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How CIA triggered Russia probe dogging Trump

Former CIA director says he was concerned about the number of contacts Russia had with “US persons”, and felt it necessitated an FBI probe.

world Updated: May 24, 2017 12:39 IST
Yashwant Raj
Former CIA director John Brennan is sworn in to testify before the House Intelligence Committee to take questions on “Russian active measures during the 2016 election campaign” in Washington on Tuesday.
Former CIA director John Brennan is sworn in to testify before the House Intelligence Committee to take questions on “Russian active measures during the 2016 election campaign” in Washington on Tuesday.(REUTERS)

Suspicious contacts between members of the Trump campaign and Russian officials in 2016 prompted the CIA to trigger an FBI investigation that has thrown this White House into an unrelenting crisis.

Testifying before a congressional committee on Tuesday, former CIA director John Brennan, an Obama appointee and 24-year veteran of the agency, gave the most detailed public account yet of the Russia probe.

“I was worried by a number of contacts that the Russians had with US persons... felt as though the FBI investigation was certainly well-founded and needed to look into those issues,” he said.

At a separate congressional hearing, director of national intelligence Daniel Coats, a Trump appointee, refused to deny or confirm a news report that the President had asked him — and NSA head Michael Rogers — to dispute allegations of collusion between his campaign and Russians.

Both Coats and Rogers had turned down the request, which was made to them by the President after then-FBI director James Comey confirmed investigation into the allegation.

When asked about Trump’s request, Coats told the Senate Armed Services Committee that as the President’s chief intelligence adviser, “it’s not appropriate for me to comment publicly” on any conversation with him.

The former CIA director, however, was far more forthcoming about Trump campaign’s contacts with the Russians, which, he clarified, he had not yet confirmed was collusion because they might have been done so unwittingly.

“I know what the Russians try to do. They try to suborn individuals and try to get individuals, including US individuals, to act on their behalf, wittingly or unwittingly,” the former CIA director said.

“I have studied Russian intelligence activities over the years, and I have seen it manifest in many different of our counter-intelligence cases and how they have been able to get people — including inside CIA — to become treasonous.

“Frequently, individuals who go along that treasonous path do not even realise they’re along that path until it gets too late. And that’s why my radar goes up early when I see certain things that I know what the Russians are trying to do, and I don’t know whether or not the targets of their efforts are as mindful of the Russian intentions as they need to be,” he said.

Brennan was so worried about the Russian interference, through hackers and those involved in the distribution of the stolen data, that he called the head of Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, Alexander Bortnikov, to warn him that the meddling could harm ties.

Brennan took no names but some members of the Trump campaign have come under scrutiny, including one-time campaign manager Paul Manafort — who on Tuesday turned over some 300 documents sought by a congressional committee, and Carter Page, who was called a foreign policy adviser o the campaign.

And, Trump’s first National Security Adviser Michael Flynn who was fired by February for lying about his interactions with Russian ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak, especially on the day, last December, when President Barack Obama slapped Russia with sanctions for its poll meddling.

In response to the two testimonies, the White House said, “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 jeopardised 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’.”

For a long time, Trump refused to acknowledge Russian interference in the elections, going against the combined wisdom of the American intelligence community, as he believed it was an attempt to delegitimise his presidency by those who couldn’t accept his victory.

The White House and allies on the Hill have also sought to fight back by focussing on the leaks that have continued to drive the Russia controversy, and caused one dismissal — that of Flynn — and a plethora of unflattering headlines and commentary of a presidency in trouble, with talk, lately, tending towards impeachment.