After months of speculation, former Director of the FBI, James Comey, relieved of his position by President Donald Trump in May, took the stand under oath before the Senate Intelligence Committee on the 8th of June 2017.
His wranglings and personal fall outs with the President are not our concern – these are grown men – but this journalistic investigation has exposed the wholesale interference in the 2016 US election, which was authorised at the highest levels of the Russian government, and Comey’s testimony confirmed this within the opening minutes.
The Senate Intelligence Commmittee, led by North Carolina’s Republican Richard Burr and Virginia’s Democrat Mark Warner, has been investigating the Russian operation.
“this journalistic investigation has exposed the wholesale interference in the 2016 US election, which was authorised at the highest levels of the Russian government, and Comey’s testimony confirmed this within the opening minutes.”
In opening June the 8th hearing, Burr set out that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence exists to “certify for the other 85 members of the United States Senate and the American people that the intelligence community is operating lawfully and has the necessary authorities and tools to accomplish its mission and keep America safe.”
“Part of our mission,” he continued, “beyond the oversight we continue to provide to the intelligence community and its activities, is to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections.”
“This committee is uniquely suited to investigate Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections. We also have a unified, bipartisan approach to what is a highly charged partisan issue,” he said.
Burr starkly set out the absolute future risks of not carrying out the inquiry, saying “Russian activities during 2016 election may have been aimed at one party’s candidate, but as my colleague, Senator Rubio, says frequently, in 2018 and 2020, it could be aimed at anyone, at home or abroad.”
“We must keep these questions above politics and partisanship. It’s too important to be tainted by anyone trying to score political points,” he added.
Warner’s opening speech pulled no punches either.
BURR: Do you have any doubt that Russia attempted to interfere in the 2016 elections?
BURR: Do you have any doubt that the Russian government was behind the intrusions in the DNC and the DCCC systems, and the subsequent leaks of that information?
COMEY: No, no doubt.
BURR: Do you have any doubt that the Russian government was behind the cyber intrusion in the state voter files?
BURR: Do you have any doubt that officials of the Russian government were fully aware of these activities?
COMEY: No doubt.
The Republican Senator then raised an issue of criminal behaviour beyond the confirmed espionage, saying to Comey “Director, is it possible that, as part of this FBI investigation, the FBI could find evidence of criminality that is not tied to — to the 2016 elections — possible collusion or coordination with Russians?”
“Sure,” was Comey’s only response.
Burr pressed him, asking “so there could be something that just fits a criminal aspect to this that doesn’t have anything to do with the 2016 election cycle?”
“Correct,” Comey replied. “In any complex investigation, when you start turning over rocks, sometimes you find things that are unrelated to the primary investigation, that are criminal in nature.”
It was clear in the subsequent exchange that Christopher Steele’s infamous dossier on Trump contained a little more than speculation.
Burr steered the questioning skillfully towards the recruitment of spies, saying to Comey “the term we hear most often is “collusion.” When people are describing possible links between Americans and Russian government entities related to the interference in our election, would you say that it’s normal for foreign governments to reach out to members of an incoming administration?”
“Yes,” Comey answered.
“At what point does the normal contact cross the line into an attempt to recruit agents or influence or spies?” Burr asked.
Comey responded, saying it is “difficult to say in the abstract. It depends upon the context, whether there’s an effort to keep it covert, what the nature of the requests made of the American by the foreign government are. It’s a — it’s a judgment call based on a whole lot of facts.”
Burr was surprisingly direct in response. “At what point would that recruitment become a counterintelligence threat to our country?” he asked.
“Again, difficult to answer in the abstract,” Comey replied. “But when — when a foreign power is using especially coercion or some sort of pressure to try and co-opt an American, especially a government official, to act on its behalf, that’s a serious concern to the FBI and at the heart of the FBI’s counterintelligence mission.”
The Republican swiftly reintroduced the Steele dossier, saying “so if you’ve got a — a — a 36-page document of — of specific claims that are out there, the FBI would have to, for counterintelligence reasons, try to verify anything that might be claimed in there. One, and probably first and foremost, is the counterintelligence concerns that we have about blackmail. Would that be an accurate statement?”
Responding to the issued of Kompromat material, Comey didn’t hesitate. “Yes. If the FBI receives a credible allegation that there is some effort to co-opt, coerce, direct, employ covertly an American on behalf of the foreign power, that’s the basis on which a counterintelligence investigation is opened,” he told the Committee.
“If the FBI receives a credible allegation that there is some effort to co-opt, coerce, direct, employ covertly an American on behalf of the foreign power, that’s the basis on which a counterintelligence investigation is opened,”
Burr’s questioning the led into cyber-attacks and hacking efforts which had ultimately caused significant damage to campaign of Democrat candidate Hilary Clinton.
The exchange was brief but confirmed Russian hacking efforts had extended well beyond the DNC alone, mirroring the mass, Russian-led cyber activity in the EU which preceded the world cyber attack that affected critical infrastructure.
BURR: OK. When did you become aware of the cyber intrusion?
COMEY: The first cyber — it was all kinds of cyber intrusions going on all the time. The first Russia-connected cyber intrusion, I became aware of in the late summer of 2015.
BURR: And in that timeframe, there were more than the DNC and the DCCC that were targets.
COMEY: Correct. There was a massive effort to target government and nongovernmental — near-governmental agencies like nonprofits.
BURR: What would be the estimate of how many entities out there the Russians specifically targeted in that timeframe?
COMEY: It’s hundreds. I suppose it could be more than 1,000, but it’s at least hundreds.
BURR: When did you become aware that data had been exfiltrated?
COMEY: I’m not sure, exactly. I think either late ’15 or early ’16.
“There was a massive effort to target government and nongovernmental — near-governmental agencies like nonprofits.”
Comey’s testimony wasn’t about whether he got along with Trump, or whether the President was nasty to him. The former FBI Director told the whole world that Russia had attacked the US, potentially infiltrated the White House at the highest levels, and, so far, gotten away with it.
For me, having been investigating this without a safety net for months, it was the icing on a very toxic cake.