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Senate committee unanimously endorses spy agencies’ finding that Russia interfered in 2016 presidential race in bid to help Trump

Senator Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Senator Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.Anna Moneymaker/New York Times/File 2020

WASHINGTON — The Senate Intelligence Committee has unanimously endorsed the US intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia conducted a sweeping and unprecedented campaign to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

The heavily-redacted report, based on a three-year investigation, builds on a committee finding nearly two years ago that the January 2017 intelligence community assessment (ICA) on Russia was sound. The spy agencies also found that Russia sought to shake faith in American democracy, denigrate then-candidate Hillary Clinton and boost her rival Donald Trump.

The report, while not unexpected, is nonetheless a milestone — the first extensive bipartisan congressional affirmation of the intelligence agencies’ conclusion, which continues to be at odds with President Trump’s oft-stated doubts about Russia’s role in the 2016 race.

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‘‘The committee found no reason to dispute the intelligence community’s conclusions,’’ chairman Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina, said in a statement.

‘‘The ICA summarizing intelligence concerning the 2016 election represented the kind of unbiased and professional work we expect and require’’ from the agencies, vice chairman Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, said. ‘‘The ICA correctly found the Russians interfered in our 2016 election to hurt Secretary Clinton and help the candidacy of Donald Trump. Our review of the highly classified ICA and underlying intelligence found that this and other conclusions were well-supported.’’

The committee said the CIA, National Security Agency, and FBI — coordinated by the director of national intelligence — presented a ‘‘coherent and well-constructed’’ case for their assessment, supported by intelligence from human and electronic sources.

Significantly, the committee said, ‘‘interviews with those who drafted and prepared the ICA affirmed that analysts were under no political pressure to reach specific conclusions.’’

The report comes amid a separate, special investigation ordered last year by Attorney General William Barr into the origins of the FBI’s 2016 probe into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia, and the intelligence agencies’ development of their assessment. Barr assigned the US attorney in Connecticut, John Durham, to conduct that investigation.

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One line of inquiry Durham was pursuing centered on whether the CIA was inappropriately withholding material from the NSA and the FBI to enable a finding about Russia’s covert activities sought by then-CIA Director John Brennan, according to individuals familiar with the matter. That focus of Durham’s inquiry was first reported by The New York Times.

But according to the report, the committee ‘‘heard consistently’’ from analysts ‘‘that they were free to debate, object to content, and assess confidence levels, as is normal and proper for the analytic process.’’

The 158-page report redacts many sections, including one on Russian President Vladimir Putin directing ‘‘active measures’’ or covert influence operations. It did note, however, that intelligence officers involved in the ICA said the issue of potential coordination between Moscow and the Trump campaign did not arise in their review.

‘‘We didn’t have any evidence for that,’’ said the officer who handled Russia and Eurasia. ‘‘There was not information that pointed us in that direction.’’

The committee also found that ‘‘specific intelligence as well as open source assessments support the assessment that Putin approved and directed aspects of this influence campaign.’’

The report redacts most of the debate on the sole aspect of the ICA where agencies differed - their confidence levels regarding Russia leadership intentions in 2016. The CIA and FBI assessed with ‘‘high confidence’’ — and the NSA with ‘‘moderate confidence’’ — that Putin aspired to help Trump win, when possible by discrediting Clinton.

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But it does say the committee found the ‘‘analytic disagreement was reasonable, transparent, and openly debated among the agencies and analysts.’’

The committee also reviewed the debate over whether to include material from a series of reports compiled by a former British intelligence officer, Christopher Steele, that had been shared with the FBI. The so-called Steele dossier has been discredited in part, and Republican allies of the president have portrayed Steele’s reporting as a politically motivated effort to undermine Trump.

Then-FBI assistant director for the Counterintelligence Division, E.W. ‘‘Bill’’ Priestap, told the committee the bureau ‘‘didn’t want to stand behind’’ the Steele report, but because then-President Barack Obama had directed the agencies to include all information on Russian interference in the 2016 election, the bureau felt it ‘‘would have had a major problem’’ if it had not been cited in some way. Ultimately, the FBI included a two-page summary of the Steele material in an annex to the classified version of the ICA.

The committee noted that all personnel interviewed stated the Steele material ‘‘did not in any way inform the analysis in the ICA — including the key judgments — because it was unverified information and had not been disseminated as serialized intelligence reporting.’’

One of the ICA’s most important conclusions ‘‘was that Russia’s aggressive interference efforts should be considered ‘the new normal,’ ” Burr said. ‘‘That warning has been borne out by the events of the last three years, as Russia and its imitators increasingly use information warfare to sow societal chaos and discord. With the 2020 presidential election approaching, it’s more important than ever that we remain vigilant against the threat of interference from hostile foreign actors.’’

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