WASHINGTON (CN) – Testifying about reports that Russian diplomats received classified U.S. information at the White House, former CIA director John Brennan told members of Congress on Tuesday that such disclosures by President Donald Trump would have violated protocol.
“If the reports in the press are true, that Mr. Trump decided to spontaneously share some intelligence with the Russians, I think he would have basically violated two protocols,” Brennan said.
Brennan’s appearance this morning before the House Select Committee on Intelligence marks his first public testimony since leaving the CIA after Trump took office in January.
The Washington Post broke the story earlier this month that Trump disclosed classified intelligence to the foreign diplomats about an Islamic State terror plot while meeting on May 10 with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
For Brennan, the worrying part is how Trump purportedly disclosed the classified information. Giving classified information about terrorism matters to Russia is not by itself remarkable — Brennan has done so himself, he said — but there are protocols for doing so.
To ensure that classified information is shared properly, and to make sure it does not get exposed, Brennan explained, it needs to be shared through intelligence channels.
In this case, the president would need to contact the agency that originated the intelligence, before sharing such information, to ensure it won’t reveal sources and methods or compromise future collection capability.
Brennan declined to give an answer about whether he saw, during his time at the CIA, any evidence that the Russian effort to skew the 2016 U.S. election in Trump’s favor involved collusion with the Trump campaign.
He did, however, call the FBI investigation well-founded.
[blockquote author=”John Brennan, former director of the CIA” style=”1″]By the time I left office on Jan. 20, I had unresolved questions in my mind as to whether or not the Russians had been successful in getting U.S. persons involved in the campaign or not to work on their behalf, again – either in a witting or unwitting fashion.”[/blockquote]
“I was aware of intelligence and information about contacts between Russian officials and U.S. persons that raised concerns in my mind,” Brennan said.
“By the time I left office on Jan. 20,” the former CIA director continued, “I had unresolved questions in my mind as to whether or not the Russians had been successful in getting U.S. persons involved in the campaign or not to work on their behalf, again – either in a witting or unwitting fashion.”
Citing his long experience with Russian intelligence services, Brennan explained to Congress that the Russians are well practiced in trying to “suborn individuals.”
“They’ve been able to use individuals,” he said. “They’ve been able to use politicians, they’ve been able to use political parties, they’ve been able to use elements within the media – to try to make sure that their objectives are realized.”
With this in mind, Brennan said he worried that they were employing the same tactics to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election.
“They try to get individuals – including U.S. persons – to act on their behalf, either wittingly or unwittingly,” Brennan said.
Brennan stressed that his concern about contacts between U.S. persons and Russian officials did not constitute proof of collusion, but that it “served as the basis for the FBI investigation.”
This appeared to be the first time an intelligence official has pointed to what instigated the FBI probe of Russian election meddling, which includes an examination of possible collusion between the Kremlin and members of the Trump campaign.
Brennan also said he warned the Russian intelligence service chief, Alexander Bortnikov, that election interference would backfire and could further damage U.S.-Russian relations.
“American voters would be outraged by any Russian attempt to interfere in the election,” Brennan recalled telling the Kremlin in a previously undisclosed phone call with the head of the FSB, Russia’s domestic security agency.
“I believe I was the first U.S. official to brace Russia on this matter,” Brennan said.
Pushed by Rep. Dennis Heck, D-Wash., Brennan offered an explanation of why voters should take the investigation seriously.
[blockquote author=”John Brennan, former director of the CIA” style=”1″]The fact that the Russians tried to influence that election so that the will of the American people was not going to be realized by that election, I find outrageous and something that we need to, with every last ounce of devotion to this country, resist and to try to act to prevent further instances of that.”[/blockquote]
“Because for the last 241 years,” Brennan said, “this nation and its citizens have cherished the freedom and liberty that this country was founded upon.”
The ability of Americans to chose their elected leaders is an inalienable right that should be protected with all U.S. resources, authority and power, and many Americans have lost their lives fighting to protect these liberties, Brennan added.
“The fact that the Russians tried to influence that election so that the will of the American people was not going to be realized by that election, I find outrageous and something that we need to, with every last ounce of devotion to this country, resist and to try to act to prevent further instances of that,” Brennan said.
Brennan led the CIA during a time of critical intelligence gathering at the agency, when it concluded, along with the FBI and Director of National Intelligence, that Russia had intruded in the U.S. election and did so with intent to hurt Hillary Clinton.
Brennan was among those who briefed then-President-elect Trump on the matter, and said he also held classified meetings with several lawmakers about it.
The CIA director said “no” when Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., asked if any of Brennan’s former colleagues in the intelligence community had shared concerns that President Trump had enlisted their help to deflect from the FBI’s Russia probe.
Reports emerged last week that, as director of the FBI before Trump fired him, James Comey wrote a series of memos detailing such requests by the president, including a request that the FBI stop investigating Michael Flynn, Trump’s now-disgraced former national security adviser.
As to whether President Trump or his aides enlisted members of the intelligence community to push back on the collusion narrative, Brennan said he was “unaware” of such evidence.
This morning’s testimony was heard by a committee that has not met since its chairman, Rep. Devin Nunez, stepped aside last month in the face of an ethics investigation.
The House Ethics Committee is probing claims that Nunes, a California Republican, disclosed classified information about its Russia investigation to the White House without authorization.
Reprising how they handled testimony in March from National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers and now-fired FBI Director James Comey, committee Republicans focused this morning national-security leaks.
Brennan called the leaks damaging and appalling.
“They need to be tracked down,” Brennan said, adding that the Russians are carefully watching how such leaks sow chaos in Washington.
“They will try to exploit it for their own purposes,” he said. “And to see whether or not they can further seed partisan animosity here in Washington.”