May 23 (UPI) — Former CIA Director John Brennan testified Tuesday in a U.S. House hearing that Russia “brazenly interfered” in the 2016 presidential election and publicly acknowledged for the first time concern about the influence.
“I should be clear to everyone that Russia brazenly interfered in our elections of 2016,” Brennan said in his opening statement to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Brennan was CIA director from 2013 until Donald Trump became president.
“I encountered and am aware of information and intelligence that revealed contacts and interactions between Russian officials and U.S. persons involved in the Trump campaign that I was concerned about because of known Russian efforts to suborn such individuals,” Brennan told legislators. “It raised questions in my mind about whether Russia was able to gain the cooperation of those individuals.”
He added, “I don’t know whether such collusion existed” between the Russians and members of Trump’s campaign.
Brennan recalled a phone call with Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia’s security service, in August 2016, when he mentioned published reports about Russian interference in the election.
“I told Mr. Bortnikov that if Russia had such a campaign under way, it was certain to backfire,” Brennan said. “I said if Russia pursued this course it would destroy” improved relations between the two countries.
During the call, Bortnikov denied his country’s interference and mentioned Russia often is blamed for activity it had nothing to do with.
Brennan warned Bortnikov again and the foreign leader repeated his denial but said he would take Brennan’s concern to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Brennan testified.
“I believe I was the first U.S. official to brace Russia on this issue,” said Brennan.
Brennan briefed President Barack Obama and Trump in January on an intelligence community report revealing that Putin had personally ordered an “influence campaign” targeting the presidential election.
Brennan also said Trump’s reported sharing of classified intelligence with Russia officials in the White House on May 10 violated “protocols.” He said he was “very concerned” about the disclosure of information. And he said there appears “very, very damaging leaks, and I find them appalling and they need to be tracked down.”
Brennan later was to testify behind closed doors.
The House committee’s last hearing was March 20, when then-FBI Director James Comey testified that the bureau is probing Russian influence in the election and possible collusion with Trump campaign staffers.
Since then, the committee’s chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes, a Republican from California, recused himself from the Russia investigation after the House Committee on Ethics said it was investigating whether he disclosed classified information to the White House.
And since the last hearing Trump fired Comey, the Department of Justice appointed a special counsel to oversee the FBI’s Russia investigation and the president allegedly tried to halt the FBI’s investigation.
Also Tuesday, Daniel Coats, director of national intelligence, appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee about budget issues.
But Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, questioned him about a Washington Post report Monday that Trump allegedly asked him and Adm. Michael S. Rogers, head of the National Security Agency, to publicly dispute that any evidence exists of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Coats and Rogers turned down his requests saying they were inappropriate, according to the report.
“Is that an accurate reporting, Director Coats?” McCain said.
“Mr. chairman, as the president’s principal intelligence adviser, I’m fortunate to spend a significant amount of time with the president discussing national security interests and intelligence as it relates to those interests. We discuss a number of topics.
“It’s not appropriate for me to comment publicly on any of that.”
McCain asked whether those leaked reports, based on unnamed sources, are a problem.
“Lives are at stakes in many instances, and leaks jeopardize those lives,” Coats said.
Rogers also was to appear before the committee to discuss the annual budget.