Did Russia try to interfere with the election in 2016? You bet, former CIA director John Brennan told a House panel investigating the issue. Did anyone from the Donald Trump campaign actively collude with Russian agents? Brennan got more vague on that point, saying that his counterintelligence operations didn’t find any intentional collusion, but that they found enough contacts that the possibility “concerned” him:
Brennan says he encountered intelligence revealing "contacts and interactions" between Russian officials, people involved in Trump campaign. pic.twitter.com/5RqwmAVe1U
— ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) May 23, 2017
Former CIA head John Brennan on Tuesday told lawmakers that he had seen intelligence showing that people involved in President Trump’s campaign had interactions with Russian officials that “concerned” him.
He insisted that he did not know if there had been any intentional collusion between those campaign associates, who he declined to name.
“But I know that there was a sufficient basis of information and intelligence that required further investigation by the bureau to determine whether U.S. persons were actively colluding,” Brennan said.
But were they? Brennan doesn’t make a case for that, nor provide any evidence of it. In fact, at one point Brennan reminded Trey Gowdy that the CIA conducts intelligence and counter-intelligence operations rather than criminal investigations. When asked to provide evidence for his observations, Brennan shot back, “I don’t do evidence. I do intelligence.” The former CIA chief told the House panel that any leads turned up by the CIA went to the FBI for further investigation.
On the other hand, just because they found contacts doesn’t necessarily indicate collusion, Brennan added. However, the number of contacts bothered him enough that he felt the FBI had good reason to pursue an investigation:
— POLITICO (@politico) May 23, 2017
Based on his experience with how Russian intelligence services go about such influence campaigns, Brennan said, the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation was “well-founded.”
He was explicit, however, that U.S. persons do not always know that they are interacting with Russian intelligence operatives.
Yes, that’s what makes intelligence operatives effective. Campaigns require the broadest possible outreach and engagement, which is what makes them vulnerable to hostile foreign intelligence operations (and for that matter, dirty tricks from other campaigns). A well-organized campaign can minimize that by working through well-known and previously vetted political activists and groups, but grassroots campaigns might be more vulnerable. The Russians take special interest in American elections, which has been true at least since the start of the Cold War, and almost all contacts would likely to be both unwitting and inconsequential, precisely because we conduct open campaigns and elections.
Those are the two big questions in this issue. Did any contact amount to deliberate collusion, and did it make any difference? At least to this point in testimony and reporting, the answers to both are no. The only impactful espionage so far appears to be the hacks on the DNC and to a much lesser extent the DCCC and John Podesta, and the impact from those are arguable. That’s why the accusations of a cover-up don’t make much sense, given what’s been found, and Brennan also told Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) that he has no knowledge of any efforts by the Trump White House to impede investigations in the matter:
SCHIFF: In respect to a number of allegations made recently that the president of his aides may have sought to enlist the help of members the IC [intelligence community] or Director Comey himself to drop the Flynn investigation. Have any members of the IC shared their concerns that the president was attempting to enlist the help of people within the intelligence community to drop the Flynn investigation?
BRENNAN: I am not aware.
So all we know for the moment about what happened in 2016 is that the Russians tried to penetrate at least one campaign, succeeded in hacking two others, and generally acted as they usually do around election time. No one has produced evidence of Russian tampering with the actual voting process, nor of any deliberate and knowing collusion with Russian intelligence, let alone by campaign leadership. At worst, with what’s known so far, the Trump campaign might be criticized for sloppy security and a näiveté about business and campaign contacts.
By the way, Brennan also slapped at the leakers for “very, very damaging” exposures of intelligence and other classified information. The leaks need to be plugged ASAP, Brennan suggests:
That might be the truly acute issue in this entire scandal, because months of digging on collusion allegations have resulted in bupkis thus far. Maybe the special counsel probe will find evidence for such, but don’t forget that Brennan ran the CIA during the entire election cycle and still can’t connect those dots. If he can’t get any more specific than this by now, and the FBI can’t come up with more than James Comey’s representation on May 3rd, then Robert Mueller’s job might be shorter than we think. He’s officially on the job as of today, so … good luck:
#Breaking: The Justice Department has concluded its ethics review of special counsel Robert Mueller, determining that he can proceed .
— NPR (@NPR) May 23, 2017