Former Intel Chief: Community Caught Between 'Scylla and Charybdis' on Trump Dossier

A conversation on intelligence and well-meant incompetence

The J. Edgar Hoover building, the FBI headquarters
The J. Edgar Hoover building, the FBI headquarters (Andrew Harnik / AP)

There were two high-profile, highly sensitive documents circulating in Washington in early January, both relating to Donald Trump and the Russians. The first, a classified report by the U.S. intelligence community, contained evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 United States election, which intelligence officials have publicly concluded was intended to help Trump win the presidency. The second, a now-public, unverified opposition research report compiled by a private intelligence firm, contained explosive personal and financial allegations about the president-elect, in some cases allegedly gathered by or in the possession of Russian intelligence.

And what has publicly linked these two reports of different genres is two pages. That was the length of an “annex” appended to the classified government document on Russian election hacking, reportedly summarizing some allegations from the other document, the private firm’s dossier on Trump. And it was a news leak about those two pages that precipitated the publication of the full opposition dossier. Though members of the intelligence community had been made aware of the dossier as far back as August 2016, James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, emphasized this week that the dossier was not, itself, “an intelligence community product”—American intelligence officials had neither produced nor verified the contents of the report, but summarized parts to provide policymakers with the “fullest possible picture of any matters that might affect national security.” (Further confusing matters, it appears a former British intelligence official did produce it.)

As Stanford’s Amy Zegart notes, all intelligence is information, but not all information is intelligence. So what information qualifies? And how does the intelligence community process or try to verify alleged information like what’s in the Trump dossier? I spoke about these and other questions with Dennis Blair, who was the director of national intelligence, overseeing the intelligence community, in 2010 and 2011. A condensed and edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Kathy Gilsinan: What distinguishes the Trump dossier from an intelligence product?

Dennis Blair: An intelligence product is written to answer a specific question that’s of interest either to policymakers or to operational leaders in the field, and it generally starts with a particular intelligence requirement: “What will ISIS do next?” at the high end, down to “Where are the IEDs in Aleppo?” on the low end. So the intelligence community doesn’t just wander off and write about what catches its fancy. It’s trying to provide information to help better decisions.

On the information that goes into an intelligence report, it’s a combination of intelligence that’s gathered through clandestine means, whether it be signals intelligence, where you copy an email or tap a phone; or human intelligence, where you have a spy talking to you; or technical intelligence, like a picture that you interpret—that’s the information that you go out and gather. And you blend that with information that’s available to most any expert in the field—databases that are put together by academic institutions or businesses in some cases, observations from people in the field who are not intelligence officers, but are knowledgeable observers.

It starts with those sources of intelligence, and then it has to come to some sort of an assessment of answering a question: “Here’s where the IEDs are,” “this is what we think ISIS will do.” So that’s 99 percent of what the intelligence community spends its time doing. But occasionally, just in the course of [their] business, people in the intelligence community run across documents or stories that are just generally one-offs that clearly are going to be of interest to policymakers. And when you find something about the actions of your president-elect, that certainly falls squarely in that category. So then you have to make a decision—generally at a high level in the intelligence community—as to what you do with it.

Gilsinan: So we have this mysterious dossier from a private intelligence company that approaches the FBI in Rome, sometime in August in 2016. Generally speaking, how would the community—the FBI in this case—process something like that?

Blair: It would be turned into a field report describing how it arrived, and then that context for how it showed up [would be forwarded], along with the document itself or evidence of other kinds, and that would be sent in a field report to the analytical center at headquarters. Something this explosive and this big would be sent at fairly high levels; there would be extra precautions taken to make sure that it’s not widely disseminated. It would get to leadership within the FBI and then in the intelligence community pretty quickly.

Gilsinan: Suppose I were some guy in Rome in August 2016 and I went to the FBI with some explosive allegations that I had totally made up. Would that reach high levels? How do you know when to take information seriously enough to waste the boss’s time with it, essentially?

Blair: That’s a tricky one. You would give [it] an initial screening. If the guy who walked in the door was drooling, ill-clad, not making sense, and there were a lot of misspellings and typos in the document itself, you’d probably put it in a circular file right away. But if it’s something that has a superficial veracity to it and seems like it might be true, if you’re sitting there as the legal attaché in Rome, you say, “Wow, this is really hot.” The main thing is that it involves a U.S. citizen, and as soon as something involves a U.S. citizen, a whole different set of procedures [goes] into play. Whether it involves the president-elect, or something came across with your [Kathy Gilsinan’s] name on it, it simply cannot be used—it cannot be put into a normal intelligence report, because the United States does not collect or report on Americans.

So there are two aspects of it. Number one, it was about a U.S. citizen; number two, it was about our president-elect [then the Republican presidential nominee].

For example, sometimes the NSA will obtain signals intelligence which says something about an American, or the NSA or CIA has a spy report that talks about an American citizen. What’s done in those cases is that the identity of the citizen is blocked out in the original report, and then [determining] who that American really is requires a set of extraordinary permissions at a very high level within the community.

But you can imagine, if you sent this up saying so-and-so went to such-and-such a hotel, it’d be pretty [thinly] that you’d actually be able disguise who it was about. Therefore you would simply keep the whole thing in a very restricted channel, and send it up to your boss and say, “What the hell do we do with this?”

Gilsinan: But can the FBI collect information on American citizens?

Blair: Only if it has a warrant. The only way the FBI could go out and collect the information on what Americans are doing overseas, for example, would be if they went to a judge [and] got a warrant based on reasonable suspicion that a crime was being committed. In that case, they could then conduct surveillance, put a listening bug into a room. But that’s all done with the FBI—the law-enforcement agency—and they’re either investigating a crime, or if they have a suspicion, they have to go through the warrant process that we’re all familiar with. And that’s true for overseas investigation as well as for domestic ones.

Gilsinan: And the FBI tried to get a warrant in this case?

Blair: Oh, did they?

Gilsinan: They tried to get a FISA warrant, and the judge rejected their request.

Blair: Good, good, the FISA system works.

Gilsinan: So then it sounds like there’s not much they could do to investigate this, right? The reports that I’m reading say, “the FBI had been trying to check this out and hadn’t been able to verify anything.” What you’re saying seems to suggest that they wouldn’t legally be able to check it out anyway?

Blair: Correct. My understanding is that there’s no evidence that a crime was committed, there’s no suspicion, so they don’t have any grounds to take it any further. A field office wouldn’t sit on something like this and make up its own ideas. This would be handled at headquarters. Based on what you said and what I know about it, I don’t see any compelling rationale to investigate it. That’s stuff that reporters investigate, not the FBI.

Gilsinan: So there are the salacious allegations, but there are also allegations in the document of people in the Trump campaign accepting money or colluding with Russia, which would be a crime, right? In which case the FBI could’ve investigated that, but they would’ve still needed a warrant.

Blair: I haven’t read this document. If a document comes across and says a crime has been committed, then the FBI has initial grounds to investigate and there are things they can do without a warrant. Just to choose [an] example, if a document that they receive in an unexpected fashion says that a bank robbery occurred a couple of weeks ago, then it’s worth checking with the bank, and you can do that without a warrant. But then the minute you go further into having to take any action that invades the privacy of a suspect, then you have to have a warrant.

Gilsinan: So hypothetically, the FBI could’ve asked the Ritz Carlton Moscow, “Who showed up?”— right?

Blair: Yeah, was there a reservation in this person’s name on this date? That’s sort of an easy one to check without violating privacy, and puts you in the ballpark of reality on something like this.

Gilsinan: But then they would have to stop there? Like, suppose the answer was yes. Then what happens?

Blair: Well, suppose the answer was, “We’re not going to tell you; our guest records are private.” Then they would have had to have gotten a warrant, convince the judge it was probable enough that they could proceed.

Gilsinan: What’s your reaction as an intelligence professional about how this got out? You were saying that, within the intelligence community, this kind of thing would be very closely held, and yet it was bouncing around DC for a couple of months. What’s your feeling on that? How could that happen?

Blair: The report itself was provided to several news organizations in addition to the FBI. On the [question of] how did the information get out that [a briefing summarizing the dossier’s conclusions] was provided to the president-elect [by intelligence officials], I guess you look at it two ways.

The way I’ve always found most fruitful is the cui bono test: Who would either get an advantage or get a kick out of leaking it? The people who knew about [the briefing] within the intelligence community were pretty highly placed. They’ve been involved in public spats with the president[-elect]. They know it’s not good for them or for the president-elect or for their future relationships, so why in the world would they put this out and make their lives even more difficult?

So what does that lead you to? That leads you to low-level people who know about it but are not involved substantively and just get a kick out of seeing shitstorms in the paper and being able to say to their buddies over a beer, “You know that big story? I did that.” That does happen. You do have cipher clerks who handle it, and secretaries who set up meetings and so on, and I’ve found over time that there are some who just get a kick out of reading awful stuff in the press, as long as it was they who provided it. And that could’ve been on the intelligence side or on the [side of] President-elect Trump’s [transition team]. The way you do leak investigations is you go through the real police detective work of “Okay, let’s get a copy of every document, let’s trace every time it was sent, who was on the distribution list, every meeting in which it was discussed—what was the attendance list? Let’s go out and talk to all of them.”

Gilsinan: But [the document itself] could also have come from the private company itself or from the campaigns it was working for—not necessarily a leak from the intel community. What to make of the fact that the allegations were taken seriously enough that officials felt they had to brief the president and the president-elect?

Blair: There is no more powerful force in Washington than, “What if this comes out somehow and I was found not to have done my utmost?” Just think of the position that the intelligence leadership has been in for the last couple of weeks. I’m sure they sat around and thought, “What if we sat on this [and] it comes out somehow that we were sitting on it, [and] the president-elect said, ‘You knew about this and you didn’t tell me that it was out there?’” Those were the Scylla and a Charybdis that they were caught between, and I can very much understand a decision to provide it to the president-elect. They clearly, based on what they’ve said, made all of the qualifications of, “We haven’t investigated this; this is not verified; but boss, you need to know this is out there.” I think they made that call, rather than saying, “Let’s bury this.” Because then I think the chances within the intelligence community of a leak would be much greater, especially in the FBI which has this sort of sense of entitlement among a lot of its agents that they know more than their director does. They’re happy to tell you news people how they do; it happens all the time.

Gilsinan: Anything else?

Blair: I would just give you one of Blair’s Laws developed over the years: If there is a choice in explaining a government action between a Machiavellian, clever, ingenious plot to achieve that result and sort of blind, bumbling, well-meant incompetence, choose number two all the time.