FBI Director James B. Comey acknowledged Monday that his agency is conducting an investigation into possible coordination between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign in a counterintelligence probe that could reach all the way to the White House and may last for months.
At the same time, Comey repeatedly refused to answer whether specific individuals close to the president had fallen under suspicion of any criminal wrongdoing, “so we don’t wind up smearing people” who may not be charged with a crime.
The extraordinary disclosure came near the beginning of a sprawling, 5 ½ -hour public hearing by the House Intelligence Committee, the panel’s first into the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 election.
The FBI traditionally does not disclose the existence of an investigation, “but in unusual circumstances, where it is in the public interest,” Comey said, “it may be appropriate to do so.”
Comey also said he was authorized by the Justice Department to confirm the existence of the wide-ranging probe into Russian interference in the electoral process. He drew fire last year after he notified Congress 11 days before the presidential election — and against the department’s strong advice not to — that the FBI had reopened an examination of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.
Nunes to Comey: You’ve put ‘a big gray cloud’ over Trump administration
That move, Democrats charged, hurt Clinton as she was heading into the home stretch of her campaign for president. Now, the tables are turned.
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the committee chairman, urged Comey to reveal if and when the bureau has information clearing any of its targets, and to do so as quickly as possible.
“There’s a big gray cloud that you’ve now put over people who have very important work to do to lead this country, and so the faster that you can get to the bottom of this, it’s going to be better for all Americans,” he said.
The hearing came amid the controversy fired up by President Trump more than two weeks ago when he tweeted, without providing evidence, that President Barack Obama had ordered his phones tapped at Trump Tower.
Comey said there is “no information” that supports Trump’s claims that his predecessor ordered surveillance of Trump Tower during the election campaign
“I have no information that supports those tweets,’’ he said. “We have looked carefully inside the FBI,’’ and agents found nothing to support those claims.
Under questioning from the top Democrat on the panel, Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), Comey said no president could order such surveillance. He added that the Justice Department had asked him to also tell the committee that that agency has no such information, either.
Comey: No information to support Trump’s wiretapping tweets
Remarkably, Trump’s presidential account continued to fire away throughout the widely watched hearing, live-tweeting comments and assertions that lawmakers then referred to and used to question Comey and National Security Agency Director Michael S. Rogers.
Comey and Rogers both predicted that Russian intelligence agencies will continue to seek to meddle with U.S. political campaigns, because they view their work in the 2016 presidential race as successful.
“They’ll be back in 2020. They may be back in 2018,’’ Comey said. “One of the lessons they may draw from this is that they were successful, introducing chaos and discord” into the electoral process.
“It’s possible they’re misreading that as ‘it worked,’ so we’ll come back and hit them again in 2020,” Comey added.
Rogers agreed: “I fully expect they will maintain this level of activity.” And, he said, Moscow is conducting a similar “active measures” campaign in Europe, where France and Germany are holding elections this year.
The panel’s Democrats focused on contacts between Trump associates and Russian officials, while the Republicans seemed most exercised by leaks to the media. Information shared with the press has resulted in a series of stories since the election about the intelligence community’s conclusion about Moscow’s desire to see Trump win and about contacts Trump administration officials or close associates had with Russian officials.
One story in particular that apparently upset the Republicans was a Feb. 9 piece by The Washington Post, reporting that Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, discussed the subject of sanctions with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, in the month before Trump took office. The Post reported that the discussions were monitored under routine, court-approved monitoring of Kislyak’s calls. Flynn, who had denied to Vice President Pence that he had spoken about sanctions, was forced to resign.
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) suggested that the leaks were political. He asked Comey whether the intelligence community had shared such information with Obama or his attorney general, Loretta E. Lynch.
Comey — who had acknowledged that, in general, senior officials, including Lynch, would have access to such information — said he would not comment on his conversations with Obama or Trump.
As the hearing was going on — in an apparent dig at Comey and carrying the suggestion that Obama administration officials were behind the leaks — Trump’s presidential Twitter account tweeted out “FBI Director Comey refuses to deny he briefed President Obama on calls made by Michael Flynn to Russia.”
Just hours before the start of the hearing, Trump posted a series of tweets claiming Democrats “made up” the allegations of Russian contacts in an attempt to discredit the GOP during the presidential campaign. Trump also urged federal investigators to shift their focus to probe disclosures of classified material.
“The real story that Congress, the FBI and all others should be looking into is the leaking of Classified information,” Trump wrote early Monday. “Must find leaker now!”
Nunes sought an admission from the officials that the leaks were illegal under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the law that governs foreign intelligence-gathering on U.S. soil or of U.S. persons overseas.
“Yes,” Comey answered. “In addition to being a breach of our trust with the FISA court.”
Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) pressed Rogers to clarify under what circumstances it would be legitimate for Americans caught on tape speaking with people under surveillance to have their identities disclosed publicly, and whether leaking those identities would “hurt or help” intelligence collection.
“Hurt,” Rogers noted.
Rogers stressed that the identities of U.S. persons picked up through “incidental collection” — that being the way intelligence officials picked up on Flynn’s phone calls with Kislyak — are disclosed only on a “valid, need-to-know” basis, and usually only when there is criminal activity or a potential threat to the United States at play.
Rogers added that he has delegated a total of 20 people in the NSA to make decisions about when someone’s identity can be unmasked.
Comey did confirm that the NSA, CIA, FBI, main Justice Department and others — including personnel in the White House in some situations — could have access to unmasked names of U.S. persons.
But he stressed that only the collecting agency can unmask the identities of people. Others with whom the information is shared “can ask the collectors to unmask,” he said — but can’t do it on their own.
GOP members fretted that the leaks to the media would complicate the effort by lawmakers to renew Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows the government to collect through U.S. companies general categories of foreign intelligence contained in phone calls, emails and other electronic communications when one end of the communication is overseas.
Comey rejected the suggestion.
“This conversation has nothing to do with 702,” he protested, adding: “702 is about targeting non-U.S. persons overseas. The FBI can apply to collect electronic surveillance in the United States [on individual targets], but it’s a different thing from 702.”
Military, defense and security at home and abroad.
Comey declined to say whether any officials had sought approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor anyone in the Trump campaign, saying he did not want to discuss the workings of the highly secretive court. Individuals familiar with the investigation, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter, have said there was no such request made during the campaign.
The FBI probe combines an investigation into hacking operations by Russian spy agencies with efforts to understand how the Kremlin sought to manipulate public opinion and influence the election’s outcome
In January, the intelligence community released a report concluding that Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to not only undermine the legitimacy of the election process but also harm the campaign of Hillary Clinton and boost Trump’s chances of winning.
Hackers working for Russian spy agencies penetrated the computers of the Democratic National Committee in 2015 and 2016 as well as the email accounts of Democratic officials, intelligence official said in the report. The material was relayed to WikiLeaks, the officials said, and the anti-secrecy group began a series of damaging email releases just before the Democratic National Convention that continued through the fall.
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