Live Report: Senate Intelligence Committee Hearings

Torchlight’s politics editor Christopher Dahlin was at today’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, where acting FBI director Andrew McCabe testified, among others. A full list of committee members is available here, and a list of witnesses here. The post was updated live. All photographs taken by Christopher Dahlin. 

9:45 EST: While Comey’s session on Tuesday will be closed (if he attends), for the session today Acting Director McCabe will take his place. While his answers will generally be “I cannot comment on the investigation,” I am not quite sure what to expect. There will be six intelligence heads at the hearing today. So far, the Senate Intelligence Committee has taken the investigation slightly more seriously (although they have dedicated no resources to it) so what happens here may be interesting. On the other hand, it may be a repetition of the Yates hearing earlier this week, where Senators wanted information on “but her emails” and so on. The hearing is scheduled to begin at 10:00 EST.

10:04 EST: Senators have begun to file in. [Virginia Senator Mark] Warner is now here. A full list of committee members is available here. Intelligence chiefs have arrived.

The Hart Senate Building

 

Inside the Hart Building, a sculpture titled “Mountain and Clouds”

 

The media is ready for reactions to today’s conference.


10:07 EST
: Lot of anticipation in the room. Everyone is photographing the acting director. I had no idea what McCabe looked like, but it’s immediately obvious who he is.

10:12 EST: [North Carolina Senator and committee chair Richard] Burr is going through what topics he wants to talk about, and going down the line: Korea, Afghanistan, Syria, Cyber etc. A list of the witnesses to testify is available here.

10:15 EST: Senator Burr’s statement is complete; he did not mention Russia. Senator Warner’s first comment brings up FBI Director James Comey. Presumably, this will be the push and pull between the Republicans and Democrats. Democrats will want to know about Russia and Comey, Republicans will try to pretend they’ve never heard of either. Although Burr did mention it obliquely, he obviously did not want to focus on it.

10:18 EST: Senator Warner wants assurance that the investigation will continue, despite any pressure from the White House or otherwise.

10:20 EST: Senator Warner is focusing on Russia’s cyber attacks and interference into elections in the U.S, France, and Germany as well.

10:23 EST: Senator Warner is now going into those other global issues as well: Korea, cyber, etc.

10:24 EST: Director of National Intelligence Daniel R. Coats is beginning his remarks. (A text version of Director Coats’ remarks is available here.)

10:27 EST: These intros are probably going to be fairly boilerplate, and most likely nothing new will come from them. Coats is talking about Korea’s rising nuclear threat, for example. He is now talking about Syria, including the chemical weapon attack.

10:30 EST: Director Coats is commenting on the threat of cyber attacks, not only from nation-states. He is also going through terrorist threats, including homegrown, and criticizing [President of Turkey] Erdogan’s consolidation of power.

10:34 EST: Director Coats is now enumerating how bad the middle east is, starting with Iraq. Definitively says that Iran is abiding by the nuclear deal, and criticizes their terrorist funding. Comments on Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan. Long story short for all of this: the Middle East has problems. Pakistan is worried about isolation, and may turn to China. So rising nuclear threat there as well.

10:38 EST: Director Coats’ final assessment is about Russia and their increasing interventionism. Goes through China, mentions sub-Saharan Africa, and then basically laughs at Venezuela. Mexico has no mention of the Wall, oddly enough. Cuba got a mention: basically their economy is slowing down, and they blame the United States.

10:41 EST: These introductions are basically overviews of what their intelligence focus is. They aren’t anything new, but just on the record summaries of the state of the world. I have a feeling this next statement will be a theme: section 702 must be reauthorized. [Section 702 is a law permitting surveillance of non-US citizens outside the United States.]

10:44 EST: Questioning begins.

Senator Burr: Did Comey ever tell Trump he was not subject of investigation?

Acting Director McCabe: Can’t comment.

10:46 EST: Question from Senator Burr to Director Rogers about Afghanistan.

Director Rogers: Afghanistan needs support, or we will lose gains.

10:53 EST: Question on vulnerabilities on the Internet of Things. [When everything cars to refrigerators to paint becomes computerized and hackable.] Director Rogers talks about vulnerabilities. Then a question on Section 702. 702 is about collecting intelligence on foreign persons, and also refers to limits on intelligence on Americans. Masking that has been talked about regarding Flynn and so on involves this provision. Director Rogers absolutely supports 702.

Senator Warner asks all witnesses: did Russia hack influence the elections?

Unanimous yes.

Senator Warner follows up with Acting Director McCabe: Will you inform committee of all attempted interference on investigation with Russia?

McCabe replies with an absolute yes.

10:55 EST: Senator Warner: How have we improved defenses so that interference will be reduced next time?

Director Coats: Russia has upped their game, and we need to develop the response strategy.

Warner: This is no clear jurisdiction: who is taking lead on securing systems? (Warner refers to everything from hacking to fake news, by the way. Not just direct action on the part of the Russian government.)

11:00 EST: Question to Director Rogers: Did Russia interfere with French elections?

Rogers: We know Russia did some, can’t say all.

[Florida Senator Marco] Rubio: Did Comey’s firing impede any ongoing operation or investigation?

Acting Director McCabe: “You cannot stop the men and women of the FBI from doing the right thing.”

Senator Rubio: Could the [Venezuelan President Nicolas] Maduro-supporting militias break control, and acquire advanced weapon systems, etc?

Director Pompeo: Collectivos are a threat, have not seen any of the major stockpiles taken, will go into it more behind closed doors.

11:06 EST: [California Senator Dianne] Feinstein has question on North Korea; Director Coats says that North Korea is an existential threat, we must work with Chinese and do everything we can to stymie North Korea’s efforts. Cannot answer question on status of North Korea’s ICBM program in open setting.

Now some questions about China’s support of North Korea. Coats: China’s support of North Korea is reducing. Can go further in closed setting.

11:10 EST: [Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lieutenant General Vincent] Stewart: No end to end test of ICBM with device.  Can talk more in closed setting. [Director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Robert] Cardillo agrees. They want to talk about North Korea and its nuclear capabilities in a classified setting.

Democratic Senators leave the room to go vote.

11:15 EST: [Missouri Senator Roy Blunt] is focusing on cyber issues and the community around it, asks about the intelligence community’s reluctance to use open source technology.

Director Rogers: We are aware of problems with open source, but are willing to use it with that knowledge.

Director Pompeo: Open source may have been a problem in the past, but not any more.

[Texas Senator John] Cornyn comments on foreign lobbyists (does not mention [ousted National Security adviser Michael] Flynn by name), then IP theft and espionage by China.

11:20 EST: [Oregon Senator Ron] Wyden mentions Trump encouraging Russian hack and loving Wikileaks. He wants an answer on Comey telling Trump that Trump wasn’t under investigation [as claimed in Trump’s firing letter].

Director McCabe: Cannot comment.

11:25 EST: A question about Flynn being vulnerable to the Russians, and whether the CIA was aware of Sally Yates’ warning. Director Pompeo will not answer; Yates did not make the warning to him.

Senator Wyden: Is Russia buying up American oil refining capabilities dangerous? Requests answer in writing. Nobody can answer in an open hearing.

Senator Wyden is now asking about which Russian money laundering is the biggest threat. Director McCabe cannot comment on specific investigations, but they are certainly aware and fighting the problem.

11:30 EST: [Idaho Senator James] Risch’s turn. He says the Trump Administration has done great in the first hundred days with regards to intel. Coats says that Trump is a “voracious consumer of information.” Directors Coats and Pompeo have spent more time in Oval office than expected. Daily briefs of more than 45 minutes, explaining what it is the IC does. It sounds to me that Coats is trying to put a very sunny spin on ‘Trump doesn’t know what we need him to know.’ Director Pompeo says that Trump has reentered the global leadership space that Obama abandoned.

[New Mexico Senator Martin] Heinrich: Does a multiple assurances of a person not being under investigation indicate them being not under investigation?

Director McCabe: No.

11:37 EST: Senator Heinrich: When did you meet with the president?

Acting Director McCabe: Can’t answer. We didn’t talk about Russia.

Acting Director McCabe: The idea that Comey lost confidence in the FBI rank and file is utterly false.

Senator Heinrich: Do you have adequate resources for investigation?

Acting Director McCabe: If you are referring to the Russia investigation, yes. Other investigations are always getting bigger.

Senator Heinrich: Is providing classified info to compromised individuals a threat to National security?

Director Coats: Yes.

Senator Heinrich: What would you do if an employee was found to be compromised?

Director Coats: Many tools, including dismissal.

[Maine Senator Susan] Collins: Is the lead agent overseeing the Russia investigation still there?

Acting Director McCabe: All agents still there, activities are not curtailed.

Senator Collins: Comey requested extra resources for Russia investigation, can you confirm the request was made?

Acting Director McCabe: I cannot confirm. That is not the normal process for requesting resources. We do not normally request resources for specific investigations.

11:40 EST: Senator Collins: Is informing someone they are not the target of an investigation standard practice?

Acting Director McCabe: No, it is not.

11:50 EST: Question about French elections. Director Rogers reiterates not having the complete picture, but had enough info to reach out to French intelligence and will say Russia was involved.

[Maine Senator Angus] King now asking about election interference, and how we have improved our defenses. A question about a Russian camera crew being allowed in a White House meeting yesterday, while American media was not, and that the Russian camera equipment was not vetted ahead of time; Admiral Rogers was not consulted.

Was Coats consulted on Comey firing?

Coats: No discussions.

[Oklahoma Senator James] Lankford: Do you have all the resources you need?

Acting Director McCabe: Yes we do.

Lankford is basically setting a foundation that the FBI’s investigation is sufficient and we do not need independent investigation.

Lankford also wants a cyber doctrine, and to establish a jurisdiction for cyber crimes and threats.

12:00 EST: [West Virginia Senator Joe] Manchin: What does [the FBI] being involved in elections do to morale?

Acting Director McCabe: Morale was good, but some were “frustrated with the outcome” of the Hillary Clinton case. [Acting Director McCabe did not specify if by “outcome” he meant the decision not to recommend prosecution or the decision to speak publicly about the investigation’s conclusion.]

Question about a specific cyber intrusion method, involving software and hardware, and foreign dependence on foreign-sourced rare earth elements. What a shock, Manchin wants to talk about how great mining is.

Senators Warner and Burr are leaving for a meeting; California Senator Kamala Harris and Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton to ask questions next.

12:10 EST: Senator Cotton is talking about the Soviets trying to limit NATO nuclear capability, comparing it to similar, present-day Russian activities. Talking about some of his amendments that the Obama administration objected to, but which passed in this year’s spending bill. Now raising Section 702. He is supportive of 702, and talks about avenues which exist if agents believe privacy is being violated. He says existing avenues are sufficient. Basically, agents can object to the Director, the Intelligence Committee, etc., if they feel privacy is violated.

Senator Cotton: Who secured Comey’s files?

Acting Director McCabe: The FBI, and we believe it was sufficient to preserve evidence.

Acting Director McCabe says he has talked with no one except Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein about the Russia investigation.

Senator Harris: How have you assured agents that they will not be fired if they aggressively follow leads?

Acting Director McCabe: We stand with them, will support them, and will directly communicate they will not be fired. No crisis of confidence with the leadership of the FBI.

12:15 EST: Most Senators have now departed the hearing.

Senator Wyden: Did you have any sense that Michael Flynn was compromised? Yes or No?

Director Pompeo: Not yes or no, can’t say.

Senator Wyden is clearly not happy about Flynn; asking questions about vulnerability of SS7 of mobile devices. Director Rogers is concerned about the vulnerability, going into how they are looking at tech and so on. [SS7 is a set of telephone signalling protocols.]

Senator Wyden wants to know how many privacy violations of 702 have occurred. Government has claimed sharing that number is an invasion of privacy.

12:25 EST: Senator King has turned the hearing back to North Korea.

Director Pompeo: North Korean threats are not just ICBMs; he mentions the large amount of artillery aimed at Seoul. One of our most productive paths to influence is China.

Director Coats states that North Korea is one of the intelligence community’s highest priorities, if not the highest priority.

Senator King asking about creating a cyber intelligence doctrine.

Director Pompeo: Russia’s interference of elections is a continuing threat.

Director Coats: We must keep people informed, that’s the best safeguard.

12:27 EST: The open hearing has concluded. Nothing explosive said this morning, but some interesting insights into the ongoing story of Comey’s firing and the Russian interference in the election.

12:52 EST: Senators Warner and Burr holding a short press conference after the hearing.

Senators Burr and Warner

Warner and Burr had a meeting with Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein. Warner still has concerns about Rosenstein’s letter and involvement with Comey’s firing. The Senate intelligence investigation will continue.

The senators do not go into detail about their meeting, except to note that Rosenstein took the idea of special counsel [ie., a special prosecutor] under advisement. Special counsel, if one is assigned, will not be allowed to interfere with the Senate investigation.

1:02 EST: In response to a question about Trump claiming to not be a target of investigation, Senator Warner laughs.

1:04 EST: Asked about accusations against Comey as a “showboat” and “grandstander” to justify firing, Senator Burr says Comey was an utter professional. Senator Warner agrees, shaking his head. Warner says he trusted Comey, calling the former FBI director a “straight shooter” and saying that he was offended by the President’s comments to the contrary.

Press conference is concluded.

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