WASHINGTON — Intelligence professionals warned Friday that President Donald Trump’s decision to give his loyal attorney general carte blanche to disclose still-secret material from the Russia investigation will let William Barr cherry-pick intelligence to paint a misleading picture about what started the probe.
The president claims his campaign was spied upon, though Trump administration officials have said they have no specific evidence that anything illegal was done when the campaign came under FBI surveillance that was approved by a court.
On Thursday, Trump gave Barr full authority to publicly disclose information about the origins of the investigation the president has repeatedly dismissed as a “hoax.”
“You have to get down to what happened because what happened is a tremendous blight on our country,” Trump said, adding that Barr is highly respected and will be impartial in reviewing documents.
But Trump’s critics are wary of leaving the decision of what intelligence to release — and what should remain hidden — in Barr’s hands. Barr is a staunch Trump defender who Democrats say spun special counsel Robert Mueller’s report in Trump’s favor, playing down aspects suggesting possible criminal conduct. Mueller has also complained to Barr about his handling of the release of the report.
That has prompted concern that Barr will take a similar approach to his review of the origins of Mueller’s probe, releasing intelligence backing Trump’s claims that it was politically motivated, while keeping classified evidence demonstrating the need for the probe.
Barr has already said he believes “spying did occur” on the Trump campaign, but he also made clear at a Senate hearing that any surveillance wasn’t necessarily illegal or improper.
Barr has asked the U.S. attorney in Connecticut to examine the origins of the Russia investigation to find out if intelligence and surveillance methods used during the probe were lawful and appropriate.
Intelligence experts claim Trump is trying to do an end-run around U.S. spy agencies. They say having someone outside the intelligence community deciding what can be released jeopardizes sources and undercuts America’s partnership with spy agencies in friendly nations, including some that shared information with the U.S. regarding the Russia probe.
Traditionally, when Congress, for instance, asks for material to be declassified, the request is forwarded to the intelligence agencies where the information originated or resides. Those agencies recommend what part, if any, can be declassified without jeopardizing intelligence sources or spy craft. Then, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence coordinates the feedback from all the agencies and makes a decision.
National Intelligence Director Dan Coats said in a statement Friday that 17 intelligence agencies he represents will provide the Justice Department all appropriate information needed for its review of intelligence activities related to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Coats also said he’s confident Barr will work in accordance with “long-established standards to protect highly-sensitive classified information that, if publicly released, would put our national security at risk.”
But while Trump’s memorandum instructs Barr to consult with appropriate intelligence agencies “to the extent he deems it practicable” before he releases anything, it doesn’t require him to do so.
This has alarmed Trump critics, who have served in high-level U.S. intelligence posts.
“It is potentially dangerous if the attorney general were to declassify something the director of national intelligence thought should be kept classified, as the director is in the best position to judge the damage to intelligence sources and methods,” said Michael Morell, a former U.S. intelligence official and host of the Intelligence Matters podcast.
Morell said Trump should never have given Barr the declassification authority. “It is yet another step that will raise questions among our allies and partners about whether to share sensitive intelligence with us,” he said.
David Kris, former head of the Justice Department’s national security division, said it’s “very unusual — unprecedented in my experience — for a non-intelligence officer to be given absolute declassification authority over the intelligence.”
Kris, now a consultant at Culper Partners, said people expect the nation’s top law enforcement officer to be nonpartisan and there is now fear the apolitical nature of intelligence could be threatened.
John McLaughlin, a former deputy director of the CIA who served as acting director in 2004, tweeted, “Giving Barr declassification authority for this investigation is a really bad idea.” He said congressional intelligence committees “need to stand in the door on this one.”
California Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House intelligence committee, vowed to conduct oversight of any effort to selectively reveal and distort classified information or manipulate the declassification system.
“The clear intent of this abuse of power is to override longstanding rules governing classified information to serve the president’s political interests, advance his ‘deep state’ narrative, and target his political rivals,” Schiff said.
Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, accused Trump and Barr of politicizing the intelligence that people risked their lives to gather. That “will make it harder for the intelligence community to do their jobs protecting this country from those who wish to do us harm.”
But Rep. Mark Meadows, one of Trump’s congressional allies, said Trump’s directive reflected the president’s pledge for an open and transparent investigation.
Meadows tweeted: “Outstanding — President Trump authorizing the Attorney General to declassify documents related to surveillance during the 2016 election. Americans are going to learn the truth about what occurred at their Justice Department.”
Associated Press writer Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.