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Senate Intel Hearing Amid Furor over Comey Firing. Aired 10- 10:30a ET

Aired May 11, 2017 - 10:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[10:00:15]

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, the breaking news this morning. You are looking at live pictures from Capitol Hill. This is the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. Now we're hearing of really just huge importance. For the first time, we will hear from the new acting director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe. This is the first time he will speak in public since his boss, former boss, FBI director James Comey, was fired from his post. And there are a great number of questions that the acting director, no doubt, needs to face today.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Especially given all we've learned in the last 12 hours about what is reportedly what drove this president to fire the FBI director. Let's bring back in our panel, Mark Preston, Nia-Malika Henderson, Bob Baer, Laura Coates, Dana Bash, Evan Perez and Evan, to you first. As Andy McCabe sits down, what questions will he be drilled with off the bat, do you believe?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, one of the first questions I'm sure they're going to ask him is how he found out that his boss, James Comey, was fired. We know how Comey found out. He was addressing agents at the Los Angeles Field Office when Fox News incorrectly reported that he had resigned. And he sort of laughed it off because he knew he hadn't resigned. And then, he sees CNN and others start reporting that he had been fired and that's when he really found out. So, that is the big question for McCabe.

And obviously, the other question is how is this firing going to affect this investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election? That's obviously one of the biggest resource-driven investigations at the FBI. We know Comey had asked for more resources. We're going to see what the FBI is doing about trying to get those resources to do this investigation as quickly as possible.

BERMAN: And Mark Preston, you know, we expect to hear from the chair of the Intel Committee, Senator Burr from North Carolina, also the vice chair, the Democrat Mark Warner from Virginia. What kind of message, Mark, do you think that they want to send this morning?

MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, a couple things. I think we've already seen -- a relationship, a working relationship, between Democrats and Republicans on the Intelligence Committee and that is very, very important. As we've seen in hearings in the House, you know previous hearings where you could see there was friction between Democrats and Republicans about trying necessarily to get to the truth.

But why this is so important and why we keep talking about James Comey and this Russia investigation is that this hearing today is about worldwide threats. There are major issues right now facing the nation. And when you have the President of the United States taking action and firing his FBI director at a time when we're dealing with issues of North Korea or in the Middle East and we're dealing with the situation in Syria. That's why this hearing is so important.

So, in addition to what we're hearing about Comey, we're also going to hear from our leaders of the Intelligence Committee, John and Poppy, who are going to tell us what they think the U.S. needs to focus its attention on.

HARLOW: Laura Coates, given that the, you know, former deputy, now acting director of the FBI will be testifying, do you believe that it will come up that he will be asked about that prominent part that the president added to his letter firing Comey about, by the way, thank you for telling me three times that I am not under investigation. I mean, you've got to believe he's going to be asked about that, because there are a lot of issues around the idea that the president would even have those conversations with the then FBI director about an ongoing investigation.

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Absolutely, he'll be asked about it. It was curious to know is if you know that your days are numbered, perhaps, you're already interviewing interim directors, will you be forthcoming? Will you be defiant? Will you be particularly averse to keeping things close to the vest like you would have been prior to this? That's going to be an interesting point to see how he actually asserts himself in this position. But of course, his testimony could also lend some credence to what we know could be a concocted reason, but justification that Trump may be saying, listen, he wasn't focusing on other priorities that I had, for example, leaks or other national security interests.

So, if this conference is intended to be one that will be all- encompassing about other things, he may be able to say, look, there should be other focuses that to focus on here, other than the Russia investigation. But you'd better believe he will be peppered with questions about when he knew it, whether or not James Comey was, in fact, a non-partisan person who was on nobody's side and whether he would have really pulled rank in a way that the odd had told the President of the United States about the investigation.

BERMAN: You're still looking at live pictures right there of the chair of the committee, Richard Burr and now some of the people who will be testifying -

HARLOW: Walking in.

BERMAN: -- are filing in and you will see those photos go off, you know, no doubt, very, very shortly. [10:05:00] Nia-Malika Henderson, to you. The Democrats -- this is one of those peculiar moments, by the way, where this hearing is supposed to be a worldwide threat, it's supposed to be about something other -- than what I think, it will really come up here. So, Republicans, you might imagine will focus on that. They're going to talk about terrorism all around the world. How hard do you think, Nia, the Democrats are going to push to get answers about the Russia investigation and to keep the focus on the firing of Director Comey?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON: I think they will push incredibly hard on this. We have seen sort of partisan lines drawn, as Mark talked about before. And I think you'll see some of that here as well with the members -- the Democratic members of that committee really trying to paint a fuller picture of what's happening with the Russia investigation, where it stands, what people know --

HARLOW: All right, Nia, sorry to interrupt. Nia, hold that thought. Let's go to our Manu Raju, he is live with Senator Marco Rubio. Manu.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: That's not the question other people are going to ask, no doubt about it.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Do you want Comey to testify in an open hearing?

RUBIO: Well, I'd say in a closed hearing first and potentially in an open one as well. Look, I already told people, I never had a problem with James Comey. I know he was in a tough spot and by his own acknowledgement made some decisions that had a political implication perhaps he regretted. He felt he had two very poor options.

I do think that after having served our country the way he did, he probably, if he was going to be dismissed, there's probably a better way to have done it than the way it was conducted. But, you know, that said, I just want to be clear. I mean, the FBI is staffed with high- quality individuals. They're going to continue to work on everything.

RAJU: How much of the timing of the firing were you given the Russia investigation was really accelerating at this point?

RUBIO: I don't know. I mean, that's a good question. I'm not sure that -- that's one of the issues that I think has created all this uproar, for lack of a better term. But we're going to -- I'm going to continue to focus on our work here and that's unaffected by this.

RAJU: Wouldn't it be helpful to have a special counsel to investigate the circumstances of this firing and to reassure the American public that this investigation is actually taking place and give confidence to the public?

RUBIO: Maybe that will eventually happen, maybe not. But the point is that I think the Intelligence Committee should -- my advice is, let us finish our report, let us put all the facts out there and then people can make that determination about whether they think, based on the facts that we've discovered, such a measure is warranted.

RAJU: Do you support a special counsel at this point?

RUBIO: I don't think the time has come for that. It may, it may not, but let's wait to get all the facts. --

BERMAN: All right. This hearing just gaveled in, Senator Richard Burr delivering opening statements right now. Let's listen.

SEN. RICHARD BURR (R), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: -- Intelligence Agency Robert Cardillo and acting director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Andrew McCabe. I thank all of you for being here this morning, especially to you, Director McCabe, for filling in on such short notice.

Since 1995, this committee has met in an open forum to hear about and discuss the security threats facing the United States of America. I understand that many people tuned in today. They are hopeful we'll focus solely on the Russian investigation of their involvement in our elections.

Let me disappoint everybody up front. While the committee certainly views Russian intervention in our elections as a significant threat, the purpose of today's hearing is to review and highlight the extent, to the extent possible, the ranges of threats that we face as a nation. The national security threat picture has evolved significantly since 1995. What used to be a collection of mostly physical and state- based national security concerns has been replaced by something altogether different.

Today, our traditional focus on countries like North Korea, Russia and Iran is complicated by new challenges like strategic threats posed by non-state actors in the cyber arena and the danger of transnational terrorists who can use the Internet to inspire violence and fear in the homeland, all without leaving their safe havens in the Middle East. What has not changed, however, is the tireless dedication and patriotism of the women and men who make up the United States Intelligence Community. The very people represented by our witnesses this morning.

One of the many reasons I find -- so much value in this hearing is that it provides the American public with some insight into the threats facing our country, but it also lets people know what's being done on their behalf to reduce those threats. I encourage all the witnesses today to not only address the threats to our nation, but to talk about what their organizations are doing to help secure this country to the degree they can in an unclassified setting.

Director Coats, your written statement for the record represents the collective insight of the entire Intelligence Community. It is a lengthy and detailed account of what this country is facing.

[10:10:00] It is also evidence of why the substantial resources and investments this committee authorizes are, in fact, necessary. From the human tragedy of the refugee crisis in the Middle East to the risk that territorial ambitions will set off a regional conflict in the South China Sea, it's a complicated and challenging world. Director Pompeo, the Korean Peninsula's a point of particular concern to me and to many on this committee. I'd like your insights into what is behind North Korea's unprecedented level of nuclear and missile testing and how close they are to holding the U.S. mainland at risk of a nuclear attack. I'd also value your sense of how Tuesday's election of a new president in South Korea is going to impact things for us on that Peninsula.

General Stewart, I'm sure you're aware of the reinvigorated policy discussions on Afghanistan. While we all respect that you can't offer your own recommendations on what that policy should be, I would very much value your assessments of the situation in Afghanistan today, including the state of governance in Kabul, the sustainability and proficiency of the Afghan National Security Forces and whether Taliban reconciliation is a realistic objective. If the U.S. is ramping up in Afghanistan, we need to know the IC's views on what we're getting into. I also hope you'll share your assessments of the battlefield in Iraq and in Syria with us this morning. Your insights into conditions on the ground, including ongoing operations to dislodge ISIS from Mosul and sustainability of the Mosul Dam would be of great value to the members of this committee and to the public.

Admiral Rogers, I've made a couple of references to cyber already. And that's for good reason. Of the many difficult challenges we're going to discuss this morning, nothing worries me more than the threat of a well-planned, well-executed, wide scale attack on the computer networks and systems that make America work, from banking and health care to military and critical infrastructure, the functionality of our modern society is dependent on computers. When the first line of the DNI's statement reads and I quote, "Nearly all information, communications networks and systems will be at risk for years," unquote. That alarms me. Admiral Rogers, I look forward to hearing from you on this line of assessments.

Director Cardillo, as head of the NGA, you sit at the nexus of innovation and data collection and analysis. Given the complexity of the intelligence questions the IC is being confronted with and the global nature of our national security threats to this country -- that this country faces, expectations of the NGA are high. We know the IC can't be everywhere at once, but that's still kind of what we look to the NGA to do. I'd appreciate your sense of what NGA analytics' strengths are today and what the role of commercial imagery is in NGA's future.

Director McCabe, welcome to the table and into the fray. To the extent possible, I hope you'll discuss the bureau's assessments of the terrorist threat within our borders. Your agents are often our last line of defense here at home. And I will say, continue to do outstanding work.

We're fortunate to have six people with the experience and the dedication that we have today. I'll close there, but I'd like to highlight for my colleagues, the committee would be holding a classified hearing on worldwide threats this afternoon at 1:30 p.m. I will do everything I can to make sure that the questions that you ask in this open session are appropriate to the venue that we're in. I would ask you to think about that long and hard.

And if there's a question - to move to a staffer, to ask them whether this is the appropriate area. And if you, as our witnesses, feel that there's something that you can't sufficiently answer in an open setting, that you will pause long enough to get my attention and we'll try to make sure that we move to the appropriate setting. With that, I turn to the vice chairman for any comments he might want to make.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman and thank you for your leadership on this committee. I also want to join you in welcoming the witnesses. It's good to see you all, but it is impossible to ignore that one of the leaders in the Intelligence Community is not here with us today.

[10:15:00] SEN. MARK WARNER (D), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE VICE CHAIRMAN: The president's firing of FBI director Comey, Tuesday night, was a shocking development. The timing of Director Comey's dismissal to me and to many members on this committee on both sides of the aisle is especially troubling. He was leading an active counterintelligence investigation into any links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government or its representatives and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts to interfere in our election. For many people, including myself, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the president's decision to remove Director Comey was related to this investigation and that is truly unacceptable.

We were scheduled to -- hear directly from Director Comey today in open session. We and the American people were supposed to hear straight from the individual responsible for the FBI investigation. We anticipated asking Director Comey a series of questions about his actions and the actions of the FBI in terms of looking into which Trump associates, if any, and some of their actions during the campaign as it relates to the Russians. However, President Trump's actions this week cost us an opportunity to get at the truth, at least for today.

You may wonder a little bit how seriously I know the White House continues to dismiss this investigation. I point out simply for the record, the front page of the "The New York Times," which shows a picture of -

It is important to restate the critical importance of protecting the independence and integrity of federal law enforcement. This is central to maintaining the confidence of the American people in principle that all Americans, no matter how powerful, are accountable before the law. The president's actions have the potential to undermine that confidence and that should be deeply concerning, no matter which political party you belong to.

This week's remarkable developments make our committee's investigation into Russia's influence on the 2016 U.S. presidential election even more important. And while it is clear to me now more than ever that an independent special counsel must be appointed, make no mistake. Our committee will get to the bottom of what happened during the 2016 presidential election. And again, I want to compliment the chairman on his work in this effort. We will not be deterred from getting to the truth. These actions will do nothing to undermine our resolve to follow the evidence, wherever it leads. We hope to speak to Mr. Comey. We will speak to anyone and everyone that has something to offer in this investigation. And Mr. McCabe, I didn't necessarily expect to see you here today and we don't know how long you'll be acting FBI director. But while I will adhere to what the chairman has indicated in terms of the line of questioning, I will want to make sure my first question for you, even in this public setting, will be for you to assure the committee that if you come under any political influence from the White House or others to squash this investigation or impede it in any way, that you'll let the committee know.

This investigation's had its ups and downs. And again, some, including myself, sometimes have been frustrated with the pace. We will no doubt face other challenges in the future. But ups and downs and bumps sometimes is how bipartisanship works. It's a constant struggle, but one worth making and I'm proud of the way members of this committee from both sides of the aisle have conducted themselves in one of the most challenging political environments we've ever seen.

At the same time, Chairman Burr and I have put this investigation on what we believe to be a solid bipartisan footing with the shared goal of getting the truth. In spite of the events of the last 24 hours, I intend to maintain our committee's focus on the investigation. Indeed, the recent actions only increase the burden of responsibility on all of us to ensure that we live up to this challenge and to uncover the truth, wherever that leads.

There is, obviously, consensus agreement among the U.S. Intelligence Community that Russia massively intervened with active measures in the 2016 presidential elections. Nor do I imagine that any member of this committee was surprised to see the exact same Russian playbook just being run during the French elections that just took place last weekend.

And no one should forget back in mid-2015, Director Coats and we had some other folks in from the German Services recently, that there was a hacking into the Germans Bundestag. It's fair to say, the Germans should anticipate seeing more cyberattacks directed against their elected officials with their upcoming national elections in September. In short, Russia's direct interference in the Democratic process around the globe is a direct assault that we must work on together and is clearly one of the top worldwide threats.

[10:20:09] That being said, gentlemen, I want to start again by thanking you for your service to the nation. I would particularly note that Director Coats, who is testifying before this committee in the first time since his confirmation. And I know that you and Marcia were ready for retirement and I thank you both for being willing to serve your country one more time. I also want to recognize the men and women who you represent here today, these thousands of dedicated intelligence professionals who toil in the shadows, put their lives on the line and make sacrifices most of us will never know, in order to keep our country safe. I also want to make -- sure they know that I appreciate their efforts and am proud to represent them not only as the vice chair of the Intelligence Committee but as a senator from Virginia where so many of those intelligence professionals live.

This committee's annual worldwide threat hearing is an important opportunity to review the threats and challenges we face as a nation. Obviously, these threats continue to multiply. As the world becomes more complex and challenging, good intelligence gives our policymakers and national leaders a heads-up on the challenges they need to address. The Intelligence Community in many ways is our nation's early warning system. However, a fire alarm only works if you pay attention to it. You cannot ignore it simply because you do not like what it is telling you. Similarly, we need to make sure that all our policymakers pay attention to the warnings provided by you, the independent, non- partisan intelligence professionals.

Since the Second World War, America has relied, as we all know, on global systems of alliances, institutions and norms to ensure our stability and prosperity. Today, many challenges threaten that system, that system that has been built up over the last 70 years. As the chairman mentioned, countries like China and Russia are challenging many of the global institutions. They are in many cases seeking to undercut and delegitimize them. We must work together to stand vigilant against that threat. Similarly, rogue states, such as North Korea, have sought to undercut the global non-proliferation regime. Obviously, North Korea is one of the most pressing issues our country faces.

And, Admiral Rogers, as the chair mentioned, we all share enormous concern about both the upside and downside of new technologies and the asymmetrical threats that are posed by cyber and other technology actors. And I would add as well, Director Cardillo, I think we've discussed as well, our dominance in terms of overhead in many ways is a threat as well from emerging nations.

Terrorist groups and extremists are also able to access a lot of these new technologies. And while ISIS in particular continues to suffer losses in Syria, Iraq and Libya, unfortunately, it continues to spread its hateful ideology through social media and encrypted communications. Gentlemen, I will lightly touch on the few of the challenges we face and look forward to the discussion we're about to have. And again, I thank you for being here and look forward to this hearing. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

BURR: I thank the vice chairman. For members' purposes, we have a vote scheduled on the floor at 11:00 a.m. It's the intent of the chair and vice chair that we will rotate the gavel so that the hearing continues through. Members will be recognized by seniority for five minutes. When we conclude the open session, hopefully with enough gaps for our witnesses to have some lunch, we will reconvene at 1:30 p.m. The afternoon vote to my knowledge is not set yet, but we will work around that. So, plan to be back at the skiff by 1:30 p.m. for that hearing to start. With that, Director Coats, the floor is yours.

DAN COATS, DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Chairman Burr, vice chairman Warner, members of the committee, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today. I'm here with my colleagues from across the IC community and I'm sure I speak for my colleague, Mike Pompeo, new director of the CIA, that the two of us, new to the job, have inherited an Intelligence Community with leadership and professionals with expertise that is exceptional. And it is a great privilege to hold these positions and know that we have the support from across 17 agencies relative to gathering intelligence, analyzing and synthesizing that intelligence. And several of those leaders are sitting here today and we're most appreciative of their contributions to their country and to this issue.

[10:25:06] The complexity of the threat environment is ever expanding and has challenged the IC to stay ahead of the adversary and it has not been an easy task. Given the tests we face around the world, the IC continues its work to collect, analyze and integrate these and other issues. We appreciate very much the support from your committee to address these threats in a way that will give the president, the Congress and other policymakers the best and most integrated intelligence we can assemble.

In the interests of time and on behalf of my colleagues at the table, I'll discuss just some of the many challenging threats that we currently face. The Intelligence Community's written statement for the record that was submitted earlier discusses these and many other threats in greater detail.

Let me start with North Korea. North Korea is an increasingly grave national security threat to the United States because of its growing missile and nuclear capabilities combined with the aggressive approach of its leader, Kim Jong-un. Kim's attempting to prove he has the capability to strike the U.S. mainland with a nuclear weapon. He has taken initial steps toward fielding a mobile intercontinental ballistic missile, but it has not yet been flight tested.

North Korea updated its Constitution in 2012 to declare itself a nuclear power. And its officials consistently state, nuclear weapons are the basis for a regime's survival, suggesting Kim does not intend -- not intend to negotiate them away. Although intelligence collection on North Korea poses difficulties given North Korea's isolation, the IC will continue to dedicate resources to this key challenge. It requires some of our most talented professionals to warn our leaders of impending North Korean actions and of the long-term implications of their strategic weapons programs.

In Syria, we assess that the regime will maintain its momentum on the battlefield, provided, as is likely, that it maintains support from Iran and Russia. The continuation of the Syrian conflict will worsen already disastrous conditions for Syrians and regional states.

Furthermore, on April 4th, the Syrian regime used the nerve agent sarin against the opposition in Khan Shaykhun and what is probably the largest chemical attack by the regime since august 2013. The Syrian regime probably used chemical weapons in their response to battlefield losses along the Hama battlefront in late March that threatened key infrastructure.

We assess that Syria is probably both willing and able to use CW, chemical warfare, in future attacks, but we do not know if they plan to do so. We are still acquiring and continuing to analyze all intelligence related to the question of whether Russian officials had foreknowledge of the Syrian CW attack on 4th April. And as we learn this information, we will certainly share it with this committee.

Cyber threats continue to represent a critical national security issue for the United States for two key reasons. First, our adversaries are becoming bolder, more capable and more adept at using cyberspace to threaten our interests and shape real-world outcomes. And the number of adversaries grows as nation states, terrorist groups, criminal organizations and others continue to develop cyber capabilities.

Secondly, the potential impact of these cyber threats is amplified by the ongoing integration of technology into our critical infrastructure and into our daily lives. Our relationships and businesses already rely on our critical -- on social media and communication technologies and on critical infrastructure. It is becoming increasingly reliant on the Internet. As such, this raises the potential for physical, economic and psychological consequences when a cyberattack or exploitation event occurs.

The worldwide threat of terrorism is geographically diverse and multifaceted and it poses a continuing challenge for the United States, for our allies and partners who seek to counter it. Isis is experiencing territorial losses in Iraq and Syria with persistent counterterrorism operations degrading its strength. However, ISIS will continue to be an active terrorist threat to the United States due to its proven ability to direct and inspire attacks against a wide range of targets around the world.