Former CIA Director Says He Had Concerns About Russia Ties To Trump Campaign

May 23, 2017
Originally published on May 23, 2017 5:41 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now the story of a warning. That warning took the form of a phone call between the head of the Russian intelligence service, the FSB, and the head of the CIA. John Brennan led the CIA until January, and in testimony today before the House intelligence committee, he described the previously undisclosed call. He also discussed his concerns about contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: The call took place last summer. August 4, at the height of the presidential campaign, Brennan says he was looking at intelligence that Russia was, quote, "brazenly interfering" with the campaign. So he told FSB Chief Alexander Bortnikov, in effect, to knock it off.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN BRENNAN: I warned Mr. Bortnikov that if Russia pursued this course, it would destroy any near-term prospect for improvement in relations between Washington and Moscow and would undermine constructive engagement even on matters of mutual interest.

KELLY: It didn't work. Brennan says Bortnikov told him Russia wasn't meddling in U.S. politics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRENNAN: When I repeated my warning, he again denied the charge but said that he would inform President Putin of my comments.

KELLY: This phone exchange is significant because it demonstrates how alarmed officials inside the Obama administration were last summer two months before U.S. intelligence put out a formal statement about Russian interference and five months before U.S. intelligence weighed in with the view that Russia had tried to tip the vote to Trump. In today's hearing, lawmakers including Republican Trey Gowdy of South Carolina pressed Brennan, specifically on the question of links between Trump aides and Russia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TREY GOWDY: Did evidence exist of collusion, coordination, conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russian state actors at the time you learned of 2016 efforts?

BRENNAN: I encountered and I'm aware of information intelligence that revealed contacts and interactions between Russian officials and U.S. persons involved in the Trump campaign.

KELLY: Brennan says the number of interactions was such that he needed to share what he knew with the FBI.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRENNAN: I don't know whether or not such collusion - and that's your term - such collusion existed. I don't know. But I know that there was a sufficient basis of information and intelligence that required further investigation by the bureau to determine whether or not U.S. persons were actively conspiring, colluding with Russian officials.

KELLY: Congressman Gowdy kept pushing. OK, he said, who are we talking in the Trump campaign?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GOWDY: Are these official members of the Trump campaign or - 'cause there's Trump himself. There are official members of the campaign. And then there are folks who represented themselves as being connected with him.

KELLY: Gowdy didn't name him, but that would include people like Carter Page, a campaign adviser who's been caught up in the Russia probes. Although it's not clear he ever met Trump. Here's Brennan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRENNAN: I'm not going to try to identify individuals nor try to parse it. Last summer...

GOWDY: I don't want you to parse it. I just want you to identify the individuals. I don't want you to parse it.

BRENNAN: I'm not going to identify the individuals because this is information that, again, is based on classified sources and intelligence.

KELLY: Not all of today's testimony focused on last year's campaign. New Jersey Republican Frank LoBiondo wanted to know, will Russia try again?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANK LOBIONDO: Do you think they would attempt to influence the 2018 midterm elections?

BRENNAN: I have, unfortunately, grudging respect for Russian intelligence capabilities.

KELLY: Brennan nodded grudgingly to Russian determination and aggressiveness. If anything, he said they won't wait until 2018. Russia is trying to undermine U.S. democracy right now. Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.