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Politics & Government

Lawfare Editor Outlines FBI Director's Testimony On Russia, Wiretapping


Another person who's been following the House Intelligence Committee hearings is Benjamin Wittes. He is editor in chief of Lawfare. That's a website about national security. And he is with us now. Thanks for joining us.

BENJAMIN WITTES: Thanks for having me.

MCEVERS: So in a piece you wrote before today's hearing, you wrote that Comey - that's FBI Director James Comey's - communicativeness with the committee and, through it, with the public will almost certainly be inversely proportional to the seriousness of the Russia investigation. Please explain what you meant by that.

WITTES: Well, I meant to that, you know, Comey sometimes gives these very, very dramatic testimonies where he, you know, says things that, you know, really inflame relations with the powers that be. And my point was that if he does that in this hearing, that's a pretty good sign that he's actually not trying to protect serious investigative equities that are ongoing. And conversely, if he's very reticent, that's a pretty good sign that - you know, if he's not talking about what's going on, that's a pretty good sign that there are real investigative imperatives to protect.

MCEVERS: So what did you see today, communicative or reticent?

WITTES: Well, we saw communicative about one big thing - that is that there is an investigation going on...


WITTES: ...Of the president's campaign's relationship to the Russian state and a lot of reticence about other things and any details. And I think this is, generally speaking, quite bad news for the president and the people around him.

MCEVERS: So you think the president and the White House now need to be more concerned since today's testimony.

WITTES: Yeah, absolutely. I think the - so what the FBI director confirmed today is that there is not merely an investigation of Russian hacking and efforts to influence the campaign. But there is a specific inquiry into, you know, whether there was - you know, the relationship with individuals within the Trump orbit and whether there was collaboration between the Russians and people around Trump. And he confirmed that publicly - that that's a subject of active investigation, not a subject of - you know, a matter about which they have, you know, looked in and saw nothing there.

MCEVERS: (Unintelligible).

WITTES: And I think that's a very substantial, you know, statement for the FBI to have made about its - about ongoing activity.

MCEVERS: Of an existing president - yeah. The Republicans spent a lot of their time questioning the FBI director about leaks of classified information, and Democrats on the committee spent more time, you know, questioning Comey and NSA Director Admiral Rogers about President Trump's wiretapping accusations. Do you think these issues are equally as important as the questions of possible collusion with the Russians during the election?

WITTES: So you did have the sense that there were two entirely different hearings...


WITTES: ...Going on here - one in which the Republicans were asking the questions and one in which the Democrats were. And they were asking questions about two almost unrelated subjects. That said, I do think both subjects are important.

You know, when we want answers, we tend to love leaks, but a leak of a - of the material within a FISA wiretap - that's a very, very serious matter. And it's matter - serious matter not just from a national security perspective but from a civil liberties perspective.

You know, the protection of U.S. person communications under FISA is a kind of sacred trust with the American people. And so I do not begrudge the Republican members at all - a serious set of concerns about the leaks of communications intercepts under FISA. I do think their lack of interest in some of the other issues is a little bit upsetting.

MCEVERS: That's Benjamin Wittes of Lawfare and the Brookings Institution. Thank you so much.

WITTES: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.