FBI Confirms Counterspy Probe Into Trump Aides' Links to Russian Election Influence Operation

Comey: 'Russians will be back' to create 'chaos, division, doubt' in American democracy

James Comey
James Comey / Getty Images
March 20, 2017

FBI Director James Comey said during a contentious House hearing Monday that FBI counterspies are investigating whether aides to Donald Trump coordinated activities with Russia's intelligence services during last year's operation to influence the outcome of the presidential election.

Comey, testifying with National Security Agency Director Adm. Mike Rogers, also said he has seen no evidence supporting President Trump's claim that the Obama administration spied on Trump and his campaign.

The director and the nation's top electronic intelligence official appeared before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, where Republicans and Democrats presented competing political narratives during more than five hours of testimony.

Trump has stated in a tweet he "found out that Obama had my wires tapped in Trump Tower" just before the Nov. 8 election. The president then stated, "Nothing found. This is McCarthyism."

Comey said: "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."

The FBI chief warned that Russia likely interpreted its covert intervention in the campaign as a success and that it will continue to target future elections.

"I'll just say as initial matter they'll be back," he said. "One of the lessons they may draw from this is that they were successful because they introduced chaos and division and discord and sewed doubt about the nature of this amazing country of ours and our democratic process."

Rogers concurred that Russian information operations would continue. "Absent some change, this behavior is not going to stop," he said of the Russian hacking and influence activities.

Committee Republicans questioned Comey and Rogers about recent leaks of highly classified electronic surveillance secrets exposing a telephone conversation between the Russian ambassador and retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser.

One news report of the conversation stated that nine officials had confirmed the secret intelligence that led to Flynn's resignation for misleading Vice President Mike Pence about the discussion.

Committee chairman Rep. Devin Nunes (R., Calif.) stated on Fox News Sunday that there is no evidence of collusion between Trump campaign officials and Russian officials.

Several GOP committee members, led by Nunes, said former senior national security officials, including former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former CIA Director John Brennan, had access to the secret electronic surveillance of Flynn and thus could have disclosed secrets to the press in a bid by the outgoing Obama administration to discredit and undermine the Trump administration.

"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 Trump and his associates."

As for leaks of classified information, "numerous current and former officials have leaked purportedly classified information in connection to these questions," Nunes said.

"We aim to determine who has leaked or facilitated leaks of classified information so that these individuals can be brought to justice."

Several Democrats, led by the committee's ranking member, Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), sought to outline a shadowy conspiracy by current and former Trump presidential campaign officials to work with Russia in defeating Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

"If the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it aided or abetted the Russians, it would not only be a serious crime, it would also represent one of the most shocking betrayals of democracy in history," Schiff said.

Comey and Rogers testified as part of the committee investigation into the Russian presidential campaign operation that involved hacking Democratic Party emails and releasing them to pro-Russian media outlets.

Earlier Monday, Trump hit out again on Twitter, charging that Congress should focus its investigation on the leaks and the Clinton campaign's contacts with Russian.

"The Democrats made up and pushed the Russian story as an excuse for running a terrible campaign," Trump said. "Big advantage in Electoral College & lost!"

Other than Comey's confirmation of the counterintelligence probe and statement about surveillance of Trump, the two officials remained tight-lipped on both political narratives, repeatedly declining to discuss leaks or people caught up in the investigation into Russian election activities.

Two U.S. intelligence reports concluded that Russia's FSB security service and GRU military intelligence service took part in a "cyber-enabled influence operation" beginning in June 2015 and continuing through 2016 that involved stealing Democratic emails and supplying them to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks as well as two Russian front groups, and Guccifer 2.0.

Comey repeated an earlier conclusion that U.S. intelligence agencies did not assess whether the Russian influence operation aimed at helping Trump was successful or not.

Comey said he was authorized by the Justice Department, the FBI's parent agency, to confirm the counterintelligence probe.

"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.

Counterintelligence probes are used to uncover foreign spy operations and are not the same as criminal investigations. Comey said the probe would include an assessment of whether crimes were committed.

It was an unusual admission of a secret counterspy probe. Normal FBI practice is to refrain from confirming or denying the existence of such investigations.

However, Comey said he has briefed senior congressional leaders on the details of the investigation.

In a 15-minute opening statement, Schiff laid out the Democrats' case tying Trump campaign aides to Russia.

The links included an early July visit to Russia by Carter Page, a Trump campaign national security adviser who gave a speech critical of the United States. Schiff also alleged that Paul Manafort, who was dismissed as Trump's campaign manager last summer, picked Page to be a go-between for the Trump campaign and "Russian interests."

A third data point offered by Schiff involved tweets by Roger Stone, a Trump political adviser, who communicated with Guccifer 2.0, a Russian source for hacked Democratic emails.

"Is it possible that all of these events and reports are completely unrelated and nothing more than a entirely unhappy coincidence? Yes, it is possible," Schiff said.

"But it is also possible, maybe more than possible, that they are not coincidental, not disconnected, and not unrelated, and that the Russians use the same techniques to corrupt U.S. persons that they employed in Europe and elsewhere. We simply don't know—not yet. And we owe it to the country to find out."

Other Democrats suggested Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Attorney General Jeff Sessions had nefarious links to Russia. Sessions recused himself from the Russian influence probe after misstating in Senate testimony that he had no contacts with Russian officials while with the Trump campaign.

Under questioning from Rep. Trey Gowdy (R, S.C.), Comey acknowledged that Clapper, Brennan, former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and former National Security Adviser Susan Rice likely would have had access to transcripts of secret information that identified Flynn speaking by phone with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

Comey said he did not know if Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, had access to the transcript.

Under NSA rules, the identities of Americans in private conversations with foreign targets of intelligence surveillance are kept secret to protect their privacy rights.

Rogers said 20 people at the NSA have the authority to unmask the identity of Americans incidentally spied on. Comey said he did not know the number of FBI employees that have that authority.

Several committee members referred to the Russian election meddling as "information warfare." Comey took issue with the use of the term.

"I don't think I would use the term warfare," he said. "I think you'd want to ask experts in the definition of war. They engaged in a multifaceted campaign of active measures to undermine our democracy and hurt one of the candidates and hoped to help one of the other candidates."

Published under: Donald Trump , Russia