The CIA Affiliation of the Whistleblower Isn’t the Key, It’s CIA General Counsel’s Role in a Cover-Up

The second paragraph of the NYT story that identified that the Ukraine whistleblower as a CIA employee describes the CIA’s General Counsel, Courtney Simmons Elwood, telling first the White House and then DOJ about the complaint.

The officer first shared information about potential abuse of power and a White House cover-up with the C.I.A.’s top lawyer through an anonymous process, some of the people said. The lawyer shared the officer’s concerns with White House and Justice Department officials, following policy.

Starting on paragraph 15, the NYT provides more details about how and why Elwood responded to a whistleblower complaint by running to the people who were implicated by it (and note, it says this was proper, as it may well have been — I’m not saying Elwood has legal exposure here).

The week after the call, the officer delivered a somewhat broad accusation anonymously to the C.I.A.’s general counsel, Courtney Simmons Elwood, according to multiple people familiar with the events. The initial allegations reported only that serious questions existed about a phone call between Mr. Trump and a foreign leader.

As required by government policy, Ms. Elwood had to assess whether a “reasonable basis” for the accusation existed. During the preliminary inquiry, Ms. Elwood and a career C.I.A. lawyer learned that multiple people had raised concerns about Mr. Trump’s call.

Ms. Elwood also called John A. Eisenberg, a deputy White House counsel and her counterpart at the National Security Council, according to three people familiar with the matter. He was already aware of vague concerns about the call.

Ms. Elwood, Mr. Eisenberg and their deputies spoke multiple times the following week. They decided that the accusations had a reasonable basis.

Mr. Eisenberg and Ms. Elwood both spoke on Aug. 14 to John Demers, the head of the Justice Department’s national security division, according to three people familiar with the discussion. Ms. Elwood did not pass on the name of the C.I.A. officer, which she did not know because his concerns were submitted anonymously.

The next day, Mr. Demers went to the White House to read the transcript of the call and assess whether to alert other senior law enforcement officials. The deputy attorney general, Jeffrey A. Rosen, and Brian A. Benczkowski, the head of the department’s criminal division, were soon looped in, according to two administration officials.

Department officials began to discuss the accusations and whether and how to follow up, and Attorney General William P. Barr learned of the allegations around that time, according to a person familiar with the matter.

A CNN story provided the detail that NYT (and AP) missed: when and how Barr learned he was implicated personally.

Demers went to the White House to review the transcript of the call on August 15. His office then alerted other senior Justice officials that Barr was mentioned on the call.

Since they NYT story came out, a lot of people have attacked it for revealing where the whistleblower worked. Dean Baquet claimed they did so to lend credibility to the story, a thoroughly ridiculous explanation (especially in the wake of the transcript release, which made it clear the complaint was corroborated by the White House’s own record of the call).

What is, instead, the important detail is that everything Elwood did in the wake of receiving the report, whether intentionally or not, not only served a cover-up, but also put the whistleblower at heightened risk. We may not know the ID of the whistleblower, but the White House, which now includes all the former Devin Nunes aides who were so critical to blowing up the Russian investigation in 2017, would have been able to identify who was seconded to the White House as soon as Elwood brought the complaint to the White House. And Elwood is, in significant part, responsible for that. So it’s not the whistleblower’s affiliation, but Elwood’s, that’s important, and Elwood’s alone identifies where the whistleblower works (and did, for the White House, over a month ago).

The really important part of this story — which is clarified when adding the CNN detail that Demers and Brian Benczkowski and Jeffrey Rosen knew their boss was directly implicated when they decided to scope the prosecutorial analysis very narrowly, completely ignoring the kind of quid pro quo that the Constitution explicitly names as a reason to impeach the President — is that those implicated had the opportunity to cover-up the investigation even before the whistleblower filed his formal complaint. And once he did that, DOJ did things (may have felt forced to) that tried to further suppress their earlier decisions, most notably by getting an OLC opinion that ruled the proper resolution of the complaint — which OLC deemed not to be urgent because it ignored that Bill Barr, the State Department, and those who hid the communications on the covert server were also implicated, and by association Barr’s efforts to feed intelligence into John Durham’s investigation — was to have people at FBI reporting to Bill Barr investigate. Whether the implication of those others makes this an IC complaint (the most obvious way it does is in the abuse of classification authority to hide the transcript) is a matter requiring analysis, analysis that Bill Barr’s direct report, Steven Engel, did not do.

And that’s the point (or should have been): The NYT named a number the people who may be involved in this cover-up: John Eisenberg, John Demers, Brian Benczkowski, Jeffrey Rosen, and CIA General Counsel Courtney Simmons Elwood. Elwood is the one who first approached the problem in such a way that a cover-up would be possible.

Yes, by relaying that detail, the NYT told all of us that the whistleblower is a CIA employee. But the people involved in the cover-up, and the firebreathers at NSC, already knew that.

22 replies
  1. drouse says:

    There seems to be an odd overlap in the time line. The WB complaint was dated Aug 12 and Demer read the transcript on the 15th. Subtracting a week mean that it landed on Elwood’s desk no later than the first week of August. So just a couple of days for the WB to give up on that process and go to the IG.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      Elwood has been at the CIA long enough to have a reputation. Her earlier history, over twenty years of high-level lawyering inside the Beltway, is a matter of public record.

      It should not have given any WB comfort. Her decisions were as likely to be supported by a plausible reading of the rules as they were to be supportive of establishment and administration priorities. As with Bill Barr, it’s why she’s there.

      Any WB qualified to be a CIA analyst, who found it necessary to go to Elwood with a complaint, would have had a Plan B.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        It’s her work for Cheney/Addington and their Attorney General – in one of the most troubled DoJ’s before Trump’s – that would have caused me most concern.

        Her actions in reporting the matter to those implicated support that concern. I find them more troubling than Maguire’s, who was a newbie in office when much of this had already taken place.

  2. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The “as required by government policy,” will need explanation. What policy, promulgated by whom, with what history, and what exceptions?

    How do those rules make it Elwood’s job and not the IC IG’s to determine “credibility?” The normal presumption is that an agency’s general counsel is subject to and acts in cooperation with the agency’s head. That’s why an inspector general has qualified independence from both.

    Elwood obviously understood the complaint to implicate the WH and DoJ. Their actual conflict of interest is obvious and palpable. A neutral observer would have kept them out of the loop or provided each with limited information until the IC IG had made its determination about credible and urgent.

    As I said on another thread, Courtney Elwood has a long conservative pedigree. A Yalely, she clerked for Luttig (4th Cir.) and Rehnquist, made partner at the most boutique of boutique DC corporate litigation firms, and worked in the BushCheney’s White House. She was a WH counsel, then worked directly for Cheney (presumably under David Addington), and finally as deputy chief of staff for the Attorney General. She is a reliable conservative pair of hands rather than a neutral observer.

    • Marinela says:

      Makes me wonder how many more instances where the information was successfully squashed, and we don’t know about it, by this agency and others.
      These people are the definition of the “deep state”, but if they benefit conservatives it is ok.

  3. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The WB’s safety is not just about the WH and Trump cronies knowing who it might be, and who might have leaked to them.

    Trump has already proven that potential threats could come from any one of his base, who might have as little restraint as he does, the training to put into practice their loyalty to Trump-the-victim-in-a-civil-war, and even more problems than Donald Trump.

    The NYT and other members of the MSM that published details of the WB’s identity acted knowingly and irresponsibly.

    • Marinela says:

      It is hard to believe that Trump and co don’t know the identity of the WB.
      They want to retaliate, so they need the WB identity made public so they can deny involvement.
      I would not want to be in the shoes of this WB.

      • vicks says:

        If I were on the team resposible for protecting and handling Trump and knew the id of the whistle blower I would advise not telling telling him and I think the reasons are pretty obvious.

    • Eureka says:

      And as to blowing whistles, I’ll just note aloud that Trump’s civil war screed quoted “pastor” Robert Jeffress.

  4. misteranderson says:

    Has anyone thought about Devin Nunes exposing the whistleblower when he/she testifies before the HPSCI?

  5. Vern says:

    Barr was on the Ukraine call according to a cite from WSJ and confirmed by NBC news about 1300 Pacific Time.

    He’s in deep …

  6. orionATL says:

    i think president trump is becoming mentally unstable under the pressure of a threat of the disclosures of impeachment.

    more specifically, our president’s sense of personal threat seems greatly heightened since the exposure of the whistleblower complaint. i believe this relates directly to the president’s core sense of self and his sense that his reputation is being seriously threatened.

    behind his evident deep emotional distress as indicated by comments about the whistleblower and congressman schiff surely lies his knowledge that he colluded with the russian government of vladimir putin in 2016. while some observers seem to believe that the president felt he had “weathered” the office of special counsel investigation without serious political consequence, i think the facts revealed recently suggest a president haunted by his 2016 collusion. despite the hot issue of his trying to damage biden, the president’s escapade with the ukrainian government seems fundamentally to have been begun as an effort to erase history as it pertained to his 2016 campaign and its jailed manager paul manafort. similarly a new story involving the president and the australian government suggests the ghosts of 2016 and another effort to erase history. further, presidentially ordered investigations of the clinton emails again and an investigation of the national intelligence community’s fbi-led investigation into his collusion with the russians seem efforts to erase or rewrite history.

    i will not be surprised if prez disappears for a week or two for medical treatment. though it seems far less likely, at some point in the near future, cabinet officials may come to feel our president’s conduct requires he be removed from office.

    • P J Evans says:

      A number of people have said that as a narcissist, he has to see himself as a winner all the time, and when he’s being investigated, particularly for things like this, he sees that he might lose, and it drives him harder toward losing his remaining grip on reality.

    • Rayne says:

      i will not be surprised if prez disappears for a week or two for medical treatment.

      Betting he takes off on a ‘golf trip’ (insert air quotes).

      • K-spin says:

        Yep, speaking as a mental health professional, a narcissist such as Trump will hate being in a position where his so-called expertise is being questioned, and where he is unable to control the narrative. Would not be at all surprised if he publicly implodes, and by doing so digs himself a deeper hole.

    • Tom says:

      I wonder if he’s in physical pain, whether from arthritis, something else, or just getting older, and whether that’s affecting his mood and judgment. I heard part of his UN speech on the radio and just hearing his voice on its own with no visual, he sounded like a tired, wheezing old man.

    • Eureka says:

      My guess on the off-ramp post, as to long-term exit, was that someone like a family member would become “sick” and need his “attention” or for the family to leave DC (implausibility matters not here, only “winning”, as PJ notes).

      For similar reasons applied to the short-term, I’d go here with a narcissist’s face-saving excuse like “golf” as Rayne suggests above, or something more “important” (if such could be invented).

      But back to that longer-term picture:
      **Maybe he will declare that he loves his country* and cannot stand to see it so divided.** He’d sure as heck resign before being voted off the island.

      *Right? Which one?

      Here you go, Trump writers. Roadmap alert, all the best words:


      Adding: obviously in this version of the movie, Pence pardons Trump under threat of Trump dropping the dirt on Pence.

  7. SteveR says:

    Let’s step back, didn’t DJT already present a thoroughly plausible argument that any attempt to twist Zelensky’s arm to root out corruption in Ukraine was most certainly undertaken in an even-handed effort to further the best interests of our country?

    Oh wait, as reported by our close friends at NYT back on May 9, 2019, when asked to explain the purpose of his imminent travels to Ukraine, Rudy (the fidiot DJT explicitly tasked with executing his “strategy”) bragged “I’m going to give them reasons why they shouldn’t stop [the investigation(s)] because that information will be very, very helpful to my client, and may turn out to be helpful to my government.” Hmmm, how might one hope to distinguish between priorities and window dressings unless Rudy explained his goals with such precision?

    Amidst this intimidating cadre of experienced, intelligent, remarkably well-informed people, I’m rather embarrassed to simply repackage known facts without offering any insights. I do so only because I hope there might be a few people who stumble here in search of simple answers to the stupid narratives into which they’ve been asked to invest.

  8. Jenny says:

    FRONTLINE – The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia
    A year after the murder of columnist Jamal Khashoggi, FRONTLINE investigates the rise of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. In a two-hour documentary, Martin Smith — who has covered the Middle East for FRONTLINE for 20 years — examines the crown prince’s vision for the future of Saudi Arabia, his handling of dissent and his ties to Khashoggi’s killing.
    Note: On-line or watch tonight at 9 PM on PBS (EST). Check your local station.

    I share this because the administration did not believe the CIA’s investigation of Khashoggi’s murder and Pompeo made a statement at 1:41:30
    “On Nov 16th, CIA concluded that Prince Mohammad ordered the murder of Khashoggi. They refuse to comment publicly about it but Sec of State Mike Pompeo did – “I’ve read every piece of intelligence coming in the last few hours. There is no direct reporting connecting the crown price to the order to murder Jamal Khashoggi. That is all I can say in an unclassified setting.”

    Someone in the CIA leaked the report to journalist Warren Strobel from the WSJ. Link for article dated Dec 1, 2018.

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