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‘Russiagate’ and the House Intelligence Committee (analysis and discussion)

FBI Director James Comey, left, joined by National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers, right, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, March 20, 2017, before the House Intelligence Committee hearing on allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

FBI Director Comey’s and NSA Director Rogers’s public testimony to the House Intelligence Committee on Monday 20th March 2017 cast some interesting light on the ‘Russiagate’ allegations, though these were not the ones the media has sought to emphasise.

Firstly, almost from the moment the House Intelligence Committee began its session, the establishment media as one chose to highlight Comey’s public confirmation that the FBI is investigating Russia’s alleged interference in the US election, and that this involves investigating allegations of collusion between some of President Trump’s associates and the Russians, as if this was a major revelation.

Suffice to say that this was the headline story in all the British newspapers on Monday and on the BBC, as well as in the Washington Post.  The confirmation was called a ‘bombshell’, or at least a ‘setback’ for the President.

It should be said clearly that it was nothing of the sort.

The fact that the FBI is investigating Russia’s alleged interference in the elections, and that this involves investigating allegations of collusion between some of President Trump’s associates and the Russians, has been all over the media for months, in fact since long before the election.  It would have been nothing short of ridiculous, and would have served no purpose, if Comey had refused to confirm that such an investigation was underway when he appeared publicly before the Committee, and it would have rendered his entire public appearance before the Committee completely pointless had he done so.

It should also be said clearly that the mere fact that an investigation is underway is not in itself proof that any crime or wrongdoing was committed or that any person is guilty of anything.  Comey made that very point in his testimony, and it is the reason why he – very properly – repeatedly refused to discuss individual cases.  The way in which some sections of the media are trying to overturn the whole presumption of innocence by insinuating that the mere existence of an investigation is a sign of guilt, is actually shocking.

A far more important revelation to have come out of the Committee is that this is a counter-espionage not a crime investigation, and that it was (according to Comey) launched at the end of July 2016.

We can probably be a little more precise as to the precise date.  On 22nd July 2016 Wikileaks began publishing the DNC emails.  On 25th July 2016 the FBI publicly confirmed that it was investigating the hack of the DNC’s computers (though in the event it never actually examined them).  That suggests that the investigation was launched between those dates, ie. almost immediately after Wikileaks started publishing the DNC emails.

That is important since the US intelligence community did not publish its first assessment that Russia was behind the DNC and Podesta leaks before October 2016, and did not publish its final assessment until January 2017.

In other words someone decided between 22nd and 25th July 2016 – long before any intelligence assessments had been published blaming Russia, and directly after the DNC leaks appeared – that the Russians were responsible, and initiated an FBI counter-espionage investigation.

What this also means is that this investigation was underway throughout the critical weeks of the election, with Donald Trump’s associates, and quite possibly (indeed probably) Donald Trump himself, being investigated and monitored by the FBI and by other US intelligence agencies throughout the election period as part of a counter-espionage investigation.

There was no word at the House Intelligence Committee hearing of who was the person or persons who initiated the investigation, or what were the reasons for doing so before any intelligence assessments blaming the Russians had been published.

For the record, I will say that though Barack Obama was the President at the time, and would have been receiving any confidential intelligence assessments, I am sure he was not that person.

Despite the denials of physical wiretaps of Trump Tower, that an investigation and surveillance operation of at least some of Donald Trump’s associates and quite possibly of Donald Trump himself was underway during the election period is therefore now officially confirmed as fact, and is no longer subject to doubt.

I would add that since this was a counter-espionage investigation and not a crime investigation, it was and could be launched despite the fact that neither in July 2016 nor at any time since has there been any evidence of wrongdoing on the part of those US citizens who are being investigated and who might have been placed under surveillance.

We know this for a fact because numerous sources, including Devin Nunes, the Committee Chair who together with the other members of the Committee receives in private classified updates of the progress of the investigation, have told us as much.

One particular point constantly made by Hillary Clinton’s supporters – that Comey treated Hillary Clinton unfairly by making public the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server whilst concealing the ‘far more serious investigation’ of the contacts between Donald Trump’s associates and Russia – might as well be addressed at this point.

Hillary Clinton’s defenders who make this claim consistently underestimate the seriousness of the issue of her misuse of a private server.   The key point anyway is that these are two completely different types of investigation.

The investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server was a crime investigation into a potential federal felony.  The investigation into the contacts between Donald Trump’s associates and Russia falls under a counter-espionage investigation, in which they are not necessarily suspected of any crime or wrongdoing.  Since this is a counter-espionage investigation whose subject is classified, and which has been brought in the absence of any suspicion of any crime or wrongdoing by any particular person, it would have been wholly wrong for Comey to disclose its existence until the Justice Department gave him permission to do so, which it only did just before his appearance before the Committee on Monday.

One other important fact came out of the Committee hearing.

The Republicans on the Committee have rallied behind the President, almost certainly because – as Nunes says – the investigation has produced no evidence of any crime or wrongdoing by anyone.  Instead, to Comey’s obvious unease, they are refusing to let the question of who was responsible for the leaking of the classified information that destroyed General Flynn’s career rest.

Both Representative Schiff for the Democrats and Representative Gowdy for the Republicans set out in public for the Committee the persons who each believes should be investigated, in the one case for collusion with the Russians, in the other for leaking the information about General Flynn.

It should be stressed that in neither case has any evidence been published against any of these persons.  Nunes and Gowdy have however correctly pointed out that in contrast to the claims about collusion with Russia, in the case of the leaking of classified information to destroy General Flynn there is no doubt that a federal felony was committed.  That does make Gowdy’s list of names at least interesting

GOWDY: I guess what I’m getting at, Director Comey, is you say it’s vital, you say it’s critical, you say it’s indispensable. We both know it’s a threat to the reauthorization of 702 later on this fall. And by the way, it’s also a felony punishable by up to 10 years.

So how would you begin your investigation, assuming for the sake of argument that a U.S. citizen’s name appeared in the Washington Post and the New York Times unlawfully. Where would you begin that investigation?

COMEY: Well, I’m not gonna talk about any particular investigation…

GOWDY: That’s why I said in theory.

COMEY: You would start by figuring out, so who are the suspects? Who touched the information that you’ve concluded ended up unlawfully in the newspaper and start with that universe and then use investigative tools and techniques to see if you can eliminate people, or include people as more serious suspects.

GOWDY: Do you know whether Director Clapper knew the name of the U.S. citizen that appeared in the New York Times and Washington Post?

COMEY: I can’t say in this forum because again, I don’t wanna confirm that there was classified information in the newspaper.

GOWDY: Would he have access to an unmasked name?

COMEY: In — in some circumstances, sure, he was the director of national intelligence. But I’m not talking about the particular.

GOWDY: Would Director Brennan have access to an unmasked U.S. citizen’s name?

COMEY: In some circumstances, yes.

GOWDY: Would National Security Adviser Susan Rice have access to an unmasked U.S. citizen’s name?

COMEY: I think any — yes, in general, and any other national security adviser would, I think, as a matter of their ordinary course of their business.

GOWDY: Would former White House Advisor Ben Rhodes have access to an unmasked U.S. citizen’s name?

COMEY: I don’t know the answer to that.

GOWDY: Would former Attorney General Loretta Lynch have access to an unmasked U.S. citizen’s name?

COMEY: In general, yes, as would any attorney general.

GOWDY: So that would also include Acting AG Sally Yates?

COMEY: Same answer.

GOWDY: Did you brief President Obama on — well, I’ll just ask you. Did you brief President Obama on any calls involving Michael Flynn?

COMEY: I’m not gonna get into either that particular case that matter, or any conversations I had with the president. So I can’t answer that.

I have recently written that the true scandal of the 2016 US Presidential election is that under cover of a counter-espionage investigation cooked up through a wave of anti-Russian hysteria US citizens who had been accused of no wrongdoing were being investigated and placed under surveillance by the US’s intelligence and security agencies during the election.  Despite all the evasions and qualifications that came from the Committee and from Comey and Rogers during the hearings, there is now official confirmation that this investigation and surveillance during this election actually took place.

What was interesting is that their questions about the leaks suggest that the Republicans on the Committee are beginning to see it this way, and are starting to look beyond the cloud of anti-Russian paranoia which has been blown up to confuse the issue.  This is why they homed in on the question of who was behind the leaks that destroyed General Flynn.

As for the Democrats, they may also be starting to sense this as well.  Glenn Greenwald thinks they are starting to have doubts about ‘Russiagate’, and I think he is right.  That no doubt explains the frantic attempts of people like Schiff to keep ‘Russiagate’ going by conjuring up more and more claims against people like Manafort and Carter Page, who must by now have been investigated already.  It may also explain some of the fantastic language some of the Democrats on the Committee resorted to.

Comey said that the FBI investigation is open-ended and has far to go.  Given the stakes involved, I wonder whether it will report at all.

What do you think?

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