The Office of the Director of National Intelligence deliberately concealed how the agency came into possession of a dossier prepared by a former British intelligence officer that alleged Russians had been “cultivating, supporting and assisting” Donald Trump for years, according to internal emails obtained by BuzzFeed News under the Freedom of Information Act.
The office issued a statement, which contained incomplete information, because intelligence officials were concerned the office might be accused of having leaked the dossier, the emails between intelligence officials show.
Top spies also resisted pressure from President Donald Trump to dismiss the dossier as “bogus,” according to the emails.
On Jan. 11, 2017, one day after BuzzFeed News published the 35-page document, top officials at ODNI began to draft a statement for James Clapper, then ODNI’s director and a fierce critic of Trump, to address the dossier’s unverified claims and leaks to the media about the president-elect.
The statement also came on the heels of a Jan. 6, 2017, meeting Clapper, FBI director James Comey, CIA Director John Brennan and Adm. Mike Rogers, the NSA director, held with Trump in which they discussed the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia had interfered in the presidential election, as well as the salacious claims contained in the dossier, prepared by Christopher Steele, a former MI6 officer.
According to the internal ODNI emails obtained by BuzzFeed News, Clapper told Trump he would issue a statement addressing the controversy surrounding the publication of the dossier and leaks in general.
BuzzFeed News has obtained the original draft of Clapper’s three-paragraph statement, written by Brian Hale, ODNI’s director of public affairs. Clapper’s draft statement contains several notable passages that were omitted from the final version publicly released on ODNI’s website.
For example, an early version of Clapper’s statement says the dossier “was given to us.” But an ODNI official who reviewed it — the person’s name was redacted in the emails — suggested it be changed.
“One substantive thought: Should we say that the document was ‘given to us?’ Or better to say it circulated before the IC ‘became aware of it,’” the person wrote, referring to the intelligence community.
Hale accepted the change, writing in an email that it was “better.” Hale told BuzzFeed News the original line was a "typo."
"I was trying to write how we in the IC became aware of the dossier since I was not personally aware of how it happened etc.," he said.
Another passage that was cut from Clapper’s draft statement addressed the flurry of leaks to the media in the lead-up to the inauguration. The passage said, “In my experience, members of the IC are keenly aware of the importance of protecting classified and sensitive information and of their sworn obligation to do so.”
That sentence didn’t make it into the final version because ODNI was concerned the statement “could be thrown back at us,” given high-profile leaks by NSA contractors Edward Snowden and Harold Martin. The person whose name was redacted suggested another edit: that the dossier had been widely circulated.
“It might be better to skip the third paragraph with the assertion that numerous outlets had access to this report,” the person wrote.
But that suggestion was not accepted and the paragraph was included in Clapper’s final statement.
Copied on the emails were Clapper, his deputy, Stephanie O’Sullivan, ODNI general counsel Robert Litt and Deirdre Walsh, ODNI’s legislative affairs director.
The draft version of Clapper’s statement also contained a line stating that the intelligence community did not rely upon the dossier “in any way for our classified conclusions” about Russia’s meddling in the presidential election. Litt told Hale “classified” should be removed and he also suggested to Hale that the word “congressional” be added before “staff” in the sentence that described who had access to the dossier.
About an hour after Hale started writing the draft statement, a final version was ready. Clapper seemed peeved. Referring to Trump and the dossier, he wrote in an email, “What he’d really like us to say is that the documents are substantively completely bogus … I just said we’d put out a statement, but not sure he’ll be happy with this … We can’t say that [redacted]. Thoughts?”
Hale responded by saying, “I do not think we can lean more forward than this. We do say that we did not rely on it regardless.”
“We just don’t know whether there is any truth there,” he wrote in an email, referring to the dossier’s allegations.
Clapper and Litt had one more conversation about a “legal aspect” of the statement. It was posted on DNI’s website late in the evening on Jan. 11, 2017.
The next morning, Clapper responded to the email thread asking about any “blowback/reaction.” Hale said the reaction had been “positive.” But Litt responded to Clapper’s email stating that the New York Times had just published a report highlighting the differences between Clapper’s statement and a tweet posted by Trump at 5:23 am.
“Well, everyone can read what we said, versus what he said …” Clapper wrote.
Read the documents:
Jason Leopold is a senior investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles. He is a 2018 Pulitzer finalist for international reporting, recipient of the IRE 2016 FOI award and a 2016 Newseum Institute National Freedom of Information Hall of Fame inductee.
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