Another oppo event came and went on Capitol Hill today, as former CIA Director John Brennan spoke in a House Intelligence Committee hearing on the theme of “Russia and mumble mumble something Trump.”
The FBI has reportedly been working on this theme since July 2016, doing Zeus only knows what (seriously; no one has clarified what the FBI is doing with its counterintelligence investigation), and we’re still at the “Russia and mumble mumble something Trump” stage. But let that pass.
This morning we got it straight from Mr. Brennan.
“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.”
Brennan didn’t just leave it there:
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.”
Work on the Russians’ behalf to do what, exactly?
[Sound of crickets]
There are no defined allegations of what anyone who “worked on the Russians’ behalf” may have actually done. Rather, we are to understand that Mr. Brennan feels very, very strongly that the Russians interfered in our election, and therefore – apparently this is the logic – any and all relations with the Russians must be considered suspect. Except Hillary Clinton’s.
“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.
Actually, it isn’t clear at all that Russia “brazenly interfered,” at least if such interference is to be contrasted somehow with Russia’s long history of attempts to influence American elections. That history goes back to at least 1921, four years after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, when the Soviet-led Communist International sponsored the unification of diverging, underground Communist parties in the U.S., and ultimately had the American party register openly. The attempts continued with extremely well-documented efforts for the next 60-some years to sway media content in the mainstream press and entertainment industry in order to flog socialist and anti-American themes. Labor unions, academia, the main political parties, even the pulpit – all have histories of dealing with attempts by Soviet-Russian organizations and agents to affect how Americans think and what we do in our political life.
Modern Russia’s use of technology (although not of method and craft) is undoubtedly more sophisticated than anything Soviet Russians could do 100 years ago. But (a) what does that have to do with the Trump campaign, and (b) what would it conceivably have to do with the Trump campaign?
There has yet to be a satisfactory answer to either of these questions. Which is where another comment by Brennan today comes in – one that Politico, for some reason, neglected to quote. Ed Morrissey picked up on it, however. (Emphasis added.)
[A]t one point Brennan reminded Trey Gowdy that the CIA conducts intelligence and counter-intelligence operations rather than criminal investigations. When asked to provide evidence for his observations, Brennan shot back, “I don’t do evidence. I do intelligence.” The former CIA chief told the House panel that any leads turned up by the CIA went to the FBI for further investigation.
Now, first of all, it’s not actually “doing intelligence,” to hypothesize fruitlessly for months that Russia must have “interfered with the election,” without defining indicators that would prove or disprove your hypothesis, and then collecting, you know – sorry, Mr. Brennan – evidence.
Sometimes you get incredibly lucky, and dispositive evidence falls on you, or you on it. But most of the time, you are working on a developed hypothesis of some kind – there’s nothing wrong with those – and that’s what you have the “intelligence cycle” for. You decide what you want to know; you decide what would enable you to know it; you go collect it; you analyze it; you compare it with your hypothesis and test it against alternative theories; and then you make assessments and reports.
Readers are invited to understand that what I’ve just said, which is Intel 101 stuff, means that according to his testimony, Brennan – and for all we know the entire intel community – has not advanced past step 1 of the intelligence cycle. The IC hasn’t even decided what it wants to know. It’s still rooting around looking for things that might scratch the itch of an almost completely undeveloped, but very urgent, hypothesis.
Perhaps Brennan’s reference to sending leads to the FBI is the key? Well, it might be. Except that it turns out the FBI hasn’t been “doing evidence” either. Not if we go by the reason James Comey gave in March for the intel community’s assessment, in January 2017, on a central premise of the “Trump-Russia” theme: that Russia wanted to influence the U.S. election in Trump’s favor.
Comey’s justification wasn’t based on evidence at all. It was based, like Brennan’s statements today, on a hypothesis. And a poorly developed one at that.
Fred Fleitz at the Center for Security Policy has reiterated this point about Comey’s testimony a couple of times. He reminds us:
The January 6 analysis [by the IC] found that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election and hurt Hillary’s candidacy [in order] to promote Trump. The assessment said this interference came at the direction of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But he cites Comey, from the 20 March 2017 hearing before the House Intelligence Committee (emphasis added):
Given FBI Director James Comey’s statements at a recent House Intelligence Committee hearing that the conclusion in the January 6 assessment that Russia intervened in the election to help Trump was based on logic and not evidence, it is hard to believe this was not a pre-cooked conclusion driven by the highly partisan Brennan.
In other words, this core point from the 6 January assessment was an evidence-free conclusion drawn from the premises of a hypothesis. Which it was. A little dig into the 20 March testimony shows exactly that.
The topic of whether Russia was trying to influence the election in favor of Trump, and against Hillary, comes up around the 1:50 (one hour 50 minutes) mark in the video.
Comey (and Vice Admiral Michael Rogers, director of the NSA) are asked by Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX) about the January intel assessment’s remarks on the Russians favoring Trump:
[The] same assessment said that the Russians’ goal was to — wanted to denigrate Secretary Clinton and harm her electability and potential president, and Putin wanted to discredit Secretary Clinton because he publicly blamed her since 2011 for inciting mass protests against his regime in 2011-2012. Do you both agree with that assessment?
Conaway goes on to press for confirmations from the two witnesses on key points of the assessment. Just after 1:52, he directs this question to Comey:
Okay. The paragraph that is giving me a little concern there in terms of just the timing of when all of that occurred — because I’m not sure, if we went back and got that same January assessment six months earlier, it would have looked the same. Because you say when we further assess, Putin and Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect trump. Any idea when that clear preference in the analysis — when did that get into the lexicon of when you were talking back and forth among yourselves on a classified basis?
And this is what Comey had to say about the “development of the clear preference for Trump” (emphasis added):
I don’t know for sure but I think that was a fairly easy judgment for the community. Putin hated Secretary Clinton so much that the flip side of that coin was he had a clear preference for the person running against the person he hated so much.
In Comey’s judgment, apparently, that was the basis for establishing the axiom that the Russians tried to influence the election in Trump’s favor.
Conaway, notably, didn’t buy it.
Yeah, that might work on Saturday afternoon, when the – my wife’s Red Raiders are playing the Texas Longhorns. She really likes the Red Raiders. But all the rest of the time, I, eh, — the logic is that because he really didn’t like, uh, presi—candidate Clinton, that he automatically liked Trump. That assessment’s based on – what?
Comey went on to say it was based on more than that, but he wasn’t going to get into it. However – hand to God, here, people – he did go right on to defend the “logic”:
Part of it is the logic. Whoever the Red Raiders are playing, you want the Red Raiders to win, by definition you want their opponent to lose.
Conaway comes right back with the obvious rejoinder from logic:
I know, but this [the intel assessment] says he wanted both of them – he wanted her to lose and him to win.
(In other words, Putin had a positive preference for Trump, not just a hatred of Clinton.)
After a short back-and-forth, Conaway presses further:
I’m just wondering when you decided he [Putin] wanted him [Trump] to win?
And Comey responded:
Well, logically, when he wanted her to lose.
A lawyer doing a cross-examination would probably exclaim “Unresponsive!” at this point. This is not the testimony of someone working from a well-developed thesis about a Russian preference for Trump. The Red Raiders analogy is cute, but Comey shouldn’t have needed to defend it to reinforce his thesis. Without getting into sources, methods, or identities, he could quite assuredly have offered something more substantial – if, that is, there was anything.
And remember, this testimony was in March 2017, after the FBI had been conducting a counterintelligence investigation purportedly relating to Trump since July 2016. (Comey stated that in the same hearing.)
It’s worth noting as well what Comey had to say when questioned by Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL) on 20 March about the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation (from a CNN transcript):
SEWELL: OK. Can you characterize what the nature of your investigation generally, wouldn’t — when you do an investigation of this sort, can you talk a little bit about the process, generally?
COMEY: Not a whole lot. I can tell you we use our great, great people, we coordinate with our brothers and sisters in other parts of the intelligence community to see what they may know from around the world that might be useful to us and we use all the different tools and techniques that we use in all of our investigations. That’s probably the most — I’m not sure that’s useful to you, but that’s the most I can say.
SEWELL: How long does a counterintelligence investigation like this usually take? You said that it started in July.
COMEY: There is no usually. It’s hard — it’s impossible to say, frankly.
So at least they have great, great people at the FBI working on the thesis that if you really love the Texas Tech Red Raiders, then you must really hate the Texas Longhorns, or – no, that’s not it, but something like that is why if Putin really hated Hillary, he’d way prefer Trump, and collude with Trump to do something terrible to the U.S. election.
Good to know that’s who the CIA turns leads over to, when it’s time to move on from intelligence to evidence.