After four years of railing against “deep state” actors who, he said, tried to undermine his presidency, Donald Trump relented to U.S. intelligence leaders in his final days in office, allowing them to block the release of critical material in the Russia investigation, according to a former senior congressional investigator who later joined the Trump administration.
Kash Patel, whose work on the House Intelligence Committee helped unearth U.S. intelligence malpractice during the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane probe, said he does not know why Trump did not force the release of documents that would expose further wrongdoing. But he said senior intelligence officials "continuously impeded" their release – usually by slow-walking their reviews of the material. Patel said Trump's CIA Director, Gina Haspel, was instrumental in blocking one of the most critical documents.
Patel, who has seen the Russia probe's underlying intelligence and co-wrote critical reports that have yet to be declassified, said new disclosures would expose additional misconduct and evidentiary holes in the CIA and FBI's work.
"I think there were people within the IC [Intelligence Community], at the heads of certain intelligence agencies, who did not want their tradecraft called out, even though it was during a former administration, because it doesn't look good on the agency itself," Patel told RealClearInvestigations in his first in-depth interview since leaving government at the end of Trump's term last month, having served in several intelligence and defense roles (full interview here).
Trump did not respond to requests seeking comment sent to intermediaries.
Although a Department of Justice inspector general's report in December 2019 exposed significant intelligence failings and malpractice, Patel said more damning information is still being kept under wraps. And despite an ongoing investigation by Special Counsel John Durham into the conduct of the officials who carried out the Trump-Russia inquiry, it is unclear if key documents will ever see the light of day.
Patel did not suggest that a game-changing smoking gun is being kept from the public. Core intelligence failures have been exposed – especially regarding the FBI’s reliance on Christopher Steele’s now debunked dossier to secure FISA warrants used to surveil Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. But he said the withheld material would reveal more misconduct as well as major problems with the CIA’s assessment that Russia, on Vladimir Putin's orders, ordered a sweeping and systematic interference 2016 campaign to elect Trump. Patel was cautious about going into detail on any sensitive information that has not yet been declassified.
‘Continuously Impeded’ in Public Disclosure
Patel's work on the House Intelligence Committee, under the leadership of its former Republican chairman, Devin Nunes, is widely credited with exposing the FBI's reliance on Steele and misrepresentations to the FISA court. Yet congressional Democrats and major media outlets portrayed him as a behind-the-scenes saboteur who sought to "discredit" the Russia investigation.
The media vitriol unnerved Patel, who had previously served as a national security official in the Obama-era Justice Department and Pentagon – a tenure that exceeds his time working under Trump. Patel says that ensuring public disclosure of critical information in such a consequential national security investigation motivated him to take the job in the first place.
"The agreement I made with Devin, I said, 'Okay, I don't really want to go to the Hill, but I'll do the job on one basis: accountability and disclosure," Patel said. "Everything we find, I don't care if it's good or bad or whatever, from your political perspective, we put it out.' So the American public can just read it themselves, with a few protections here and there for some certain national security measures, but those are minimal redactions."
That task proved difficult. The House Intelligence Committee's disclosure efforts, Patel said, "were continuously impeded by members of the intelligence community themselves, with the same singular epithets that you're going to harm sources and methods. … And I just highlight that because, we didn't lose a single source. We didn't lose a single relationship, and no one died by the public disclosures we made because we did it in a systematic and professional fashion."
"But each time we forced them to produce [documents],” Patel added, “it only showed their coverup and embarrassment." These key revelations he helped expose include Justice official Bruce Ohr's admission that he acted as a liaison to Steele even after the FBI officially terminated him; former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe's false statements about leaks related to the Hillary Clinton email investigation; and the FBI's reliance on the Steele dossier to spy on Page. "There is actually a law that prevents the FBI and DOJ from failing to disclose material to a court just to hide an embarrassment or mistake, and it came up during our investigation. It helped us compel disclosure."
Assessing the ‘Intelligence Community Assessment’
For Patel, a key document that remains hidden from the public is the full report he helped prepare and which Trump chose not to declassify after pressure from the intelligence community: The House Intelligence Committee report about the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA).
The ICA is a foundational Russiagate document. Released just two weeks before Trump's inauguration, it asserted that Russia waged an interference campaign to help defeat Hillary Clinton. Despite widespread media accounts that the ICA reflected the consensus view of all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies, it was a rushed job completed in a few weeks by a small group of CIA analysts led by then-CIA Director John Brennan, who merely consulted with FBI and NSA counterparts. The NSA even dissented from a key judgment that Russia and Putin specifically aimed to help install Trump, expressing only "moderate confidence."
The March 2018 House report found that the production of the ICA “deviated from established CIA practice.” And the core judgment that Putin sought to help Trump, the House report found, resulted from "significant intelligence tradecraft failings that undermine confidence in the ICA judgments."
Along with that March 2018 report, Patel and his intelligence committee colleagues produced a still-classified document that fleshed out the ICA's "tradecraft failings" in greater detail.
"We went and looked at it [the ICA], and looked at the underlying evidence and cables, and talked to the people who did it," Patel says. According to Patel, the ICA's flaws begin with the unprecedentedly short window of time in which it was produced during the final days of the Obama White House. "In two to three weeks, you can't have a comprehensive investigation of anything, in terms of interference and cybersecurity matters."
Patel said that still classified information undermines another key claim – that Russia ordered a cyber-hacking campaign to help Trump. The March 2018 House report noted that the ICA's judgments, "particularly on the cyber intrusion sections, employed appropriate caveats on sources and identified assumptions," but those were drowned out by partisan insistence that Russia was the culprit.
Constrained from discussing the material, Patel said its release "would lend a lot of credence to" skepticism about the Mueller report's claim that Russia waged a "sweeping and systematic" interference campaign to install Trump.
That skepticism was bolstered in July 2019 when the Mueller team was reprimanded by a U.S. District judge for falsely suggesting in its final report that a Russian social media firm acted in concert with the Kremlin. (Mueller's prosecutors later dropped the case against the outfit.)
"We had multiple versions, with redactions, at different levels of classifications we were willing to release," Patel said."But that was unfortunately the one report, which speaks directly to [an absence of concrete evidence] that's still sitting in a safe, classified. And unfortunately, the American public – unless Biden acts – won't see it."
Confirming earlier media reports from late last year, Patel says it was Trump's CIA Director Gina Haspel who personally thwarted the House report's release. The report sits in a safe at CIA headquarters in Langley. "The CIA has possession of it, and POTUS chose not to put it out," Patel says. He does not know why.
'Outrageous' Reliance on CrowdStrike
Another key set of documents that the public has yet to see are reports by Democratic National Committee cyber-contractor CrowdStrike – reports the FBI relied on to accuse Russia of hacking the DNC. The FBI bowed to the DNC’s refusal to hand over its servers for analysis, a decision that Patel finds "outrageous."
"The FBI, who are the experts in looking at servers and exploiting this information so that the intelligence community can digest it and understand what happened, did not have access to the DNC servers in their entirety," Patel said. "For some outrageous reason the FBI agreed to having CrowdStrike be the referee as to what it could and could not exploit, and could and could not look at."
According Patel, Crowdstrike CEO Shawn Henry, a former top FBI official under Mueller, "totally took advantage of the situation to the unfortunate shortcoming of the American public."
CrowdStrike’s credibility suffered a major blow in May 2020 with the disclosure of an explosive admission from Henry that had been kept under wraps for nearly three years. In December 2017 testimony before the House Intel Committee showed he had acknowledged that his firm "did not have concrete evidence" that Russian hackers removed any data, including private emails, from the DNC servers.
"We wanted those depositions declassified immediately after we took them," Patel recalled. But the committee was "thwarted," he says, by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence under Dan Coats, and later by Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff once Democrats took control of Congress in January 2018. According to Patel, Schiff "didn't want some of these transcripts to come out. And that was just extremely frustrating.” Working with Coats' successor, Richard Grenell, Patel ultimately forced the release of the Henry transcript and dozens of others last year.
Still classified, however, are the full CrowdStrike reports relied on by the FBI, Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the Senate Intelligence Committee. Patel said their release would underscore Henry’s admission while raising new questions about why the government used reports from DNC contractors – the other being Fusion GPS' Steele dossier – for a consequential national security case involving a rival Republican campaign.
Doubting Reliability of CIA's Kremlin Mole
The CIA relied on another questionable source for its assertion that Putin personally ordered and orchestrated an interference campaign to elect Trump: a purported mole inside the Kremlin. The mole has been outed as Oleg Smolenkov, a mid-level Kremlin official who fled Russia in 2017 for the United States where he lives under his own name. According to the New York Times, some CIA officials harbored doubts about Smolenkov's "trustworthiness."
Patel said he could not comment on whether he believes Smolenkov relayed credible information to the CIA. "I'm sort of in a bind on this one, still, with all the classified information I looked at, and the declassifications we've requested, but have not yet been granted."
Patel did suggest, however, that those who have raised skepticism about the CIA's reliance on Smolenkov are "rightly" trying to "get to the bottom" of the story. "But until that ICA product that we created, and some of the other documents are finally revealed – if I start talking about them, then I'm probably going to get the FBI knocking at my door."
Will Key Documents Be Released?
On his last full day in office, President Trump ordered the declassification of an additional binder of material from the FBI’s initial Trump-Russia probe, Crossfire Hurricane. A source familiar with the documents covered under the declassification order confirmed to RealClearInvestigations that it does not contain the House committee’s assessment of the January 2017 that Patel wants released. Nor does it contain any of the CrowdStrike reports used by the FBI.
In addition to those closely guarded documents, Patel thinks that there is even more to learn about the fraudulent surveillance warrants on Carter Page. The public should see "the entire subject portion" of the final Carter Page FISA warrant, Patel said, as well as "the underlying source verification reporting" in which the FBI tried to justify it, despite relying on the Steele dossier. By reading what the FBI "used to prop up that FISA, the American public can see what a bunch of malarkey it was that they were relying on," Patel added. "The American public needs to know about and read for themselves and make their own determination as to why their government allowed this to happen. Knowingly.
"And that's not castigating an entire agency. We're not disparaging the entire FBI because of Peter Strzok [the FBI agent dismissed, in part, because of anti-Trump bias] and his crew of miscreants. Same thing goes for the intelligence community. If they did some shoddy tradecraft, the American public has a right to know about it in an investigation involving the presidential election."