Un­wit­ting ac­com­plices part of Rus­sia hack in­quiry

Bren­nan: Moscow may ‘sub­orn’ U.S. as­sis­tance

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAN BOY­LAN AND GUY TAY­LOR

The ex­tent to which Trump cam­paign of­fi­cials and oth­ers across Amer­ica’s po­lit­i­cal land­scape “un­wit­tingly” aided Rus­sia’s ef­forts to wreak havoc on the 2016 elec­tion is an in­creas­ing fo­cus of com­pet­ing fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tions into Moscow’s al­leged med­dling, ac­cord­ing to cur­rent and former of­fi­cials fa­mil­iar with the probes.

While main­stream me­dia are fo­cused on in­sin­u­a­tions of com­plic­ity be­tween Trump as­so­ciates and the Krem­lin, an equally ex­plo­sive un­cer­tainty cen­ters on whether law­mak­ers from both par­ties, and oth­ers across the me­dia and so­cial me­dia, were made into un­know­ing Rus­sian con­spir­a­tors — a haunt­ing prospect sev­eral sources say is far more dan­ger­ous to Amer­i­can democ­racy than the par­ti­san bick­er­ing cur­rently cloud­ing the in­quiry.

It’s an is­sue that has been brew­ing for months in clan­des­tine U.S. in­tel­li­gence cir­cles but burst into public de­bate last week, when former CIA Direc­tor

John O. Bren­nan sud­denly told law­mak­ers, “I know what the Rus­sians try to do. They try to sub­orn in­di­vid­u­als and try to get in­di­vid­u­als, in­clud­ing U.S. in­di­vid­u­als, to act on their be­half, wit­tingly or un­wit­tingly.”

Mr. Bren­nan’s use of the highly un­usual word “sub­orn,” which the three-decade CIA veteran ut­tered sev­eral times dur­ing his House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee tes­ti­mony, has since hung over the Capi­tol Hill probes, which have taken more po­lit­i­cally bit­ing turns dur­ing re­cent days.

On Wed­nes­day, Repub­li­cans and Democrats on the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee is­sued a spray of com­pet­ing sub­poe­nas, un­der­scor­ing the very sep­a­rate di­rec­tions the two par­ties are try­ing to push the over­all Rus­sia-Trump-elec­tion nar­ra­tive.

House Repub­li­cans want con­gres­sional and FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tions to fo­cus on al­le­ga­tions that former Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials in­ap­pro­pri­ately “un­masked” and per­haps even il­le­gally leaked the iden­ti­ties of Trump cam­paign of­fi­cials swept up in U.S. sur­veil­lance op­er­a­tions against Rus­sian diplo­mats and op­er­a­tives.

But House Democrats want the probes to stay tightly fo­cused on al­leged col­lu­sion be­tween Trump as­so­ciates and the Krem­lin, which the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity has ac­cused of hack­ing and pro­pa­ganda op­er­a­tions de­signed to pre­vent former Sec­re­tary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton from win­ning last Novem­ber’s vote.

The Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee is con­duct­ing its own Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion, which is gen­er­ally viewed as less par­ti­san than the House side probe. A se­nior con­gres­sional source fa­mil­iar with the Se­nate’s probe told The Wash­ing­ton Times this week that Mr. Bren­nan’s rev­e­la­tion about con­cern among U.S. spies that po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tives may have been “sub­orned” into aid­ing the Krem­lin’s ef­forts last year rep­re­sents “a rich vein of in­quiry” for the com­mit­tee’s in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

Stephen Slick, Direc­tor of the In­tel­li­gence Stud­ies Project at the Univer­sity of Texas at Austin and a former CIA Clan­des­tine Ser­vice of­fi­cer who served as spe­cial as­sis­tant to Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush, says Mr. Bren­nan’s use of the word “sub­orn” may well have to do with es­pi­onage trade­craft — or, more sim­ply, the tools of the spy trade.

“I in­ter­pret Direc­tor Bren­nan’s state­ment as con­vey­ing that Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence had iden­ti­fied or ‘spot­ted’ these folks based on claims or re­ported as­so­ci­a­tions with the Trump cam­paign, ‘as­sessed’ them ei­ther as pos­si­bly re­cruitable or at least sub­ject to ma­nip­u­la­tion, and was in the process of ‘de­vel­op­ing’ a re­la­tion­ship to de­ter­mine if these cam­paign of­fi­cials would be ap­pro­pri­ate tar­gets to ‘pitch’ or draw into some sort of more for­mal re­la­tion­ship,” Mr. Slick told The Times this week.

He added that Mr. Bren­nan’s back­ground as a ca­reer an­a­lyst and man­ager in the CIA, rather than a field op­er­a­tions of­fi­cer, may have in­flu­enced the former direc­tor’s choice of the word “sub­orn.” Mr. Slick said the word im­plies some de­gree of de­cep­tion, ma­nip­u­la­tion or pres­sure, while op­er­a­tions of­fi­cers ap­pre­ci­ate that there are “count­less mo­ti­va­tions why peo­ple get in­volved with a for­eign in­tel­li­gence ser­vice, and in most cases it is fully wit­ting and vol­un­tary.”

Other sources who spoke with The Times said the dis­tinc­tion has con­gres­sional and fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors scram­bling to de­ter­mine whether Trump op­er­a­tives served as “Moscow’s use­ful id­iots” — a phrase bandied about Capi­tol Hill this spring — or if their mo­ti­va­tions for con­tact with Rus­sian of­fi­cials were more sin­is­ter and con­sti­tuted a U.S. crime.

Widen­ing the probe

Rus­sia’s tac­tics were so ag­gres­sive, in­clud­ing Au­gust’s hack into the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee’s emails, that Mr. Bren­nan told law­mak­ers of a phone call he had last year with his Krem­lin coun­ter­part, Alexan­der V. Bort­nikov, who heads up Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence, in which he warned Moscow to stay out of the elec­tion or risk dam­ag­ing bi­lat­eral re­la­tions.

Pri­vately, Capi­tol Hill Repub­li­cans have spent the past week di­vided over Mr. Bren­nan’s tes­ti­mony.

One told The Times on con­di­tion of anonymity that the former CIA direc­tor’s warn­ings and the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity’s con­clu­sions about the depths of Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence made them wish some­one from the GOP would stand up to the White House’s ar­gu­ment that the on­go­ing probes are a “witch hunt” aided by Obama-era leaks de­signed to smear Mr. Trump.

But another Repub­li­can source, who also spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity, ar­gued that Mr. Bren­nan’s loy­alty lays with the former ad­min­is­tra­tion and that his tes­ti­mony last week was disin­gen­u­ous. “It seems to me the Democrats are start­ing to run out of steam on this whole ‘col­lu­sion’ ac­cu­sa­tion,” the source said. “Even some Democrats ad­mit there was no col­lu­sion. If there was, all these in­ves­ti­ga­tions would have found it by now.

“But they haven’t, so now the Democrats step back and say, ‘well, maybe some­body was un­wit­tingly col­lud­ing,’ ” the source added. “With Bren­nan pro­vid­ing no de­tails, I just don’t find that to be a real cred­i­ble thing.”

At the same time, oth­ers on Capi­tol Hill ar­gue in pri­vate that they would like to see a deeper as­sess­ment Clin­ton op­er­a­tives may have been “un­wit­tingly” as­sist­ing the Krem­lin dur­ing the lead-up to last year’s elec­tion. “What would these in­ves­ti­ga­tions look like if Hil­lary had won?” one Capi­tol Hill in­sider asked The Times.

The cast of char­ac­ters who are said to be un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion for what some might con­sider “un­wit­ting” con­tact with Rus­sian op­er­a­tives is al­ready long.

Among the more prom­i­nent on the Repub­li­can side is Pres­i­dent Trump’s son-in-law and spe­cial White House ad­viser, Jared Kush­ner. Mr. Kush­ner is re­port­edly be­ing scru­ti­nized for a meet­ing he had in mid-De­cem­ber — weeks af­ter Mr. Trump’s elec­tion win — with Rus­sian Banker Sergey N. Gorkov, a man be­lieved to have close ties to Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence. Former Trump cam­paign as­so­ciates Paul Manafort, Roger Stone and Carter Page have also been in the spot­light.

But so has at least one Demo­crat: Mrs. Clin­ton’s former cam­paign chair­man, John Podesta, is said to be un­der scru­tiny over his one­time role on the board of an en­ergy com­pany with Krem­lin ties.

Fresh round of sub­poe­nas

The House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee’s is­suance this week of seven new sub­poe­nas, mean­while, has left po­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts try­ing to de­ci­pher whether mem­bers had made a cun­ning tac­ti­cal move to widen the probe to ac­com­mo­date both Repub­li­can and Demo­crat in­ves­tiga­tive con­cerns — or whether the ac­tion was driven more by pol­i­tics than in­tel­li­gence.

Three of the sub­poe­nas could pro­vide fresh fuel to charges that top Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials im­prop­erly sought the iden­ti­ties of Trump cam­paign fig­ures swept up in pre-elec­tion U.S. in­tel­li­gence probes. The sub­poe­nas were is­sued to the CIA, FBI and NSA, and seek de­tails re­lated to al­leged un­mask­ing re­quests made by Mr. Bren­nan, along with former Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser Su­san Rice and former U.S. Am­bas­sador to the U.N. Su­san Power.

The devel­op­ment marked the first time that Ms. Power has been re­ported as a pos­si­ble wit­ness, and one of the sources who spoke with The Times said House Repub­li­cans is­sued the sub­poena be­cause they had cred­i­ble “in­di­ca­tions” that the former U.N. am­bas­sador had made in­ap­pro­pri­ate un­mask­ing re­quests.

The four other sub­poe­nas is­sued Wed­nes­day fo­cused on the ac­tiv­i­ties of former Trump cam­paign aide Michael Flynn, who briefly served as White House na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, and long­time Trump per­sonal at­tor­ney Michael Co­hen. In ad­di­tion to be­ing per­son­ally named, com­pa­nies run by each of the men were also tar­geted by sub­poe­nas.

There was some con­fu­sion Thurs­day over the ex­tent to which all par­ties on the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, a panel that has been riven by po­lit­i­cal in­fight­ing, were fully in agree­ment on is­su­ing the com­pet­ing sub­poe­nas.

Con­gres­sional sources told The Times that the com­mit­tee’s Repub­li­can chair­man, Rep. Devin Nunes, au­tho­rized all seven of the sub­poe­nas but per­son­ally pushed for those seek­ing in­for­ma­tion about Mr. Bren­nan, Ms. Rice and Ms. Power. Democrats were in­censed by the move, ar­gu­ing that Mr. Nunes was act­ing with­out their con­sent.

At is­sue is the fact that Mr. Nunes had made head­lines in April by an­nounc­ing that he would re­lin­quish any lead­er­ship role in the com­mit­tee’s Rus­sia probe fol­low­ing an ethics com­plaint over his han­dling of clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Former CIA Direc­tor John O. Bren­nan said one of Rus­sia’s fa­vorite spy­craft tricks is to “sub­orn” agents to work for them, ei­ther wit­tingly or oth­er­wise, and that the tech­nique may have been part of the elec­tion hack­ing.

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