Politics: Comey confirms FBI is investigating Russian meddling and contacts with Trump associates in big congressional testimony


FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers testified before the House Intelligence Committee on Monday morning about Russia's interference in the US election and whether President Donald Trump's associates colluded or conspired with Russian officials during the campaign.

Comey said in his opening statement that "our practice is not to confirm the existence of ongoing investigations...but, in unusual circumstances, where it lies in the public interest, it may be necessary to do so."

"I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI is investigating Russia's interference in the US election," Comey continued, which "includes whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russian efforts. This will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed. I can not say more about whose conduct we are investigating."

He added that the leak of classified intelligence "simply cannot be tolerated."

The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, opened the hearing with a condemnation of Russia's aggression in the military and cyber realms.

"Our inability to predict the Putin regime's plans and intentions has been the biggest intelligence failure… since 9/11," Nunes said. "I hope today's hearing will shed light on" Russia's active measures against the 2016 campaign, and whether anyone from the Trump campaign "conspired in these activities."

Nunes added that he wants to know whether there was any "improper surveillance" of the Trump campaign by the Obama administration and "who leaked" classified information.

Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a lengthy opening statement that Russians "weaponized stolen data" from top Democrats in 2016 to help Trump get elected because Russian President Vladimir Putin "despised" Hillary Clinton.

"None of these facts is seriously in question," Schiff said. "We'll never know whether the Russian interference was determinative...it does not matter. What matters is that the Russians meddled in our democracy, and our intelligence agencies have concluded that they will do so again."

"We don't know whether the Russians had help from US citizens — including members of Trump's campaign," Schiff continued. "If someone on the Trump campaign aided or abetted the Russians, it would not only be a serious crime, but it would be an example of one of the most serious betrayals" in US history.

Schiff invoked the explosive but unverified dossier written last year by former British spy, Christopher Steele, detailing the Trump campaign's alleged communication with Russian nationals and officials during the campaign.

"Is it possible" that all of the reports are "just an unhappy coincidence?" Schiff asked. "Yes. But it is also possible that it was not just a coincidence...we simply don't know. But we owe it to the country to find out."

The hearing is the first time either Comey or Rogers have testified publicly since Trump was inaugurated. It comes just over two weeks after Trump tweeted, without presenting evidence, that Obama had Trump Tower's "wires tapped" during the presidential campaign.

Rogers, speaking after Shiff, said "there is no change on our confidence" in the intelligence community assessment published in January which concluded that Russia meddled in the US election.

Bipartisan frustration

Comey, under pressure from both parties for more information on Trump's wiretapping claims, held a classified briefing last Wednesday with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley; the committee's ranking member, Dianne Feinstein; the Senate Intelligence Committee's top Democrat, Mark Warner; and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Grassley had threatened to withhold a vote for Rod Rosenstein to be deputy attorney general unless Comey gave him and the other senators their long-awaited briefing. The senators did not divulge details after the meeting.

Nunes said Sunday that the committee had not found any evidence to support Trump's claim that Obama had Trump Tower phones "tapped" before the 2016 election, and that he had obtained documents from the Justice Department confirming as much.

"Was there a physical wiretap of Trump Tower? No, there never was," said Nunes, a Republican. "The information we received Friday continues to lead us in that direction."

Schiff said on Monday that the committee had found "no evidence" for Trump's "slanderous" accusation, and said he hoped Comey would "put the issue to rest" during the hearing.

FISA or no FISA?

The president does not have the unilateral authority to order a wiretap on suspected foreign spies operating inside the US, experts say. Doing so would be a federal crime that would implicate career civil servants and necessitate a huge cover-up.

Rather, law-enforcement and intelligence agencies wishing to monitor signal intelligence they deem relevant to an investigation — in this case, suspected Russian interference in the 2016 election — must obtain what is known as a FISA warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Nunes also denied on Sunday that a FISA warrant had been obtained.

"There was no FISA warrant I am aware of to tap Trump Tower," Nunes said.

It is still unclear, however, whether a warrant was ever granted to surveil foreign actors operating inside the US that might have been communicating with Trump aides. When asked in January, before Trump was sworn in, whether the FBI was investigating reports that Trump's campaign had contact with Russia during the election, Comey said he "would never comment on investigations, whether we have one or not, in an open forum like this."

Reports have suggested that communications between Trump's former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and Russia's ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak, were picked up by US intelligence officials who had been eavesdropping on Kislyak — not on Flynn. Current and former US officials have also told several media outlets that they have intercepted communications between associates of Trump and Russian officials.

The House Intelligence Committee has asked the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA to give them a full list of people whose conversations may have been picked up in that kind of incidental surveillance. So far, only the NSA has "partially" complied, according to The Washington Post.

Setting the tone

Nunes, and other Republicans, will likely focus much of their attention on Monday on grilling Comey about leaks from within the intelligence community to the press — an issue Comey has said is a top priority for the committee. Democrats, meanwhile, will likely hone in on what evidence the FBI has implicating Trump in Russia's election-related meddling, and whether anyone associated with the Trump campaign is currently under investigation.

Trump's explosive claims of wiretapping caused an international row last week when press secretary Sean Spicer read from unverified reports that said a British intelligence agency, the Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, conspired with Obama to wiretap Trump.

The comment prompted a near-immediate reaction from GCHQ, which released a rare public statement categorically denying any involvement and calling the accusation "utterly ridiculous."

Trump doubled down on Monday morning, appearing to set the tone for the hearing, tweeting that "James Clapper and others stated that there is no evidence Potus colluded with Russia. This story is FAKE NEWS and everyone knows it!"

Trump then claimed that Democrats "made up and pushed the Russian story" to explain Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton's loss in the presidential election, and called on Congress and the US intelligence community to look into classified-information leaks.

Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, pushed back strongly.

"Mr. President, the Russians hacked our election and interfered. No one disputes this now, but you. This is what is called 'fact,'" Schiff tweeted in response to Trump. "As you will see during our hearing, Mr. President, there is no evidence Mr. Obama tapped your phones. This is what is called 'fiction.'"

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Chuka (Webby) Aniemeka

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