Congressmen concerned by large number of potential leakers in Trump-Russia investigation

FBI Director James Comey and National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers, right, prepare to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, March 20, 2017, before the House Intelligence Committee hearing on allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Members of Congress are concerned over the number of national security leakers who are potentially responsible for releasing information about the intelligence community's investigation into possible collusion between Donald Trump's campaign and the Russian government.

During the first open Congressional hearing into Russia's meddling in the 2016 election, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) James Comey and director of the National Security Agency (NSA) Adm. Mike Rogers revealed the existence of potentially dozens of individuals who could have leaked the damaging information about ties between the Trump team and the Russian government.

At the center of the leak scandal was former national security adviser Mike Flynn, who was dismissed by President Trump in February after the Washington Post and New York Times first reported on the existence of intelligence transcripts. Those leaked transcripts revealed discussions between Flynn and the Russian ambassador.

It is presumed that Flynn's conversation was swept up incidentally under an existing Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FSA) Court order. His identity was then "unmasked" by someone in the intelligence community with authorization to do so and that information was then passed along to the press with career-ending consequences for Flynn.

The questions raised by members of the House Intelligence Committee on Monday centered on who within the government was responsible for leaking that information.

While FBI Director Comey was unable to confirm or deny the existence of an investigation into the national security leaks, both he and Adm. Rogers reaffirmed that the disclosure of classified information is illegal, and as Comey said, "very serious."

Accordinng to Rogers, there are twenty individuals at the NSA who have the authority to "unmask" the identity of an American person whose communications are intercepted in the course of foreign intelligence collection, including himself. Twenty people seems like a relatively small number of people to investigate to ferret out a leak, but that information is shared between agencies under certain circumstances, and there are other agencies who can unmask a U.S. person.

Even though the FISA Court does not authorize surveillance on Americans, when a U.S. person proves to be of interest for either national security or criminal reasons, their communications with a foreign intelligence target can be monitored. The process of allowing anyone within the intelligence community to investigate a U.S. citizen based on foreign intelligence intercepts is closely regulated, the NSA and FBI directors testified.

When asked to explain the circumstances under which the NSA would pay closer attention to a U.S. person and choose to unmask their identity, Rogers explained, "We'll try to understand the nature of the conversation: Is this something that truly involves intelligence or national security....or is this just a normal reasonable conversation?" He continued, "If we decide there is criminal activity, we would send to FBI."

That is where the number of potential leakers begins to multiply.

The NSA, the FBI, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Department of Justice all have the authority to reveal the identity of a U.S. person swept up in foreign intelligence investigation, Comey said. Defending FBI culture as "obsessive" in respecting FISA law, he acknowledged that the number of people at the FBI who can access that information is "surely more" than the twenty at NSA.

Congressman Thomas Rooney (R-Fla.) is concerned that when so many people can potentially reveal the identity of a U.S. person picked up by foreign intelligence, it jeopardizes Americans' privacy.

"If the people that leaked this stuff to the press aren't held accountable, then how can anybody feel safe?" Rooney emphasized. He worries that the information released about Mike Flynn and other recent intelligence leaks could erode confidence, and limit the ability of the intelligence community and the lawmakers who oversee it to "reassure" the American public that they are not "being listened to without their consent."

Throughout the nearly five and a half hour hearing, both the NSA and FBI director were severely limited in what they were able to say, and that extended to not confirming whether or not the FBI was investigating the national security leaks.

"It's frustrating to me that I don't know who those people are that did the leaking or what the status of that is," Rooney said. He further noted that the potentially large pool of people who had access to classified information is "a lot more people than just the very tops of each agency," which will make the investigation process a lot more difficult.

The intelligence community is still in the early phases of its counterintelligence investigation and has not produced any definitive proof of collusion between the Trump team and the Russian government. This ambiguity has led a number of conservatives to focus on the leaks that are fueling the narrative of alleged Trump-Russia ties.

Trump himself tweeted before the hearing that the real investigating taking place should center around "the leaking of Classified information."

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) told reporters that he is not surprised that there was routine surveillance taking place that swept up Trump associates, but he believes some of the information gained in that surveillance "was illegally leaked to hurt the president."

"I'm concerned about finding out who in the government is ... illegally leaking out classified, top secret information. That to me is the issue," King said, repeating Comey's testimony that "crimes were committed by people in the government by leaking out information."

The White House has repeatedly suggested that the leaks against Trump were likely done by individuals appointed under former President Barack Obama.

Monday's Intelligence Committee hearing is only the first in a series of public hearings on Russian involvement in the election and possible U.S. collusion. The Senate is expected to hold its first open hearing on March 30. The Senate intelligence panel will hear from cybersecurity and intelligence experts. There are no administration officials on the agenda.

According to Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.) the House Intelligence Committee will continue to chase down information on the national security leaks that have challenged President Trump during his first two months in office.

"The committee has said we’re gonna investigate four things in a bipartisan and thorough fashion: What actual cyberattacks happened, what was the government's response to those attacks, any individual Americans that were potentially connected to Russians, and the leak of classified information," Hurd stated.

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