Mike Morell, the former acting director of the CIA, says he has little confidence in the chain of sources cited in news reports alleging that top White House adviser Jared Kushner discussed setting up a secret back channel with the Russian government during a meeting in December.
In an interview with The Cipher Brief, Morell, a supporter of Hillary Clinton, also warned against “over-connecting” the dots based on the reports.
“That is not a sourcing chain in which I would put a great deal of confidence,” Morell said in the interview of reports by The Washington Post and The New York Times.
“I spent a career watching the media get a significant portion of intelligence-related stories wrong. So, the bottom line: we should all be very careful in saying what is a fact on which to base analysis here. The real facts may be different.”
Last week, The Post and The Times reported that Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, proposed setting up a secret communications line with the Kremlin during a meeting in early December at Trump Tower. Kushner was joined by retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn and Russia’s ambassador, Sergey Kislyak.
The newspapers also reported that Kushner sought to use Russian diplomatic facilities in the U.S. to connect to Russian government officials.
Fox News reported earlier this week, citing one unnamed source, that the Russians, and not Kushner, proposed the secret communications line during the meeting.
The White House has not denied the core allegations laid out in the stories, though some White House officials have denied that a back channel request was improper.
Morell, who retired from the CIA in 2013, said there’s not enough information about the meeting to determine if the Trump Tower discussions were innocent or nefarious. And while he has a long list of questions about whether members of the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia during the presidential campaign, he said the media runs the risk of jumping to conclusions based on incomplete news reports.
“We all need to be careful not to draw overarching conclusions from one data point…or, even more importantly, we need to be careful that we don’t over-connect the dots,” said Morell.
As an example of “over-connecting the dots,” the 33-year CIA veteran cited the agency’s inaccurate determination the Saddam Hussein possessed WMDs.
“There are so many ‘facts’ in the public domain now that many people are connecting them in a way that has them concluding the Trump campaign must have been guilty of conspiring with the Russians in a way that would be a violation of the law. It is way too early to come to that conclusion.”
Morell said he “is much more interested” in finding out what Trump associates said to Russian officials before the election rather than after.
“I want to know if anyone in the Trump camp conspired with the Russians in their interference in our election. In fact, I’m primarily interested in the latter with regard to how it informs the former.”
Morell also quibbled with the use of the term “back channel” to describe the communications line allegedly sought by Kushner.
“That is not a back channel,” he argued. “That is a ‘front channel’ — the incoming national security advisor talking with the Russian government.”
“Why does it matter what we call it? Because somehow, ‘back channel’ has a more nefarious connotation than ‘front channel.'”
Morell took one last parting shot at the media at the end of the interview.
He said that he believes Trump’s presidential performance “has been quite poor” so far, but he added that Trump has grounds to say that the media is biased against him.
“I see it everyday when I read the papers and see how things are being reported. And, I think this is a big deal.”