Vid Monday mornings are never pleasant, are they? Take FBI director James Comey and head of the NSA Admiral Mike Rogers, for example, who kicked off their week by being grilled by the US House Select Intelligence Committee.
The meeting was scheduled to give Congress an update on claims of Russian meddling in the presidential election, President Donald Trump’s obvious bullshit that he was wiretapped by Barack Obama during the White House race – and whether the intelligence community has any idea who is slipping classified documents to the press.
The first point addressed by the dynamic duo was that of fears hackers had altered the nation’s election results. Both Comey and Rogers stressed to the committee that they had seen no evidence of anyone compromising electronic election terminals to directly influence the outcome, although some voter registration records were obtained.
Both men also shot down wild claims by a Fox News analyst – and later tweeted by Commander in Chief Trump – that then-President Barack Obama ordered that Trump and his associates be wiretapped, possibly by British agents at GCHQ. Director Comey was unequivocal on the matter.
“With respect to his tweets: I have no information that supports those tweets, and we have looked carefully inside the FBI,” he said. “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.”
Comey pointed out that all and any surveillance of that type has to be ordered by a judge, not by any one individual. It would be impossible for one person to order and authorize that kind of political snooping, even if they did happen to be the president.
Admiral Rogers agreed, saying that no members of the NSA had been involved in any such shenanigans, and he hadn’t seen evidence of such surveillance. When asked about claims that GCHQ was involved – a suggestion the British snoop agency rather frankly denies – Rogers was emphatic, saying he would never ask his colleagues across the Pond to do such a thing.
“That would be expressly against the construct of the Five Eyes agreement that’s been in place for decades,” Rogers said, adding that he agreed with GCHQ’s comment that such claims were “utterly ridiculous.”
Noisy hacking attacks by Russia
A large part of the hearings covered the ongoing investigation into Russian state spies and Putin-sponsored miscreants actively influencing the US presidential election. For example, it is alleged Kremlin-backed hackers broke into Democrat computer systems, swiped documents, and selectively leaked the files to the public to swing the election for Trump.
Director Comey observed that normally the FBI refused to comment on whether an investigation into anything is ongoing. However, in this case, he was authorized to confirm that his staff was investigating these swirling claims, but that he wasn’t willing to talk about specifics – saying he understood that would be frustrating for Congress.
“The question most people have is whether we can really conduct this investigation in the kind of thorough and nonpartisan manner that the seriousness of the issues merit, or whether the enormous political consequences of our work will make that impossible,” Comey said.
“The truth is, I don’t know the answer, but I do know this: if this committee can do its work properly, if we can pursue the facts wherever they lead, unafraid to compel witnesses to testify, to hear what they have to say, to learn what we will.”
Potential Putin collusion probe
Both men said there was very little doubt that the Russians had tried to shape the election, as they had other elections. The pair declined to comment on claims that the Russian authorities had colluded with the Trump campaign or any of its staff, although the FBI boss confirmed his agents are “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 also confirmed Russian intelligence services had hacked into a number of groups, including the Democratic National Committee and some Republican party servers, and that Putin and his pals “hate” Hillary Clinton. The FBI boss said his view was that by late summer 2016, the Russians had given up on Trump winning the election and concentrated on trying to hurt Clinton as much as possible.
The methods of disseminating information gleaned from the hackers were surreptitious according to Comey, and the Russians used WikiLeaks to get plausible deniability for the source of the information. He also noted that the hacks themselves had been “noisy,” as though the Russians wanted us to know they had been hacking around to damage whoever got into the White House.
“Their number one mission is to undermine the credibility of the entire democracy enterprise, of this nation. Their loudness in a way would be counting on us to amplify… and freaking people out,” Comey said.
Comey noted that the FBI began its investigation in June 2016 but didn’t make any public disclosures “due to the sensitivity of the matter.” He was not asked why he went public, twice, about investigations into the Clinton campaign while keeping the Trump-Kremlin links probe quiet.
Battle to stop leaks
A lot of Republican committee members wanted the view of the FBI and NSA on government officials leaking information to the press. Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn was forced to resign after press reports of close ties to some Russian groups.
Rogers said that, of course, leaks were a problem, and that he had taken a personal interest in the matter and had made his views clear to NSA staff recently.
“I have raised this directly with my own workforce over the course of the last few months to remind everyone part of the ethics of the profession and not just the legal requirement but the ethics of our profession as intelligence professionals that we do not engage in this activity,” Rogers said.
“I reminded the men and women of the National Security Agency that if I am aware of any such conduct, there is no place for you on this team, and it is unacceptable to the citizens of the nation as well as the agency.”
Comey explained that, in some cases, leakers could be prosecuted under the Espionage Act. President Obama’s administration was a big fan of the Act, and used it more than any other administration to try to clamp down on leakers. ®