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Brennan: Russia may have successfully recruited Trump campaign aides

The former CIA director also says the FBI probe into whether Russia meddled in the election is ‘well founded.’

Updated

Former CIA Director John Brennan said on Tuesday that he had concerns that Russian officials may have successfully recruited aides from Donald Trump’s campaign to help in the Kremlin’s efforts to influence last year’s presidential election.

“I encountered and am aware of information and intelligence that revealed contacts and interactions between Russian officials and U.S. persons involved in the Trump campaign that I was concerned about because of known Russian efforts to suborn such individuals,” he told lawmakers. “And it raised questions in my mind again whether or not the Russians were able to gain the cooperation of those individuals.”

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His remarks, before the House Intelligence Committee, are the most direct acknowledgment yet by a current or former U.S. official that Russia sought to recruit Americans to help in its effort to affect the 2016 contest. The remarks also further complicate matters for President Donald Trump, who has dismissed the investigations into Russia’s election meddling as a “witch hunt.”

Brennan said that by the time he stepped down as CIA director on Jan. 20, “I had unresolved questions in my mind about whether or not the Russians had been successful in getting U.S. persons, involved in the campaign or not, to work on their behalf, again, either in a witting or unwitting fashion.”

He said he believed the FBI’s investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Moscow is “certainly well founded and needed to look into these issues.”

The House and Senate Intelligence Committees are also investigating Russia’s meddling in the presidential election, including allegations of coordination between the Trump campaign and Moscow. And the FBI’s investigation became more serious last week — and potentially more troublesome for Trump — with the naming of a special prosecutor, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, to oversee it.

Brennan made clear on Tuesday that he is not in a position to say whether the interactions he saw between U.S. persons and Russia amounted to collusion, noting that the CIA gathers intelligence but does not investigate crimes. He said he passed evidence collected by the CIA to the FBI, which handles such investigations.

“I know that there was a sufficient basis of information and intelligence that required further investigation by the bureau to determine whether or not U.S. persons were actively conspiring and colluding with Russian officials,” Brennan explained.

Asked by Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) if he saw any evidence of collusion during his time as CIA director, Brennan responded: “I was worried by a number of the contacts that the Russians had with U.S. persons.”

A White House spokesman said in a statement Tuesday that the 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.”

Brennan also told lawmakers he believes he was the first U.S. official to discuss with Russia its efforts to interfere in the presidential election. He said that last August he contacted the head of Russia’s Federal Security Service, Alexander Bortnikov, and raised the issue of Russia’s election meddling. He said he warned Bortnikov that such interference would have a negative impact on U.S.-Russia relations.

He said Bortnikov denied that Russia was meddling in the election but also pledged to relay Brennan’s message to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“It should be clear to everyone that Russia brazenly interfered in our 2016 presidential election process and that they undertook these activities despite our strong protest and explicit warnings that they not do so,” Brennan told lawmakers.

Brennan also denounced the leaks of classified information that continue to appear in the news media, including details from Trump’s recent Oval Office meeting with Russia’s foreign minister and ambassador.

“These continue to be very, very damaging leaks, and I find them appalling, and they need to be tracked down,” Brennan said.

Sen. Marco Rubio refused to say whether or not the president’s reported conversations rise to the level of obstruction.

Brennan was asked to comment on reports that Trump shared sensitive intelligence with the Russian officials during the Oval Office meeting that might have jeopardized a sensitive intelligence-sharing relationship with a foreign partner. The former CIA chief noted that classified intelligence is routinely shared with foreign countries, but that if Trump made a spontaneous decision to do so, he would have violated “two protocols.”

“One is that such intelligence, classified intelligence, is not shared with visiting foreign ministers or local ambassadors. It’s shared through intelligence channels because it needs to be handled the right way,” Brennan said. “Secondly, before sharing any classified intelligence with foreign partners, it needs go back to the originating agency to make sure that the language in it is not — even just providing the substance — going to reveal sources and methods and compromise the future collection capability.”

Several lawmakers asked Brennan about whether Russia collected damaging information on Hillary Clinton that it did not release during the presidential campaign.

Brennan declined to comment on whether such damaging information exists but said that it’s possible Russia saved up some information that it could have released if Clinton had won the election to damage her presidency.

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Source: POLITICO – TOP Stories

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