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Notes From the Intelligence Hearing on Russia

In one of the most anticipated U.S. congressional hearings in years, James Comey and Mike Rogers took turns saying nothing.

The hearing on Russia’s involvement with the American electoral process began with an army of reporters swarming ’round the committee heads: Republican chair Devin Nunes of the Fresno area, and Democrat and ranking member Adam Schiff of Los Angeles.

The two witnesses were top dogs from the “IC” (everyone in America seems to be using this irritating acronym now). One was FBI Director James Comey, who at various times has been both revered and hated by both Democrat and Republican camps over the years. The other was NSA Director Admiral Mike Rogers, who until recently was probably best known for refusing to identify Edward Snowden as a foreign agent. A few notes:

10:05 a.m. It’s a small issue in the grand scheme of things, but the effort to describe the Russia Todaynetwork as diabolical propaganda without mentioning Voice of America and Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe continues to amaze. Apparently Russia is the only country that funds a media network intended to influence foreign audiences.

Nunes in his opening statement characterises RT as a disinformation effort that “traffics in anti-American conspiracies,” rivalling Soviet propaganda. Here it is hard not to think of the joint intel report that cited the network’s reporting on Occupy Wall Street, “corporate greed”and fracking as evidence of its anti-American nature. It also decried the network’s use of the term “surveillance state” to describe the U.S., which will be pretty ironic considering the content of today’s hearing.

Again, it’s a small point, but by these standards pretty much any alternative media outlet is “anti-American,” and it’s alarming to hear Democrats later ape this language in reference to RT.

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Rep. Adam Schiff

10:20 a.m. Schiff delivers a long speech that essentially lays out the Trump-Russia conspiracy. Twitter seems to be unanimous that it’s a powerful piece of rhetoric.

Among other things, he unblinkingly cites the Christopher Steele’s “golden showers” dossier as a source. This seems like a pretty intense political calculation given that Michael Morell, who would have been Hillary Clinton’s CIA director, basically called the dossier useless just last week. The dossier “doesn’t take you anywhere, I think,” Morell said. But it’s all over this hearing, with multiple Democratic members citing it. What that means, who knows, but it’s interesting to see that level of commitment from the Democrats.

10:32 a.m. Comey creates the big headline of the day by saying, “I have been authorised … to confirm that the FBI is investigating” the Russia story.

This both is and isn’t big news. Although it’s the first time it’s been stated publicly, the existence of this investigation has been common knowledge for a long time. Most of the leaked reports on the topic have included this information.

For instance, The New York Times story from February 14th, about Trump officials having had “contact” with Russian intelligence, spoke definitively of an investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Putin government.

Still, that doesn’t mean Comey had to do what he did today. Is this payback to Trump for accusing the FBI of illegally wiretapping him? Is it a good-faith effort to square the ledger in terms of his previous highly controversial decision to out the Clinton email investigation? It’s curious and bold either way. One wonders if Trump might fire him.

The true newsworthy detail, of course, isn’t that Comey disclosed the existence of an FBI investigation into Trump – as Democrats should know better than anyone, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything – but that Comey is doing this now and didn’t do so earlier, before the election. Obviously, he made a different choice with regard to the Clinton email story, and the Democrats rightfully should be furious about that.

10:36 a.m. Nunes asks Rogers if Russians hacked vote tallies in Michigan. Rogers answers no, noting that the NSA doesn’t do domestic surveillance. Nunes goes on to ask about Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin, knowing Rogers won’t answer. It’s a totally meaningless exchange, but instantly becomes Twitter fodder:

This is what these hearings are for, primarily. Except for very rare occasions when mega-careful witnesses like Comey and Rogers decide to give up tidbits, for the most part these hearings are held so that House members can ping-pong talking points off witnesses, and then circulate clips of themselves asking questions to which they already know the answers.

10:39 a.m. Florida Republican Tom Rooney asks Rogers about incidental collection of data about “U.S. persons” under the Section 702 program. Admiral Rogers’ explanation for how they use that data, and how they protect the rights of U.S. companies and citizens – redacting or “masking” identities, for instance – is almost comically non-reassuring.

Reading between the lines, the NSA seems to have basically unrestricted ability to snoop on foreigners. When their targets are speaking to American persons or communicating with American companies, the agency also seems to have an absurdly permissive mandate to listen to whatever they want to listen to. Only later, it seems, do they figure out how to justify it legally.

This is an example of how the hyper-partisan nature of these hearings spoils American politics. Liberals especially should be seriously concerned about such surveillance overreach by the intelligence agencies, and also about leaks directed against individuals by intelligence officials. Similarly, conservatives should be mortified by the possibility of foreign interference in our electoral process.

But because both of these issues are tied in highly specific ways to the political fortunes of Donald Trump, each issue will be ignored by one side and thundered over by the other.

11:03 a.m. Schiff asks both men if Obama wiretapped Trump as Trump claimed. “I have no information that supports those tweets,” Comey says. Asked if he engages in McCarthyism, Comey says he tries “not to engage in any isms of any kind, including McCarthyism.” He gets laughs. Comey is a very, very slick witness, difficult to read.

An interesting development in this hearing is that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are treating these witnesses as hostile. And both Comey and Rogers are in their own ways giving both Nunes and Schiff what they want so far. They’re allowing members of both parties to make speeches and ask their suggestive questions, while giving them next to nothing.

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Rep. Trey Gowdy

11:19 a.m. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, last seen spending two expensive years stepping on his weenie in a pathetic effort to dig up dirt on Hillary Clinton through the Benghazi probe, comes on to the delight of, well, nobody. Gowdy is the first to cross over into open unfriendliness. Ominously, he starts trying to get Comey to say reporters could be held criminally liable for disclosing secret information.

Gowdy later scores a point by getting Comey to explain a hypothetical: how he would go about investigating the leak of a U.S. citizen’s name that appears in a newspaper. (He’s clearly talking about Flynn.)

Comey, with the caveat that he’s not talking about anyone specific, lays out how he would do that, talking about identifying the “universe” of people with access to that information and then using investigative techniques to further narrow the field. Indirectly, Comey confirms Gowdy’s interpretation of a “felonious” disclosure to a newspaper that must be prosecuted. It sets up a demand that Comey investigate and prosecute that leak.

Gowdy does in fact go on to make such a demand. But Comey cockblocks Gowdy and says he “can’t” promise that he will investigate the leaks.

Gowdy looks like someone just stole his box of Mike and Ikes. He seems surprised, like he didn’t expect Comey’s answer. Comey smiles and glares at Gowdy like the third-rater he is.

11:43 a.m. Jim Himes asks Comey if Ukraine used to be part of the Soviet Union. Comey says yes. Glad we cleared that up.

11:52 a.m. Mike Conaway of Texas points out that determining the source of a hacking campaign is a forensic enterprise, but asks how they determine intent. In the process, he pins down Rogers as saying he had a “lower level” of confidence in the idea that the Russians preferred Trump to Clinton.

Conaway then plunges into a bizarre metaphor about how his wife went to Texas Tech, so he roots for the Red Raiders and dislikes the Longhorns, or something. Conaway seemed to want to ask if it is possible to root against Texas without liking the Red Raiders, or the opposite, but pretty much everyone watching instantly loses track of whether Hillary Clinton is Texas or Texas Tech in the metaphor.

Comey confidently goes with it. “Wherever the Red Raiders are playing, you want them to win and their opposition to lose,” he says. He goes on to elaborate on the metaphor, talking about how the Russians later in the year knew the Red Raiders were going to lose, “so you hope key people on the other team get hurt so they are not as tough an opponent down the road.”

The substantively interesting thing here is Comey’s sly disclosure that the Russians late in the game expected Trump to lose the election. But his deft handling of Conaway’s bumbling hypothetical overshadows the answer.

12:21 p.m. Nunes tries on a new rhetorical line: It’s absurd to say Russians prefer Republicans, because Reagan!

This is silly, of course, because Trump is a different animal from Reagan, but then Comey and Rogers do something equally silly. On the question of whether the Russians preferred Romney or McCain over Obama, they both look at each other like it’s crazy to suggest they ever considered the question. Isn’t it their job to know things like that? They’re clearly dissembling.

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Rep. Peter King, right

12:25 p.m. Peter King, the most mumbly member on the panel, asks about the report that Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe told Reince Priebus that one of the New York Times stories on Russia was “BS.”

“Is there any way you can comment on whether or not Mr. McCabe told that to Mr. Priebus?” King asks.

Comey gives a classically Comeyish answer:

“I can’t, Mr. King, but I can agree with your general premise. Leaks have always been a problem. I read over the weekend [about] George Washington and Abraham Lincoln complaining about them. But I do agree in the last six weeks and months there apparently have been a lot of instances of conversations appearing in the media, and a lot of it is dead wrong. Which is one of the challenges, because we don’t correct it. It’s made it difficult because people are talking, or at least reporters are saying people are talking, in ways that have struck me as being unusually active.”

Translation: blow me, I’m not telling you what McCabe said to Priebus. King basically thanks them both and retreats. King will spend much of the day apologising for asking perfectly legitimate questions.

Although the hearing has generated tons of headlines before it hits the halfway mark, it’s really a giant tease.

Both Comey and Rogers indicated from the start that they will reserve their more candid testimony for a later classified hearing with these same members. For the public, this means one thing: we’ll continue to get no real answers, and a heavily partisan and politicised version of events, no matter what happens. So long as the investigations aren’t closed, and the real information is kept behind closed doors, both parties can pursue their rhetorical campaigns unchecked. And the testimony of people like Comey and Rogers will be useful only for driving interest in the reading of tea leaves.

There should probably be three entirely separate investigations. One should concern the question of whether, or to what extent, the Russians interfered with the election. That’s a non-partisan question, really, one everyone should care about, but Republicans won’t do anything about it because they will perceive the entire issue as a partisan attack on Trump.

A second inquiry could deal with the question of illegal/politicised leaks of secret surveillance data coming from the “IC.” Again, in reality this is a non-partisan concern. Were congressional Democrats really interested in getting at whatever the intelligence community has on Trump, a bipartisan inquiry of this nature would be an excellent pressure point.

Lastly, you could have a completely separate set of hearings into the question of whether or not the Trump campaign engaged in anything untoward in its dealings with Russians last year. If there’s anything to this, the public needs to hear it, and it all needs to be public.

But don’t expect answers anytime soon. Hearings like today’s only add to the frustrating strangeness of this scandal, and it looks like this will continue for quite some time.