- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Former CIA Director John O. Brennan stopped short Tuesday of saying Trump campaign officials colluded with Russia, but he warned Congress that Moscow is carefully watching “what is happening in Washington right now” as the U.S. struggles to understand whether the Kremlin had an impact on the November presidential election.

“They will try to seed partisan animosity here in Washington and try to roil the waters,” Mr. Brennan told a tense hearing of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. “Even though the election is over, I think Mr. Putin and Russian intelligence services are trying to actively exploit what is going on now in Washington to their benefit and to our detriment.”

The three-decade veteran of the CIA blasted Washington’s culture of leaks, a problem the White House wrestled with this month after President Trump met with Russia’s ambassador and foreign minister in the Oval Office and news later seeped out that the two men discussed classified information.

“These continue to be very, very damaging leaks, and I find them appalling, and they need to be tracked down,” Mr. Brennan said, adding that leaks were national security threats.

Partisan questioning

The testimony marked Mr. Brennan’s first public appearance since the president took office, and the Obama-era spy chief repeatedly emphasized that “Russia brazenly interfered” in last year’s election with a strategy to influence Trump campaign officials “wittingly or unwittingly.”

As if to prove his point about partisanship, committee members appeared unable to elevate themselves above the daily grind of bickering along narrow party lines. Democrats repeatedly sought answers about the width and breadth of Kremlin tactics while Republicans challenged Mr. Brennan to prove collusion between members of Mr. Trump’s campaign and Moscow.

Republicans asked for specific examples of collusion between the Kremlin and Trump campaign officials — charges that have dogged the White House for months.

Mr. Trump and his Republican supporters in Congress have dismissed accusations of Russian meddling as a “taxpayer-funded charade.” For skeptics, the Russian narrative is a hoax, peddled by a left-leaning American media and fueled by the illegal leaking of information by Obama-era officials appalled by Mr. Trump’s election victory over Hillary Clinton.

Mr. Brennan, however, explained that his concerns about Trump campaign contacts with Russians dated back to last summer, which was why he reached out to the National Security Agency, the FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to analyze the issue. In January, the nation’s top intelligence agencies issued a report concluding that Moscow made attempts to influence the election’s outcome.

When the report emerged, Mr. Trump likened the U.S. intelligence community to Nazi Germany because of what he saw as fraudulent, leaked accusations. In response, Mr. Brennan called Mr. Trump’s assertions outrageous.

On Tuesday, Mr. Brennan repeatedly stopped short of saying Trump campaign officials colluded with Russians to sway the election.

“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,” he said when prodded by top committee Republicans Thomas J. Rooney of Florida and Trey Gowdy of South Carolina.

Instead of addressing collusion, the veteran CIA operative drew upon his decades of experience in the intelligence world to sketch a dark picture of Russian spies operating in the shadows to undermine Western democracies.

“There’s a lot of intelligence that’s been built up over the years about Russia’s [modus operandi] in terms of trying to gain influence,” he said. “How they’ve been able to use individuals, they’ve been able to use politicians, political parties, they’ve been able to use elements within the media to try to make sure that their objectives are realized.”

Mr. Brennan repeatedly used the word “suborn” to imply that while Trump campaign officials didn’t work directly with Russian operatives, some Trump associates might have “unwittingly” been used by Russia to make American democracy look bad. He added that suspicions over such activity have justified the FBI’s investigation into the issue.

Some legal analysts said former FBI Director Robert Mueller, appointed last week as special counsel to oversee an independent investigation after Mr. Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey, could pursue this line of inquiry and investigate Trump associates who might have been manipulated by Russian agents without knowing so.

On Tuesday, the White House jumped on Mr. Brennan’s inability to cite collusion.

“This morning’s hearings back up what we’ve been saying all along: that despite a year of investigation, there is still no evidence of any Russia-Trump campaign collusion,” said a White House official.

Unmasking

Mr. Brennan also discussed a phone call from August with Alexander Bortnikov, head of Russia’s intelligence service. Mr. Brennan said he warned Russian to stay out of the U.S. presidential election. However, the warning was ignored.

Mr. Gowdy, who led the Republican interrogation because several members yielded their question time to him, also asked Mr. Brennan about the unmasking of Trump campaign officials.

Accusations swirled this spring that Obama administration National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice played a central role in “unmasking” — or identifying — several Trump campaign officials who had been swept up in U.S. surveillance operations against foreign targets during the election campaign.

“Sir, what was your role in unmasking American citizens’ names?” Mr. Gowdy asked.

Mr. Brennan replied that he had no role.

Mr. Brennan gave his testimony a day after former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn refused to hand files to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which is looking into the Russian accusations. On Monday, Mr. Flynn invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

The Senate panel had subpoenaed the retired general to hand over documents dating back to June 2015 related to his contact with foreign governments and his Trump campaign activity.

Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, two other former top Trump campaign aides, have reportedly complied with the Senate committee’s request for information.

On Tuesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee heard from Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats about worldwide threats.

On Monday, The Washington Post reported that Mr. Trump urged Mr. Coats and National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers to publicly deny there had been any Trump-Kremlin collusion. Both officials refused to comply with the request, said the newspaper, citing current and former officials.

While addressing the Armed Services Committee, Mr. Coats declined to comment on the report. “I have always believed it’s not appropriate for me to comment publicly on any of that,” he said.

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