We don’t know much about the memo compiled by a former M16 official alleging collaboration between Donald Trump’s campaign and the Russian government as well as salacious “kompromat” that could be used to blackmail the incoming president. The contents are explosive, but also unverified. The fact that the information was given to the president and key members of Congress, however, is not all that unusual, according to former FBI and CIA officials.
After investigating over the summer, intelligence officials reportedly presented the classified information to President Obama and Trump Friday as a two-page summary attached to a larger report about Russia’s role in the U.S. election. Trump’s senior advisor, Kellyanne Conway, denied the president-elect knew about the report, and Trump has labeled it “fake news.”
But former intelligence officials speaking to VICE News said it’s normal for intelligence briefings to the president and other top officials to contain unverified information like that in the memo, which had been circulating for weeks before BuzzFeed published it in full Tuesday night.
“If you’re a department head, you’re thinking, ‘My boss should know about this before the media gets it,’” said Milan Patel, a former supervisory special agent with the FBI’s cyber division and current managing director of K2 Intelligence’s Cyber Defense practice. “It’s a very natural part of bringing your leadership up to speed. You want to tell them everything you know but also everything you’ve heard.”
The report notably contains errors, among them, that Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, secretly met with the Kremlin in August 2016 in the Czech Republic to arrange compensation for Russian hackers working against Hillary Clinton. Cohen denied he had ever traveled to Prague, and unnamed officials told the Wall Street Journal the FBI found no evidence he had.
Intelligence officials told multiple publications that they considered the allegations so explosive that they needed to make the current and incoming executive branch aware of them.
While agencies naturally check the accuracy of information, not all the reports they bring to the president or other top governmental officials are 100 percent verified. Bob Anderson, former executive assistant of the FBI now serving as managing director of Navigant’s global information security program, said he “isn’t surprised at all” that intelligence officials decided to share the memo. Anderson, who conducted years of similar briefings, said the FBI brings information to a high level of government for two reasons: if it affects national security or involves a high-ranking individual.
“In [the latter] case,” he explained, “they’re going to err on the side of caution to brief their bosses and say, ‘Hey, this came in. We don’t know if it’s true, but we’re doing something about it.’”
Roughly the same is true for the CIA, although officials would have to consider the information “explosive, highly sensitive, and quite serious,” according to Glenn Carle, a 23-year-veteran of the agency who retired as the Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Transnational Threats.
While Carle noted that intelligence is never certain, “the intelligence community would only brief senior lawmakers if they thought the issue was so critical, they had to do it,” he said, also noting that “unanimous agreement” among the top agencies is a “really, really big deal.” The four most senior intelligence officials — the director of national intelligence and the heads of the FBI, CIA, and NSA — presented the memo’s summary.
“These assertions, even if not true, affect our nationality security, and if true, are even more dramatic,” Carle added.
Another step in the intelligence community’s investigation drawing some interest is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, also known as the FISA court, rejecting at least an initial request from the FBI to surveil four members of the Trump team based on allegations in the memo, as reported by the Guardian. The Week called the FISA court “famously agreeable,” highlighting its rejection of just 11 requests since its creation, a rate of .03 percent.
Despite the statistics, all the former intelligence officials who spoke to VICE News dismissed the court’s denial as evidence of the memo’s lack of foundation. The court approves requests at a high rate because the requests go through considerable layers of checks before arriving before the judges, Patel explained. Requests are drafted at the field office level by agents before facing approval from FBI supervisors and then the Department of Justice. The court, intended as a check on the intelligence community, however, faces heavy criticism, even from former FISA court judges, that it has become a rubber stamp machine for the government’s infringement on civil liberties.
Carle also speculated the judges may have refused the request out of concern for interfering with the electoral process, the same reason cited by the Obama administration for staying mum on Russia’s hacking of the Democratic National Committee emails. Still, he called Trump’s ties to Russia, both known and speculative, “the greatest crisis [the U.S.] has faced since 1861 to our democracy.”
While such outlandish and dangerous allegations against an incoming president are inherently abnormal, the intelligence community’s handling seems par for the course.
Usually, the public just doesn’t know about it.