U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to back Donald Trump’s campaign over that of rival Hillary Clinton was based on sound intelligence-gathering processes and analysis, the Senate Intelligence Committee said in a report released Tuesday.
While reviewing intelligence agencies’ assessment of the Kremlin’s interference, the committee considered two questions: Did the final conclusion meet the task given to the agencies by President Barack Obama, and was the analysis supported by the intelligence presented?
“We found the ICA met both criteria,” Intelligence Chairman Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., said in a statement, referring to the Intelligence Community Assessment that was presented to Obama on Dec. 30, 2016, in a classified form. An unclassified version was made public on Jan. 6, 2017.
The assessment “reflects strong tradecraft, sound analytical reasoning, and proper justification of disagreement in the one analytical line where it occurred,” Burr said. “The Committee found no reason to dispute the Intelligence Community’s conclusions.”
The disagreement refers to the “high confidence” the CIA and the FBI expressed at that time in their assessment that Russian President Vladimir Putin had expressed a preference for Trump over Clinton. The National Security Agency, which also participated in the assessment, said it had “moderate confidence” in that conclusion.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the vice chairman of the committee, said the intelligence assessment “correctly found the Russians interfered in our 2016 election to hurt Secretary Clinton and help the candidacy of Donald Trump.”
The committee’s review of highly classified material and underlying information “found that this and other conclusions were well-supported,” Warner said. “There is certainly no reason to doubt that the Russians’ success in 2016 is leading them to try again in 2020, and we must not be caught unprepared.”
The Senate Intelligence Committee has for years been examining the entire effort mounted by Moscow during the 2016 election. Its previous reports addressed how the Kremlin attacked U.S. election infrastructure, Moscow’s use of social media platforms to confuse and anger American voters, and the U.S. response to Russian efforts. The report released Tuesday is the review of the intelligence assessment. The fifth and final volume will address counterintelligence findings.
The heavily redacted report also found that the intelligence agencies had made a “clear argument that the manner and aggressiveness of Russia’s election interference was unprecedented.”
Although Obama had asked then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to also assess if there was foreign interference in the 2008 and 2012 elections, intelligence officials were “working under significant time constraint” to complete such a review, the Senate report said.
The final intelligence assessment did not include any information from former British spy Christopher Steele — whose allegations about blackmail information held by Moscow against Trump have not been proven — and none of the conclusions was based on the unproven information, the Senate report said. A summary of Steele’s material was appended in an annex at the insistence of FBI officials, the report said.
A long road
The Senate Intelligence Committee's work is the only congressional review that began in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election and is still ongoing. The House Intelligence Committee began a similar review under then-Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., but it devolved into a partisan fight, with the Republicans on the panel concluding in March 2018 that Moscow did not attempt to assist the Trump campaign.
The House probe was compromised from the start after Nunes in March 2017 made a then-secret trip to the White House to look at documents alleging that Trump campaign aide Carter Page had been under FBI surveillance and his identity had been unmasked by former Obama administration officials. After the incident, Nunes recused himself from the committee’s probe of Russian interference, and his allegations eventually fell apart.
The Justice Department’s inspector general in December 2019 found that the FBI’s request for surveillance on Page was flawed and that the agency’s overall process for seeking court approval under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was riddled with errors.
Trump himself has continued to falsely allege that Russian interference in the 2016 election was a hoax and that the real culprit may have been Ukraine.