Former FBI Director James Comey testified to Congress that he didn’t know or didn’t remember when asked numerous questions about issues with the investigation on alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Comey presided over the probe in 2016 and 2017.
The Russia probe was heavily criticized by the Justice Department’s inspector general (IG), in major part for using unsubstantiated and contradicted information from the infamous Steele dossier to get a spying warrant on former Trump campaign aide Carter Page. The dossier was funded by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the campaign of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Information that has cast yet more negative light on the probe has been released over the past months by Trump’s intelligence chiefs. In the latest revelations, the supposed main source for the dossier was investigated by the FBI from 2009 to 2011 for being a national security threat because of his contact with a Russian intelligence operative and other issues.
Also, the intelligence community told Comey in September 2016 about an intercepted Russian intelligence analysis that said Clinton was trying to tie Trump to Russian interference with the election.
Comey pleaded ignorance on all these issues, saying more than 20 times during his testimony that he didn’t know or didn’t remember the answers to questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“What astounds me the most is that the director of the FBI in charge of this investigation and involving a sitting president is completely clueless about any of the information obtained by his agency,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who presided over the hearing as the chair of the Judiciary Committee.
The Trump probe was officially opened on July 31, 2016, on a single suggestion that Russia offered help to the Trump campaign in the form of releasing before the election information damaging to Clinton.
Around the same time, at least one FBI executive assistant director was briefed on the allegations contained in the dossier, according to information provided by then-assistant special agent in charge of public corruption at the New York Field Office to Michael Gaeta, the FBI handler of the dossier’s author, former British agent Christopher Steele.
But Comey said he only learned of the dossier in late September 2016 and that he didn’t know about any specifics on what was done to verify the dossier.
He also denied knowing that Clinton and the DNC funded the dossier, only “that it was political opposition research-funded.”
In August 2016, the CIA informed the FBI that Page was its cooperating contact. Page, who for some time worked in Russia, was passing to the U.S. government information that eventually helped bust a Russian spy ring. But the FBI still used his contacts with Russian operatives as evidence against him in the spying warrant, never disclosing to the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) court, which approved the warrant, Page’s cooperation with the CIA.
Comey said he didn’t know about Page’s relationship with the CIA.
In December 2016, the CIA, FBI, and National Security Agency (NSA) worked on a report that “assessed”—meaning estimated—that Russia was meddling with the election. The report also estimated that Russia was trying to help Trump, though the NSA dissented on that point. According to the IG, Comey pushed for including the dossier into the report, but the CIA opposed the idea as it considered the dossier “internet rumor.”
Comey said he didn’t remember that.
In the end, a summary of the dossier was attached to the report.
On Jan. 12, 2017, the FBI received a report saying one of the most explosive claims in the dossier was false and possibly part of a Russian disinformation campaign.
Comey said he didn’t know about that.
Also in January 2017, the FBI interviewed Steele’s supposed main source, Washington-based business analyst Igor Danchenko, whom Graham called “Igor, the Russian spy.”
Danchenko walked back much of what was claimed in the dossier. He “made it clear to Steele that he/she had no proof to support the statements from his/her sub-sources and that ‘it was just talk,’” the IG learned from the FBI agent who interviewed Danchenko.
The information was “word of mouth and hearsay,” “conversation that [he/she] had with friends over beers,” and some was made in “jest,” Danchenko said, according to the agent.
Some of the information in the dossier Danchenko couldn’t recognize at all.
At one point, Comey said that “there was no, to my knowledge, surveillance of the Trump campaign.”
In fact, the campaign’s communications were swept in an extensive surveillance operation that included national security letters, FISA applications, searches of the NSA database, sending informants to collect information from campaign associates, and even using a counterintelligence briefing with Trump himself to collect information on him. Comey’s answer turns on the technicality that the campaign was never officially mentioned as the target, but instead people associated with the campaign were targeted using separate justifications.
The overall investigation was opened to target the campaign explicitly.
Comey said that if he knew what he knows now, he wouldn’t have signed the warrant applications, but he maintained that the overall probe “was conducted in an honest, competent, independent way.”
Comey repeatedly said he shared the senators’ concerns about problems in the FISA process, but said the IG found problems with other applications, too.
It’s true that the IG found hundreds of errors in a sample of 29 other warrant applications it picked for review. Nearly all of those, however, were paperwork issues, such as typos and misstatements, and none of the errors rose to the point of invalidating the application, the FBI said in its response. By contrast, the FBI acknowledged that at least the last two renewals of the Page warrant were flawed to the point of being invalid and thus resulting in illegal surveillance.
Because FISA warrants can be used to spy on Americans even in situations where the government couldn’t get a standard criminal warrant, the several layers of oversight have been imposed, such as the need for senior FBI and DOJ officials to approve them.
But that was actually “a bad thing,” Comey said, because it made him rely too much on others in the process to ensure the warrant applications were done properly.
“Responsibility was diffused, instead of concentrated in individual human beings,” he said.
He called for pushing the responsibility down to the case agents and line FBI lawyers.