WASHINGTON (CN) – FBI director James Comey confirmed Monday before members of Congress that an investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election is active and began in late July, more than three months before the election.
Though the FBI is not in the business of confirming the existence of open investigations, Comey said that public interest qualifies this for a rare exception to that rule.
“This is one of those circumstances,” he told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Seventeen U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that the Russian meddling was aimed at hurting Hillary Clinton’s chances and helping Trump win, but Comey explained that the FBI waited “until recently” even to brief members of Congress about the investigation because of its sensitivity.
Tight-lipped throughout the 5 1/2 hour hearing, Comey confirmed for the first time that one aspect of the investigation involves whether Russia communicated with those who campaigned for President Donald Trump.
Comey would not comment on whether the agency is investigating Trump himself, or if it investigated him during the campaign.
He also did not confirm the identities of any of the individuals being investigated as part of the FBI’s probe of Russian meddling in the election.
Though Trump campaign staffers have repeatedly denied any contact with Russian operatives, evidence showing otherwise has bedeviled the new administration. Trump’s national security adviser Michael Flynn was forced out last month after just 24 days on the job, for example, when it was revealed that he misled the vice president about his talks with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
A similar revelation about Kislyak’s communications with Attorney General Jeff Sessions now plague the former Alabama senator.
Republicans on the committee pressed the other spy chief testifying before it Monday on these leaks.
Adm. Michael Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, said 20 people, including him, are authorized to unmask the identities of American citizens swept up in so-called incidental surveillance monitoring of a foreign target. He refused to explain to the committee how Flynn’s identity was unmasked.
Comey would not confirm if the FBI is investigating the leak of classified information that spurred New York Times and Washington Post reporting on Flynn and Kislyak’s contacts, and the existence of a transcript of those calls as reported.
Saying he does not know how long the investigation would take, Comey declined to commit to providing the committee updates on the investigation’s progress.
Both Comey and Rogers agreed to the Republicans’ point that the unlikely Trump candidacy made it difficult to credit Russian meddling with paving a path to the White House.
Though Russia had thought early on that Trump might have a shot, it decided later on that was hopeless, Comey said. After that, Russia shifted its tactics to focus on undermining Clinton’s expected presidency.
Undeterred by Comey’s refusal to comment on anything related to the investigation, committee Democrats hit the FBI director repeatedly with questions about the Trump campaign’s coordination with Russian officials.
In the final hour of the hearing, Comey noted only that the intelligence community assessment did not address evidence of collusion because the matter was still under investigation.
Democrats also posed questions about specific Trump campaign officials, including Roger Stone, a longtime Trump adviser who is thought to have coordinated with Russian officials during the campaign.
Stone has acknowledged that he exchanged three direct Twitter messages in August with “Guccifer 2.0” – the online persona who claimed credit for hacking into the Democratic National Committee.
U.S. intelligence officials believe with “high confidence” that Guccifer 2.0 is a Russian-affiliated group associated with efforts to influence the U.S. election.
Comey would not comment on whether the FBI is investigating Stone, but the Senate Intelligence Committee has instructed Stone to retain any documents related the election investigation.
Stone, who has tried to downplay the extent of his contacts with Russian operatives, posted a reaction to Monday’s hearing on Twitter. “It’s only fair that I have a chance to respond 2 any smears or half truths about alleged ‘Collusion with Russians’ from 2day’s Intel Hearing,” Stone tweeted out.
The committee also pressed Comey on Trump’s Twitter claims from earlier this month about President Barack Obama having tapped his wires.
Comey said that the FBI “looked carefully” but found no evidence that Obama ordered surveillance of the Trump campaign.
“I have no information that supports those tweets, and we have looked carefully inside the FBI,” Comey said. The Department of Justice also has no information supporting Trump’s tweet, which the White House has refused to substantiate, Comey added.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer showed no heed of Comey’s testimony, however, in his press briefing Monday afternoon.
“We are still at the beginning phase of a look as to what kind of surveillance took place and why,” said Spicer, who contends that too much focus has been placed on a literal interpretation of Trump’s wiretapping claims.
NSA chief Rogers also undercut Trump’s claim that its British counterpart, GCHQ, spied on campaign officials at the Obama administration’s behest.
“I’ve seen nothing on the NSA side that we engaged in such activity, nor that anyone engaged in such activity,” Rogers said.