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

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All eyes are on James Comey as he heads to Capitol Hill.

FBI Director James Comey. play

FBI Director James Comey.

(Getty/Winn McNamee)
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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.

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.

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."

Both the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes, and the committee's top Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff, have said that the committee had not found any evidence to support Trump's claim that Obama had Trump Tower phones "tapped" before the 2016 election.

But in an example of their seemingly divergent priorities, Nunes said in his opening statement that he wants to know whether there was any "improper surveillance" of the Trump campaign by the Obama administration and "who leaked" classified information.

Nunes, and other Republicans, focused much of their attention on Monday on grilling Comey about leaks from within the intelligence community to the press. He asked Comey if an "unathorized disclosure of a" warrant to surveil Trump associates during the campaign would be a violation of the Espionage Act." Comey replied "Yes."

Rep. Trey Gowdy asked Comey whether he thought FISA was "critical to our national security," to which Comey replied "yes." Gowdy asked if the "unauthorized dissemination" of information about the existence of a FISA warrant was a felony. Comey replied that it was.

Schiff, meanwhile, focused his questions on whether the FBI had evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, noting in his opening statement that "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.

When asked whether he could confirm that Trump associates ever contacted Russian officials, Comey said he couldn't comment.

"All I can tell you is what we're investigating, which includes an investigation into whether there was coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russians," Comey said.

'We don't have any information that supports those tweets'

 

Schiff then asked Comey whether there was any evidence supporting Trum's claim that Obama had wiretapped him. Schiff replied that he had "no information that supports" Trump's allegations.

"No individual can direct electronic surveillance of anyone," Comey said, adding that "no president could" unilaterally order a wiretap of anyone. "We don't have any information that supports those tweets."

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.

Rogers, of the NSA, was pressed on Monday about the criteria needed to obtain such a warrant, and what happens when US persons are caught up in legal surveillance of foreigners on US soil.

"In broad terms," Rogers replied, when collective information via surveillance, the NSA assesses whether there is "criminal activity" or an imminent threat — if there is no intelligence value, then the information is discarded.

It is still unclear whether a warrant was ever granted to surveil foreign actors operating inside the US that might have been communicating with Trump aides.

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.

Rogers would not comment during the hearing on the specific individuals who may or may not have been caught up in the intelligence community's routine surveillance.

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.

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."

Rogers, of the NSA, denied ever asking the GCHQ for help in this kind of surveillance. He said on Monday that while the international upset is "something we'll be able to deal with," the accusation "clearly frustrates a key ally of ours."