- Thomson Reuters
The former director of the CIA, John Brennan, told top lawmakers last August that the agency had information to suggest that unnamed associates of President Donald Trump were working with Russia to undermine Hillary Clinton during the election, The New York Times reported on Thursday.
The CIA early last summer obtained evidence of Russia’s efforts to help Trump, The Times reported, and concluded before the FBI did that Russia’s goal was not just to undermine the election, but to boost Trump’s chances of winning.
Whereas the CIA was fairly confident by late August that the Russians were working to boost Trump, the FBI did not publicly draw that conclusion until early December. Because the CIA deals exclusively with foreign intelligence, it did not have the authority to announce the evidence it apparently had of such collusion.
So Brennan indicated to lawmakers that “the FBI, in charge of domestic intelligence, would have to lead the way,” The Times reported.
Brennan was supposed to testify last month before the House Intelligence Committee about Russia’s election interference, but the hearing was canceled by the committee’s chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes.
Nunes, a California Republican who served on Trump’s transition team, stepped aside from the committee’s Trump-Russia probe on Thursday amid an investigation into whether he improperly disclosed classified information.
Several reports have emerged since January about previously undisclosed contacts during the election between Russian officials and members of Trump’s inner circle including top adviser Jared Kushner, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The FBI apparently has been examining these and other contacts since July, but it said only last month that its investigation into Russia’s election meddling would also examine Trump and his associates.
Former Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid had early on urged the FBI to publicly disclose what information it had about Trump’s ties to Russia.
In late August, just after he was briefed by Brennan, Reid asked FBI Director James Comey to warn Americans about Russia’s election interference, which he said was “more extensive than is widely known and may include the intent to falsify official election results.”
Reid sent another letter in late October, just after a letter Comey sent to Congress was made public. Comey’s letter said the FBI was reexamining the investigation of Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state, but did not indicate it was examining the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.
“Your actions in recent months have demonstrated a disturbing double standard for the treatment of sensitive information, with what appears to be a clear intent to aid one political party over another,” Reid wrote.
“In my communications with you and other top officials in the national security community, it has become clear that you possess explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisors, and the Russian government – a foreign interest openly hostile to the United States, which Trump praises at every opportunity,” he added.
The revelation that the CIA had intelligence suggesting collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign – but could not act on it because domestic intelligence is within the FBI’s purview – aligns with reports that a counterintelligence task force was set up as early as April 2016 to investigate whether money had been exchanged between the Kremlin and Trump campaign associates.
The task force included the CIA, the FBI, the Treasury and Justice departments, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the National Security Agency, according to the BBC and McClatchy. It was established after Brennan received a recording of a conversation about money from the Kremlin going into Trump’s campaign coffers, according to those reports. The recording was then passed to the CIA by the intelligence agency of one of the Baltic States, according to the BBC.
The FBI was also in possession around that time of an explosive but unverified dossier about Russia’s attempts to cultivate Trump and his associates as foreign assets. The FBI is now using that dossier as a “roadmap” for its investigation into Russia’s election interference, according to the BBC’s Paul Wood.
The FBI has in the past worked with the author of the dossier, Christopher Steele, who cultivated an extensive network of Russian sources during his time on MI6’s Moscow desk, according to Wood. Steele, a former spy, apparently worked with the FBI on matters related to Russia and Ukraine between 2013 and 2016, specifically with the FBI’s Eurasian Joint Organized Crime Squad, according to a lengthy profile in Vanity Fair.
The FBI now has information to suggest that Trump’s associates “communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign,” CNN reported last month – a quid pro quo that was outlined in Steele’s dossier, written between June and December.