Critics of the shift in approach say it seems designed to appease the president.
The CIA has made it harder for intelligence about Russia to reach the White House, stoking fears among current and former officials that information is being suppressed to please a president known to erupt in anger whenever he is confronted with bad news about Moscow.
Nine current and former officials said in interviews that CIA Director Gina Haspel has become extremely cautious about which, if any, Russia-related intelligence products make their way to President Donald Trump’s desk. Haspel also has been keeping a close eye on the agency’s fabled “Russia House,” whose analysts she often disagrees with and sometimes accuses of purposefully misleading her.
Last year, three of the people said, Haspel tasked the CIA’s general counsel, Courtney Elwood, with reviewing virtually every product that comes out of Russia House, which is home to analysts and targeters who are experts in Russia and the post-Soviet space, before it “goes downtown” to the White House. One former CIA lawyer called it “unprecedented that a general counsel would be involved to this extent.”
Four of the people said the change has resulted in less intelligence on Russia making its way to the White House, but the exact reason for that — whether Elwood has been blocking it, or whether Russia officers have become disillusioned and are producing less, or even self-censoring for fear of being reprimanded — is less clear.
One administration official explained the reduced Russia-related intelligence flow from CIA to the National Security Council as a matter of “quality over quantity.” Another administration official said that while the CIA is not the only agency that provides intelligence to the NSC, this official’s perception was that the CIA was “certainly” exhibiting an “abundance of caution” about the Russia intelligence it was sending to the NSC, beginning around the time of Trump’s impeachment proceedings. A whistleblower complaint about Trump from a CIA analyst, which Elwood relayed to NSC lawyer John Eisenberg at the time, is what sparked Trump’s impeachment — feeding the mistrust toward Russia-related intelligence inside the White House and among the agency’s top ranks.
The heightened scrutiny within the CIA comes as the Justice Department, through prosecutor John Durham, continues to investigate the intelligence community’s findings about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election — and particularly the conclusion drawn by Russia analysts that Russian President Vladimir Putin interfered specifically to boost Trump’s candidacy rather than just sow chaos.
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