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23 May, 2017 20:11

‘I don’t know’ if there was Trump-Russia collusion, ex-CIA chief tells Congress

‘I don’t know’ if there was Trump-Russia collusion, ex-CIA chief tells Congress

While arguing that Russia “brazenly interfered” in the 2016 US presidential election, former CIA Director John Brennan admitted there were “unresolved questions” in his mind as to whether any Trump campaign officials actually colluded with Moscow.

Brennan was summoned to testify on Tuesday before the House Select Committee on Intelligence as part of the probe into allegations made by Democrats and the Obama administration that Russia somehow influenced the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election.

“I encountered and am aware of information and intelligence that revealed contacts and interactions between Russian officials and US persons involved in the Trump campaign that I was concerned about, because of known Russian efforts to suborn such individuals,” Brennan told lawmakers. “It raised questions in my mind about whether Russia was able to gain the cooperation of those individuals.”

That intelligence “was worthy of investigation by the [FBI] to determine whether or not such cooperation or collusion was taking place," Brennan added.

When pressed for his personal assessment whether there had been such collusion, he replied, “I don’t know.”

“By the time I left office on January 20, I had unresolved questions in my mind” about whether Russia successfully made Trump campaign officials its agents, “either wittingly or unwittingly,” Brennan said.

Democrats on the panel tended to use up their time on speeches about Russian threats to US democracy, while Republican members tended to cede their time to Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-South Carolina).

The former prosecutor who led the Benghazi probe during the previous administration thus ended up interrogating Brennan at several points during the hearing.

Gowdy’s efforts to identify the individuals or conduct involved were stumped by Brennan saying that such information was classified and could only be discussed in closed session. Nor did Gowdy fare better at clarifying what evidence the CIA had to back up its assessments.

“I don’t do evidence, I do intelligence,” Brennan said.

The former CIA director did, however, condemn the “very damaging” and “appalling” leaks of classified information to the news media.

He specifically blamed the media for revealing that Israel had provided information about the laptop bomb plot, accusing President Donald Trump of improperly sharing that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Brennan said that the US has a policy of sharing intelligence about terrorist plots and that he had personally shared evidence with Moscow which “saved Russian lives,” but that there are protocols on how that is done.

During the hearing, Brennan went from claiming continuity between present-day Russia and the Soviet Union’s efforts to interfere in US elections since the 1960s, to saying that Russia has an interest in better relations with the US and that such relations ought to improve.

In his opening remarks, he mentioned how he warned FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov not to interfere in US elections during an August 2016 phone call. “I believe I was the first US official to brace Russia on this issue,” said Brennan.

“As I expected,” he added, Bortnikov denied that Russia was doing anything to interfere and said Moscow was prepared to work with whichever candidate won.

The former spymaster’s responses to lawmakers left it unclear whether the US intelligence agencies were convinced something untoward was going on with the Russians because they expected to find it.

“It’s all very sui generis,” made against a “backdrop of known Russian efforts,” to interfere with the campaign, Brennan told Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-California) at one point, answering a question about how contacts go from coincidences to patterns. “We don’t have the totality of insight into all the things the Russians were doing,” he added.

That did not stop him from claiming with conviction that Russian intelligence services hacked into email accounts of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s campaign chair John Podesta, and released that information through “cutouts” such as WikiLeaks and Guccifer 2.0.

WikiLeaks releases are “always intended to undermine US national security,” Brennan said, dismissing Russian and WikiLeaks denials about working together as “disingenuous” in an echo of recent statements by his successor Mike Pompeo.

While Trump’s critics praised Brennan’s testimony as proof of their claims, the president himself was feeling vindicated.

“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, that the President never jeopardized intelligence sources or sharing, and that even Obama's CIA Director believes the leaks of classified information are 'appalling' and the culprits must be 'tracked down,'” a White House spokesman said in a statement from Rome, where Trump landed on Tuesday for his scheduled meeting with the Pope.