The New York Times published an article last week that claimed “Kremlin Sources Go Quiet, Leaving C.I.A. in the Dark About Putin’s Plans for Midterms.” Reporters Julian E. Barnes and Matthew Rosenberg write that informants close to Russian President Vladimir Putin were talking to U.S. intelligence, but have recently clammed up.
The reporters give three possible reasons, after saying officials don’t think they were compromised or killed. They may have been spooked by more aggressive Russian counterintelligence. Information collection may have been dampened by the expulsion of American intelligence officials from Moscow — in response to American expulsion of Russian officers from the United States. But there’s another theory for what’s gone on, and let’s see if you buy it: Congressional oversight by Republicans is to blame.
Yes, really. “[O]fficials also raised the possibility that the outing of an F.B.I. informant under scrutiny by the House intelligence committee — an examination encouraged by President Trump — has had a chilling effect on intelligence collection,” the story claims. Even just this sentence has massive problems.
1. The New York Times Outed the Informant, Not Congress
Note the use of the passive language that obscures who did — and who did not — out the FBI informant. In the beginning of May, U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials repeatedly leaked extremely sensitive information about a top secret source while claiming that confidentially sharing information about the source with congressional investigators would harm U.S. national security and potentially risk the source’s life.
The officials leaked specific information that made it extremely easy to directly identify the source on three separate occasions to reporters at the Washington Post and New York Times. Shortly thereafter, the source was identified. None of the information was sourced to congressional investigators.
Even the fact of the use of human informants against the Trump campaign was not shared by congressional investigators looking into the matter. In the spring, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence subpoenaed the Justice Department for information about irregularities with methods used in the unprecedented investigation targeting Trump’s campaign for president.
Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., refused to discuss the request’s details. As part of the fight to obstruct that request, officials told media outlets that complying with the request would harm a human informant. Details about the informant were shared with The New York Times and Washington Post.
The Washington Post‘s May 8 article, “Secret intelligence source who aided Mueller probe is at center of latest clash between Nunes and Justice Dept,” broke the news that the information Congress sought dealt with “a top-secret intelligence source.” It revealed that the source was a U.S. citizen who had worked with the CIA and the FBI.
The May 16 The New York Times article broke the use of informants to spy on the Trump campaign (or secretly gather information for the government on the Trump campaign, if you prefer a lengthier phrase) wide open. The Times published that at least one informant was being run against the campaign, and that one of the informants met with multiple Trump campaign affiliates, including Carter Page and George Papadopolous.
A May 17 article in the Washington Post shared more details, such as that the source has worked on multiple investigations, some of which were “live” and ongoing. They also say the informant provided information to the Russia investigation both before the special counsel’s appointment in May 2017 and afterward.
Shortly after these reports outing the identity of the informant ran, various media outlets including The New York Times published the name of the informant: Stefan Halper.
2. Alleged Trump Support for Oversight Followed The New York Times‘ Outing
The Times writes of “the outing of an F.B.I. informant under scrutiny by the House intelligence committee — an examination encouraged by President Trump.” Later, the Times writes, “This year, the identity of an F.B.I. informant, Stefan Halper, became public after House lawmakers sought information on him and the White House allowed the information to be shared.”
The suggestion is that Trump supports outing the FBI informant. To support the claim, the Times links to a story with the words “encouraged by President Trump.” However, the story linked does not support the claim at all.
The date on the story is July 12, two months after Halper’s name was published. “White House Orders Broader Access to Files About F.B.I. Informant,” by Mark Mazzetti, is not about the outing of the informant, but about the White House telling its Justice Department to provide more information to congressional overseers who sought it, months after law enforcement and intelligence officials were sharing key details about Halper with reporters as part of their bid to quash complying with congressional requests for information.
The July 12 story clearly names Halper and describes his work, accepting the claim for why the informant was sent to
spy secretly gather information on Trump campaign advisors on behalf of the federal government:
During the summer of 2016, the F.B.I. sent an informant to meet with two Trump campaign advisers after the bureau had received information that the two men had suspicious contacts linked to Russia. The informant, Stefan Halper, an American academic who teaches at Cambridge University in England, had meetings with both Carter Page and George Papadopoulos to gain a better understanding of their contacts with Russians.
3. The Story Refutes Its Own Claim
The article explains that it can’t give indirect evidence that Halper’s outing by law enforcement and intelligence officials (an outing that keeps being blamed on Congress despite their lack of involvement) hurt any source relationships. But then the article flat-out says there’s no direct evidence, either:
Current American officials said there is no direct evidence that the exposure of Mr. Halper has been cited by overseas informants as a source of concern.
This admission is in the 31st paragraph of the 33-paragraph story about how congressional oversight is dangerous.
What’s Going On?
The most interesting part of the story is that the expulsion of dozens of Russian diplomats in recent years may have come at the cost of U.S. intelligence-gathering efforts in Moscow, since Russia responded to some of the expulsions in a tit-for-tat move.
Apart from that, the story fails on multiple levels to make its central claim that congressional oversight regarding the use of human informants against the Trump campaign is hurting intelligence-gathering in Moscow. For one thing, there’s no evidence. For another, the story fails to mention that Halper’s outing came not from congressional oversight but from leaks by law enforcement and intelligence officials (at least, if the stories publishing the details are to be believed).
Nunes, for his part, said leaks kept occurring after meetings with Justice and FBI officials, despite the failure of these meetings to provide sufficient information. He notes that Halper’s identity leaked shortly after he and Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., were supposed to receive a briefing from DOJ officials, timing he found suspicious:
Since the moment congressional overseers sought information on the unorthodox methods used to
spy on secretly gather information on the Trump campaign, Justice officials have claimed that compliance would have deleterious effects. If the claim is true, leaky officials should have refrained from sharing information with the media about the human informant. But to continue to pin blame not on the government leakers but those trying to hold government officials accountable is unbecoming of a news organization.
One can reasonably wonder if this unsubstantiated story is an attempt to claim that further transparency is somehow bad for the republic and her institutions, instead of a necessary step toward accountability and integrity for our law enforcement and counterintelligence agencies.