Washington (AFP) - President Donald Trump is defending his unprecedented decision to give his Justice Department chief unfettered access to the country's deepest foreign intelligence secrets amid an outcry from the spy community and a veiled warning from the US intelligence czar.
The president said Attorney General Bill Barr needed unilateral power to declassify any top secret material to get to the roots of the 2016-2018 investigation into whether his election campaign colluded with Russia.
Barr "will be able to see how this hoax, how the hoax or witch hunt started, and why it started," Trump said.
"It was an attempted coup or an attempted takedown of the president of the United States. It should never ever happen to anybody else, so it's very important."
But politicians and former intelligence community leaders said Trump and Barr are threatening to expose the country's most protected sources of secrets on Russia to mount a political attack on a legitimate investigation that exposed a serious threat to the United States.
- Reopening the Russia meddling investigation -
The brief order issued late Thursday tells the heads of each of the bodies of the intelligence community, including the CIA and National Security Agency, to support Barr in his review of what he has called suspected improper "spying" on Trump by the FBI and intelligence bodies.
It also gives Barr the power to access and declassify any information he views necessary, which could extend to the top-secret sources of information that intelligence chiefs used to conclude that Russian President Vladimir Putin presided over a concerted effort to sway the election on Trump's behalf in 2016.
The same information led to the investigation of Trump by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, whose final report in April detailed numerous acts of possible collusion, but concluded none amounted to criminal conspiracy.
Critics said Trump and Barr, who has become one of the president's staunchest defenders, were playing fast and loose with intelligence for political reasons.
"The president has granted sweeping declassification powers to an attorney general who has already shown that he has no problem selectively releasing information in order to mislead the American people," said Senator Mark Warner, the leading Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
"People risk their lives to gather the intelligence material that President Trump and Attorney General Barr are so eager to politicize."
- 'Really bad idea' -
Former CIA deputy director John McLaughlin called for Congress to thwart the move.
"Giving Barr declassification authority for this investigation is a really bad idea," he said on Twitter.
"The agencies can cooperate but must retain their legal responsibility for protecting sources."
Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence who oversees the various intelligence branches, stepped carefully, but also made clear that Barr should not play loose with the country's secrets.
"I am confident that the Attorney General will work with the intelligence community in accordance with the long-established standards to protect highly-sensitive classified information that, if publicly released, would put our national security at risk," he said.
- 'Dangerous abuse of power' -
Barr himself has stunned law enforcement and intelligence officials with his willingness to question whether there was a genuine foundation for the investigation into Russian election meddling and into the many suspect contacts between the Trump campaign and Moscow.
The investigation was launched in mid-2016 after campaign advisor George Papadopoulos told an Australian diplomat in London that Russians had offered dirt on Trump's Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
The subsequent investigation, which included authorized national security wiretaps, found a concerted effort by Russia to develop contacts, exchange information and negotiate deals, from a Trump real estate project in Moscow to the lifting of sanctions on Russia.
Those acts and episodes have all been made public in detail in congressional testimony and Mueller's report.
But Trump continues to insist that the investigation had no foundation and that the spying on his advisors was illegal, the product of a menacing "deep state."
Former CIA officer Evan McMullin warned that Trump's move "is truly a dangerous abuse of power."
"Barr will selectively release sensitive information, as he did with Mueller's report, to shape a favorable narrative for Trump and impede the intelligence community's ability to collect intel on foreign threats."