What Does the FBI Know?

FBI Director James Comey, left, accompanied by National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers testifies on Capitol Hill.
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There’s quite a lot of news today in the news world. But I wanted to focus briefly on a story in The New York Times last evening about what the US government knew and/or believed about Russian election interference operations last summer and fall.

These two paragraphs are the most noteworthy in the piece (emphasis added) …

In an Aug. 25 briefing for Harry Reid, then the top Democrat in the Senate, Mr. Brennan indicated that Russia’s hackings appeared aimed at helping Mr. Trump win the November election, according to two former officials with knowledge of the briefing.

The officials said Mr. Brennan also indicated that unnamed advisers to Mr. Trump might be working with the Russians to interfere in the election. The F.B.I. and two congressional committees are now investigating that claim, focusing on possible communications and financial dealings between Russian affiliates and a handful of former advisers to Mr. Trump. So far, no proof of collusion has emerged publicly.

The key here is that the CIA had decided much earlier than heretofore reported that Russia was working to elect Donald Trump President and at least had serious suspicions that members of Trump’s team were collaborating with the Russians in that effort. (It wouldn’t be unfair to infer from the specificity of the date of Reid’s call that the sourcing of the story is tied to that particular call.)

The story also provides greater background on the disagreements between the FBI and the CIA and questions about the FBI’s own actions. Indeed, it is only now that can fully contextualize former Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid’s fury in the letter he sent to FBI Director James Comey on October 31st, 2016, after Comey himself publicly re-injected the Clinton emails story into the campaign.

We have known for months that it took the FBI much longer than the CIA to decide that Russia was likely working to elect Donald Trump rather than simply sowing chaos in the US political process. This has always struck me as an odd reticence purely just on logical principles. If all your disruption is aimed at ‘disrupting’ the campaign of one candidate, in the zero sum logic of binary elections, you’re probably trying to help the other candidate. However that may be, as Brennan apparently made clear to Reid and the seven other congressional leader, the FBI had to take the lead on getting to the bottom of questions about collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. Because only the FBI is permitted to mount investigations in the US and focused on American nationals. Reid knew the intelligence community had these concerns for months. But the FBI seemed conspicuously slow to address them. Comey chose to send that highly damaging letter about Secretary Clinton, which proved to be based on nothing, only days before the election while this investigation remained entirely out of public view. Reid’s fury, expressed in his letter to Comey, is quite understandable.

What Reid didn’t know when he first raised his concerns with Comey in August was that the FBI had actually launched its own counter-intelligence investigation a month earlier, in late July, the probe Comey first publicly acknowledged last month in testimony before Congress. The Times doesn’t address specifically whether Comey had alerted the so-called ‘Gang of Eight’ congressional leaders of that investigation by October, though it seems clear that he had.

As troubling as it is to learn how much was known or at least suspected last summer, we cannot understate the political complexity of the situation for all involved. This kind of foreign interference in a US presidential campaign is essentially unprecedented – its actual impact, then and now, is unclear. Meanwhile, public discussion of the fact that a key foreign adversary was trying to help one major party candidate get elected would itself be a political bombshell – something the incumbent President, the Republican opposition and the intelligence bureaucracies would each for their own very different reasons be very wary of.

All this said, it appears that the FBI was the least aggressive of the relevant agencies, both in its investigations and its conclusions about Russian motives. The nature, aggressiveness and findings of the FBI’s investigation – which again, began in late July – remain largely a black box. How aggressive was it? We simply do not know.

What we do know is that at least a decade ago the FBI (and likely the CIA as well) knew a great about Donald Trump’s business ties to the Russian and former Soviet Union criminal underworld. How did that knowledge figure into the investigation or any sluggishness to that probe? We should also know but do not yet publicly know about the FBI’s own longstanding relationship with Trump himself. That is also something we need to know much more about. Counter-intelligence investigations by definition and necessity remain largely or entirely secret. Criminal investigations should remain confidential unless and until people are charged with crimes. But these are matters of the most profound public import. These are questions the public needs, will need, answers to.

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