Intel probe puts CIA’s Haspel in a bind

By Natasha Bertrand

The prosecutor appointed by Attorney General Bill Barr to examine the origins of the Russia investigation is focusing much of his attention on the CIA, placing the agency’s director, Gina Haspel, at the center of a politically toxic tug-of-war between the Justice Department and the intelligence community.

The prosecutor, John Durham, has reportedly asked the CIA for former director John Brennan’s communications as he examines the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment that concluded Russian President Vladimir Putin intervened in the election specifically to help Donald Trump.

Barr has been skeptical of the agency’s conclusions about Putin’s motivations, despite corroboration by the GOP-led Senate Intelligence Committee and an adversarial review by former CIA Director Mike Pompeo.

But intelligence community veterans say the Durham probe could force Haspel to choose between protecting her agency from Trump’s wrath and bowing to Barr’s wishes; they point to FBI chief Chris Wray, who has found himself at odds with the president in recent weeks over a watchdog report about the bureau’s conduct in the Russia probe.

And they say the Barr-Durham probe represents overreach by an attorney general who seems to have already made up his mind and is bent on imposing his own skeptical view of the Russia investigation on the intelligence community.

Haspel, a veteran intelligence officer known for her fierce loyalty to the CIA and acute political antennae, has rarely made headlines during her 19-month tenure atop the nation’s top spy agency, turning her focus inward on building morale and boosting recruitment. That strategy has kept her out of Trump’s sights and largely protected the CIA’s more than 20,000 employees from the kinds of political attacks that have hobbled the FBI.

When it comes to Durham, Haspel is likely “confident there has been no serious wrongdoing, and will therefore find a means to cooperate” with the investigation, said John Sipher, a 28-year CIA veteran.

Trump often attacks the intelligence community, and said last summer that “the intelligence agencies have run amok” and needed to be reined in. But he’s never openly criticized Haspel, instead calling her “highly respected” and tweeting last year that “there is nobody even close to run the CIA!”

Haspel’s plight, though, may depend on how deeply Durham investigates an uncorroborated theory pushed by Trump allies that a key player in the Russia probe, a Russia-linked professor named Joseph Mifsud, was actually a Western intelligence asset sent to discredit the Trump campaign — and that the CIA, under Brennan, was somehow involved.

Haspel was the CIA’s station chief in London in 2016 when the U.S. Embassy there was made aware of Mifsud’s contact with a Trump campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, by Australian diplomat Alexander Downer. Haspel was briefed on Downer’s outreach to the embassy, according to a person familiar with the matter, but it’s unclear whether she was then made aware of the FBI’s plans to interview him or knew about the bureau’s use of an informant — University of Cambridge professor Stefan Halper — in London.

An inspector general report released earlier this month said the embassy’s deputy chief of mission at the time briefed the FBI’s legal attache and another official—whose title is redacted, but is Haspel, according to another person familiar with the matter—on Downer’s outreach. The attache told the inspector general that Haspel, upon being briefed, said the Downer information sounded “like an FBI matter.”

One former intelligence official said it’s unlikely Haspel would have been read in to the FBI’s subsequent operation given how closely held it was within the bureau and the Justice Department. But Trump’s allies have been asking questions about what Haspel knew about the probe since before she was sworn in as director.

Barr, who has taken a hands-on approach to the Durham investigation, was reportedly in London over the summer discussing the probe with British intelligence officials. He told NBC that the purpose of his recent travel to the U.K. and other friendly foreign governments “was to introduce Durham to the appropriate people and set up a channel through which he could work with these countries.”

Among those Durham interviewed while in London was Terrence Dudley, according to a person with knowledge of the interview. Dudley, a defense attache at the U.S. embassy, met with Papadopoulos in London several times in 2016 and was also interviewed as part of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. Dudley did not return a request for comment.

“A U.S. attorney doesn’t just show up to your doorstep in some of these countries and say ‘Hey, I want to talk to your intelligence people,” Barr said. “The countries wanted to initially talk to me to figure out, ‘What is this about? What are the ground rules? Is this going to be a criminal case?’”

Former CIA officials, however, said a U.S. attorney shouldn’t be showing up at a foreign government intelligence service’s doorstep at all.

“It is unprecedented and inappropriate to do this via Justice Department prosecutors, who will tend to apply the standards of a courtroom to the more nuanced, and often more challenging world of intelligence analysis,” said John McLaughlin, who served as both deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004.

Sipher asked why such a review would be “done over the head of” the intelligence community’s inspector general.

“I find this troubling, and I suspect many inside the intelligence community do as well,” Sipher said, specifically pointing to the CIA’s Brennan records review. The inquiry “was initiated and sold in a partisan manner and this news only highlights that concern,” he said.

Another issue former officials have flagged: It isn’t clear whether Durham has consulted with the intelligence community inspector general, Michael Atkinson, as part of his review, which reportedly evolved into a criminal probe in October.

Normally, potential intelligence community misconduct is reviewed by an agency’s internal watchdog, who would then recommend criminal charges if warranted to a U.S. attorney with jurisdiction, noted Greg Brower, a former FBI assistant director.

“It appears that the cart has been put before the horse,” said Brower. “Here, Durham appears to be acting as a sort of super IG and prosecutor in one. The difference: Durham works for the attorney general, while the IC IG, like any IG, operates independently from executive branch direction.”

In May, Trump gave Barr unprecedented authority to review the intelligence community’s “surveillance activities” during the 2016 election, issuing a sweeping declassification order that granted Barr extensive powers over the nation’s secrets.

The attorney general has since emerged as a chief protector and defender of the president, going so far as to disagree publicly with a finding by DOJ’s inspector general that the FBI’s Russia probe was properly predicated. And he’s now leaning on Durham’s investigation to produce a more fulsome picture of the intelligence community’s actions in 2016, he told Fox last week.

“He is looking at all the conduct, both before and after the election,” Barr said of Durham. “I certainly will rely on John.”