Russia Inquiries Overlap in a Tangle of Secrets and Sniping

March 19, 2017 at 10:01 pm

9/19

The New York Times
By MATT APUZZO, ADAM GOLDMAN and MATTHEW ROSENBERG
Representatives Devin Nunes, Republican of California, and Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California, the chairman and ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, spoke on Wednesday at a news conference in Washington about Russian election interference.© Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times Representatives Devin Nunes, Republican of California, and Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California, the chairman and ranking member of the House Intelligence… WASHINGTON — Russia’s campaign to disrupt last year’s presidential election has spawned a tangle of inquiries with competing agendas and timetables, and with little agreement on the most important things that should be investigated.Staff members for the Senate Intelligence Committee have spent weeks poring over raw intelligence that led the Obama administration to conclude that Russia meddled in the election, but they have yet to be given any access to far more politically charged information — evidence of contacts between Russians and associates of President Trump.The House Intelligence Committee is conducting its own investigation of issues surrounding Mr. Trump and Russia, but the committee’s Republican chairman has said a top priority is to unmask whoever is speaking to journalists about classified information. Democrats on the committee hope the investigation can force a disclosure of the president’s tax returns.

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The progress of these congressional inquiries depends at least in part on a third investigation by the FBI, in which counterintelligence agents have been scrutinizing past contacts between Russian officials and Mr. Trump’s aides. Officials say the FBI effort will probably take many months or even years, however eager Congress might be for quick answers.

And, while the FBI conducts its investigation in secrecy, the White House insists publicly that there is nothing to investigate.

“It puts us in a very difficult position,” said Frank Montoya Jr., a former FBI agent who served as the government’s senior counterintelligence official and retired last year. “We are pushed and pulled by Congress, and then having to address the concerns of the White House and Justice Department.”

The overlapping investigations have, in some cases, already been plagued by partisan sniping and misdirection by Mr. Trump, raising questions about whether there can ever be a full public accounting of the scope of Russia’s campaign to influence the election in November.

Monday will bring the first public intelligence committee hearing on Russia since then, when the F.BI director, James B. Comey, and the director of the National Security Agency, Michael S. Rogers, will testify before the House panel. But in a sign of how convoluted Russian matters have become, their testimony is most anticipated not for what they will say about their investigation, but for whether they will publicly deny Mr. Trump’s claim that Trump Tower had been wiretapped during the campaign, for which he has cited no evidence.

The wiretapping claim shows how easy it is — when all the answers are cloaked in secrecy — to send investigators in different directions and muddy the conversation.

Representative Jackie Speier, a California Democrat who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, lamented that lawmakers had spent “weeks not talking about Russia, and instead talking about whether he was wiretapped.”

Congressional leaders have not indicated how they envision their inquiries ending, and so far they are still seeking common ground on how to begin.

“It is a very different time,” said Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon and a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He contrasted the Russia inquiries with investigations into the Watergate break-in or abuses by intelligence agencies, which were bipartisan efforts that operated on a clear track.

Mr. Wyden was hesitant to lay out a specific timeline for the Senate investigation. “That’s the way to really lose credibility,” he said. “I think you let the facts drive the answer to that.”

Representatives Devin Nunes, Republican of California and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and the committee’s ranking member, have made a point of appearing publicly in sync on the Russia investigation, despite their sharp political differences. Both believe that the House investigation is vital, but for different reasons: Mr. Nunes’s primary concern so far has been leaks of classified information, whereas Mr. Schiff has tried to keep the focus on Russian meddling. He has also had to manage other Democrats who want to prioritize digging into Mr. Trump’s ties to Russia and who have called for the committee to subpoena the president’s tax returns.

As for the FBI, American officials said there was no sign that the bureau’s work might end anytime soon. Counterintelligence investigations can last for years, and they rarely become public or lead to criminal charges. Agents and analysts, working with their counterparts at the C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies, are still trying to figure out the scope of Russian intelligence operations related to the election, including who was involved and how to prevent a repeat.

Exploring any connections between Mr. Trump’s associates and Russians, officials say, is only one aspect. Unlike the criminal cases the FBI investigates — from financial crimes to mafia grifting — the bureau in counterintelligence cases focuses less on “solving” a case than on better understanding the nature of intelligence activity.

“There is a lot of smoke, but the million-dollar question is whether we can prove what essentially comes down to a criminal violation,” said Mr. Montoya, who handled the fallout from the disclosures by Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor. “If there are smoking guns out there, it’s likely going to take a human being to say what has happened. Because it is a counterintelligence investigation, it can just go on and on.”

Even then, agents may not be able to answer one of the central questions swirling in the Washington maelstrom: whether anyone from the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow to influence the election.

American officials say they have so far found no proof of that. But current and former officials say they uncovered evidence that Mr. Trump’s associates were in repeated contact with Russian officials and others close to President Vladimir V. Putin — including people tied to Russian intelligence.

In recent weeks, it emerged that Roger J. Stone Jr., a longtime adviser to Mr. Trump, had communicated with Guccifer 2.0, the online persona believed to be a front for Russian intelligence officials involved in disseminating emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee. Mr. Stone has denied there was anything improper about the contact, and he was one of many, including political operatives and journalists, to communicate with the hackers.

Michael T. Flynn, a Trump campaign adviser who went on to be his national security adviser, was paid more than $65,000 by companies linked to Russia in 2015, according to congressional investigators. Mr. Flynn was forced to resign after misrepresenting his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States.

Last July, the same month that WikiLeaks began releasing the hacked emails from the Democratic committee, Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser to Mr. Trump, visited Moscow for a speaking engagement. Mr. Page has declined to say whom he met there, but has said they were mostly scholars.

American intelligence agencies also intercepted communications of Russian officials, some of them within the Kremlin, in which they discussed their contacts with Trump associates. Foreign allies last year began providing the United States with intelligence indicating possible meetings between Russian officials and associates of Mr. Trump. It is not clear if American intelligence has confirmed whether those meetings actually took place.

Even if the FBI is able to unearth evidence that a Trump associate had colluded with the Russians in the presidential election, finding a way to use the information in court would be very difficult. American intelligence agencies would fiercely resist disclosing how they had obtained their information.

“It’s very unusual to be involved in something that ends up in an arrest,” said Christopher Lynch, a former FBI and C.I.A. counterintelligence analyst. “We may know what happens but not be able to do anything about it.”

Former agents have stories of cases that broke surprisingly after long stretches with no developments. But those cases did not require giving updates to Congress and the American people.

“This is unprecedented,” Mr. Montoya said. “When is the last time we had to work on a counterintelligence matter that’s so public?”

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