CIA Director John Brennan testified before the full House Intelligence Committee on May 23, 2017. And judging from his opening statements, Mr. Brennan had closely watched former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony on March 20th 2017.
The full video of Brennan’s testimony is below (transcript here). I will highlight some key moments:
Brennan’s opening remarks begin at 9:05.
At 11:44 Brennan describes his protest – in consultation with the White House – to Alexander Bortnikov, the Director of the FSB for Russia.
BRENNAN: I believe I was the first U.S. official to brace the Russians on this matter.
At 13:35 things get a bit more interesting:
BRENNAN: Through the so-called Gang-of-Eight process we kept congress apprised of these issues as we identified them. Again, in consultation with the White House, I personally briefed the full details of our understanding of Russian attempts to interfere in the election to congressional leadership. Specifically, Senators Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, Dianne Feinstein and Richard Burr and to representatives Paul Ryan, Nancy Pelosi, Devin Nunes and Adam Schiff between 11th August and 6th September , I provided the same briefing to each of the gang of eight members.
Given the highly sensitive nature of what was an active counter-intelligence case, involving an ongoing Russian effort, to interfere in our presidential election, the full details of what we knew at the time were shared only with those members of congress; each of whom was accompanied by one senior staff member.
The substance of those briefings was entirely consistent with the main judgements contained in the January classified and unclassified assessments. Namely, that Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. Democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton and harm her electability and potential presidency. And to help President Trump’s election chances.
Note that the “active counter-intelligence case” refers directly to the FBI investigation. Brennan had already turned over all evidence the CIA had to the FBI to facilitate their investigation. Brennan is very careful to get it on record in his opening statement that he briefed the Congressional Gang of Eight back in August and September of 2016. Shortly after the FBI began a counter-intelligence investigation into Russia and the Trump campaign in July 2016. We will return to this matter – and James Comey – later as it is important.
At 22:18 Adam Schiff asks some questions:
SCHIFF: With respect to the allegations made recently that the President or his aides may have sought to enlist the member of the IC or Director Comey himself to drop the Flynn investigation, have any members of the IC shared with you their concerns that the President was attempting to enlist the help of the people in the intelligence community to drop the Flynn investigation?
BRENNAN: No, sir.
SCHIFF: Are you aware of any efforts the President has made who enlist the support of the intelligence community personnel to push back on a narrative involving the collusion issue that Mr. Rooney was asking about?
BRENNAN: I am unaware of it.
There was no obstruction of the investigation. Schiff, despite being intensely partisan, knows this because of his position on the Gang of Eight. He is offering Brennan an escape route.
Now jump forward to 28:22 as Trey Gowdy begins his questioning:
GOWDY: Director, thank you for your service to our country. Let’s go back to where we were a couple minutes ago, you mentioned or you testify that you had a conversation in August of 2016 with your Russian counterpart, you testified that you briefed at least eight members of Congress throughout (inaudible) of your investigation.
When you learned of Russian efforts — and we’ll get to that in a minute because my understanding from your unclassified report is, Russia has historically attempted to interfere with our electoral process. And they did so without coordination, collusion or conspiring with any of the candidates, so they have a history of doing it. We’ll lay that aside for a minute, 2016 electoral process. When you learned of Russian efforts, did you have evidence of a connection between the Trump campaign and Russian state actors?
BRENNAN: As I said Mr. Gowdy, I don’t do evidence…
GOWDY: Well, I…
BRENNAN: … and we were uncovering information intelligence about interactions and contacts between U.S. persons and the Russians. And as we came upon that, we would share it with the bureau.
GOWDY: I appreciate that you don’t do evidence, Director Brennan. Unfortunately, that’s what I do. That’s the word we use, you use the word assessment, you use the word tradecraft. I use the word evidence. And the good news for me is lots of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle use the word evidence, too. One of my colleagues said there is more than circumstantial evidence of collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign.
Now, there are only two types of evidence; there’s circumstantial and direct. So if it’s more than circumstantial, by necessity, it has to be direct. Those aren’t my words; those are the words of one of my colleagues on the other side of this very committee. Another Democrat colleague on the other side of this committee also used the word evidence, that he has seen evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians and yet a third California Democrat, said she had seen no evidence of collusion.
So that’s three different members of Congress from the same state, using the same word, which is evidence. And that’s the word that my fellow citizens understand, evidence. Assessment is — is your vernacular. Tradecraft is your vernacular. You and I both know worth the word evidence makes. And we’re not getting into whether or not you corroborated, contradicted, examined, cross-examined. We’re not getting into how you tested and probed the reliability of that evidence; it’s a really simple question.
Did evidence exist of collusion, coordination, conspiracy, between the Trump campaign and Russian state actors at the time you learned of 2016 efforts?
BRENNAN: I encountered and am aware of information and intelligence that revealed contacts and interactions between Russian officials and U.S. persons involved in the Trump campaign that I was concerned about because of known Russian efforts to suborn such individuals and it raised questions in my mind, again, whether or not the Russians were able to gain the cooperation of those individuals.
I don’t know whether or not such collusion — and that’s your term, such collusion existed. I don’t know. But I know that there was a sufficient basis of information and intelligence that required further investigation by the bureau to determine whether or not U.S. persons were actively conspiring, colluding with Russian officials.
GOWDY: Do you know the basis of that information that you shared with the bureau? What was — the nature of the evidence?
BRENNAN: I think, Mr. Gowdy, this committee has now been provided information that relates to that issue in terms of information that the agency shared with the bureau and that is something that is appropriately classified.
GOWDY: All right, and you learned that when? When in this chronology did you learn of the contacts between these official members of the Trump campaign or — because there’s kind of a tripartite hierarchy. There’s Trump himself, there are official members of the campaign, and then there are folks who represented themselves as being connected with him.
BRENNAN: I’m not going to try to identify individuals nor try to parse it.
GOWDY: I don’t want you to parse it, I just want you to identify the individuals. I don’t want you to parse it.
BRENNAN: I’m not going to identify the individuals because this is information that, again, is based on classified sources and intelligence. And I think this committee has access to it…
GOWDY: Were they official members of the campaign?
BRENNAN: I’m going to defer to current agency officials to be able to further provide to you information related to that. But my understanding is that this committee has access to the documents that we would have provided to the bureau.
GOWDY: All right. Last question because I’m out of time, we can use the word onus, we both know what the other one’s talking about. How did you test, probe, examine, cross-examine, otherwise test the reliability or believability, credibility, of that evidence you uncovered?
BRENNAN: I made sure that the components within CIA that have responsible for counterintelligence, cyber, and Russia, were actively working to understand as much as possible about the reliability, accuracy of the information that they already collected and information that was available that needed further corroboration.
GOWDY: We’ll come back to it next round.
The issue of Brennan being unaware of collusion is returned to time and again. At 1:20:41 Mike Turner takes over the questioning:
TURNER: So you indicated that you saw — when asked about whether or not you’d seen evidence of collusion or collaboration, you said that you saw intelligence that indicated that there had been contacts with individuals — with — with Russians — that were of a nature that bore investigation. You said that those contacts might have been benign, might not have been. But they rose to the level of indicating that they need to be reviewed for their nature, and looking into an investigation. Did I characterize that correctly?
BRENNAN: Yes, but I don’t want to take this out of context. You know, we see contacts and interactions between Russian officials and U.S. persons all the time. It is when it’s in the context that there is something else going on — and so we knew, at the time, that the Russians were involved in this effort to try to interfere in our election. So with that backdrop, and increasing indications that they were involved in that, seeing these types of contacts and interactions during the same period of time raised my — my concern.
TURNER: Excellent. I appreciate that — that qualification. But if someone left this hearing today and said that you had indicated that those contacts were evidence of collusion or collaboration, they would be misrepresenting your statements, correct?
BRENNAN: They would have misheard my response to the very good questions that were asked of me. I’m trying to be as clear as possible in terms of what I know, what I assess, and what I can say.
TURNER: So you would say that’s a misrepresentation of your statement, yes?
BRENNAN: I would say that it was not an accurate portrayal of my statement.
BRENNAN: Absolutely, it was inconsistent with my remarks.
TURNER: So let me go to the next step. If someone saw what you saw, and only what you saw, with respect to those contacts — if they looked at the intelligence that you saw, where you said it might have been benign, might not have been benign, and then they characterize what they saw has been — as having been evidence of collusion or collaboration, they’d be misrepresenting the intelligence, would they not?
BRENNAN: I don’t know what else they have seen that could corroborate…
TURNER: Only what you saw. They would be misrepresenting the intelligence, correct?
BRENNAN: I — I presume they would be misrepresenting what it is that I saw. Again, I don’t know…
TURNER: Thank you. I appreciate that, because I do believe that there are members of this committee that deserve that counsel, because your specificity gives us an understanding of what we’re reviewing. And I do believe that there are those who reviewed some of the information that you have — have seen and represent it to the public absolutely incorrectly, and misrepresent it.
GOWDY: On either January 19th or up to noon on January 20th [Brennan’s last day as CIA Director] did you make any unmasking requests?
BRENNAN: I do not believe I did.
GOWDY: You did not make any requests on the last day that you were employed?
BRENNAN: No, I was not in the agency on the last day I was employed. I definitely know that on the last day I was employed I definitely did not make such a request.
Give this snippet a watch. It’s more interesting on video. Gowdy seems to know something more – and wants an answer on the record.
At 1:54:00 Gowdy resumes his questioning on leaks and unmasking. It’s worth watching for its own sake. The next day Gowdy publicly states that key surveillance programs won’t be reauthorized by Congress until questions about intelligence “unmasking” are answered.
Despite press reports from the Washington Post and the New York Times it’s clear there is no evidence of collusion. There was evidence of an attempt by the Russians to influence the election but in Brennan’s own words “there always is”. But there was no evidence of collusion. That didn’t stop the FBI from pursuing a nearly year-long investigation – with no Congressional oversight. Which brings us back to James Comey.
In July 2016, the FBI began a counter-intelligence investigation into Russia and the Trump campaign – based off information from the CIA – per FBI Director Comey’s March 20, 2017 testimony. In late December 2016, the FBI opens a formal – essentially parallel – investigation into claims that Russia attempted to influence the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.
But Comey does not inform Congress of his actions until sometime recently – likely in early March.
Which brings us to this video. A much shorter – but highly interesting – exchange between FBI Director Comey and Representative Elise Stefanik (lots of videos today – my apologies):
STEFANIK: Thank you, Director Comey and Admiral Rogers for your testimony today. My first set of questions are directed at Director Comey. Broadly, when the FBI has any open counter-intelligence investigation, what are the typical protocols or procedures for notifying the DNI, the White House, and senior Congressional leadership?
COMEY: There is a practice of a quarterly briefing on sensitive cases to the chair and ranking of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. And the reason I hesitate is, thanks to feedback we’ve gotten, we’re trying to make it better. And that involves a briefing of the Department of Justice, I believe the DNI, and the — some portion of the National Security Council at the White House…
STEFANIK: So if that’s quarterly…
COMEY: … to brief them before Congress is briefed.
STEFANIK: So it’s quarterly for all three then, senior congressional leadership, the White House, and the DNI?
COMEY: I think that’s right. Now that’s by practice not by rule or by written policy which is why, thanks to the chair and ranking giving us feedback, we’re trying to tweak it in certain ways.
STEFANIK: So since, in your opening statement, you confirmed that there is a counter-intelligence investigation currently open and you also referenced that it started in July. When did you notify the DNI, the White House, or senior congressional leadership?
COMEY: It’s a good question. Congressional leadership, some time recently. They were briefed on the nature of the investigation in some detail as I said. Obviously the Department of Justice has been aware of it all along. The DNI, I don’t know what the DNI’s knowledge of it was because we didn’t have a DNI until Mr. Coats took office and I briefed him his first morning in office.
STEFANIK: So just to drill down on this, if — if the open investigation began in July and the briefing of congressional leadership only occurred recently, why was there no notification prior to the recent — to the past month?
COMEY: I think our decision was it was a matter of such sensitivity that we wouldn’t include it in the quarterly briefings.
STEFANIK: So when you state our decision is that your decision? Is that usually your decision what gets briefed in those quarterly updates?
COMEY: No, it’s usually the decision of the head of our counter- intelligence division.
STEFANIK: And just again, to get the detailed — on the record, why was the decision made not to brief senior congressional leadership until recently when the investigation had been open since July? A very serious investigation — why was that decision to wait months?
COMEY: Because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Comey makes some very interesting – and unusual – statements in this portion of his testimony.
“Some portion of the National Security Council at the White House”
– almost certainly means then-Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes – and Obama.
“Congressional leadership, some time recently”
– so much for being required to notify Congressional leadership – the Gang of Eight – quarterly.
“We didn’t have a DNI”
– how nobody called this out at the time is beyond me. Of course we did – Obama’s DNI was headed by James Clapper. Does this mean Clapper was never briefed? I doubt it but for now I don’t know the true answer on this question.
“Our decision was it was a matter of such sensitivity that we wouldn’t include it in the quarterly briefings. It’s usually the decision of the head of our counter- intelligence division.
– What?? The FBI is a division of the DOJ. It is not a fourth branch of the government. Since when does an official within the FBI get to decide when information is disseminated to only certain members of the National Security Council – not all of them – while at the same time refusing to disclose to Congressional leadership?
The Gang of Eight are briefed on classified intelligence matters by the Executive Branch and are responsible for Congressional oversight of all Intelligence Agencies. They are the “Checks and Balances” for the Intelligence aspect of our government. Anything intelligence-related must be shown to this committee. If there is a U.S. covert operation, these members know of it and approved it. It is a very powerful committee.
I am almost speechless that the FBI’s Director of Counter-Intelligence, William Evanina, or Assistant Director of Counter-Intelligence, Bill Priestap, (the one who went with Attorney General Sally Yates to see White House Counsel Bill McGahn about Flynn) would make such a decision – or could make such a decision.
For more discussion on the Gang of Eight and our Intelligence Agencies see Devin Nunes, Classified Intelligence and Schiff’s Political Pretense.
Ms. Stefanik unfortunately moves on to other issues – seemingly accepting Comey’s non-answer:
Because of the sensitivity of the matter…
She later closes with this succinct and accurate statement:
STEFANIK: It seems to me in my first line of questioning, the more serious a counterintelligence investigation is, that would seem to trigger a need to update not just the White House, the DNI, but also Senior Congressional Leadership. And you stated, it was due to the severity. I think moving forward, it seems that the most severe and serious investigations should be notified to the Senior Congressional Leadership.
Ms. Stefanik had Comey on the defensive but she pulled up short. She did not pursue who in the White House was told, when they were told and what they were told. And she did not explore who at the pre-existing DNI was told either. And what legal basis exists for not informing the Gang of Eight.
Which brings us full circle back to Brennan’s testimony. On March 20, 2017, Comey testifies he only recently informed Congress (the Gang of Eight). On May 23, 2017, Brennan testifies – in his opening remarks – that he informed the Gang of Eight in August and September of 2016. He notes how he informed Obama of Russia activity – and called the Russians out on their actions – from the start. Adam Schiff tees up the proper questions to allow Brennan to clear himself of hiding any knowledge of obstruction – and to gently back away.
In doing these things, Brennan leaves Comey standing alone in the light.
In effect, Brennan tries to clear himself of any wrongdoing. Brennan tells Congress that he only gathers information. He does not analyze it. He is not responsible for shaping it – or drawing conclusions. And most importantly, he divulged all he knew – after passing it all to Comey – to Congressional oversight via the Gang of Eight. Whatever happened after that is something between Congressional investigators and FBI Director Comey.
My guess is that ultimately it won’t be that easy – but Brennan gets points for trying. Brennan, Clapper and Comey all appear to have complicity in this whole affair. And some or all may be responsible for the leaking pouring out of Washington.
Time will almost certainly tell.
For those interested, here is an edited version of Brennan’s testimony that contains only times when he is questioned by Trey Gowdy. Note that some House members would give their time to Gowdy – to the extent that interactions between Gowdy and Brennan comprised over 21 minutes of the two hour session:
Brennan is noticeably more nervous under Gowdy’s questioning than he is with others. Lots of hand wringing and body adjustments. I like that.
The Russian narrative is falling apart. The Democrats know it.
Now some in the intelligence community are beginning to scurry away from the light.
newer post John Sununu and the CNN Russian Smackdown