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8 questions the Russia counterintelligence probe still needs to answer


8 questions the Russia counterintelligence probe still needs to answer

WATCH |  How the Russian hacking investigation may impact civil liberties

While the FBI, to date, has not found any evidence of criminal collusion between Donald Trump's campaign and Russia, the counterintelligence probe into Moscow's effort to hijack the 2016 election still has a long way to go to answer questions essential to repelling future disruptions of American democracy.

FBI Director James Comey made clear on Monday far-ranging counterintelligence probes like the one started last summer often can stretch for years before final assessments are made, and he fully expects Russia to try new mischief during the 2018 and 2020 election cycles.

Here are some of the key questions the U.S. intelligence community and Congress are still trying to answer:

1. What was the nature of current and former associates of Donald Trump with Russia?

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Ca.), the top Democrat on House Intelligence Committee, says there's evidence that former Trump associates  -- Paul Manafort, a former campaign manager, ex-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, former policy adviser Carter Page and longtime friend Roger Stone -- had contacts with Russian sources.

All four men have denied any wrongdoing, but Schiff said this week there is "more than circumstantial" evidence that Trump team members might have given implicit approval to Russian contacts about the releasing of damaging Hillary Clinton. Other intelligence sources, including those interviewed by Circa, say the evidence is too uncertain at present to draw any conclusions from it and that much more work needs to be done. 

But all sides agreed these questions need to be answered with far more certainty. Some of the unanswered questions include the exact nature of any contacts and whether any Trump associates even knew they were talking to Russian intelligence actors, who could have been posing as news organizations, hackers, businessmen or other covers.

2. Did the Obama administration improperly unmask and read accidental National Security Agency intercepts of Americans, including Trump associates?

House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes, R-Ca., says he has evidence that NSA Section 702 intercepts of Americans talking to foreigners were being read inside the Obama administration, sometimes with the identities of Americans unmasked.

Nunes says some of those intercepts involved Trump transition figures after the November elections. The unmasking of American intercepts is supposed to be a rare event to further national security interests. If there was a sudden spike last year, Nunes' committee will have to determine whether there were justifiable reasons or whether it was an illegal political espionage effort on behalf of an outgoing administration seeking to monitor its replacement.

3. Were journalists or organizations posing as journalism institutions used by Russia to carry out its counterintelligence missions of disrupting the U.S. election?

In highly classified briefings, U.S. intelligence officials have identified several websites and social media accounts of westerners that were used to spread fake news damaging to Hillary Clinton or to disseminate hacked documents.

Some of the websites were treated as legitimate sources of news during the 2016 election. While much more work must be done to determine if the operators of these sites were complicit players with Russia or just dupes, lawmakers in both parties have keen interest in pursuing this line of inquiry.

4. Who leaked the FBI FISA intercepts of conversations last December between Flynn and the Russian ambassador?

Both parties agree those leaks were criminal but the FBI has yet to begin a formal criminal investigation into finding the leakers. This remains a key question for both the executive branch and Congress.

5. Did the FBI use information from an uncorroborated dossier of disparaging Trump information to request a FISA warrant?

To date, this question has not gotten much public attention, but Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley, who probably already knows the answer to this from classified briefings, asked it in a public letter earlier this month. The dossier was created by a former British intelligence agent working for a U.S. firm hired by political clients trying to defeat Trump last year.

It included salacious allegations of prostitution, bribes and other misdeeds by Trump and associates that,  to date,  have not been corroborated. If information gleaned from the document was submitted to the FISA court to support a surveillance warrant, it could have ramifications for the FBI's relationship with the court and could be fodder for new oversight questions about the bureau. Grassley has also asked whether the FBI tried to pay the British agent to help its investigation even though he was also working for anti-Trump forces.

6. Why did Russia gain access to American voter rolls and could its intelligence agencies hack ballot results in future elections?

Perhaps the scariest questions to be resolved in this controversy aren't what happened last election but what could be possible in future elections. The NSA and FBI have testified publicly that there is no evidence any election results were changed by Russian hackers in 2016. 

However, they also acknowledged that Russian hackers gained access to voters rolls in states like Illinois and the intent of those intrusions and their future capability to digitally manipulate election results remains an open questions.

7. Will the intelligence community assessment of Russia's intent in 2016 be revised?

Right now the official U.S. intelligence community assessment is that Russia not only tried to disrupt the 2016 election to erode American confidence but also to help Donald Trump defeat Hillary Clinton. 

But that conclusion isn't shared among all intelligence professionals, who note that efforts by the Russians to gain access to Republican computers and to release damaging information against Trump in the dossier, and a leaked opposition research document ran contrary to the theory Russia was trying to pick a specific winner or loser. Often times in counterintelligence probes that stretch on for years original conclusions get revised as new evidence from human sources or intercepts is collected.

8. Could there still be criminal charges from this probe?

While the House intelligence and Senate Judiciary committee chairmen, the former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and intelligence who talked to Circa all state there has been no evidence of criminal collusion to date, new evidence could emerge that warrant criminal prosecutions.

Often times such charges can cover crimes that weren't even part of the initial inquiry, which in past probes have included crimes like false statements or perjury, tax evasion, lobbying registration violations or illegal leaking of classified information. Final decisions in this case could be months or even years off, but the possibility still remains.

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