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Intel officials defend briefing Trump on allegations

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 1/12/2017 Kevin Johnson
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WASHINGTON — Targets of foreign intelligence, including presidents, need to know the unsubstantiated and potentially compromising personal information that could be used against them, intelligence and law enforcement experts say.

While the public disclosure of the document summarized in the briefing materials has widened a troubling rift between President-elect Donald Trump and the U.S. intelligence community, the former officials said top spy agency directors were likely acting responsibly, even if their only aim was to warn Trump of the information’s existence and the imminent risk that it would be made public.

Trump was told about the information during a meeting with top intelligence officials last Friday. “It's all fake news. It’s phony stuff. It didn’t happen,” he said at his press conference Tuesday. “I read what was released, and I think it’s a disgrace. It's an absolute disgrace."

A U.S. official familiar with the matter has said that the information, the product of a political opposition research report compiled by a former British intelligence officer, was included in the briefing materials, at least in part, because it had been widely circulated among U.S. lawmakers, journalists and others.The identity of the former British intelligence officer, Chris Steele, was first disclosed Wednesday by The Wall Street Journal. Steele is now a director of London-based Orbis Business Intelligence Ltd.  

The Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, said in a statement late Wednesday that U.S. intelligence "has not made any judgment" that the information in that report is reliable, and said the agencies did not rely on it "in any way." Clapper said intelligence agencies nonetheless have an obligation "to ensure that policymakers are provided with the fullest possible picture of any matters that might affect national security." 

Following a conversation with Trump on Wednesday evening, Clapper, the nation's outgoing spy chief, said he "expressed profound dismay" to the president-elect about leaks to the media. 

The information compiled by Steele was allegedly gathered from Russian operatives. The opposition research operation began as the  result of a Republican interest, according to the U.S. official. It later became part of a Democratic interest, the official said.

Former CIA director James Woolsey. © KAREN BLEIER, AFP/Getty Images Former CIA director James Woolsey.

Campaign finance disclosures with the Federal Election Commission do not show any disbursements directly to Steele's company from U.S. candidates or campaigns in the 2016 election cycle.

Ex-CIA director James Woolsey, a former adviser to Trump, declined to comment Wednesday on whether the president-elect's team was aware of the information before it was carried into last week's intelligence briefing. But Woolsey said top government leaders should get the information to "get an accurate perception of what is out there in order to do their jobs.''

"It shouldn't be a risk to provide this kind of information to a cleared person,'' Woolsey said, referring to top officials with appropriate security clearances. "The problem is that it was made public.''

Trump blamed the public disclosure of the information on U.S. intelligence agencies, comparing it to the tactics of "Nazi Germany.''

Late Tuesday, BuzzFeed published the raw, unsupported 35-page dossier on its website after CNN first disclosed that a summary of the material — purporting to link Trump to long-standing back-channel communications with the Kremlin and other personal conduct — had been included in the briefing materials brought to Trump last week.

Though she said it might be necessary to alert someone who was a “victim of any kind of influence campaign.”

A measure of how broadly the material had been circulating emerged Wednesday when Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., acknowledged turning over the "sensitive information'' to the FBI last month.

“Late last year, I received sensitive information that has since been made public,'' McCain said in a statement. "Upon examination of the contents, and unable to make a judgment about their accuracy, I delivered the information to the director of the FBI. That has been the extent of my contact with the FBI or any other government agency regarding this issue.”

Reporters from various news outlets also had sought confirmation of the information with Rick Wilson, a GOP strategist, but he hadn’t seen a copy of the document before Tuesday and denied passing any copies to U.S. intelligence.

“Many, many, many (people saw the report) in recent months because it’s a small enough circle of people and reporters and others are running into each other and crossing trails as they went through this thing,” Wilson said Wednesday.

The U.S. official with knowledge of the matter confirmed Wednesday that McCain gave material to the FBI. The same documents, however, had been in the possession of the bureau months before McCain's contact, said the official who is not authorized to comment publicly.

Authorities have been examining the information since it was first obtained, but the official said that the salacious contents of it have remained unsubstantiated. As authorities became aware of the raw document's widening circulation and the imminent possibility that could be made public, top officials decided to include the summary as an appendix to the packet compiled to brief the president-elect on Russia's efforts to influence the U.S. election.

"These presidential briefings are always evolving and changing based on who occupies the office,'' said former FBI assistant director Ron Hosko. "But I think there is a naivete on the part of the public and press about the kind of influence campaigns that countries like Russia and China are pursuing. These are nation states who are all about getting an advantage in our world. Even if this information is unsubstantiated, it ought to be included (in a briefing) as something that could be used against a president.''

Attorney General Loretta Lynch on Wednesday declined to comment on the information that was briefed to the president-elect.

Contributing: Brad Heath and Nick Penzenstadler

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