WASHINGTON (CN) – Looking for perspective on the two-year Russia investigation, House lawmakers grilled two former FBI officials Wednesday about espionage techniques common to the Kremlin.
Though both Robert Anderson and Stephanie Douglas retired long before the 2016 appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller, members of Intelligence Committee invited the pair to share insights this morning from their 40-plus years combined experience in intelligence.
“Russia will exploit any avenue they can if pursuing intelligence or if they want to extort someone into action,” said Anderson, former executive assistant director of the FBI’s criminal cyber division. “They never rely on just one break point. If they’re looking to obtain or pass information, they’ll make sure they have numerous access points to do it.”
Mueller identified contacts among President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russian officials more than 100 times. From a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between a Russian lawyer, Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and then campaign-chairman Paul Manafort to communication between campaign strategist Erik Prince and Kirill Dmitriev, head of a Russian sovereign wealth fund, the opportunities for Russia to infiltrate the American political apparatus stacked up.
Anderson said Wednesday that the activities may not have risen to the level of a chargeable crime, but that doesn’t mean lawmakers should underestimate the danger that lurked there.
“This administration, like some before it, there were not a lot of people that understood the threats were real,” Anderson said.
Private-sector individuals lacking in intelligence community experience largely populated the Trump campaign, making them easy marks.
“People need to realize when foreign powers are going after individuals trying to recruit them, it’s not like what you see on television,” he said.
“The people that are coming for them, they will utilize individuals in academia or people with ties to certain social settings and more.”
It usually begins with a test.
It’s called “tasking,” said Douglas, adding that this appears to her exactly what happened with Manafort in the summer of 2016.
That August, Manafort shared internal polling data with Kostantin Kilimnik, an associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin whom the U.S. government has identified as connected to Russian intelligence agencies. Kilimnik denies it.
“Polling data aren’t the keys to the kingdom, but it is a small step that illustrated his willingness to provide information to someone he knows he is beholden to financially,” Douglas said.
“That’s a good example of how the Russians typically work,” she added.
The Mueller report never concluded why Manafort shared the data but noted that Manafort’s ex-business partner Rick Gates said the information was meant for Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska, a Putin’ ally.
Manafort wanted to rid himself of debt owed to the oligarch, and Deripaska wanted access into the U.S. after years of visa troubles, Douglas said.
“Manafort was forward leaning about making his experience and connections known and available to those who wanted it,” Douglas said. “Had he stayed with the campaign, I’m sure the Russians would have continued to task him.”
Tasking can take weeks or even years, but Russian intelligence understands it must cast a web so broad and wide it makes it harder for the counterintelligence to see how information was obtained and how it is being used, Anderson said.
Representative Devin Nunes of California was among several Republicans on the committee who took umbrage to the notion.
Calling the Mueller report a “shoddy, political hit piece,” Nunes said the issues over which FBI officials raised red flags were “routine.”
“The only people who colluded with the Russians were the Democrats … and the media has become a mouthpiece for a cabal of intelligence leakers,” he said.
Though Nunes called Manafort’s sharing of internal data typical to political campaigns, this assessment faced pushback form Representative Jim Himes, a Connecticut Democrat.
“Sharing internal polling data with a hostile foreign power is not what campaigns do,” Himes said.
Also today lawmakers heard testimony from Andrew McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York.
“While the Mueller report shows agents of Putin’s regime expressed support for the Trump candidacy, it should be noted that this is consistent with his motivation to spread dissent,” he said. “That is Russia’s M.O. throughout the world.”
Lawmakers agreed on that point, but one Democrat, Representative Mike Quigley of Illinois, was hung up on a question many have asked since long before the probe was complete: Why didn’t anyone on the Trump campaign contact the FBI when a foreign adversary reached out with political dirt on their opponent?
“Wouldn’t you have done that?” Quigley said.
Hedging at first, McCarthy conceded: “Yes, of course, I would have.”
As Wednesday’s intelligence hearing unfolded in the House, the Associated Press reported that Donald Trump Jr. met with the Senate Intelligence Committee in a closed session.
The meeting follows a subpoena by Senator Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican who has sought interviews with Trump Jr. at least twice before. Trump Jr. backed out of both.
Burr is reportedly seeking information about answers Trump Jr. gave to the committee in 2017 about plan to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.
Burr’s subpoena of Trump’s son is the first one issued to a member of the president’s family.