Intelligence Officials Decline to Publicly Disclose Trump Conversations

(CN) – Two of the nation’s top intelligence officials Wednesday declined to answer questions from the Senate Intelligence Committee about their private conversations with President Donald Trump.

National Intelligence Director Dan Coats and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers kept mum when responding to senators’ questions about whether Trump pressured them to publicly downplay the significance of the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s election meddling and possible coordination with the Trump campaign.

Both said they would not discuss any details of his private conversations with the president in an open setting, but during questioning from Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, of Virginia, they tried to assure the committee they had never been pressured or felt pressured to intervene in shaping intelligence products.

“In the three plus years that I have been the director of the National Security Agency … I have never been directed to do anything I believe to be illegal, immoral, unethical or inappropriate. And to the best of my recollection, during that same period of service, I do not recall ever feeling pressured to do so,” Rogers said.

Coats maintained he did not feel it appropriate to discuss confidential conversations with the president in public session.

“Most of the information I’ve shared with the president has obviously [been] directed toward intelligence matters,” he said.

“In terms of intelligence matters, or any other matters that have been discussed, it is my belief that it’s inappropriate for me to share that with the public,” Coats added.

Warner found their responses disappointing.

“All I would say director Coats, there was a chance here to lay to rest some of these press reports if the president is asking you to intervene or downplay,” he said. “You may not have felt pressure but if he’s even asking, to me that is a very relevant piece of information.”

The administration’s top national security officials appeared alongside acting FBI director Andrew McCabe and deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein before the Senate panel Wednesday.

The hearing was supposed to focus on renewing Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, but Democrats on the committee steered much of the conversation toward recent news reports about conversations the men had with the president about the Russia investigation.

It has been reported Trump asked Rogers and Coats to publicly state there was no evidence that his campaign colluded with Russia during the election.

On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that Coats told associates in March that President Trump had asked him if he could intervene with former FBI director James Comey to get the bureau to pull back from its investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn in its probe of Russian election meddling.

And in May, the Washington Post reported that Trump had also appealed to Rogers to publicly deny the existence of any evidence  suggesting that his campaign had colluded with Russian election meddling.

Both of those conversations are said to have taken place after Comey’s testimony before the House Intelligence Committee on March 20 when he announced that the FBI was investigating possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign during the election.

Warner said the committee had “facts” showing that other officials were aware that the conversation Rogers reportedly had with Trump had taken place, and suggested a memo had been written about it.

But both Rogers and Coats declined to discuss any memos, notes or recordings of their — or anyone else’s –interactions with President Trump related to the Russia investigation.

Rosenstein and McCabe also kept quiet on that front, which frustrated Sen. Angus King, I-Iowa.

King expressed confusion about why McCabe refused to answer a question posed by Sen. Martin Heinrich, D- N.M., about whether Comey had told him that President Trump requested loyalty from him.

“What’s the basis of your refusal to answer that question,” King asked.

McCabe said it would not be appropriate for him to discuss something that might fall within the purview of what special counsel Robert Mueller is now investigating as part of the Russia probe.

Frustrated, King pressed on: “I don’t understand why the special counsel’s lane takes precedence over the lane of the United States Congress investigative and oversight committee.”

King wanted a legal justification for his refusal to answer the question, but McCabe declined to give one.

Rogers and Coats expressed willingness to provide some answers to some of the questions they had declined to answer, but only in a closed setting.

But both men said they would need to confer with White House counsel before doing so to determine whether President Trump intended to invoke executive privilege that would keep them from answering privately.

According to their testimony, they had contacted White House counsel prior to the hearing about whether the president would indeed invoke that privilege.

“And what was the answer to that question,” King asked.

“To be honest, I didn’t get a definitive answer,” Rogers responded.

Coats largely echoed Rogers on that point, and said again that commenting on any conversations he had with the president would be inappropriate.

Unsatisfied, King kept pushing for a legal basis.

“I’m not sure I have a legal basis,” Coats said.

Rogers told the committee he hoped to be able to answer their questions in a closed session, which was scheduled to immediately following the open hearing. However he reiterated that he would need the go ahead from the White House first.

“I hope we come to a position where we can have that dialogue,” Rogers said. “I welcome that dialogue, sir.”

Donald Trump and Russians and investigations weren’t the only topics the committee discussed on Wednesday. It also turned its attention to section 702, which authorizes warrantless surveillance of non-U.S. persons outside the U.S.

Despite civil rights concerns that section 702 is sweeping up a large number of U.S. individuals in so-called incidental collection, Coats said it proved “infeasible” to determine how often it happens.

The U.S. incidentally collects information about U.S. individuals when they communicate with a foreign surveillance target. That target does not necessarily have to be a suspected terrorist, but only someone believed to have relevant foreign intelligence information.

Coats had promised during his confirmation hearing to meet with Rogers and other intelligence officials to determine if they could figure out why it was so hard to pin down an accurate number of how many U.S. individuals get swept up in the program.

But after having those conversations, Coats said he determined it would require NSA analysts to conduct more research on U.S. individuals who are not part of an investigation.

Coats did not elaborate on that, but said he found such a proposition “unpalatable.” On top of that, Coast said he would need to divert “scores” of analysts  from key intelligence areas, including Iran and North Korea.

“I just can’t justify such a diversion of critical resources – and the mass of critical resources – we [would] need in an attempt to reach this, even without the ability to reach an exact number,” he said.

In a joint opening statement, Coats told the committee that section 702 is vital to protecting U.S. national security interests. He said without it, the U.S. could not generate the same level of intelligence insight that U.S. allies depend on. Moreover, he said the intelligence community would not be able to get the same level of information on Russian interference.

To illustrate its importance, he used his declassification authority to tell the committee that intelligence gathered under section 702 had led to the death of Haji Iman, the second in command of the self-proclaimed  Islamic State. The U.S. government had put a $7 million bounty on his head, but Coats said the NSA had spent more than two years looking for him, from 2014 to 2016.

“This search was ultimately successful, primarily because of FISA Section 702,” Coats said.

The intelligence gathered allowed the NSA to identify his associates and track his movements, which enabled U.S. forces to locate him in March. The Pentagon says Iman was killed during a fire fight in Syria.

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