As the investigation into whether President Donald Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia to interfere with the 2016 presidential election has gained traction, some have speculated Trump might have worked with the Russians without knowing it.
Former CIA Director John O. Brennan seemed to lend credence to that theory when he testified before the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday. Brennan said publicly for the first time that he became concerned last year that Russians were trying to work with the Trump campaign to interfere with the U.S. presidential election. He added that individuals Russia contacted could have been helping “wittingly or unwittingly.”
“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,” Brennan said.
Later on in his testimony, Brennan provided a longer explanation on how someone could be working with Russia without knowing it, saying he had seen it “manifest in many different of our counterintelligence cases.”
“They have been able to get people – including inside of CIA – to become treasonous, and frequently, individuals who go along that treasonous path do not even realize they’re along that path until it gets to be a bit too late,” Brennan explained. “And that’s why my radar goes up early when I see certain things that I know what the Russians are trying to do, and I don’t know whether or not the targets of their efforts are as mindful of the Russian intentions as they need to be.”
A separate but related incident demonstrated the possibility that Trump could have worked with the Russians due to negligence rather than intentionally.
Following reports that Trump had given classified information to Russian officials during a meeting in the Oval Office in early May – the day after the White House announced the firing of FBI Director James Comey, who was leading an investigation into Trump’s ties with Russia – the New York Times published a story about the mood within the White House that suggested Trump may have given that information unwittingly. The classified information was reportedly about an ISIS threat and provided to the U.S. by Israeli intelligence.
The relevant paragraph, which was attributed to three anonymous Trump administration officials, said they wondered if Trump “simply did not possess the interest or the knowledge of the granular details of intelligence gathering to leak specific sources and methods of intelligence gathering that would harm American allies.”