Joe Raedle/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) — Former CIA Director John Brennan told Congress that U.S. intelligence found contact between Russian officials and people involved with the Trump campaign at a time in 2016 when the Russians were “brazenly” interfering in the presidential election.
“I 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,” Brennan said Tuesday at an open session of the House Intelligence Committee. “And it raised questions in my mind again whether or not the Russians were able to gain the cooperation of those individuals,”
Brennan added, however, that he did not know whether any collusion existed as a result of those contacts. The president has dismissed such a possibility, saying there is no evidence of collusion.
Brennan testified that there was a “sufficient basis of information and intelligence that required further investigation” by the FBI to determine whether or not U.S. citizens were “actively conspiring, colluding” with Russian officials.
“I was worried by a number of the contacts that the Russians had with U.S. persons,” he said.
The former CIA chief said he was concerned because of tactics that Russians are known to use, including trying to get individuals, including U.S. persons, to act on their behalf. Russian intelligence operatives won’t identify themselves as Russians or as members of the Russian government; they will try to develop personal relationships with individuals and then over time, they will try to get those people to do things on their behalf, said Brennan.
“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,” he said.
When asked if Russia’s contacts were with official members of the Trump campaign, Brennan repeatedly declined during the hearing to identify specific individuals because of the classified nature of the information.
Warning to the Russians
“It should be clear to everyone that Russia brazenly interfered in our 2016 presidential election process and that they undertook these activities despite our strong protests and explicit warning that they not do so,” Brennan during his opening remarks at Tuesday’s hearing.
He further testified that on Aug. 4, 2016, he warned the head of Russia’s intelligence service that any continued interference would destroy near-term prospects for improvement of relations between Washington and Moscow and would undermine the chance of their working together on matters of mutual interest.
During that meeting with Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia’s Federal Securities Bureau (FSB), Brennan said he warned that if Russia had such a campaign of interference underway, which had already been reported in the press, it would be “certain to backfire.”
“I said that all Americans, regardless of political affiliation or whom they might support in the election, cherish their ability to elect their own leaders without outside interference or disruption,” said Brennan.
The head of the FSB said Russia was not doing anything to influence the presidential election and claimed that Moscow is a traditional target of blame by Washington for such activities. Russia has since repeatedly denied any interference in the election.
Despite his denial, Bortnikov said he would inform Russian President Vladimir Putin of Brennan’s concerns, Brennan said.
The former CIA chief said his meeting with Bortnikov was primarily focused on Syria, but that he also told the Russian official that Moscow’s continued mistreatment of U.S. diplomats there was “irresponsible, reckless, intolerable, and needed to stop.”
Several months after that meeting, in January of this year, a declassified U.S. intelligence report was released which found that Putin “ordered” a campaign to influence the election in an attempt by Russia to “undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process.”
Russia also sought to denigrate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and harm her election prospects and potential presidency, U.S. intelligence agencies found at the time.
Trump’s Oval Office meeting with the Russians
Brennan said it is not unprecedented to share intelligence with Russia or other partners. But he said if reports are true that Trump shared information with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at a White House meeting on May 10, it would have violated two protocols.
The first is that classified intelligence of this nature is not shared with visiting foreign ministers or local ambassadors, but rather through intelligence channels so that it’s handled the “right way” and to make sure it is not exposed, Brennan said.
Secondly, before sharing any classified intelligence with foreign partners, it is important to go back to the originating agency to make sure that sharing the language and substance is not going to reveal sources and methods, potentially compromising future collection capability, said Brennan.
“So, it appears as though, at least from the press reports, that neither did it go in the proper channels, nor did the originating agency have the opportunity to clear language for it. So, that is a problem,” said Brennan.
During the meeting, the president reportedly shared with the Russians intelligence information about ISIS that came from Israel.
Trump has defended his disclosure, arguing he has the right to share such information with Russia.
On Monday, while visiting Israel, Trump told reporters, “I never mentioned the word or the name Israel. Never mentioned it during our conversation.”
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