The FBI confirmed to a Congressional panel on Monday it was investigating Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, whether it was coordinated with the Donald Trump campaign and, as a natural corollary, whether any crimes were committed.
The FBI also said it had no information to support President Trump’s controversial tweets alleging his predecessor President Barack Obama ordered a wire-tap on Trump Tower, the mogul’s New York city home and office as candidate.
The National Security Agency too rejected the Trump administration’s allegations that United Kingdom’s GCHQ could have spied on Trump Tower on Obama’s behalf and said that would be a violation of a pact between the two allies.
In effect, as his critics on the Left and Right pointed out, Trump had been publicly debunked by the heads of the country’s — and his own administration’s — top two intelligence agencies.
This was the first time the FBI had openly remarked on its Russia probe, which has cast a shadow on Trump’s election and which the president pushed back against in a series of tweets just hours before the hearing.
“James Clapper and others stated that there is no evidence Potus colluded with Russia,” Trump said in an early morning post that was notable for the emphasis on “no evidence Potus colluded .…” leaving scope for an aide who might have had links.
FBI director James Comey told the House of Representatives’ permanent select committee on intelligence, “I have been authorised by the department of justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.”
“And that includes,” he added, “investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.”
Comey said the probe started last July.
This was the assessment Comey offered in his opening remarks, and then during the question-and-answer session, he said, when asked about it specifically, that he had “no information to support the president’s tweets” about Obama ordering a wire-tap on Trump Tower.
Could President Obama have ordered the tap, as alleged by Trump? Comey said he couldn’t have, no president could, given the complex approval process. Only a federal judge could, and only if he or she was convinced of the government’s case.
Asked about the allegation involving the British GCHQ, NSA director Mike Rogers told the panel, “I have seen nothing on the NSA side that we engaged in any such activity.” Did he himself order it? “No, sir, nor would I, that would be expressly against the construct of the Five Eyes agreement that has been in effect for decades.” The Five Eyes agreement is an intelligence-sharing pact between the US and four close allies - UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
Such surveillance will be illegal, he added.
Knowing these two intelligence community leaders would be up at an open hearing in just a few hours, Trump curiously shot off a string of tweets reprising some old attack lines. “The Democrats made up and pushed the Russian story as an excuse for running a terrible campaign. Big advantage in Electoral College & lost!”
And then this, which anticipated a line of questioning undertaken by Republicans at the hearing later: “The real story that Congress, the FBI and all others should be looking into is the leaking of Classified information. Must find leaker now!”