mr. Trump was also correct about inaccurate news reports. Some, including an article in The New York Times, incorrectly reported that all 17 American intelligence agencies had endorsed the assessment.

But there is no evidence that significant uncertainty or dissent exists across the intelligence community, simply because not all 17 were involved in the assessment of Russian interference. [Continue reading…]

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Why CIA vets say Putin hates America — and why Trump shouldn’t trust him

The Daily Beast reports: The Russian intelligence officers picked up the American spies from Moscow’s Metropole Hotel and drove them a few short blocks to an ornate, lushly appointed guest house. It used to be the home of a wealthy Jewish dentist before being turned into a meeting place for Russia’s intelligence services.

The 17th-century mansion served as backdrop of a 2007 summit of CIA officers, FBI agents, and their Russian counterparts, as the Bush administration tried to build a cooperative relationship with Moscow on counterterrorism.

Over glasses of cognac and the occasional shot of chilled vodka, the Russian and American agents sat across from each other at a long conference table, in what turned into an interrogation instead of the hoped-for bridge-building exercise. The Russians probed the Americans to find out where their sources were, how big their networks were and any potential weaknesses to exploit them later.

“It was worse than a polygraph,” one former senior intelligence officer told The Daily Beast. “They used different people to ask us the same questions over and over, each time phrased in slightly different ways, as if to see whether we were lying,” and to trick information out of them.

That interaction is emblematic of 20 years of U.S. attempts to reach out to Moscow, with the initially Pollyannish new American administration seeking cooperation, and the Russians using each opportunity to gather intelligence on their enemy to advance their own interests.

“We, the United States, are the ‘main enemy’ to them,” said former CIA officer John Sipher. “In their mind, they are at war with us. Anything that’s hurtful to the United States is positive for Russia.” That goes doubly for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who once led Russia’s FSB, the successor to the infamous Soviet-era KGB. [Continue reading…]

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Despite concerns about blackmail, Flynn heard CIA secrets

The New York Times reports: Senior officials across the government became convinced in January that the incoming national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, had become vulnerable to Russian blackmail.

At the F.B.I., the C.I.A., the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence — agencies responsible for keeping American secrets safe from foreign spies — career officials agreed that Mr. Flynn represented an urgent problem.

Yet nearly every day for three weeks, the new C.I.A. director, Mike Pompeo, sat in the Oval Office and briefed President Trump on the nation’s most sensitive intelligence — with Mr. Flynn listening. Mr. Pompeo has not said whether C.I.A. officials left him in the dark about their views of Mr. Flynn, but one administration official said Mr. Pompeo did not share any concerns about Mr. Flynn with the president.

The episode highlights a remarkable aspect of Mr. Flynn’s tumultuous, 25-day tenure in the White House: He sat atop a national security apparatus that churned ahead despite its own conclusion that he was at risk of being compromised by a hostile foreign power. [Continue reading…]

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Trump asked intelligence chief if he could pressure Comey to end FBI Russia probe

The Washington Post reports: The nation’s top intelligence official told associates in March that President Trump asked him if he could intervene with then-FBI Director James B. Comey to get the bureau to back off its focus on former national security adviser Michael Flynn in its Russia probe, according to officials.

On March 22, less than a week after being confirmed by the Senate, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats attended a briefing at the White House together with officials from several government agencies. As the briefing was wrapping up, Trump asked everyone to leave the room except for Coats and CIA Director Mike Pompeo.

The president then started complaining about the FBI investigation and Comey’s handling of it, said officials familiar with the account Coats gave to associates. Two days earlier, Comey had confirmed in a congressional hearing that the bureau was probing whether Trump’s campaign coordinated with Russia during the 2016 race.

After the encounter, Coats discussed the conversation with other officials and decided that intervening with Comey as Trump had suggested would be inappropriate, according to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal matters.

The events involving Coats show the president went further than just asking intelligence officials to deny publicly the existence of any evidence showing collusion during the 2016 election, as The Washington Post reported in May. The interaction with Coats indicates that Trump aimed to enlist top officials to have Comey curtail the bureau’s probe. [Continue reading…]

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The problem with Jared Kushner

An editorial in the New York Times says: What are we supposed to make of the news that Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser, met with the Russian ambassador in December to discuss establishing a back channel between the incoming Trump administration and the Kremlin, using Russian diplomatic facilities?

Start with the reactions from America’s intelligence community, whose job it is to monitor foreign actors’ attempts to steal the nation’s most closely guarded secrets.

Michael Hayden, the former C.I.A. director, said this: “What manner of ignorance, chaos, hubris, suspicion, contempt would you have to have to think that doing this with the Russian ambassador was a good or an appropriate idea?” Another former top intelligence official called it “extremely naïve or absolutely crazy.”

Mr. Kushner is now under scrutiny by F.B.I. investigators looking into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russian officials to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

Stupidity, paranoia, malevolence — it’s hard to distinguish among competing explanations for the behavior of people in this administration. In the case of Mr. Kushner’s meeting with Sergey Kislyak, the ambassador, and his meeting that month with Sergey Gorkov, a Russian banker with close ties to the Kremlin and Russian intelligence, even the most benign of the various working theories suggests that Mr. Kushner, who had no experience in politics or diplomacy before Mr. Trump’s campaign, is in way over his head. [Continue reading…]

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Trump administration moves to conceal report on CIA torture by permanently placing it in Senate vaults

The New York Times reports: The Trump administration has begun returning copies of a voluminous 2014 Senate report about the Central Intelligence Agency’s detention and interrogation program to Congress, complying with the demand of a top Republican senator who has criticized the report for being shoddy and excessively critical of the C.I.A.

The Trump administration’s move, described by multiple congressional officials, raises the possibility that copies of the 6,700-page report could be locked in Senate vaults for good — exempt from laws requiring that government records eventually become public. The C.I.A., the office of the Director of National Intelligence and the C.I.A.’s inspector general have returned their copies of the report, the officials said.

The report is the result of a yearslong investigation into the C.I.A. program by Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, telling the story of how — in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — the C.I.A. began capturing terrorism suspects and interrogating them in secret prisons beyond the reach of the American judicial and military legal systems. The central conclusion of the report is that the spy agency’s interrogation methods — including waterboarding, sleep deprivation and other kinds of torture — were far more brutal and less effective than the C.I.A. described to policy makers, Congress and the public.

It is the most comprehensive accounting of the Bush-era program that exists, and a declassified executive summary of the report was made public in December 2014 — with the support of some Republicans on the committee.

The committee, which was then run by Democrats, also sent copies of the entire classified report to at least eight federal agencies, asking that they incorporate the report into their records — a move that would have made it subject to requests under the Freedom of Information Act. That law, which allows citizens, the media and other groups to request access to information held by the federal government, does not apply to congressional records. [Continue reading…]

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CIA names new Iran chief in a sign of Trump’s hard line

The New York Times reports: He is known as the Dark Prince or Ayatollah Mike, nicknames he earned as the Central Intelligence Agency officer who oversaw the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the American drone strike campaign that killed thousands of Islamist militants and hundreds of civilians.

Now the official, Michael D’Andrea, has a new job. He is running the C.I.A.’s Iran operations, according to current and former intelligence officials, an appointment that is the first major sign that the Trump administration is invoking the hard line the president took against Iran during his campaign.

Mr. D’Andrea’s new role is one of a number of moves inside the spy agency that signal a more muscular approach to espionage and covert operations under the leadership of Mike Pompeo, the conservative Republican and former congressman, the officials said. The agency also recently named a new chief of counterterrorism, who has begun pushing for greater latitude to strike militants.

Iran has been one of the hardest targets for the C.I.A. The agency has extremely limited access to the country — no American embassy is open to provide diplomatic cover — and Iran’s intelligence services have spent nearly four decades trying to counter American espionage and covert operations.

The challenge to start carrying out President Trump’s views falls to Mr. D’Andrea, a chain-smoking convert to Islam, who comes with an outsize reputation and the track record to back it up: Perhaps no single C.I.A. official is more responsible for weakening Al Qaeda.

“He can run a very aggressive program, but very smartly,” said Robert Eatinger, a former C.I.A. lawyer who was deeply involved in the agency’s drone program.

The C.I.A. declined to comment on Mr. D’Andrea’s role, saying it does not discuss the identities or work of clandestine officials. The officials spoke only on the condition of anonymity because Mr. D’Andrea remains undercover, as do many senior officials based at the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Va. Mr. Eatinger did not use his name. The New York Times is naming Mr. D’Andrea because his identity was previously published in news reports, and he is leading an important new administration initiative against Iran. [Continue reading…]

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Why should we care about Russian interference in our elections?

The New York Times reports: [John] Brennan, the former C.I.A. director, said Tuesday that he became concerned last year that the Russian government was trying to influence members of the Trump campaign to act — wittingly or unwittingly — on Moscow’s behalf.

“I encountered and am aware of information and intelligence that revealed contacts and interactions between Russian officials and U.S. persons involved in the Trump campaign that I was concerned about because of known Russian efforts to suborn such individuals,” Mr. Brennan told lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee.

“It raised questions in my mind about whether Russia was able to gain the cooperation of those individuals,” he said, adding that he did not know whether the Russian efforts were successful.

He added, “I don’t know whether such collusion existed.”

It was the first time he publicly acknowledged that he was concerned about possible ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.

He said he left office in January with many unanswered questions about the Russian influence operation. Intelligence officials have said that Russia tried to tip the election toward Mr. Trump.

Mr. Brennan became so concerned last summer about signs of Russian election meddling that he held urgent, classified briefings for eight senior members of Congress, speaking with some of them over secure phone lines while they were on recess. In those conversations, he told lawmakers there was evidence that Russia was specifically working to elect Mr. Trump as president. [Continue reading…]

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Killing CIA informants, China crippled U.S. spying operations

The New York Times reports: The Chinese government systematically dismantled C.I.A. spying operations in the country starting in 2010, killing or imprisoning more than a dozen sources over two years and crippling intelligence gathering there for years afterward.

Current and former American officials described the intelligence breach as one of the worst in decades. It set off a scramble in Washington’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies to contain the fallout, but investigators were bitterly divided over the cause. Some were convinced that a mole within the C.I.A. had betrayed the United States. Others believed that the Chinese had hacked the covert system the C.I.A. used to communicate with its foreign sources. Years later, that debate remains unresolved.

But there was no disagreement about the damage. From the final weeks of 2010 through the end of 2012, according to former American officials, the Chinese killed at least a dozen of the C.I.A.’s sources. According to three of the officials, one was shot in front of his colleagues in the courtyard of a government building — a message to others who might have been working for the C.I.A.

Still others were put in jail. All told, the Chinese killed or imprisoned 18 to 20 of the C.I.A.’s sources in China, according to two former senior American officials, effectively unraveling a network that had taken years to build. [Continue reading…]

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Trump violates intel partnership by revealing highly classified information to Russian foreign minister and ambassador

The Washington Post reports: President Trump revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in a White House meeting last week, according to current and former U.S. officials, who said Trump’s disclosures jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State.

The information the president relayed had been provided by a U.S. partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government, officials said.

The partner had not given the United States permission to share the material with Russia, and officials said Trump’s decision to do so endangers cooperation from an ally that has access to the inner workings of the Islamic State. After Trump’s meeting, senior White House officials took steps to contain the damage, placing calls to the CIA and the National Security Agency.

“This is code-word information,” said a U.S. official familiar with the matter, using terminology that refers to one of the highest classification levels used by American spy agencies. Trump “revealed more information to the Russian ambassador than we have shared with our own allies.” [Continue reading…]

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Flynn was warned by Trump transition officials about contacts with Russian ambassador

The Washington Post reports: Former national security adviser Michael Flynn was warned by senior members of President Trump’s transition team about the risks of his contacts with the Russian ambassador weeks before the December call that led to Flynn’s forced resignation, current and former U.S. officials said.

Flynn was told during a late November meeting that Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak’s conversations were almost certainly being monitored by U.S. intelligence agencies, officials said, a caution that came a month before Flynn was recorded discussing U.S. sanctions against Russia with Kislyak, suggesting that the Trump administration would reevaluate the issue.

Officials were so concerned that Flynn did not fully understand the motives of the Russian ambassador that the head of Trump’s national security council transition team asked Obama administration officials for a classified CIA profile of Kislyak, officials said. The document was delivered within days, officials said, but it is not clear that Flynn ever read it.

The previously undisclosed sequence reveals the extent to which even some Trump insiders were troubled by the still-forming administration’s entanglements with Russia and its enthusiasm for a friendly relationship with the Kremlin. [Continue reading…]

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Is there a Russian mole inside the NSA? The CIA? Both?

Kevin Poulsen writes: A message from Vladimir Putin can take many forms.

It can be as heavy-handed as a pair of Russian bombers buzzing the Alaska coast, or as lethal as the public assassination of a defector on the streets of Kiev. Now Putin may be sending a message to the American government through a more subtle channel: an escalating series of U.S. intelligence leaks that last week exposed an NSA operation in the Middle East and the identity of an agency official who participated.

The leaks by self-described hackers calling themselves “the Shadow Brokers” began in the final months of the Obama administration and increased in frequency and impact after the U.S. bombing of a Syrian airfield this month—a move that angered Russia. The group has not been tied to the Kremlin with anything close to the forensic certitude of last year’s election-related hacks, but security experts say the Shadow Brokers’ attacks fit the pattern established by Russia’s GRU during their election hacking. In that operation, according to U.S. intelligence findings, Russia created fictitious Internet personas to launder some of their stolen emails, including the fake whistleblowing site called DCLeaks and a notional Romanian hacker named “Guccifer 2.0.” [Continue reading…]

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CIA chief Pompeo: Wikileaks ‘hostile intelligence service’

BBC News reports: The head of the CIA Mike Pompeo has described anti-secrecy organisation WikiLeaks as a “non-state hostile intelligence service” that is often abetted by states such as Russia.

Russian military intelligence used Wikileaks to distribute hacked material during the US election, he added.

Earlier this month Wikileaks published details of what it said were CIA hacking tools.

The FBI and CIA have launched a criminal investigation into the leak.

“WikiLeaks walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service,” Mr Pompeo said, speaking at a Washington think tank.

“It overwhelmingly focuses on the US, while seeking support from anti-democratic countries and organisations,” he added. [Continue reading…]

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CIA had evidence of Russian effort to help Trump earlier than believed

The New York Times reports: The C.I.A. told senior lawmakers in classified briefings last summer that it had information indicating that Russia was working to help elect Donald J. Trump president, a finding that did not emerge publicly until after Mr. Trump’s victory months later, former government officials say.

The briefings indicate that intelligence officials had evidence of Russia’s intentions to help Mr. Trump much earlier in the presidential campaign than previously thought. The briefings also reveal a critical split last summer between the C.I.A. and counterparts at the F.B.I., where a number of senior officials continued to believe through last fall that Russia’s cyberattacks were aimed only at disrupting America’s political system, and not at getting Mr. Trump elected, according to interviews.

The former officials said that in late August — 10 weeks before the election — John O. Brennan, then the C.I.A. director, was so concerned about increasing evidence of Russia’s election meddling that he began a series of urgent, individual briefings for eight top members of Congress, some of them on secure phone lines while they were on their summer break. [Continue reading…]

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