• on October 8, 2020

The Truth About the “Ratcliffe Memo”

If you happen to dip your toes into the far right fever swamps of Twitter, you’ve undoubtedly heard much talk about the “Ratcliffe Memo.” And, at this point, if you use Twitter at all, you’ve probably seen the President ranting and raving in all caps about it. It shouldn’t shock you to learn that it is an incoherent conspiracy that originated from Russian intelligence services, and one which, given the proof that we now have access too, is farcical from the start.

Let’s debunk this insanity right now.

THE CLAIM

On September 29th, 2020, Director of National Intelligence, John Ratcliffe, sent a memo to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham. In that memo, Ratcliffe announced he was ‘declassifying’ a report about the Hillary Clinton campaign. The report in question was from 2016, and came from Kremlin intelligence agencies – the very same ones engaged in active attacks on our election. That report from Russia claimed that Clinton had approved a proposal from one of her campaign advisors to try to vilify Donald Trump by claiming Russian attacks on our election to distract from controversies over her use of a private email server as Secretary of State.

Fast forward one week, and DNI Ratcliffe has now declassified select portions of handwritten notes by then-CIA Director John Brennan. The notes, taken from a meeting between Brennan, Former FBI Director James Comey, President Obama and others, show that Brennan briefed the President on the allegation from Russian intelligence agencies. The entire claim hinges on one hand-written note:

“alleged approval by Hillary Clinton on July 28 of a proposal from one of her foreign policy advisors to vilify Donald Trump by stirring up a scandal claiming interference by Russian security services.”

That’s it. That’s all we really have (aside from a few other scraps). But there are obvious questions. The chunks of blacked out text could be a full debunking of the effort, or, more likely, they could detail the very real efforts the Kremlin was engaged in to undermine our election. We just don’t know.

Trump and his far right media echo chamber have seized upon this declassification to demand everything from indictments of Hillary Clinton to an extra four-year term for Trump. As per usual, the claim is ambiguous, sketchy, and even if based in some truth, does not say what they pretend it does.

IS IT TRUE?

Even DNI Ratcliffe noted in the original memo to Graham that he did not know “the accuracy” of the allegation, nor could he say whether it was “exaggeration or fabrication” by Russian intelligence agents. Given the fact that Russian intelligence operatives were actively attacking our elections at the time, it seems pretty outrageous to accept as fact anything that they said at the time. 

On its face, this bit of “intel” looks exactly like Kremlin disinformation, and Ratcliffe, Graham, and Trump are now parroting it without question. It is especially suspicious given the fact that this Kremlin claim could be seen as exonerating Russia for the 2016 hacking of the DNC and subsequent efforts to influence our election. How lucky for Putin!

Trump, of course, is all too happy to pretend Putin did not interfere in our elections on his behalf. He likes Putin, and he’s even admitted he’d take Putin’s help again if offered. Hence why Trump has taken to Twitter to proclaim, in all-caps tweets, that Russian interference was a hoax and a coup plotted against him by Obama and Hillary.

But that’s demonstrably false. Computer forensics show two Russian intelligence operations hacked the DNC. That assessment has been verified by the very same Office of the DNI that now shared this Russian claim and accepted by the Republican led Senate Intelligence Committee. As for broader Kremlin interference, we can see the Facebook ads they ran in the effort, researchers have uncovered networks of bots and Facebook groups used by Kremlin intelligence for the effort, our DoJ has indicted Putin allies and operatives who bankrolled and coordinated the efforts, and we even know that some Russian agents traveled to the US as part of the operation.

Vladimir Putin interfered in our election to benefit Trump. That is a fact  and a consensus among US intelligence agencies. We know it was not a myth invented by the Clinton campaign, because we have the proof that it happened. The Russian intelligence claim looks like just another vector of attack against our election, and a pretty poor effort to cover their own tracks. 

But there’s a final, telling clue in this tale of DNI directed disinformation: the date. According to Ratcliffe, Clinton is said to have approved this super secret plan on July 26th, 2016. The Trump supporters are up in arms, because it was only a few days before the opening of the investigation into Russian interference on July 31st. But, of course, correlation isn’t the same as causation. 

What else happened during those days? Well on July 22nd, Wikileaks, a known Russian asset, published emails stolen from the DNC, making it clear to the world that someone (speculation immediately turned to Russian intelligence) was attacking our elections. The Wikileaks release spurred another sort of release: Australian officials decided that George Papadopoulos’ drunken admission to meeting with a Russian operative and discussing Hillary’s emails back in March, should be passed along to US officials.

To simplify: George Papadopoulos met with a Russian agent in March, who promised him emails stolen from Hillary Clinton. We have emails dating back to March of 2016 showing he discussed this offer with senior Trump campaign officials. That’s four months before this supposed Clinton “decision.” He also bragged about these meetings to an Australian official he met. Once the stolen DNC emails were released by Russian intelligence, the Australian government realized Papadopoulos’ story was serious, and relayed it to the US on July 26th, the same day Clinton is supposedly cooking up a master plan to fake Russian interference.

If it weren’t enough to point out that we have documentary proof that the wheels of Russian interference and the subsequent FBI investigation were turning months before this allegation, there’s another key date to keep in mind: July 27th. The day after Russia’s allegation against Hillary, and the day before the partially unredacted Brennan meeting, Donald John Trump stood up at a nationally televised press conference and implored, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” Less than 5 hours later, Russian intelligence got to work.

If Hillary Clinton really had devised some scheme to implicate Russia and Trump in a plot against our elections, she got very, very lucky to have both Donald Trump and the Kremlin provide her with immediate evidence supporting her claim. In reality, the evidence of Russian interference was obvious at the time, and the evidence of ties to members of the Trump campaign were becoming too clear for law enforcement and intelligence professionals to ignore.

THE FALLOUT

The President demands that we reject what we know, deny what is proven, and even ignore what has been admitted to. I have no doubt the Kremlin provided this “tip” to American intelligence services. And it is reasonable that American intelligence would take that information, explore it, and even brief the president on it. After all, it was that precise kind of tip (just from a friendly government instead of an adversary) that led to the Crossfire Hurricane investigation.

What isn’t acceptable is 4 years later, a piece of foreign intelligence that is so clearly false, would be selectively declassified to protect a president running for reelection. We have literally no context for the information or the conversation surrounding this claim. Ratcliffe hasn’t declassified the overwhelming majority of the notes, leaving obvious holes in the record that might explain or debunk this particular claim

Now, that dangerous politicization of intelligence is feeding rabid conspiracists who believe wrongly that there is a coup against the President, an astounding claim the President is also making himself. Ratcliffe and the purveyors of this conspiracy are intentionally creating mayhem to serve their own political needs. It is, sadly, the very kind of tactic you would expect in a country like Russia, or perhaps a nation that hasn’t totally fallen to despotism. That Trump and his enablers bring that kind of disinformation and conspiracy to our politics is proof that they do not deserve the honor of leading this nation.

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