In the summer of 2014, then-Director of National Intelligence James ClapperJames Robert ClapperUS intelligence community 'struggled' to brief Trump in 2016, CIA review shows An unquestioning press promotes Rep. Adam Schiff's book based on Russia fiction Hillicon Valley — Justice Department takes on Uber MORE sent a letter assuring Sens. Charles GrassleyChuck GrassleyGraham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks Iowa Democrat drops bid to challenge Grassley after death of nephew Bipartisan senators press FBI, inspector general for changes following Nassar case MORE (R-Iowa) and Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenSenate parliamentarian looms over White House spending bill Democrats push tax credits to bolster clean energy Five reasons for concern about Democrats' drug price control plan MORE (D-Ore.) that enhanced monitoring of Intelligence Community workers was designed to find leakers and insider threats, and was not intended to thwart lawful whistleblowing.
Specifically, America’s top spy told the two senators that if any protected whistleblowing was intercepted by the Obama administration’s new monitoring, it wouldn’t be used to tip off spy agency leaders.
“In the event a protected disclosure from a whistleblower somehow comes to the attention of personnel responsible for monitoring user activity, there is no intention for such disclosure to be reported to agency leadership under an insider threat program,” Clapper declared in his July 25, 2014, letter.
Clapper even cc’d then-CIA Director John BrennanJohn Owen BrennanThis Thanksgiving, skip the political food fights and talk UFOs instead In dramatic shift, national intelligence director does not rule out 'extraterrestrial' origins for UFOs Durham's latest indictment: More lines drawn to Clinton's campaign MORE on his letter, an apparent heads-up to America’s most famous spy shop, the Central Intelligence Agency.
It turns out that entire pledge was false and disingenuous. And it took us four years and a new presidential administration to get the truth.
Just four months before Clapper penned that letter, the CIA intercepted one or more whistleblowers’ disclosures, legally submitted and intended to go to Congress through the Intelligence Community’s official whistleblowing office.
And the intercepts were briefed to CIA leadership, contrary to Clapper’s assurance.
The disclosure was contained in two memos declassified this past week from the Intelligence Community’s inspector general.
“On 19 March 2014, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) security notified me that they had conducted an inquiry prompted by routine counterintelligence (CI) monitoring of Government computer systems,” then-Inspector General I. Charles McCullough III wrote in a memo dated March 28, 2014.
“As a result of this inquiry, CIA CI personnel obtained emails between our Executive Director of Whistleblowing & Source Protection and Congressional staff,” the memo added. “Most of these emails concerned pending and developing whistleblower complaints. CIA security compiled a report that includes excerpts of these whistleblower-related communications, and this report was eventually shared with CIA management.”
You have to stop for a second to appreciate the magnitude of what that memo discloses.
Whistleblowers who legally submitted concerns and believed they were being protected had their communications intercepted and unmasked. And sensitive oversight communications with Congress potentially protected by the Constitution's separation of powers were intercepted. And all the information was briefed to CIA leadership, contrary to Clapper’s representations.
And, lest you wonder, yes, Clapper was sent a copy of the McCullough memo, which makes his letter to Congress a few months later all the more laughable, if not despicable.
The crafty Clapper might try to argue he was technically accurate because he claimed to Congress it was never the intention of the IC to compromise these whistleblower communications by sharing them with agency leadership, but McCullough’s memos put an arrow through that defense, too.
A written report summarizing what was intercepted from the whistleblowers’ efforts to communicate legally with Congress was given to the CIA chiefs of security and counterintelligence. And then the information was briefed orally to Brennan’s deputy and his chief of staff, according to a subsequent March 31, 2014, memo from McCullough.
So to be clear, CIA officials took the time to extract the whistleblower information from the intercepts, wrote a report and then shared that information with CIA management. That took time and intention that cannot be denied.
You might imagine that those in Congress who were given a bogus answer four years ago are now rightfully indignant, as well as frustrated that it took so long to make the memos public. And you’d be right.
“The fact that the CIA under the Obama administration was reading Congressional staff’s emails about intelligence community whistleblowers raises serious policy concerns as well as potential Constitutional separation-of-powers issues that must be discussed publicly,” Grassley said in a statement sent to me Friday. “I have been asking the same question for years: what sources or methods would be jeopardized by the declassification of these notifications? After four and a half years of bureaucratic foot-dragging, led by Directors Brennan and Clapper, we finally have the answer: none.”
“The CIA has a vitally important function, especially when it comes to their critical counterintelligence work, but nothing — nothing — should inhibit or interfere with Congress’ constitutional job and protecting whistleblowers,” Grassley added. “Since the inception of this country, blowing the whistle has played an integral role in maintaining good government. It would be unacceptable and unpatriotic to overlook any action that could dissuade responsible citizens from disclosing waste, fraud and abuse in our government.”
America owes a debt of gratitude to the CIA and our other intelligence agencies for the unheralded work they do each day to keep us safe from a rising tide of counterterrorism, counterespionage, cyber attacks and foreign threats.
But that pride, appreciation and trust of the American people does not give license for their leaders to mislead Congress, to trample the Constitution or to interfere with lawful whistleblowing.
The current administration would do well to serve notice to the Clappers and Brennans of the world that such behavior should, and will, be punished.
John Solomon is an award-winning investigative journalist whose work over the years has exposed U.S. and FBI intelligence failures before the Sept. 11 attacks, federal scientists’ misuse of foster children and veterans in drug experiments, and numerous cases of political corruption. He is The Hill’s executive vice president for video.