Countless news stories have been written about yesterday’s House Intelligence Committee hearing featuring FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers, many of them breathless. If you scanned the headlines, you would think that the hearing produced some significant revelations. After laboriously reading the entire transcript while on vacation, my conclusion is that the hearing generated nothing of interest.
The Washington Post’s account is typical. The headline is: “FBI Director Comey confirms probe of possible coordination between Kremlin and Trump campaign.” That’s the lead:
FBI Director James B. Comey acknowledged Monday that his agency is conducting an investigation into possible coordination between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign in a counterintelligence probe that could reach all the way to the White House and may last for months.
But that is hardly news. It has been widely reported for weeks that such an investigation is underway. Reuters, for example:
The people who spoke to Reuters also corroborated a Tuesday New York Times report that Americans with ties to Trump or his campaign had repeated contacts with current and former Russian intelligence officers before the November election. Those alleged contacts are among the topics of the FBI counterintelligence investigation.
I guess the Director’s confirmation of what others have long been leaking has some modest significance, but it is hardly earthshaking.
Beyond that, the hearing produced nothing. Many have headlined the fact that Comey said he has no evidence that the Obama administration “wiretapped” telephones in Trump Tower. Fine. But there is a reason why President Trump put the word “wiretapped” in quotation marks. Obviously, he used the term to stand more broadly for surveillance.
And, while there were many references to surveillance, including surveillance of possible targets associated with Trump, no one ever asked whether people associated with the Trump campaign were placed under surveillance by the Obama administration during the campaign. I find this inexplicable, although, to be fair, the witnesses probably wouldn’t have answered, just like they didn’t answer much else.
Many sources have reported that the Obama administration sought a FISA order to surveil persons associated with candidate Donald Trump in June 2016, and were turned down. The same sources say that the FISA request was renewed in October 2016, and this time it was granted by the court, resulting in surveillance of people associated with the campaign. Did this happen? No one asked the witnesses.
The Democrats never asked any questions at all. They merely smeared various members of the Trump campaign or administration and put a question mark at the end. In every case–probably hundreds of them–the witnesses responded that they couldn’t comment on any individuals.
This exchange typifies how idiotic much of the Democrats’ questioning was:
SWALWELL: Are you aware that in Trump Tower were two tenants, Vadim Trincher and Anatoly Golubchik, who ran a high-stakes illegal gambling ring that was run out of Trump Tower?
COMEY: Same answer.
SWALWELL: And are you aware that the prosecutor in that case was U.S. attorney Preet Bharara?
COMEY: Same answer.
SWALWELL: Are you aware, Director, that that U.S. attorney was recently fired?
A few exchanges had entertainment value, like this one:
NUNES: OK. So is it — do Russians historically prefer Republicans to win over Democrats?
COMEY: I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t know the answer to that.
NUNES: Did the Russians prefer Mitt Romney over Barack Obama in 2012?
ROGERS: I don’t know that we ever did — drew a formal analytic conclusion.
NUNES: Did the Russians prefer John McCain in 2008 over Barack Obama?
ROGERS: I never saw a U.S. intelligence community analytic position on that issue.
NUNES: Don’t you think it’s ridiculous to say that — for anyone to say that the Russians prefer Republicans over Democrats?
ROGERS: I didn’t think that that’s what you just heard us say, I apologize, sir.
COMEY: I hope you didn’t hear us to say that. We don’t know in those particular races and I’m not qualified enough…
NUNES: I’m just asking a general question. Wouldn’t it be a little preposterous to say that historically, going back to Ronald Reagan and all that we know about maybe who the Russians would prefer, that somehow the Russians prefer Republicans over Democrats?
COMEY: There is — I’m not going to discuss in an unclassified forum, in the classified segment of the reporting version that we did, there is some analysis that discusses this because remember this did come up in our assessment on the Russian piece. I’m not going to discuss this unclassified forum.
One broad theme was that intelligence officials like Comey and Rogers believe that they cannot correct fake news that appears in newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post. Further, it is not a crime for an employee of one of the intelligence agencies to leak information to the Times or the Post if that information is false:
TURNER: Mr. Comey, I have a question concerning classified information. Now, I know that if I attend a classified briefing and I receive classified information and I go and tell someone that classified information, if I leak it, I release it, then I’ve committed a crime. But what if someone goes to a classified briefing, walks out of that briefing, and openly lies about the content of that briefing? Because it’s unclear to me what happens then.
And it’s important because, as you know, this committee and certainly both of you gentlemen have handled a lot of classified information and recently, more recently, the purported classified information is put out in the press, The Washington Post, The New York Times reports information. And you know and I know and we all know, having handled classified information, that some of that information is not true. Are the sources of that classified information, if they come out and lie about the content of classified information, have they committed a crime?
COMEY: That’s a really interesting question. I don’t think so. If all they’ve done is lie to a reporter, that’s not against the law. If they’ve done it, I don’t wanna break anybody’s hearts with that but that’s not against the law. But it is not and the reason I’m hesitating is, I can imagine a circumstance where it’s part of some broader conspiracy or something, but just that false statement to a reporter is not a crime.
TURNER: And I just wanna underscore that for a — just for a second, because I agree with you. I think it’s no crime. And so every reporter out there that has someone standing in front of them and saying oh, I’m taking this great risk of sharing with you U.S. secrets, besides them purporting to be a traitor, are committing no crime if they lie to them. So all of these news articles that contain this information that we know is not — not the case, are being done so at damage to the United States but without the risk of a crime.
And my next aspect of your question to Mr. Comey, is this. What is the obligation of the intelligence community to correct such falsehoods? Some of this information that we read in the Washington Post and the New York Times, is extremely false and extremely incendiary and extremely condemning of individuals and certainly, our whole system. What is your obligation, Mr. Comey, to be that source to say I can’t release classified information, but I can tell you, it’s not that?
COMEY: Yeah, it’s a great question, Mr. Turner, because there’s a whole lot out there that is false. And I suppose some of it could be people lying to reporters. I think that probably happens. But more often than not, it’s people who — who act like they know when they really don’t know. Because they’re not the people who actually know the secrets, they’re one or two hops out and they’re passing along things they think they know.
There is — we had not only have no obligation to correct that, we can’t, because if we start calling reporters and saying hey, this thing you said about this new aircraft we’ve developed, that’s inaccurate actually, it’s got two engines. We just can’t do that because we’ll give information to our adversaries that way and it’s very, very frustrating but we can’t start down that road. …
It’s very, very frustrating because I have read a whole lot of stuff, especially in the last two months, this is just wrong. But I can’t say which is wrong and I can’t say it to those reporters.
My guess is that most of what has been reported, based on leaks from anonymous Obama administration holdovers, is lies. But years will go by before we know that, and by then the lies will have had their desired effects.