The Russia Connection

Takeaways from Former CIA Director Brennan's Testimony Today

By Quinta Jurecic
Tuesday, May 23, 2017, 9:22 PM

Former CIA Director John Brennan testified before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence today on Russian interference in the 2016 election, sketching a fuller picture of the origins of the intelligence community’s investigation into Kremlin meddling. Notably, Brennan described the CIA as instigating the investigation, alerting the FBI of suspicious contacts and convening a group of experts from across the intelligence community to study the matter.

Below are major points from Brennan’s testimony:

  • In August 2016, Brennan addressed concerns over Russian interference in the presidential election in a phone call with the head of Russia’s FSB intelligence agency, Alexander Bortnikov. He reportedly told Bortnikov that “American voters would be outraged by any attempt to interfere in the election” and that the active measures campaign would “undermine constructive engagement” between Russia and the United States going forward. Bortnikov denied the allegations but said he would relay Brennan’s concerns to Russian President Vladimir Putin. According to Brennan, this was the first instance in which a U.S. official discussed the matter of election interference with the Russian government.

  • Brennan pointed to “information and intelligence that revealed contacts and interactions between Russian officials and U.S. persons involved in the Trump campaign.” He later clarified that his concern was raised by both the nature of the contacts and the individuals involved, though he did not identify anyone by name. Notably, Brennan described in depth the nature of Russian recruitment efforts, saying that Russian intelligence will often try to “suborn individuals” to act in the Kremlin’s favor either wittingly or unwittingly. The contacts with Russian officials may have been benign, he said, but they may also have been efforts at recruitment. When he left office, “I had unresolved questions in my mind as to whether or not the Russians had been successful in getting U.S. persons involved in the campaign or not to work on their behalf.” In a line that has gotten a fair amount of attention, although Brennan was speaking in the abstract and not in relation to any particular individual, he stated, “Frequently individuals who are along that treasonous path do not even realize until it gets to be a bit too late.”

  • Brennan was asked whether he was aware of any of the individuals affiliated with the Trump campaign who had contact with Russian officials having lied about their contact with those officials. He deferred the matter to the closed session following the open hearing.

  • By the summer of 2016, it “became clear” to Brennan that “Russia was engaged in aggressive and wide-ranging efforts to interfere in one of the key pillars of our democracy.” This was the genesis of the formation of a group of experts from CIA, FBI, and NSA to study the active measure campaign, whose work was used to prepare the intelligence community’s assessment of Russian election interference (a declassified version of which was published in January). Brennan appears to have instigated the group’s formation.

  • Likewise, the CIA seems to have played a key role in turning the FBI onto the possibility of collusion between the Trump team and the Russian government, on the basis of Brennan’s concerns about contacts between individuals linked to the Trump camp and Russians. Brennan stated that the CIA shared all intelligence “involving U.S. persons … including anything involving the individuals involved in the Trump campaign” with the FBI. The Bureau opened an investigation during the summer of 2016, though there was “ongoing sharing of information with the Bureau over the course of the year.”

  • Brennan kept the Gang of Eight in the loop as the investigation went forward, briefing them on matters related to Russian election interference along with the White House. The substance of those briefings is reflected in the January report.

  • Brennan stated that Russian officials appeared to believe that Hillary Clinton was going to win the election, and likely would have continued to release information to “denigrate her and hurt her” over the course of her presidency.

  • The Steele dossier “was not in any way used as a basis” for the intelligence community’s January report on election interference.

  • When questioned by Ranking Member Adam Schiff as to whether he had heard from other members of the intelligence community about pressure from the White House to abandon the investigation into Michael Flynn or deny reports of collusion to the press, Brennan said he had not.

  • Asked how he would respond to a presidential request to halt an investigation, Brennan said, “I have never been asked that, and if I had, I would not follow such a directive.”

  • Brennan criticized Trump’s disclosure of Israeli intelligence to Russian officials, saying it went against protocols of sharing information only through intelligence channels and clearing the specific language to ensure that sources and methods are not disclosed. However, he also criticized the “damaging leak” of the source of the intelligence at issue—meaning Israel—to the press.

  • Brennan was repeatedly pressed by Republican members of the committee—chiefly Representative Trey Gowdy—to say that he had found no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. He repeatedly refused on the grounds that the CIA is not an investigative or law enforcement agency, saying instead that he had encountered intelligence revealing contacts between “persons involved in the Trump campaign” and Russian officials and that he had passed the material on to the FBI.