Following up on the CNN’s bombshell report about a U.S. source in the Kremlin who was extracted in 2017 due, in part, to fears that President Donald Trump might expose the spy, the New York Times confirmed the basic facts of the incident and built out many more of the details in the story Monday night.
The Times, however, seemed less convinced about the most explosive element in CNN’s report — the idea that Trump himself posed a risk to the source and thus was a motivation behind the exfiltration effort.
The decision to extract the informant was driven “in part” because of concerns that Mr. Trump and his administration had mishandled delicate intelligence, CNN reported. But former intelligence officials said there was no public evidence that Mr. Trump directly endangered the source, and other current American officials insisted that media scrutiny of the agency’s sources alone was the impetus for the extraction.
It’s not entirely clear if the Times is partially confirming CNN’s claim here. The assertion that “there was no public evidence that Mr. Trump directly endangered the source” is particularly perplexing because it’s not clear why there would be such “public evidence,” and regardless, it is still consistent with CNN’s original finding.
The fact that there are conflicting reports about whether Trump’s mishandling of intelligence influenced the extraction wouldn’t necessarily indicate that CNN’s report is completely false. It’s possible it was a concern in the minds of some officials but not others. It’s also possible that Trump’s infamous Oval Office meeting — in which he revealed classified information to the Russian foreign minister — prompted discussions about whether to exfiltrate the source, without actually being the final justification for the decision.
The Times report suggests another potential interpretation. It says that the source was initially offered exfiltration from Russia by the U.S. government in late 2016, but they turned down the suggestion. Only in 2017, after the Oval Office meeting, did the source agree to be extracted. It’s possible that even if worries about Trump’s handling of classified intelligence didn’t motivate the CIA’s decision to carry out the extraction, these concerns may have motivated the source to go along with it. The report explained:
Some former intelligence officials said the president’s closed-door meetings with Mr. Putin and other Russian officials, along with Twitter posts about delicate intelligence matters, have sown concern among overseas sources.
“We have a president who, unlike any other president in modern history, is willing to use sensitive, classified intelligence however he sees fit,” said Steven L. Hall, a former C.I.A. official who led the agency’s Russia operations. “He does it in front of our adversaries. He does it by tweet. We are in uncharted waters.”
If this is the correct interpretation, it would explain the CIA’s statement to CNN:
CNN’s narrative that the Central Intelligence Agency makes life-or-death decisions based on anything other than objective analysis and sound collection is simply false. Misguided speculation that the President’s handling of our nation’s most sensitive intelligence—which he has access to each and every day—drove an alleged exfiltration operation is inaccurate.
However, this oddly circuitous statement is hard to parse, and it’s not clear exactly what it is denying in the first place. The first sentence doesn’t seem to contradict anything in the story, despite it referring to CNN’s “narrative” as “simply false.”
The Times story also adds fascinating context for the story. It says the source, who had been secretly recruited by the U.S. decades ago and rose in the ranks to become close to President Vladimir Putin, was actually key in the American intelligence community’s assessment of Russia and Putin’s intentions in interfering in the 2016 election. Indeed, it says this source confirmed that Putin “affirmatively favored Donald J. Trump’s election and personally ordered the hacking of the Democratic National Committee.”
Officials reportedly became worried after the source refused exfiltration in 2016 that they may have been tricked. The source, some feared, may have been a double agent feeding the U.S. bad information, which could have cast doubt on the CIA’s conclusions about the 2016 interference. However, the doubts were allayed in 2017 after the successful extraction, the report said. The identity of the source and source’s current location have not been revealed for continuing safety concerns.
The source’s extraction “effectively blinded American intelligence officials to the view from inside Russia,” Times reported. However, some noted that this could be spin from the CIA, which would benefit if Russia falsely believed U.S. intelligence capabilities were worse than they actually are.