John Durham’s name floats in and out of news cycle, a phantom figure who presence is fleeting but significant. Durham is the career Justice Department attorney, assigned by Attorney General William Barr, to investigate the origins of the FBI”s investigation of contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian state agents.
In right-wing media Durham is the gallant knight who is pursuing and will soon slay the dragon known as John Brennan, ex-CIA director. For his part Brennan says he’d be glad to talk to Durham, saying he has “nothing to hide.”
In this incisive Just Security profile, former NSA official George Cronar excavates on Durham’s track record at the Justice Department and what is known about his investigation. While Cronar’s profile is scrupulously fair, it is not exculpatory. The record indicates that Durham is following the whims of Bill Barr and President Trump, more than the dictates of the law.
Thus, Durham’s prosecutorial portfolio is unquestionably impressive, but he has never worked for an intelligence agency and, other than his involvement with the CIA in connection with both the videotape and enhanced interrogation inquiries, he has no publicly reported background in intelligence operations or analysis. It also bears note that while some may view Durham’s prior interaction with the CIA as indicative of an inclination to protect intelligence agencies, it is equally suggestive of Durham’s ability to discern the chosen outcomes sought by those political appointees who selected him and to deliver those outcomes.
Cronar rehearses the history of how Barr assigned Durham to look into the Russia affair and how his mission expanded to include press leaks unfavorable to the president and the Ukraine affair.
As of May 2019, he notes,
“Durham’s investigation was still termed a “review” and lacked subpoena power, but Barr was busily pulling levers to get Durham any access he considered necessary. Barr has leaned on CIA Director Gina Haspel and FBI Director Christopher Wray to provide assistance, and, on May 23, 2019, Trump announced that, at Barr’s request, the IC had been directed “to quickly and fully cooperate with the Attorney General’s investigation into surveillance activities during the 2016 Presidential election.” Trump supplemented this directive by issuing a presidential memorandum that authorized Barr to “declassify, downgrade, or direct the declassification or downgrading of information or intelligence that relates [to the Durham probe].” This represented an unprecedented delegation of authority to the attorney general with respect to the protection of intelligence sources, methods, and tradecraft.
At some point last fall, Durham’s investigation went from being a “review” to being a criminal investigation “although, neither the Times, the Washington Post, nor the Wall Street Journal was able to say just what crime Durham was investigating or when the transition to a criminal probe had occurred.
In 2020, Durham’s investigation moved into the intelligence community, searching for evidence to support the Trump-Barr:
By early April of this year, the Wall Street Journal was reporting that “people familiar with the matter” said that Durham had examined individuals working at the National Intelligence Council, a unit within the office of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) that coordinated the preparation of the ICA.
Relable news reports stated that Brennan is indeed the target.
[i]ncreasingly, investigators are focused on former CIA Director John Brennan, examining whether he pushed for a blunter assessment about Russia’s motivations than others in the intelligence community felt was warranted.
Durham’s interviews may have not been “adversarial,” but Barr has continued to say that Durham’s job is not to “prepare a report” but “to bring to justice people who are engaged in abuses if he can show that they were criminal violations, and that’s what the focus is on.”
Cronar’s ultimate point is that Durham’s inquiry is, among other things, a threat to the independence of U.S. intelligence analysts.
Thus, unless the Durham investigation reveals a demonstrably knowing violation of U.S. criminal law, publicly airing such a retrospective view of the intelligence analytic process that produced the conclusions reflected in the ICA regarding Russian activities and intentions in connection with the 2016 presidential election poses an unnecessary and unproductive danger to ongoing U.S. intelligence efforts, risks exposure of sensitive intelligence sources and methods, and creates a chilling effect on the future work of intelligence analysts who will surely think twice before expressing the impartial “truth to power” that must be the touchstone of unbiased intelligence analysis.