WASHINGTON — Intelligence officials remain confused about the intelligence community’s decision to brief the president and president-elect on an unclassified dossier compiled by a private intelligence firm on Donald Trump’s alleged connections to Russia.
“In a perfect world, they would’ve given [Trump] the intelligence briefing, walked out, walked back in, and said ‘we need to tell you about something else,’” one US intelligence official said, in order to clearly separate the unverified dossier from the official analysis produced by the intelligence community.
The official said that since the dossier, compiled by a former MI6 agent and paid for by Trump’s political rivals, had widely circulated in political, intelligence and media circles for months, “I don’t know how you couldn’t” brief Trump and other high-level officials on it. But its inclusion in a highly-classified, formal intelligence community briefing had given the document an air of validity the intelligence community was not yet sure it should have, they said.
In particular, a summary of the document was included in a congressional briefing to the so-called Gang of Eight, which includes both House and Senate leadership, and the leadership of both chambers’ intelligence committees. The briefing had to do with intelligence assessments on Russian meddling in the US election. The dossier’s summary was presented as separate from the intelligence produced by the US intelligence community.
A Gang of Eight meeting is one of the most highly-secretive gatherings that can happen on Capitol Hill, and they’re reserved for only the most sensitive intelligence matters. They do not happen frequently. Even hinting at the content of a Gang of Eight briefing can be seen as a security violation, and disclosing their contents can be considered a felony.
One US intelligence official who had been open to discussing the dossier in recent weeks said he was now very uncomfortable doing so given its reported inclusion in the high-level meeting and its subsequent publication by BuzzFeed News.
“It probably made information flow even harder,” the official said, indicating he was now concerned that talking to non-cleared people about the document could be a security violation. “Honestly, with circumstances, I don’t even think I can talk about it.”
The summary of the dossier was included in the Gang of Eight briefing, but was not a part of the broader classified report on Russian meddling that was available to all members of Congress.
Since the revelation of the dossier's existence, Vice President Joe Biden confirmed that he and Obama were briefed on the summary and reports indicate that FBI Director James Comey personally sat down with Trump on the allegations. The allegations have also dominated questions directed towards Trump's Cabinet nominees during this week's confirmation hearings.
James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, said in a rare statement Wednesday that the intelligence community had not yet determined whether the allegations contained in the document were valid. But the decision of principal intelligence leaders to take up the president’s and president-elect’s time, however short, sent a signal that has left officials confused as to how to even speak about it.
“That gives it a kind of quasi-official standing, even though it is not officially an official document,” said Steven Aftergood, who heads the Federation of American Scientists’ project on government secrecy. “The document itself is not an official intelligence publication. It’s not even a US government document. What gives it a certain kind of official standing is that it reportedly figured in an intelligence briefing to the president elect and to members of Congress.”