WASHINGTON — A string of leaks describing an internal CIA intelligence analysis that concluded Russia worked to elect Donald Trump to the presidency is rattling intelligence officials, who worry the spin from both sides of the political aisle could hamper efforts to thoroughly investigate Moscow’s meddling in the election.
“Politicization does not really happen from within the [intelligence community]. It happens outside of it,” one US intelligence official told BuzzFeed News. “Right now, both sides are doing it.”
The Washington Post reported last week that the CIA had briefed Congress on a secret analysis that showed Russia was not only working to undermine the US election, but actively worked to elect Donald Trump, a conclusion the FBI did not endorse.
Though the Post said the information was briefed to senators in the last week of November, sources tell BuzzFeed News that Congress was actually informed of the CIA’s assessment weeks prior, underscoring concern that recent leaks to the press are politically motivated.
That Russia has been waging an all-out cyberwar on the United States was, at least until July, a widely held bipartisan belief. Republicans and Democrats alike voiced concern over Moscow’s aggression, both in cyberspace and beyond. But since the Kremlin’s efforts began targeting the election — an operation that, starting with the hack of Democratic National Committee servers and subsequent release of internal DNC emails, appeared to target Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton — the issue has become a political firebomb.
President-elect Trump has dismissed the notion that Russia attempted to manipulate the election generally, and has balked at intelligence analysis saying their efforts were built to bolster his chances at the White House. Democrats, meanwhile, suggest that intelligence assessments prove Trump’s election was due, in large part, to the Kremlin’s work.
The truth, officials tell BuzzFeed News, is somewhere in between.
“This is huge,” the intelligence official said of Russian efforts to manipulate the election. “The question is, would they have done the same thing if it was any other Republican nominee.”
That, the official said, remains unclear.
“It is possible for the intelligence analysts to come up with an objective analysis, I think the question of whether it's received as something nonpolitical is another issue,” a Senate aide told BuzzFeed, requesting anonymity to discuss intelligence issues. “That’s a totally legitimate concern.”
It remains unclear whether the CIA had all of the information tying Russian efforts to the election of Trump before Nov. 9, or if following his victory, the intelligence official said, analysts went back and looked at the intelligence in light of the election results.
Since Donald Trump’s surprise victory on election night, officials across the government have called for reviews into Russia’s role. Those calls have amplified since the Washington Post story.
Sen. John McCain said on CBS’s Face the Nation this weekend that he would delegate a subcommittee on his Armed Services panel to look into the matter. House Intelligence Committee vice-chairman Rep. Adam Schiff said both the House and Senate intelligence panels should handle it. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s majority leader, announced that the Senate Intelligence Committee would lead probe into the matter.
But some officials say letting Congress anywhere near the investigation spells disaster.
“An intelligence committee thing, that’s just not going to work,” one US official said, pointing to other congressional inquiries like the Benghazi Committee, or the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into the CIA’s torture program. Both of those investigations have been blasted by respective critics as partisan.
“We need to some kind of independent commission,” the US official said, or politics on the Hill would likely sway any objective intelligence analysis.