Joseph Marks | Nextgov | March 20, 2017 | 0 Comments

Comey Confirms FBI Investigation into Trump Russia Ties, Denies Wiretapping

FBI Director James Comey testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, March 20, 2017, before the House Intelligence Committee. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

FBI Director James Comey confirmed Monday the bureau is investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, but would not name targets of that investigation.

Comey has provided more specific information about the investigation to congressional leaders, including to the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House intelligence committee, he said, during that committee’s first open hearing as part of its investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

That investigation is in a relatively early stage, Comey said. He declined to speculate on when the investigation might conclude.

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Comey also publicly stated for the first time that there is no evidence supporting President Donald Trump’s claim that the Obama administration wiretapped Trump Tower. That position is held throughout the Justice Department, Comey said.

Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., and ranking member Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., previously described the president’s claim as inaccurate, as did former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, though Nunes has said the president might not have been speaking literally.

Comey declined last week to confirm any investigation into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign in a letter to Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., the chair and ranking member of a Judiciary Committee panel on crime and terrorism.

Comey and National Security Agency Director Adm. Michael Rogers were tight-lipped throughout the hearing about the precise focus of their investigations or about links between specific Trump campaign officials, including former campaign Chairman Paul Manafort, and administration officials, especially former Defense Intelligence Agency Director Gen. Michael Flynn.

Committee Democrats spent most of the hearing drawing links between Trump campaign officials, including Flynn, Manafort, energy consultant Carter Page, political strategist Roger Stone and Russian officials.

At the beginning of the hearing, Schiff delivered a 15-minute opening statement outlining news reports on those connections, including social media contacts between Stone and the hacker Guccifer 2.0, an identity which U.S. intelligence officials have said is likely a Russian intelligence front.

“Is it possible that all of these events and reports are completely unrelated, and nothing more than an entirely unhappy coincidence?” Schiff asked. “Yes, it is possible. But it is also possible, maybe more than possible, that they are not coincidental, not disconnected and not unrelated, and that the Russians used the same techniques to corrupt U.S. persons that they have employed in Europe and elsewhere.”

Stone tweeted during the hearing he wants an opportunity to "respond [to] any smears or half truths."

Committee Republicans, for their part, spent much of the hearing questioning Comey and Rogers about media leaks of classified information related to the investigation, a topic Trump has frequently expressed anger about both in public appearances and on Twitter.

Before the hearing began Monday morning, Trump called the collusion investigation “fake news” on Twitter and said “the real story that Congress, the FBI and all others should be looking into is the leaking of Classified information. Must find leaker now!”

Numerous Republican lawmakers pressed Comey to investigate and perhaps prosecute leakers.

Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., went a step further, first listing Obama administration officials likely privy to classified information that was later leaked and then questioning whether reporters should be prosecuted for publishing classified information.

Comey studiously declined to discuss any leak investigation except to say he takes leaks very seriously.

Gowdy also suggested reports of classified leaks are damaging Americans’ faith in the intelligence community’s ability to keep secrets and could make it more difficult to reauthorize Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which was a major focus of the 2013 Edward Snowden leaks and is set to expire at the end of this year.

When Comey protested that 702 surveillance is limited to foreigners and unrelated to recent media leaks, Gowdy responded “that is a distinction that doesn’t make a difference to people watching.”

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