The Cable

Former CIA Director Outlines Russian Playbook for Influencing Unsuspecting Targets

John Brennan told lawmakers that intelligence revealing communications between American and Russian officials "raised questions" about cooperation for him.

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 23: Former Director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) John Brennan testifies before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on Capitol Hill, May 23, 2017 in Washington, DC. Brennan is discussing the extent of Russia's meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and possible ties to the campaign of President Donald Trump. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 23: Former Director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) John Brennan testifies before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on Capitol Hill, May 23, 2017 in Washington, DC. Brennan is discussing the extent of Russia's meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and possible ties to the campaign of President Donald Trump. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

John Brennan, CIA director under President Barack Obama, gave lawmakers on Tuesday a more detailed picture of the Russian influence campaign he saw mounting in the final months of the 2016 presidential election — an effort that inspired him to help create a multi-agency task force at Langley to investigate last July.

When he saw intelligence suggesting Americans associated with the Trump campaign had been in touch with Russian officials, “it raised questions” about “whether or not the Russians were able to gain the cooperation of those individuals,” he said during an open hearing of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on Tuesday.

According to Brennan, the communications and contacts he saw between Americans and Russian officials mirrored the “classic” counterintelligence playbook he’d seen play out many times over the years. Russian officials, either entirely disguised or hiding their connections to Kremlin intelligence operations, work to build relationships with “rising stars” or “influential” people in U.S. politics. Those officials then attempt to convince their new contacts to do their bidding. By the time the American officials realize what’s going on, it may be “too late,” Brennan told lawmakers.

“Many times they do not know … that there’s an intelligence connection or motivation behind it,” he told Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.).

However, as Brennan repeatedly reminded lawmakers, it’s not the CIA’s job to investigate Americans or provide “evidence” of criminal wrongdoing that could be used in a court. “It was well beyond my mandate as director of CIA to follow on leads involving U.S. persons,” Brennan noted. “I never worked for the FBI or law enforcement. I don’t do evidence, I do intelligence.”

Like former Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper, Brennan said he was not aware of any details about the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation into President Trump’s campaign and its potential coordination with Russian officials to influence the outcome of the election. Nor was he privy to the testimony that the FBI gave Congress in a closed session relating to the Russia investigation, he confirmed.

Brennan also confirmed that he was aware the FBI had looked into the infamous “Steele dossier,” a document compiled during the campaign by a former MI6 agent that contained serious and at times scandalous allegations about Trump and associates. But Brennan flatly denied that the CIA ever explored it, or that it was used in any way as a foundation for the intelligence community’s joint assessment published in January that Russia had interfered in the election.

Brennan’s testimony came just after a report in the Washington Post said that Trump had asked both the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and the director of the National Security Agency, Adm. Michael Rogers, to deny evidence his campaign colluded with Russians. Both denied the requests. Brennan said he had not been in touch with any current intelligence professionals who had told him that President Trump asked them to quash the investigation.

The 30-year intelligence veteran also told lawmakers that Trump, if he did “spontaneously” share classified information with Russian officials in the White House, broke two protocols. Sensitive or classified intelligence is meant to be shared with intelligence counterparts, rather than visiting dignitaries, Brennan said, citing his own past cooperation with Moscow on intelligence matters. And the United States must always get permission from the original source of the intelligence before sharing it with a third country. (Israel, Trump appeared to confirm on Monday, was the source for the intelligence about laptop bomb threats that the president reportedly shared with Russia.)

However, Brennan said the true damage of the release was the information revealed in the press, before Trump’s own confirmation this week. “I find [the leaks] appalling,” he said.

Photo credit: DREW ANGERER/Getty Images

Jenna McLaughlin is Foreign Policy's intelligence reporter. You can reach her on Signal at 203-537-3949. @JennaMC_Laugh

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