WASHINGTON — FBI Director James Comey this morning, with the blessing of the Justice Department, took what he said was a step warranted by “unusual circumstances where it is in the public interest” to confirm an open investigation into Russia’s campaign op and any ties or collaboration with the Trump team.
Comey confirmed the investigation during his opening statement at the House Intelligence Committee hearing, where he was testifying on Russia’s influence operation alongside National Security Agency Director Adm. Mike Rogers.
“I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts,” Comey said. “As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.”
The FBI director told lawmakers from the outset that because their Russia probe is an open, ongoing investigation and the hearing was held in an open setting he “cannot say more about what we are doing and whose conduct we are examining.”
“I hope you and the American people can understand. The FBI is very careful in how we handle information about our cases and about the people we are investigating,” he said. “We are also very careful about the way we handle information that may be of interest to our foreign adversaries. Both of those interests are at issue in a counterintelligence investigation. Please don’t draw any conclusions from the fact that I may not be able to comment on certain topics. I know speculating is part of human nature, but it really isn’t fair to draw conclusions simply because I say that I can’t comment.”
Comey later said the investigation began in late July and “it’s hard to say” how much longer it would take. He said Congress was only recently briefed on the investigation “because of the sensitivity of the matter.”
Pressed by Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) if meetings with Russian officials alone would be enough to open an investigation, Comey clarified that a “credible allegation of wrongdoing” is needed and later said the bureau will prioritize investigative resources to threats already on the FBI’s radar.
He also stressed that “leaks of classified information are serious, serious federal crimes” and “should be investigated and where possible prosecuted in a way that reflects that seriousness so that people understand it simply cannot be tolerated.”
Under questioning from committee Democrats about the Russia investigation and questions from committee Republicans about the act of leaking, Comey wouldn’t budge on providing additional information.
Rogers and Comey confirmed that there was no evidence within the scope of their respective departments to conclude that vote tallies were in any way altered. Rogers said there was “no change” in the early January assessment from intelligence agencies that Russia staged a multi-front op to “denigrate” Hillary Clinton with a preference for President Trump.
Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said during his opening statement that “while the indications of Russian measures targeting the U.S. presidential election are deeply troubling, one benefit is already clear: it has focused wide attention on the pressing threats posed by the Russian autocrat.”
“Let me be clear, I’ve been saying this for several weeks: We know there was not a physical wiretap of Trump Tower,” Nunes said. “However, it’s still possible that other surveillance activities were used against President’s Trump and his associates. Number three, who has leaked classified information? Numerous current and former officials have leaked purportedly classified information in connection to these questions. We aim to determine who has leaked or facilitated leaks of classified information so that these individuals can be brought to justice.”
Ranking Member Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who read the entire timeline of the Russia story during his opening statement including the dossier prepared by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele, stressed that the investigative ability of the House and Senate intelligence committees to get to the bottom of the Russia probe is limited by staff sizes and “our day job” of picking up intel oversight as well.
“We are engaged in a new war of ideas, not communism versus capitalism, but authoritarianism versus democracy and representative government. And in this struggle, our adversary sees our political process as a legitimate field of battle,” he said.
“Only by understanding what the Russians did can we inoculate ourselves from the further Russian interference we know is coming. Only then can we help protect our European allies who are, as we speak, enduring similar Russian interference in their own elections.”
Schiff read Trump’s tweet from two weeks ago: “Terrible. Just found out that Obama had my wires tapped in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” He asked the FBI director if the president tweeted “a true statement.”
“With respect to the president’s tweets about alleged wiretapping directed at him by the prior administration, I have no information that supports those tweets and we have looked carefully inside the FBI,” Comey replied. “The Department of Justice has asked me to share with you that the answer is the same for the Department of Justice and all its components. The department has no information that supports those tweets.”
“I’m not to try and characterize the tweets themselves. All I can tell you is we have no information that supports them.”
Asked if he engaged in McCarthyism, Comey replied, “I try very hard not to engage in any -isms of any kind, including McCarthyism.”
“No individual in the United States can direct electronic surveillance of anyone,” the FBI director emphasized. “…No president could.”
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) pressed Comey on whether reporters who published classified information leaked from official sources could be prosecuted.
“That’s a harder question as to whether a reporter incurs criminal liability by publishing classified information … that’s a question I know the Department of Justice has struggled with through administration after administration,” Comey said.
“I know the department struggled with it, the 4th Circuit struggled with it, lots of people have struggled with it but you’re not aware of an exception in the current dissemination of classified information statute that carves out an exception for reporters,” Gowdy said.
“No, I’m not aware of anything carved out in the statute,” Comey replied. “I don’t think a reporter’s been prosecuted certainly in my lifetime, though.”
Comey told lawmakers multiple times that leaks of classified information constitute a serious crime and are investigated and prosecuted as warranted. He said unauthorized disclosure of FISA-connected information is uncommon and taken very seriously.
The FBI director resisted lawmakers’ efforts to get him to comment on which classified leaks have been true and which have been false, saying that confirmation or denial would force him to reveal classified information.
Rogers described to the committee at length what happens when communications of a U.S. person are collected during a legal FISA-approved surveillance of a foreign entity.
Such information is disseminated under two criteria, the NSA director said: “Is there a need to know in the course of the person or group that is asking for the identification, is there a valid need to know in the course of the execution of their official duties?”
“It could be another element with the intelligence community, it could be another element within NSA, it could be a military customer, for example, who’s reading some of our reporting. It could be a policymaker,” he added, noting there are 20 people who have the authority to “unmask” a U.S. person collected in FISA surveillance.
“Can you give us a sense of how many unmasked U.S. persons identities were disseminated by the NSA from June 2016 to June 2017?” asked Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.). “Can you tell us whether any of those disseminations broadly were involved U.S. people relating to presidential candidates Donald J. Trump or Hillary Clinton, and their associates in 2016?”
“I won’t answer until I complete the research,” Rogers said, emphasizing that report would be provided to the committee when available.