WASHINGTON — The former director of the CIA told the House Intelligence Committee today that he was “worried” by contacts between Russia and unidentified U.S. persons during the presidential campaign, yet didn’t share everything that came to the attention of the CIA with former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper like he shared it with the FBI.
John Brennan, a career CIA officer who led the agency from 2013 until the end of former President Obama’s second term, said “it became clear” last summer that Russia was “engaged in a very aggressive and wide-ranging effort to interfere in one of the key pillars of our democracy,” prompting a meeting with the CIA, NSA, and FBI in late July.
“The experts provided regular updates and assessments through the summer and fall, which we used to inform senior U.S. officials, including President Obama,” he said. “The work also was leveraged for the intelligence community assessments that was completed in early January, under the aegis of the director of national intelligence.”
Emphasizing that Russia “brazenly interfered in our 2016 present election process and that they undertook these activities, despite our strong protests and expose a warning that they not do so,” Brennan said he spoke with Russian FSB head Alexander Bortnikov early last August, in which he “raised the published media reports of Russian attempts to interfere in our upcoming presidential election.”
“I said American voters would be outraged by any Russian attempt to interfere in the election,” he recalled. “Finally, I warned Mr. Bortnikov that if Russia pursued this course, it would destroy any near-term prospect for improvement in relations between Washington and Moscow and would undermine constructive engagement even on matters of mutual interest.”
Bortnikov “denied the charge, but said that he would inform President Putin of my comments.”
Brennan said party leaders and the leaders of both congressional intelligence committees received briefings about the “active counterintelligence case” in August and September.
“The substance of those briefings was entirely consistent with the main judgments contained in the January classified and unclassified assessments, namely that Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton and harm her electability and potential presidency, and to help President Trump’s election chances,” he said.
Pressed on whether he saw evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, Brennan said it was the job of intelligence services to turn information over to the investigators at the FBI who are tasked with making that determination.
“I was worried by a number of the contacts that the Russians had with U.S. persons and so therefore, by the time I left office on January 20, I had unresolved questions in my mind as to whether or not the Russians had been successful in getting U.S. persons involved in the campaign or not to work on their behalf, again, either in a witting or unwitting fashion,” the former CIA chief said.
Brennan said he “wanted to make sure that every information and bit of intelligence that we had was shared with the bureau so that they could take it.”
“It was well beyond my mandate as director of CIA to follow on any of those leads that involved U.S. persons,” he added. “But I made sure that anything that was involving U.S. persons, including anything involving the individuals involved in the Trump campaign was shared with the bureau.”
Pressed again on the collusion question by Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), Brennan said he “encountered and am aware of information and intelligence that revealed contacts and interactions between Russian officials and U.S. persons involved in the Trump campaign that I was concerned about because of known Russian efforts to suborn such individuals and it raised questions in my mind, again, whether or not the Russians were able to gain the cooperation of those individuals.”
“I don’t know whether or not such collusion — and that’s your term — such collusion existed. I don’t know,” he said. “But I know that there was a sufficient basis of information and intelligence that required further investigation by the bureau to determine whether or not U.S. persons were actively conspiring, colluding with Russian officials.”
Brennan would not name the U.S. individuals of concern, citing classified information that the committee should have access to in a closed setting. “These are contacts that might’ve been totally, totally innocent and benign as well as those that might have succumbed somehow to those Russian efforts,” he noted.
Other GOPs on the committee were ceding part of their time to ask questions to Gowdy, who tried pressing the former CIA director again: “Did you see evidence of collusion, coordination, conspiracy between Donald Trump and Russian state actors?”
“I saw information and intelligence that was worthy of investigation by the Bureau to determine whether or not such cooperation or collusion was taking place,” Brennan responded.
Brennan later told Gowdy that “not everything that was shared with the Bureau was shared with Director Clapper,” who told NBC in March that there was “not to my knowledge” collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. This month, Clapper told lawmakers he was referring to the January assessment in which members of the intelligence community determined with “high confidence” that Russia did engage in an operation to interfere with the presidential campaign.
“On counterintelligence matters dealing with U.S. person information of a very sensitive nature, the Office of the DNI and the DNI does not have that type of operational responsibility. And what we try to do is to make sure that there is as little exposure of that information as possible,” Brennan explained. “I would keep General Clapper informed about the nature of my engagements, but the materials that were shared with the Bureau would not have been shared with the DNI.”
Brennan also said the Trump administration may have “basically violated two protocols” if the president shared Israeli intelligence with Russian officials in the Oval Office this month.
“Classified intelligence is not shared with visiting foreign ministers or local ambassadors. It’s shared through intelligence channels because it needs to be handled the right way and it needs to make sure that it is not exposed,” he explained. “…Secondly, before sharing any classifies intelligence with foreign partners, it needs to go back to the originating agency to make sure that the language in it is not — even just providing a substance going to reveal source of methods and compromise the future collection capability.”
Speaking with reporters during his trip to the Middle East, Trump didn’t deny sharing the intelligence but said he didn’t explicitly name the source of the intelligence. “I never mentioned the word or the name Israel. Never mentioned during that conversation,” the president said Monday.
The White House focused on Brennan’s comments about “the subsequent releases of — what appears to be classified information reporting to appoint to the originator of the information, liaison partners.”
“These continue to be very, very damaging leaks and I find them appalling and they need to be tracked down,” Brennan added.
Said a White House spokesman: “This morning’s hearings back up what we’ve been saying all along: that despite a year of investigation, there is still no evidence of any Russia-Trump campaign collusion, that the president never jeopardized intelligence sources or sharing, and that even Obama’s CIA director believes the leaks of classified information are ‘appalling’ and the culprits must be ‘tracked down.'”
Brennan told the House committee that he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian intelligence services are now “trying to actively exploit what is going on now in Washington to their benefit and to our detriment.”