Below is my column in the Hill Newspaper on the finding by The House Intelligence Committee with regard to the allegation that Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper may have leaked information on the Steele dossier. The record is still surprisingly muddled on what Clapper is saying about his media contacts during this period. At best, it appears that he may have confirmed elements of the dossier after leaving office on January 20, 2017, but his comments have been (as described by the Committee) “inconsistent.” At worse, he could be accused (again) of perjury.
Here is the column:
Friday’s release of the House Intelligence Committee report generated much coverage over its finding of no evidence of collusion with the Russians. Receiving less attention was a small section entitled “Finding #44,” where the committee suggested that then-Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper leaked information from the so-called Steele dossier. Even worse for Clapper, the alleged leak was made to CNN, which later hired him as a contributor.
If true, both the national intelligence chief and then-FBI Director James Comey leaked information while denying such violations to Congress. Moreover, even if Clapper waited until shortly after leaving office, it is deeply troubling that he would confirm details of the dossier, which was under investigation.
The report recounts how Clapper gave “inconsistent testimony” to Congress when he denied ever “discuss[ing] the dossier or any other intelligence related to Russia hacking of the 2016 election with journalists.” That has proven to be untrue. Clapper later admitted he discussed the “dossier with CNN journalist Jake Tapper” and indicated he may have discussed the material with other journalists.
The timing is notable.
Clapper discussed the information in “early January 2017.” There was no compelling need to confirm the information, given the ongoing investigation and that it was still a subject of highly classified deliberations. Indeed, with FBI personnel looking into the matter, confirming the information could be viewed as unhelpful. Its most obvious value was to undermine Donald Trump.
In other words, the disclosure advanced political, not public, interests.
Clapper allegedly gave CNN the confirmation around the time that President Obama and President-elect Trump were given classified briefings on the dossier. On Jan. 10, 2017, Tapper and CNN ran with the breaking news that Obama and Trump were briefed on the “memos compiled by a former British intelligence operative.” Tapper cited “U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the briefings” and even described the “two-page synopsis” given to Obama and Trump. (The dossier was published in full by BuzzFeed after CNN’s disclosure.)
After leaving office, Clapper began regular commentary with CNN and became a paid CNN contributor in August 2017.
Clapper is accused of not only lying to the public but to the media for which he now works. After Trump objected to the leaking of the dossier story, CNN covered Clapper’s statement that he assured the incoming president neither he nor anyone in the intelligence community was responsible: “I expressed my profound dismay at the leaks that have been appearing in the press, and we both agreed that they are extremely corrosive and damaging to our national security.”
In March, Clapper, again on CNN, insisted, “I didn’t have any contact with media until after I left the government on the 20th of January, so I don’t quite understand, at least what I’ve read, that somehow I leaked about the dossier.” CNN host Don Lemon then asked, “So you didn’t leak anything about the dossier to any media?” Clapper answered, “No, not — I mean, I talked about it after I left the government, but not during that period, and certainly not between the 6th of January and the 10th when the president-elect himself talked about it.”
If Clapper confirmed the information before he left office on Jan. 20, he could again be accused of perjury. However, there remain concerns over Clapper discussing the internal review of the dossier in the midst of the ongoing investigation; doing so shortly after his departure from office does not alter its unprofessional character. It is even worse if Clapper is seen as leveraging such insider information while considering a possible media deal with CNN.
This is not the first time Clapper has been accused of giving false testimony to Congress and the public. Ironically, when Clapper was discussing this information with CNN, the statute of limitations was winding down on his lying to Congress about the controversial surveillance program that impacted virtually all Americans. Clapper denied the existence of the program to the Senate and, when later confronted over his perjury, insisted his testimony was “the least untruthful” statement he could make. That still makes it untruthful, but in Washington, people like Clapper do not get indicted for perjury. Clapper was made a CNN contributor after the statute of limitations expired on his alleged perjury.
Notably, Comey wrote in one of his memos that CNN had the information on the dossier and was looking for a “news hook” to run it. That news hook became the leak that Comey briefed Trump on the dossier. CNN has appropriately declined to answer media questions of whether Comey or Clapper were sources for its dossier story.
After leaving as DNI, Clapper was used repeatedly by CNN without mentioning his alleged perjury on the surveillance program. CNN, for example, did not mention it in using him to rebut Trump’s allegation that his campaign staff was surveilled under the Obama administration; Clapper categorically denied it and said he would have been aware of such secret surveillance. In fact, Trump associates, including Carter Page, were under surveillance.
Democrats have rushed to shield Clapper and denounced questions about his conduct as a “smear campaign.” They note that, when later confronted directly in his testimony about his discussions with Tapper, he said: “Well, by the time of that, they already knew about it. By the time it was — it was after — I don’t know exactly the sequence there, but it was pretty close to when we briefed it and when it was out all over the place. The media had it by the way.”
That, however, is different from what he said in his public statement. Nor does it change the gravity of his conduct. Having the dossier did not change CNN’s need for confirmation from government officials. Indeed, Comey admitted the media was looking for a hook and still required confirmation of the information. If Clapper gave it to Tapper, he lied to Congress, other media and the public. Moreover, Clapper told Congress “it was pretty close to when we briefed it.” The briefing (which Clapper includes himself as part of) occurred before Jan. 10, not after Jan. 20. “Pretty close” is not a defense to perjury.
Of course, neither is describing a lie as the “least untruthful answer” — but that worked fine for Clapper in his prior “inconsistent” testimony.
CNN will be rightfully celebrated for its disclosure of the dossier during Saturday night’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner. The assembled press will honor the network for its story and how “the CNN team later reported that then-FBI Director James Comey personally briefed Trump about the dossier. Thanks to this CNN investigation, ‘the dossier’ is now part of the lexicon.”
Many will be looking in the audience for CNN’s national security expert — James Clapper.