CNN's Bombshell Russian Spy Story Looks More Like a Dud

The New York Times and Washington Post both flatly contradicted CNN's reporting

Poppy Harlow (Left) and Jim Sciutto (Right)/ Youtube Screenshot
September 10, 2019

CNN chief national security correspondent and former Obama diplomatic staffer Jim Sciutto had a major scoop Monday, reporting that "in a previously undisclosed secret mission in 2017, the United States successfully extracted from Russia one of its highest-level covert sources inside the Russian government." It was a coup for CNN as the New York Times, Washington Post, NBC, and others followed with their own stories hours later. Being first to a story is not always as important as getting the story right, though, and it appears Sciutto botched the most important detail in his story.

"A person directly involved in the discussions said that the removal of the Russian was driven, in part, by concerns that President Donald Trump and his administration repeatedly mishandled classified intelligence and could contribute to exposing the covert source as a spy," Sciutto reports. His source specifically cited the 2017 debacle in which Trump spontaneously provided highly classified information to Vladimir Putin in a manner that jeopardized an ally's undercover source.

Details within CNN's story seemed to downplay Trump's role in the decision to extract the spy. "A US official said before the secret operation there was media speculation about the existence of such a covert source, and such coverage or public speculation poses risks to the safety of anyone a foreign government suspects may be involved," Sciutto acknowledges. He continues to reveal that "at the end of the Obama administration, US intelligence officials had already expressed concerns about the safety of this spy," that "those concerns grew in early 2017 after the US intelligence community released its public report on Russian meddling in the 2016 election, which said Putin himself ordered the operation," and that "the decision to pull the asset out of Russia was the culmination of months of mounting fear within the intelligence community."

Sciutto notes that "five sources" claimed there is "wide concern in the intelligence community about mishandling of intelligence by Trump and his administration." Okay, but that's (a) old news and (b) not the same as saying those concerns directly led to the extraction. A single source's claim that Trump was the reason for the extraction is given top billing in the piece. It is only as you read on that you get the fuller story from multiple sources, namely that the decision to extract was months in the making and the initial impetus was media speculation.

The New York Times and Washington Post flatly contradicted CNN's story. Both newspapers reported that media revelations were the sole reason for the extraction.

Per the Times, the decision was made after "the news media picked up on details about the C.I.A.'s Kremlin sources." CIA officials "made the arduous decision in late 2016 to offer to extract the source from Russia. The situation grew more tense when the informant at first refused. ... But the C.I.A. pressed again months later after more media inquiries. This time, the informant agreed." The U.S. government began to telegraph the spy's existence, the Times notes, "long before Mr. Trump took office."

The Post was even more direct. Trump's slip-up with Putin "alarmed U.S. national security officials, but it was not the reason for the decision to remove the CIA asset, who had provided information to the United States for more than a decade, according to the current and former officials."

CNN treated the Times and Post stories as vindication. "Now the New York Times has confirmed our story," Sciutto claimed Monday night. That's true in the sense that ostensibly the CNN story was first and foremost about the fact that the extraction happened. Sciutto and CNN focused almost entirely on the Trump angle as they promoted the piece on social media.

CNN's Brian Stelter likewise noted in his newsletter that the Trump-Putin meeting was the "key graf" in Sciutto's story. "The NYT added additional details in this Monday evening story... And so did WaPo..." he added, without informing his readers that those "additional details" refuted the "key graf" of his network's reporting.

Without the Trump angle, Sciutto's story is a solid scoop about foreign spycraft and intrigue; with that element, it becomes a major political story with potential 2020 implications. CNN chose to play up the latter angle, and that's the one that has blown up in the network's face.