Friday, January 13, 2017

Democrats Confront F.B.I. Chief at Closed-Door Intelligence Briefing

Photo
President-elect Donald J. Trump on Friday at Trump Tower in New York. Mr. Trump has ridiculed claims that Russia covertly sought to promote his candidacy. CreditKevin Hagen for The New York Times
WASHINGTON — America’s intelligence chiefs sat down with members of Congress behind closed doors on Friday for what they thought would be a straightforward briefing on Russian cyberattacks. What ensued instead was a confrontation Democrats have long sought with James B. Comey, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Why, the House Democrats demanded to know, did Mr. Comey believe it was O.K. to make repeated disclosures during the campaign about the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails but to this day refuse to say if the F.B.I. is investigating links between the Trump campaign and Russia?
His answers did not prove very satisfying. Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the minority leader, grew so frustrated that at one point she chastised Mr. Comey for being “condescending to members.”
Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, who was chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee when it was hacked, asked why Mr. Comey had never called her about the intrusions, which began in August 2015 and continued over the course of many months. The F.B.I. notified the committee of the original hacking, but reached a low-level tech support contractor and went back and forth with him for months before the leadership of the organization was informed and took steps to halt the intrusion.
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The committee and the bureau have blamed each other for the delay, and the pattern continued on Friday, according to multiple Democrats in the meeting.
Afterward, Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California, called the tenor of the exchanges “contentious at times.”
“I don’t want to go into the contents of what were discussed,” Mr. Schiff said. But “a great many members are concerned with whether the director has employed a double standard.”
The hearing took place a day after the Justice Department’s inspector general said it was investigating Mr. Comey’s decision during the campaign to hold a news conference announcing the end of the case — and then, just before the election, inform Congress there was possible new evidence only to say days later that it did not amount to anything.
Mr. Comey “didn’t really answer,” said Representative Jerold Nadler of New York. He dismissively referred to Mr. Comey as “a policeman,” and added, “I don’t remember anything substantive he said.”
The reaction to the assessment by intelligence agencies that Russia sought to promote the candidacy of Donald J. Trump has been mixed. Mr. Trump has seen it as undermining his electoral victory and ridiculed the agencies, accusing them this week of using leaks to discredit him after it briefed him on a dossier of unsubstantiated reports of compromising personal information the Russians allegedly collected.
But on Friday, Senator Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, announced that the committee would hold hearings on the Russian activity and its effect on the election.
Before Russians were an issue, there was the F.B.I. investigation into whether Mrs. Clinton or her aides mishandled classified information that was in emails on a private server she was using.
Mr. Comey discussed the investigation and sharply criticized Mrs. Clinton at a news conference announcing that no charges would be brought against her. He also wrote two letters near the end of the campaign that Clinton supporters say cost her the election. But Mr. Comey has not publicly commented on whether there are any open investigations of Mr. Trump or anyone associated with his campaign.
Democrats said the closest Mr. Comey came on Friday to offering an explanation for his actions was to say he would only disclose an ongoing investigation if the public had an overwhelming need to know about it or if it was obvious there was one underway. He said he did not believe any possible investigation into Trump or his associates met either standard.
The F.B.I.’s position is that it does not discuss counterintelligence investigations that could compromise important methods and sources.
Speaking to reporters afterward, Ms. Pelosi said that “really, the American people are owed the truth.”
“There is a great deal of evidence to say that this is an issue of high interest to the American people,” she continued. “For that reason, the F.B.I. should let us know whether they’re doing that investigation or not. They’re usually inscrutable.”
The F.B.I. declined to comment on the meeting.
Mr. Nadler said he thought Mr. Comey should have been fired “months ago.” Other Democrats, perhaps concerned about who Mr. Trump would name to replace Mr. Comey, either said that he should remain on the job or that they were still unsure.
The meeting in the auditorium of the Capitol’s visitor center was standing room only. Some Republicans unsurprisingly had a different reaction.
“Their questions and comments seemed to make the case that Hillary Clinton would be president if it were not for hacking,” Representative Steve King of Iowa said.
Mr. King left the meeting unconvinced about the Russian hacking, which the intelligence chiefs did manage to discuss amid the questions about Mr. Comey’s conduct.
The congressman added that he thought “some” intelligence officials were trustworthy. But “not all. People there need to be rooted out,” he said without elaborating.

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