New details about a high-level CIA informant close to the Kremlin cast doubt on President Trump playing a role in the lead-up to the decision to extract the individual from Russia in 2017.
Hours after CNN reported Trump's handling of classified information was the inciting incident leading to this spy's extraction, a follow-up story from the New York Times cited sources who insisted media scrutiny alone is what jeopardized the safety of this source.
The informant, recruited by the CIA decades ago, has been described as a mid-level Russian official who was outside Vladimir Putin's inner circle, and yet saw Putin on a regular basis and was privy to high-level information. This Moscow spy's intel was key to the U.S. intelligence community's conclusion that Putin himself ordered a Russian interference campaign in the U.S. 2016 election.
The identity of this ex-informant has not been revealed in order protect him or her from Russian reprisal.
CNN's Jim Sciutto reported the informant was extracted in 2017 after Trump met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in the Oval Office in May 2017 and disclosed some classified information about an anti-ISIS operation in Syria. Although CNN mentioned that concerns for the informant's safety dated back to the end of the Obama administration, the report stressed that Trump's actions were the inciting incident to revisit prior conversations.
But the New York Times tells a different story and led to Sciutto to acknowledge there is more than what he initially reported.
The follow-up report said media inquiries about CIA sources, following the U.S. intelligence community's detailed statements blaming Putin for directing the election interference effort, prompted officials to worry about the informant's safety and led to an offer for extraction in 2016. The informant initially refused, citing concerns about family. Some American counterintelligence officials took this as a reason to be skeptical of the source's trustworthiness.
Months later, after Trump's meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak, there was more media scrutiny and the informant accepted another offer for extraction, reassuring U.S. officials who had begun to doubt this individual. Former intelligence officials said "there was no public evidence that Mr. Trump directly endangered the source" and current U.S. officials "insisted that media scrutiny of the agencys sources alone was the impetus for the extraction," according to the Times.
Another report from the Washington Post said U.S. national security officials were "alarmed" by Trump's disclosure, but also said this was not the reason for the asset's removal.
Even publicly there was talk that CNN's report missed the mark. Former CIA official Philip Mudd, a CNN counterterrorism analyst, took issue with the report's "political angle" involving Trump.
I question whether this angle of the story about whether the presidents engagement with intelligence was actually a spur in the extraction of the informant," Mudd said Monday on The Lead with Jake Tapper. "I suspect there were other issues here."
About an hour after the Times report was published, Sciutto announced on Twitter that he could report additional information.
"Given NYT has now made details on Russian spy public, I can now report additional info we had withheld. Asset had direct access to Vladimir Putin, including the remarkable ability to take photos of presidential documents, and had served US for more than a decade," he said. "Asset had risen to the highest levels of Russias national security infrastructure. US offered extraction months earlier during Obama administration, but asset refused. Assets information was crucial to IC assessment that Putin had directed election interference to favor Trump."
Sciutto added that his information is "based on Trump and Obama administration [officials] with direct knowledge."
A spokesperson did immediately return a request for comment on the veracity of Sciutto's initial report, which was updated to mention the initial offer for extraction after the Times broke the story and details about the spy being able to provide images of documents from Putin's desk. CNN's update did not mention the Times' sources disputing that Trump factored into any decisions to offer extraction to the informant a second time.
Earlier in the day Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, said, CNN's reporting is not only incorrect, it has the potential to put lives in danger.
CIA spokeswoman Brittany Bramell said, "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. 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.