Lawmakers on Wednesday pressed intelligence officials to confirm reports that President Donald Trump had urged the FBI to drop an investigation into his aides’ possible ties to Russia. They refused.
In what amounted to a dress rehearsal for Thursday’s highly anticipated hearing with fired FBI Director James Comey, current officials – Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe – repeatedly declined to talk at all about their conversations with the president, whether they take notes after meetings with him, and what they have advised him about the ongoing investigations into his team’s ties to Russia.
Coats came closest to directly responding to a question: “I have never felt pressure to intervene or interfere in any way with shaping intelligence in a political way or in relation to an ongoing investigation,” Coats said in answering questions from Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va, in a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Wednesday.
Wednesday’s hearing was supposed to be focused on the pending renewal of the 702 program of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that allows and governs intelligence collection overseas, but lawmakers from both parties used this chance to publicly question top American intelligence officials on the Russia investigation.
Many of the senators’ questions referenced reporting from the Washington Post that Trump had kept Coats and CIA Director Mike Pompeo behind following a White House meeting in March and asked Coats to intervene in the FBI investigation. According to the detailed report, Coats determined it would be inappropriate for him to intervene with then-FBI Director James Comey.
“I don’t believe it’s appropriate for myself to address that in a public session,” Coats responded to a visibly frustrated Warner.
After similar questions from Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Coats said he would answer questions on the matter from special counsel Robert Mueller, who is now overseeing the FBI investigation following Comey’s firing.
Rogers refused to say whether the president had ever asked him to intervene in the FBI investigation into Trump’s associates, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
“In the three-plus years that I have been the director of the NSA, to the best of my recollection I have never been directed to do anything I believe to be illegal,” Rogers said. “I do not recall ever feeling pressured to do so.”
Rogers also refused to confirm or deny any details of conversations in news reports.
“I’m not going to discuss the specifics of conversations with the president of the United States,” Rogers told Warner.
This appeared to frustrate some members of the committee, who asked why Mueller’s questions would be answered when they, as Senate-confirmed officials, had an obligation to tell Congress the truth.
None of the officials budged, though.
It prompted Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr, R-N.C., to send the officials back to the White house with a message:
“You're in positions whereby you're required to keep this committee fully and currently informed of intelligence activities,” Burr said. “At no time should you be in a position that you come to Congress without an answer … It may be a different format. But the requirements of our oversight duties and your agencies demand it.”
Coats, Rogers, Rosenstein and McCabe will participate in a classified session with senators Wednesday afternoon following the public hearing in which senators voiced their support for the 702 provision of FISA.
The provision allows U.S. intelligence agencies to conduct surveillance of non-U.S. persons outside the country. Privacy advocates have expressed concern that U.S. persons’ communications could be swept up in that surveillance since non-U.S. persons can be in contact with people in the country, known as incidental collection.
Coats said that it “remains infeasible” to determine exactly how often U.S. persons’ communications are collected under 702. He said the provision is “subject to rigorous oversight program” and called for permanent reauthorization of the FISA Amendments Act, first passed in 2008.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said senators should do so without a sunset provision, but Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said due to privacy concerns Congress should allow 702 to expire eventually.
The 702 provision can’t be used to target U.S. persons outside the country nor anyone inside the U.S., even if they are not a citizen. It also cannot be used to target foreign person when intent is to capture communications of a U.S. person with which a foreigner is communicating.
Coats said intelligence gathered through the program had been instrumental in building a “robust body of knowledge about the personal network of an individual providing support to a leading terrorist in Iraq and Syria.” It was used to alert what was described only as “a foreign partner” “of the presence within its borders of an al-Qaeda sympathizer” who they were able to recruit and turn into an intelligence asset with deep and up to date information about the terrorist group and the Islamic State.
He added that they were also able to find a photograph through the program that helped “an African partner” arrest two Islamic State militants, and which led to more information on the group.