Six of the highest-ranking officials in the nation’s intelligence community testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee yesterday. (Our own Christopher Dahlins was on the scene.) While questions ranged geographically from Afghanistan to Venezuela, and topically from telephone signalling protocols to nuclear weapons, the committee continually turned back to two topics: Russian interference in last year’s elections, and the firing of FBI director James Comey.
The focus came as little surprise, given that the hearing occurred less than 48 hours after President Trump fired Comey, who was supposed to appear at the hearing; in his place was Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, along with five other heads representing the majority of the US Intelligence Community.
After wide-ranging opening remarks by Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, the hearing turned almost immediately to the memo announcing Comey’s firing, with Senator Burr asking McCabe whether or not Comey had, in fact, told Trump that the President was not under any investigation. Typical of open intelligence hearings, and previewing much of the rest of the morning, McCabe was unable to comment.
Some concrete evidence did emerge from the testimony, however. Asked whether or not Russian hacking influenced the election, McCabe answered with an unqualified yes. He was similarly unequivocal when asked if Comey’s firing would impact the FBI’s investigation, telling Senator Rubio that “you cannot stop the men and women of the FBI from doing the right thing.” He also defended Comey’s reputation at the agency, calling White House claims that Comey had lost the confidence of his colleagues utterly false.
Asked whether or not it was true that Comey had requested more resources for the Russia investigation shortly before being fired, McCabe did not confirm, but did not outright deny, that Comey had. McCabe did say, however, that asking for additional resources for a specific investigation is not the normal process for the FBI. On two occasions, he claimed that the agency has sufficient resources for the investigation.
Aside from Russia and Comey, the other major topic of the day was North Korea. Director Coats called North Korea a significant threat, but could not go into detail about the status of its ICBM and nuclear programs in the open setting. Along with other members of the committee, Coats repeatedly emphasized the need to engage with China in order to curtail North Korean nuclear ambitions. Coats stated that handling North Korea is one of the intelligence community’s highest priorities.
The Acting Director’s refusal to play along with the White House’s story regarding Comey’s firing places this incident in the company of the travel bans: poorly planned, impulsive actions that last barely two days before being blunted. And by firing Comey when he did, the President more or less guaranteed that the firing would be a focus of this hearing, if not the focus. What should have been a hearing focused on the threats facing the United States, and the intelligence community’s response to them, was instead focused on yet another sordid fit of Trump rage. Which, depending on the outcome of the investigation, may mean it was focused on the greatest threat to American democracy after all.