In an exclusive report Monday, CNN placed at least partial blame on President Donald Trump after the CIA was forced to move to extract a high-level asset with connections to Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2017.
However, new reporting revealed that not only is Trump not to blame for the spy extraction but also that former President Barack Obama's administration was at least partially culpable.
What did CNN claim?
The cable outlet claimed the exfiltration was made in response to Trump sharing sensitive intelligence with top Russian officials:
A person directly involved in the discussions said that the removal of the Russian was driven, in part, by concerns that President Donald Trump and his administration repeatedly mishandled classified intelligence and could contribute to exposing the covert source as a spy.
The decision to carry out the extraction occurred soon after a May 2017 meeting in the Oval Office in which Trump discussed highly classified intelligence with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and then-Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak. The intelligence, concerning ISIS in Syria, had been provided by Israel.
In a statement Monday, the CIA slammed CNN's reporting.
"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," agency spokeswoman Brittany Bramell said. "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."
What do new reports say?
Reporting from the New York Times and Washington Post dispute CNN's allegations.
According to the Times, the CIA sought to extract the asset in 2016 — prior to Trump becoming president — over exposure concerns after top U.S. officials in the Obama administration "revealed the severity of Russia's election interference with unusual detail."
In fact, there is no evidence Trump's actions, though controversial, compromised the asset, the Times reported (emphasis added):
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.
The Post also confirmed that Trump's intelligence disclosure and the spy extraction were not related (emphasis added):
The exfiltration took place sometime after an Oval Office meeting in May 2017, when President Trump revealed highly classified counterterrorism information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador, said the current and former officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive operation.
That disclosure alarmed U.S. national security officials, but it was not the reason for the decision to remove the CIA asset, according to the current and former officials.
What about Obama?
According to the Post, top U.S. national security officials became concerned about the safety of the Moscow asset after the Obama administration publicly blamed Russia for election interference in the fall 2016.
But action taken by Obama in January 2017, when his administration released a detailed report unequivocally blaming Putin for interfering in the election, made exfiltrating the Moscow spy a top priority.
"That's a pretty remarkable intelligence community product — much more specific than what you normally see," one U.S. official told the Post of the Obama report. "It's very expected that potential U.S. intelligence assets in Russia would be under a higher level of scrutiny by their own intelligence services."
"It's quite likely that the U.S. intelligence community would already be taking a hard look at extracting any U.S. assets who would have been subject to increased levels of scrutiny," the official said, explaining that top Russian officials "undoubtedly would have been conducting a review as to who within Putin's inner circle would have had access to the information."