Little new info emerges from House hearing with intel chiefs on Russian interference in elections

(Photo Credit: C-Span screen grab)

The Directors of both the FBI and the NSA appeared before the House Select Intelligence Committee Monday for the first public hearing by intelligence agency officials on Russian interference in the 2016 election. FSRN’s Reaux Packard has more.

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Monday’s House Select Intelligence Committee hearing aimed to probe allegations of cooperation between Moscow and members of the Trump campaign. But little of substance became public, other than confirmation from FBI Director James Comey that an investigation is underway.

“I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential elections,” Comey testified. “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.”

Both Comey and his counterpart at the National Security Agency, Admiral Michael Rogers, said neither of their agencies, nor the Department of Justice, have uncovered any information supporting President Donald Trump’s allegations that former president Obama ordered then-candidate Trump’s phones be tapped.

The two intelligence officials fielded questions from House lawmakers on a variety of points, but more often than not responded that they were unable to comment, a situation Director Comey anticipated in his opening remarks.

“Please don’t draw any conclusions from the fact that I may not be able to comment on certain topics,” the FBI Director said. “I know speculating is part of human nature, but it really isn’t fair to draw conclusions because I say that I cannot comment.”

Pressed by Democrats on specific evidence regarding retired General Michael Flynn’s contact with Russia during the campaign, connections between other Trump surrogates and Russian envoys and oil executives, or any state-sponsored disinformation efforts – both Comey and Rogers said they could not respond without imperiling the integrity of the ongoing probe.

Flynn stepped down as President Trump’s National Security Advisor after revelations of previously undisclosed contact with the Russian ambassador prior to the inauguration in which the two allegedly discussed U.S. sanctions against Moscow.

Rather than the substance and frequency of contacts between Russian officials and members of the Trump campaign, leaks from intelligence agencies dominated Republicans’ questions. South Carolina Representative Trey Gowdy asked Comey about the statutes that make such disclosures illegal, taking aim not only at sources, but also on the journalists who report their claims.

“You’re not aware of an exception in the current dissemination of classified information statute that carves out an exception for reporters?” asked Gowdy.

“No, I’m not aware of anything carved out in the statute,” Comey responded. “I don’t think a reporter has been prosecuted certainly in my lifetime though.”

Thus far, many media reports about contact between high ranking Russian officials and members of the Trump campaign who went on to hold cabinet-level or senior positions in White House have come through intelligence community leaks to the press.

The House Intelligence Committee’s inability to elicit any substantial information during the hearing supported ranking member and California Democrat Adam Schiff’s call for an independent, nonpartisan commission of experts to investigate, rather than the already taxed Committee.

“The stakes are nothing less than the future of our democracy, and liberal democracy, because we’re engaged in a new war of ideas – not communism versus capitalism, but authoritarianism versus democracy and representative government,” Schiff said at the onset of the hearing. “And in this struggle, our adversary sees our political process as a legitimate field of battle. Only by understanding what the Russians did can we inoculate ourselves against further Russian interference, that we know is coming. Only then can we protect our European allies who are, as we speak, enduring similar Russian interference in their own elections.”

The proceedings are scheduled to continue next week, with Obama’s Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper and former CIA Director, John Brennan, set to testify.

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