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Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper accused POLITICO of “deliberately” misrepresenting a letter he and 50 other intelligence veterans signed regarding the Hunter Biden laptop story.
Clapper, who served as the nation’s spy chief during the Obama administration, said the letter did not assert that reporting on the laptop was part of a Russian disinformation operation, a notion that POLITICO peddled with its headline when first reporting the existence of the letter.
“There was message distortion,” Clapper told The Washington Post’s Fact Checker. “All we were doing was raising a yellow flag that this could be Russian disinformation. Politico deliberately distorted what we said. It was clear in paragraph five.”
The letter from the 51 former intelligence officials came out in the days leading up to the 2020 presidential election, warning that reporting about the laptop’s alleged contents “has all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation.”
Although the signees stressed they did not know if emails being reported at the time were genuine, and they insisted they had no evidence of Russian involvement, POLITICO, which first reported the letter, went further than what the letter said by publishing a headline that said the former intelligence officials were claiming the story was “Russian disinfo.”
Then-candidate Joe Biden, Hunter’s father, used the letter to cast doubt on the laptop story during one of his debates with then-President Donald Trump. “There are 50 former national intelligence folks who said that what he’s accusing me of is a Russian plan,” Biden said during the debate.
In an October 2020 interview with CNN, Clapper made comments that hewed more closely to POLITICO’s headline than the letter itself. “To me, this is just classic textbook Soviet Russian tradecraft at work,” he said.
“To me, this is just classic textbook Soviet Russian tradecraft at work,” former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper says as authorities are investigating if recently published emails are tied to a Russian disinformation effort targeting Biden. https://t.co/shyMNnJ7Yr pic.twitter.com/GFSeIWXeY4
— CNN (@CNN) October 17, 2020
Clapper’s level of candidness became a subject of intense scrutiny roughly a decade ago during his service as director of national intelligence. Clapper testified to Congress that the National Security Agency did not “wittingly” collect data on millions of Americans. Amid revelations that the NSA was conducting bulk collection of U.S. caller data, Clapper conceded his statement was “clearly erroneous.” He further claimed to NBC News that he had been responding to a senator’s question “in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful, manner.”
The Washington Post indicated that it reached out to Clapper after House Republicans, led by Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-OH), sent Clapper and 11 other signers requests for documents and testimony regarding the Hunter Biden laptop letter — a development first reported by The Daily Wire.
“No one who has spent time in Washington should be surprised that journalists and politicians willfully or unintentionally misconstrue oral or written statements,” former State Department official Thomas Fingar, another signer of the letter who was contacted by House Republicans, told The Washington Post. “The statement we signed was carefully written to minimize the likelihood that what was said would be misconstrued, and to provide a clear written record that could be used to identify and disprove distortions.”
The new report offered other tidbits of information, including that Clapper claimed he was unaware of how Biden described the letter during the presidential debate. The Washington Post also reported that its Fact Checker learned that former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell, who had been a top candidate for CIA director in the Biden administration, organized the letter.
The laptop, which allegedly was abandoned at a Delaware computer repair shop before the FBI obtained it, contains details about Hunter Biden’s personal life and financial affairs. In the spring of 2022, the repairman who obtained the laptop, John Paul Mac Isaac, sued POLITICO and others for defamation, accusing them of falsely asserting that he spread Russian disinformation. The Daily Beast, one of the new outlets named in the lawsuit, later issued an apology for reporting that the laptop was “stolen.”
POLITICO defended its reporting about the letter.
“The article fairly and accurately reported on — and summarized — the intelligence officials’ letter,” the statement said. “More specifically, the headline is a fair summary of their allegations, the subhead offers additional context, and the first paragraph of the article hyperlinks to the letter itself, allowing readers to draw their own conclusion.”
Since the laptop story emerged more than two years ago, many of its contents have been analyzed and shown to be authentic. Hunter Biden’s lawyers recently began to send letters to state and federal officials demanding investigations into individuals involved in sharing the contents of the laptop, which made their way to the media. His attorney, Abbe Lowell, later insisted the letters do not “confirm” the laptop was his client’s device.
Douglas Wise, a former Defense Intelligence Agency deputy director, divulged last month that he and the other signees surmised the contents of the laptop were genuine at the time the letter came out. “All of us figured that a significant portion of that content had to be real to make any Russian disinformation credible,” he told The Australian.
Hunter Biden is under investigation by federal prosecutors, including over his foreign business dealings and tax affairs, though the existence of that years-long inquiry was not revealed to the public until after the 2020 election. Hunter Biden has said he expects to be cleared of wrongdoing.