The information concerned Russia’s attempt to undermine the election and its possible contacts with associates of President-elect Donald Trump.
WASHINGTON — In the Obama administration’s last days, some White House officials scrambled to spread information about Russian efforts to undermine the presidential election — and about possible contacts between associates of President-elect Donald Trump and Russians — across the government. Former U.S. officials say they had two aims: to ensure such meddling is not duplicated in future U.S. or European elections, and to leave a clear trail of intelligence for government investigators.
U.S. allies, including the British and the Dutch, had provided information describing meetings in European cities between Russian officials — and others close to Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin — and associates of President-elect Trump, according to three former U.S. officials who requested anonymity in discussing classified intelligence. Separately, U.S. intelligence agencies had intercepted communications of Russian officials, some of them within the Kremlin, discussing contacts with Trump’s associates.
Then and now, Trump has denied that his campaign had any contact with Russian officials, and, at one point, he suggested U.S. spy agencies had cooked up intelligence indicating that the Russian government had tried to meddle in the presidential election. Trump has accused the Obama administration of hyping the Russia storyline as a way to discredit his new administration.
At the Obama White House, Trump’s statements stoked fears among some that intelligence could be covered up or destroyed — or its sources exposed — once power changed hands. What followed was a push to preserve the intelligence that illustrated the anxiety with which the Obama White House and U.S. intelligence agencies had come to view the threat from Russia.
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It also reflected the suspicion among many in the Obama White House that the Trump campaign might have colluded with Russia on election email hacks, a suspicion that U.S. officials say has not been confirmed. Former senior Obama administration officials said that none of the efforts were directed by President Barack Obama.
“The only new piece of information that has come to light is that political appointees in the Obama administration have sought to create a false narrative to make an excuse for their own defeat in the election. There continues to be no there, there,” said Sean Spicer, the White House spokesman.
As Inauguration Day approached, Obama White House officials grew convinced that the intelligence was damning and that they needed to ensure that as many people as possible inside government could see it, even if people without security clearances could not. Some officials began asking specific questions at intelligence briefings, knowing the answers would be archived and could be easily unearthed by investigators, including the Senate Intelligence Committee, which in early January announced an inquiry into Russian efforts to influence the election.
The opposite happened with the most sensitive intelligence, including the names of sources and the identities of foreigners who were regularly monitored. Officials tightened the already small number of people who could access that information. They knew the information could not be kept from the new president or his top advisers, but they wanted to narrow the number of people who might see the information, officials said.
More than a half-dozen current and former officials described various aspects of the effort to preserve and distribute the intelligence, and some said they were speaking to draw attention to the material and ensure proper investigation by Congress. All spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The FBI is conducting a counterintelligence investigation into Russia’s meddling in the election, and is examining alleged links between Trump’s associates and the Russian government.
Separately, the House and Senate intelligence committees are conducting their own investigations, though they must rely on information collected by the FBI and intelligence agencies.
In a related matter, The Washington Post reported Wednesday that last year, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., spoke twice with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, Justice Department officials said. Sessions, who is now the U.S. attorney general, did not disclose the encounters during his confirmation hearing.
The Post reported that one meeting was a private conversation in September between Sessions and Kislyak in Sessions’ office.
As attorney general, Sessions oversees the Justice Department and the FBI; he has resisted calls to recuse himself from those agencies’ investigations into the meddling claims.
Alarm grew at the Obama White House after a campaign of cyberattacks on state electoral systems in September, which led the Obama administration to deliver a public accusation against the Russians in October.
But it was not until after the election, and after more intelligence had come in, that the administration began to grasp the scope of the suspected tampering and concluded that one goal of the cyberattack campaign was to help tip the election in Trump’s favor. In early December, Obama ordered the intelligence community to conduct a full assessment about the Russian campaign.
In the weeks before the assessment was released in January, the intelligence community combed through databases for an array of communications and other information — some of which was months old by then — and began producing reports that showed there were contacts during the campaign between Trump associates and Russian officials.
The nature of the contacts remains unknown.
The New York Times, citing four current and former officials, reported last month that U.S. authorities had obtained information of repeated contacts between Trump’s associates and senior Russian intelligence officials. The White House has dismissed the story as false.
Since the Feb 14 article appeared, more than a half-dozen officials have confirmed contacts of various kinds between Russians and Trump associates.