Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, testifies before a Senate Intelligence Committee nomination hearing on May 5.

Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, testifies before a Senate Intelligence Committee nomination hearing on May 5. Andrew Harnik/AP

Intelligence Experts Suspicious of DNI Ratcliffe On Laptop Story

The chief of the U.S. intelligence community appeared to pre-judge the conclusions of an active FBI investigation.

If the FBI is still working to determine whether a dubious New York Post story was the fruit of a Russian disinformation campaign, then why did the nation’s top intelligence leader denounce the notion on TV this morning?

That’s what some veteran intelligence professionals are asking after Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe told Fox Business that the Post story and a laptop that purportedly belonged to Joe Biden’s son are “not part of some Russian disinformation campaign” and “The intelligence community doesn't believe that because there is no intelligence that supports that.”

“If the issue is being investigated as part of Russian interference into the election, it's hard to believe it would be wrapped up yet,” said Matthew Miller, who led the Justice Department's public affairs office from 2009 to 2011. “The whole thing is utterly confusing, which is why Ratcliffe shouldn't be weighing in at all. If there is an investigation, it should be conducted quietly and the government should speak with a credible voice when they have something definitive to tell the public. Obviously, Ratcliffe isn't a credible voice, and it seems pretty clear he's just playing the political role he was appointed for in the first place.”

The DNI “violated several cardinal rules” Monday morning, said Ned Price, a former CIA intelligence analyst who served as a National Security Council spokesperson and as a Special Assistant to President Barack Obama. “Among them, he inserted himself in the middle of a partisan issue, he at the very least lent the appearance that he was boosting the President's campaign, and he appears to have gotten ahead of intelligence analysis and law enforcement investigations.” 

Price noted that even if Ratcliffe’s account is true and the intelligence community has not yet found evidence directly linking the reported laptop contents to a hostile foreign actor, that didn’t mean that such evidence didn’t exist. “That's to say nothing of a reportedly ongoing law enforcement investigation into the matter, which no federal official should ever prejudge or prejudice, as Ratcliffe appeared to do,” he said.

Elizabeth Neumann, who served as a Department of Homeland Security official during the George W. Bush and Trump administrations, said that it would be highly unusual for such an investigation to conclude so quickly and that there were just too many unknowns to be able to make an informed comment on the origins or the veracity of the laptop story. 

“I don’t trust Ratcliffe’s statement,” Neumann said. “The circumstances smell very suspicious. We have the U.S. government intelligence folks and the Homeland Threat Assessment acknowledging that Russia’s intent is to weaken our country that we cannot oppose them when they carry out their longer-term agenda (like invading sovereign countries, human rights abuses, arms sales to terrorists and dangerous countries and bullying in the Middle East). If this was them, it aligns with what we think their objective is: create division and discord, chaos etc. and help Trump.” 

It’s possible that Ratcliffe may not have known much about the investigation, which was reportedly briefed to Congress last week. A former Department of Homeland Security official said that the counterintelligence investigations are very closely held and it was “possible he hasn’t been read in.”

Clinton Watts, a senior fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University and a former FBI special agent said “I cannot imagine that the FBI would in any way be able to determine if this was [Russian] disinformation before the election. This takes at a minimum weeks or months.” He said that the FBI would probably not comment on-the-record about an active investigation.

“There are multiple reports of warnings that the Russians would launch a disinformation campaign related to Hunter Biden and Burisma. [Former New York mayor and Trump backer Rudy] Giuliani is the source of this story as far as I can tell and we saw that someone he was interacting with, [Andriy Derkach, a Kremlin ally sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury] has been assessed as a Russian agent and Derkach has tried multiple times to disseminate conspiracies about Hunter Biden and Burisma. How can the DNI determine with any certainty at this point that this laptop is not an extension of a Russian campaign through Derkach?”

A spokesperson for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said, “We have nothing to provide beyond what the DNI said on Fox Business this morning.”

Also on Monday, the Department of Justice indicted six Russian GRU hackers for various cybercrimes, including attacking the 2017 French presidential elections and the NotPetya attack that crippled infrastructure across the globe that same year. Justice Department officials highlighted the time and rigor it takes to publicly attribute cybercriminals in places like Russia. 

“For more than two years, we have worked tirelessly to expose these Russian GRU Officers who engaged in a global campaign of hacking, disruption and destabilization, representing the most destructive and costly cyber-attacks in history,” U.S. Attorney Scott W. Brady for the Western District of Pennsylvania said in a statement. 

FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich said, “this indictment also highlights the FBI’s capabilities.  We have the tools to investigate these malicious malware attacks, identify the perpetrators, and then impose risks and consequences on them.  As demonstrated today, we will relentlessly pursue those who threaten the United States and its citizens.”