Michael Hayden: US intel agencies win big, but Russia intel wins bigger in Comey hearing
© Victoria Sarno Jordan

What a remarkable hearing by the House Intelligence Committee on Monday. It’s hard to push Round 1 of the most important Supreme Court nomination in half a century below the fold, but that's exactly what happened, as James Comey and Mike Rogers contradicted the president they (loyally) serve on his charge that President Obama and/or our British friends "tapped" his phone (quotes intentional).

Comey officially confirmed what most already knew: The FBI was looking into alleged complicity in the (already agreed upon) Russian interference in the presidential election by anyone in, of or around the Trump campaign.

If you are a sentient human being with access to print, video or the Internet, you already know all of that. No need to dwell here. 

Rather, let me just offer some observations — more or less, some "watch this space" considerations. 

One, this is going to happen again. What we saw Monday was what happens when BS runs into the confidence, competence and courage of professionals. I suspect that neither Comey nor Rogers envied an opportunity to contradict the president, and I know, having been there myself, that neither wanted to spend a day on national TV in that setting. 

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But my reading of their body language and tone tells me that both welcomed the opportunity to set the record straight and defend the institutions they lead and represent. There was a remarkable change in the timbre of his voice when Adm. Rogers defended GCHQ, his British counterpart, passionately adding to his denial that spying on the president-elect would be “expressly against the construct of the Five Eyes agreement.”

 

The Five Eyes agreement, for those who do not know, is an intelligence-sharing alliance between the U.S., the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. And in case you didn't notice, the National Security Agency is closer to GCHQ than it is to the CIA. Rogers's comment was about "family." Trust me. I know. I've been to Bletchley Park, and I've headed both American agencies.

If the administration insists on basing policy or pronouncements on "alternative facts" or cherry-picked press accounts, expect a repeat of Monday's performance by intelligence professionals who have no safe haven but the truth. 

It was actually a great day for American intelligence. Two of its key practitioners stood tall.

A second space to watch: Monday was also a great day for Russian intelligence. They're going to do this again too. Russia’s efforts — the theft of Democrat National Committee data and John Podesta's emails, washed through WikiLeaks and DCLeaks and launched by internet trolls to pull the data forward so that it appeared to be "trending" — well, that's just about the most successful covert influence campaign in history.

Covert influence campaigns work best when they exploit pre-existing fractures in a society. It’s tough to artificially create issues. It’s relatively easier to exploit, exacerbate and widen pre-existing ones. Hats off to Russia’s FSB and GRU for the accurate read of American realities.

The Russian services not only messed with our heads (Goal 1), they also may have actually put their thumb on the American electoral scale. There’s no telling the impact of the latter, though. It's not just unknown, it’s unknowable, despite White House tweets — during the committee hearing, no less — that Comey had said the Russians had no effect, which was something the FBI director emphasized that he had not addressed.

The third space you need to watch: House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes was right to fear a cloud over the White House for a long time.

Senior committee Democrat Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffIntel panel expects to refer more cases of suspected lying to Mueller Adam Schiff: Justice should ‘re-examine’ whether it can indict sitting president Democrats signal growing interest in examining ties between NRA, Russia MORE began the hearing with a remarkable account of the possible collaboration between Team Trump and the Russian Federation. The California congressman was careful not to overreach, caveating potential indictments with the question, "Is it a coincidence that ... ?"

Actually, Rep. Schiff's statement reminded me a lot of Shakespeare's Marc Antony indicting Brutus while reminding us that "Brutus is an honorable man."

As art, Schiff's statement was masterful, and he certainly had some raw material to work with: candidate Trump's inability to criticize Vladimir Putin; Trump adviser Carter Page condemning what he called America's “hypocritical focus on ideas such as democratization, inequality, corruption and regime change” in its dealings with Russia; adviser Roger Stone's self-admitted liaisons with WikiLeaks's Julian Assange and DNC hacker Guccifer 2.0; security adviser J.D. Gordon's shifting story on "softening" platform language on Ukraine; campaign chairman Paul Manafort's long-time role supporting Russian oligarchs and Ukraine's pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych.

That's a truly odd concentration of Russian affiliations and pro-Russian voices for a pretty small campaign team, but it might simply reflect that the campaign team was poorly vetted, undisciplined, chaotic and — since Trump was rejected by much of the traditional pool of Republican foreign policy specialists — decidedly non-traditional.

When I arrived in communist Bulgaria as the new air attaché, my predecessor gave me a prescient warning. "You're going to be more successful here," he said, "if you never attribute to malice what can be equally explained by incompetence."

That could apply here. After all, the Russians didn't always need witting accomplices to pull off their covert influence spectacular.

Either way, we need to know more than we do now, even if it will be hard to get to the bottom of all this, and even if we may never get to the absolute clarity that will satisfy either the president's supporters or detractors.

The heartening news is that, based on Monday's testimony, the hunt is in good hands.

 

Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency.


The views of Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.