Clapper: 'We had a suspect' in Kremlin-WikiLeaks transfer

Michael Isikoff
Chief Investigative Correspondent
James Clapper (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Andrew Harnik/AP, Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — U.S. intelligence officials last year identified a “suspect” who served as the “cut-out” for Russian intelligence to funnel thousands of Democratic National Committee emails and documents to WikiLeaks, according to former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

In an interview for the Yahoo News podcast “Skullduggery,” Clapper told Chief Investigative Correspondent Michael Isikoff and Editor in Chief Daniel Klaidman that intelligence officials were “pretty confident” that they had identified the conduit for the hacked emails to WikiLeaks by the time he left office in January 2017. He declined, however, to provide any details about the suspect’s identity.

“We had a suspect,” said Clapper. “I don’t know whether the suspicions we had at the time were conveyed [to Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller] or whether they were validated.” U.S. intelligence officials were “pretty confident at the time but not sufficient enough to publicize it,” he said.

The precise means by which DNC emails that had been hacked by Russian intelligence made their way to WikiLeaks for public consumption has never been publicly revealed by the U.S. intelligence community. Nor has it ever been clear that U.S. officials had figured it out. That gap in the story of the Russian attack on the U.S. election has fueled conspiracy theories that the hackers were not in fact Russian state-sponsored hackers — as the intelligence community has firmly concluded. Instead, the conspiracy theorists have claimed, the emails were given to WikiLeaks by a disgruntled Democratic party “insider” or even a spy planted inside the party.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange himself has given credence to such theories, repeatedly insisting that he did not get the DNC emails from Russian intelligence. (“Our source is not the Russian government,” he told Fox News’ Sean Hannity.) At one point, Assange inexplicably offered a reward for information about the murder of DNC staffer Seth Rich, who, according to Washington, D.C., police, was likely killed in a botched robbery with no connection to the DNC hack.

But Clapper told “Skullduggery” that the WikiLeaks transfer “cut-out” was selected by the Russians for a reason — so that Assange could tell the world he did not get the DNC emails from Russian intelligence. “The real point was it was an attempt to ensure [Assange] plausible deniability,” Clapper said.

Clapper was responding to questions about a little-noticed passage in his new book, “Facts and Fears: Hard Truths From a Life in Intelligence.” In the book, Clapper recounts how the U.S. intelligence community concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian leadership had publicly dumped the DNC emails after they decided in March 2016 that “it was worth the risk of diplomatic blowback if they were caught” hacking the DNC. This gave the green light to Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, to go “on the offense, exfiltrating emails and large volumes of data.”

Then, Clapper added: “In April, Russia used a third party ‘cut-out’ to send more than 19,000 DNC emails and more than 8,000 documents to WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, attempting to cover its tracks and to give WikiLeaks some degree of deniability in knowing the source of the leaks.”

Download or subscribe on iTunes: “Skullduggery” by Yahoo News

In the interview, Clapper also defended the controversial decision that he and other top U.S. intelligence officials made in January 2017 to have FBI Director James Comey brief then President-elect Trump on the so-called dossier prepared by a former British spy alleging that the Kremlin had “kompromat” — compromising material — on the newly elected American leader. And Clapper repeated a previous statement that he never saw “any evidence … certainly no ‘smoking gun’ evidence of collusion” between the Trump campaign and the Russians.

But Clapper said he did find what he portrayed as an alarming degree of what he called “parallelism” between Trump and the Russians.

“There is striking — I found, we found, parallelism between what the [Trump] campaign was doing and saying and what the Russians were doing and saying,” said Clapper. “It was almost like an echo chamber, particularly with respect to Hillary Clinton personally, and her alleged scandals and her alleged maladies, physical and mental. There were a lot of very similar themes that came ultimately from the Russians and the campaign.”

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