By Gregg Re | Fox News
The Central Intelligence Agency on Monday evening slammed what it called CNN’s “misguided” and “simply false” reporting, after the cable channel’s chief national security correspondent authored a hole-filled piece claiming that the CIA had pulled a high-level spy out of Russia because President Trump had “repeatedly mishandled classified intelligence and could contribute to exposing the covert source as a spy.”
The extraordinary CIA rebuke came as The New York Times published a bombshell piece late in the evening, which largely contradicted CNN’s reporting. According to the Times, CIA officials “made the arduous decision in late 2016 to offer to extract the source from Russia” — weeks before Trump even took office.
Concerns about media reporting on Russian election interference drove the decision, according to the Times, which described the source as “the American government’s best insight into the thinking of and orders” from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“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 Times wrote.
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The purported spy refused the 2016 offer of extraction, the Times reported, citing family concerns. But the CIA “pressed again months later after more media inquiries” threatened the source, and he relented, according to the paper.
The whirlwind developments continued into the night on Monday, when NBC News exclusively reported that a possible Russia spy was now living under apparent U.S. protection, using his true identity, in Washington, D.C. — and that his life could be in danger. Sources told NBC News that the Russian living in Washington was the same individual who was referenced in the reporting by CNN and the Times, and NBC said he “fits the profile of someone who may have had access to information about Putin’s activities.”
An NBC reporter who knocked at the Russian’s door was confronted by unidentified men in an SUV, presumed to be security personnel, within minutes. Speculation about the purported spy’s identity, using publicly available records, quickly circulated on social media after NBC News’ report revealed identifiable details about his living situation. Russian officials reportedly said the man at the center of those reports, Oleg Smolenkov, worked in the presidential administration but was fired and did not have direct access to Putin.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a reception for graduates of Russian military education institutions in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on Thursday, June 27, 2019. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
“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,” CIA Director for Public Affairs Brittany Bramell said in the agency’s statement.
Bramwell continued: “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.”
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According to the report by CNN chief national correspondent and former Obama administration official Jim Sciutto, 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.”
The disclosure “prompted intelligence officials to renew earlier discussions about the potential risk of exposure,” CNN reported.
Sciutto later posted on Twitter, after the Times report was published, that the double agent in jeopardy had the “remarkable ability to take photos of presidential documents,” as well as “direct access” to Putin.
“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.”— CIA Director for Public Affairs Brittany Bramell
It was not clear from the CNN piece how exactly Trump’s comments in the Oval Office would have further compromised the Russian source.
Numerous other holes quickly surfaced in CNN’s reporting. Commentator Aaron Mate pointed out in a Twitter thread that several major news organizations had previously cited a high-level official in the Russian government as a source — suggesting that the intelligence community itself, not Trump, had compromised the spy.
For example, The Washington Post reported in June 2017 of “‘sourcing deep inside the Russian government’ — so deep that it purportedly ‘captured Putin’s specific instructions’ to launch a pro-Trump influence campaign,” Matte noted.
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And the Times reported in August 2018 of “anonymous intel officials complaining that their ‘vital Kremlin informants have largely gone silent.'” But “if these Kremlin informants are so vital, why are US intel officials talking about them?” Matte asked.
The source resurfaced in May 2019, when the Times “reported on intel fears of this source being exposed.”
“Again, the irony is lost that it’s the ones who are complaining who are the ones revealing this supposed source,” Matte wrote. “So there’s a pattern here of intel leaks in order to: create a false link between Trump-Russia; to reveal supposed high-level Russian sources that advance the Russiagate narrative & then falsely blame Trump for these sources’ supposed vulnerability.”
Fox News understands that the CIA typically makes the decision to withdraw an asset only after a long deliberative process, and that the move would not ordinarily be taken based on a single event involving classified information, as CNN implied.
CNN has been faulted for its inaccurate intelligence reporting in the past. In December 2017, CNN falsely reported that Donald Trump, Jr. had advance access to hacked WikiLeaks emails, in what Glenn Greenwald called “one of the most humiliating spectacles in the history of the U.S. media.” Several of the organization’s much-touted journalists were forced out earlier that year for a separate false Russia bombshell.
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CNN did not immediately reply to Fox News’ request for comment. Sciutto claimed on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” late Monday that the Times had “confirmed” his reporting. Numerous other news organizations, including Vox, The Hill, and the Guardian, picked up CNN’s original story uncritically.
The developments led to speculation as to who had leaked the information to CNN — especially in light of previous anti-Trump leaks that found their way from the intelligence community to CNN’s airwaves — and led commentators to again fault the accuracy of CNN’s initial reporting.
“In their fervor to blame President Trump for mishandling classified information, CNN potentially risked lives,” a source familiar with the matter told The Daily Wire. “They had multiple on-the-record quotes from Administration officials telling them. Their story was not only wrong, but irresponsible and dangerous, and CNN decided to run with it anyway.”
Fox News’ Catherine Herridge contributed to this report. Gregg Re is a lawyer and editor based in Los Angeles.