The extent to which Trump campaign officials and others across America’s political landscape “unwittingly” aided Russia’s efforts to wreak havoc on the 2016 election is an increasing focus of competing federal investigations into Moscow’s alleged meddling, according to current and former officials familiar with the probes.
While mainstream media are focused on insinuations of complicity between President Trump’s associates and the Kremlin, an equally explosive uncertainty centers on whether lawmakers from both parties, and others across the media and social media, were made into unknowing Russian conspirators — a haunting prospect several sources say is far more dangerous to American democracy than the partisan bickering currently clouding the inquiry.
It’s an issue that has been brewing for months in clandestine U.S. intelligence circles but burst into public debate last week, when former CIA Director John O. Brennan suddenly told lawmakers, “I know what the Russians try to do. They try to suborn individuals and try to get individuals, including U.S. individuals, to act on their behalf, wittingly or unwittingly.”
Mr. Brennan’s use of the highly unusual word “suborn,” which the three-decade CIA veteran uttered several times during his House Intelligence Committee testimony, has since hung over the Capitol Hill probes, which have taken more politically biting turns during recent days.
On Wednesday, Republicans and Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee issued a spray of competing subpoenas, underscoring the very separate directions the two parties are trying to push the overall Russia-Trump-election narrative.
House Republicans want congressional and FBI investigations to focus on allegations that former Obama administration officials inappropriately “unmasked” and perhaps even illegally leaked the identities of Trump campaign officials swept up in U.S. surveillance operations against Russian diplomats and operatives.
But House Democrats want the probes to stay tightly focused on alleged collusion between Trump associates and the Kremlin, which the intelligence community has accused of hacking and propaganda operations designed to prevent former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from winning last November’s vote.
The Senate Intelligence Committee is conducting its own Russia investigation, which is generally viewed as less partisan than the House side probe. A senior congressional source familiar with the Senate’s probe told The Washington Times this week that Mr. Brennan’s revelation about concern among U.S. spies that political operatives may have been “suborned” into aiding the Kremlin’s efforts last year represents “a rich vein of inquiry” for the committee’s investigators.
Stephen Slick, director of the Intelligence Studies Project at the University of Texas at Austin and a former CIA Clandestine Service officer who served as special assistant to President George W. Bush, says Mr. Brennan’s use of the word “suborn” may well have to do with espionage tradecraft — or, more simply, the tools of the spy trade.
“I interpret Director Brennan’s statement as conveying that Russian intelligence had identified or ‘spotted’ these folks based on claims or reported associations with the Trump campaign, ‘assessed’ them either as possibly recruitable or at least subject to manipulation, and was in the process of ‘developing’ a relationship to determine if these campaign officials would be appropriate targets to ‘pitch’ or draw into some sort of more formal relationship,” Mr. Slick told The Times this week.
He added that Mr. Brennan’s background as a career analyst and manager in the CIA, rather than a field operations officer, may have influenced the former director’s choice of the word “suborn.” Mr. Slick said the word implies some degree of deception, manipulation or pressure, while operations officers appreciate that there are “countless motivations why people get involved with a foreign intelligence service, and in most cases it is fully witting and voluntary.”
Other sources who spoke with The Times said the distinction has congressional and federal investigators scrambling to determine whether Trump operatives served as “Moscow’s useful idiots” — a phrase bandied about Capitol Hill this spring — or if their motivations for contact with Russian officials were more sinister and constituted a U.S. crime.
Widening the probe
Russia’s tactics were so aggressive, including August’s hack into the Democratic National Committee’s emails, that Mr. Brennan told lawmakers of a phone call he had last year with his Kremlin counterpart, Alexander V. Bortnikov, who heads up Russian intelligence, in which he warned Moscow to stay out of the election or risk damaging bilateral relations.
Privately, Capitol Hill Republicans have spent the past week divided over Mr. Brennan’s testimony.
One told The Times on condition of anonymity that the former CIA director’s warnings and the intelligence community’s conclusions about the depths of Russian interference made them wish someone from the GOP would stand up to the White House’s argument that the ongoing probes are a “witch hunt” aided by Obama-era leaks designed to smear Mr. Trump.
But another Republican source, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, argued that Mr. Brennan’s loyalty lays with the former administration and that his testimony last week was disingenuous. “It seems to me the Democrats are starting to run out of steam on this whole ‘collusion’ accusation,” the source said. “Even some Democrats admit there was no collusion. If there was, all these investigations would have found it by now.
“But they haven’t, so now the Democrats step back and say, ‘Well, maybe somebody was unwittingly colluding,’ ” the source added. “With Brennan providing no details, I just don’t find that to be a real credible thing.”
At the same time, others on Capitol Hill argue in private that they would like to see a deeper assessment Clinton operatives may have been “unwittingly” assisting the Kremlin during the lead-up to last year’s election. “What would these investigations look like if Hillary had won?” one Capitol Hill insider asked The Times.
The cast of characters who are said to be under investigation for what some might consider “unwitting” contact with Russian operatives is already long.
Among the more prominent on the Republican side is Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and special White House adviser, Jared Kushner. Mr. Kushner is reportedly being scrutinized for a meeting he had in mid-December — weeks after Mr. Trump’s election win — with Russian Banker Sergey N. Gorkov, a man believed to have close ties to Russian intelligence. Former Trump campaign associates Paul Manafort, Roger Stone and Carter Page have also been in the spotlight.
But so has at least one Democrat: Mrs. Clinton’s former campaign chairman, John Podesta, is said to be under scrutiny over his onetime role on the board of an energy company with Kremlin ties.
Fresh round of subpoenas
The House Intelligence Committee’s issuance this week of seven new subpoenas, meanwhile, has left political analysts trying to decipher whether members had made a cunning tactical move to widen the probe to accommodate both Republican and Democrat investigative concerns — or whether the action was driven more by politics than intelligence.
Three of the subpoenas could provide fresh fuel to charges that top Obama administration officials improperly sought the identities of Trump campaign figures swept up in pre-election U.S. intelligence probes. The subpoenas were issued to the CIA, FBI and NSA, and seek details related to alleged unmasking requests made by Mr. Brennan, along with former National Security Adviser Susan Rice and former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Power.
The development marked the first time that Ms. Power has been reported as a possible witness, and one of the sources who spoke with The Times said House Republicans issued the subpoena because they had credible “indications” that the former U.N. ambassador had made inappropriate unmasking requests.
The four other subpoenas issued Wednesday focused on the activities of former Trump campaign aide Michael Flynn, who briefly served as White House national security adviser, and longtime Trump personal attorney Michael Cohen. In addition to being personally named, companies run by each of the men were also targeted by subpoenas.
There was some confusion Thursday over the extent to which all parties on the House Intelligence Committee, a panel that has been riven by political infighting, were fully in agreement on issuing the competing subpoenas.
Congressional sources told The Times that the committee’s Republican chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes, authorized all seven of the subpoenas but personally pushed for those seeking information about Mr. Brennan, Ms. Rice and Ms. Power. Democrats were incensed by the move, arguing that Mr. Nunes was acting without their consent.
At issue is the fact that Mr. Nunes had made headlines in April by announcing that he would relinquish any leadership role in the committee’s Russia probe following an ethics complaint over his handling of classified information.
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