Two of the nation’s top intelligence officials declined in a testy hearing Wednesday to discuss the specifics of private conversations with President Trump, refusing to say whether they had been asked to push back against an FBI probe into possible coordination between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government.
“I don’t believe it’s appropriate for me to address that in a public session,’’ Coats said. “I don’t think this is the appropriate venue to do this in.’’
Similarly, National Security Agency Director Michael S. Rogers declined to answer a question from Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) about whether Trump asked Rogers to deny the existence of any evidence showing coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia, as The Post reported last month.
“I’m not going to discuss the specifics of any conversations with the president of the United States,” Rogers said.
Instead, both men said they never felt pressure to do anything inappropriate or, in Coats’s case, to intervene in an ongoing probe.
Both men struggled to provide a consistent rationale for why they could not discuss the conversations with Trump in public. Rogers offered that the conversations were classified. But when pressed by Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), he could not specify what was classified about the conversation.
The intelligence officials’ refusal to publicly address whether Trump asked them to play down or somehow impede the probe disturbed the committee’s Democrats, who were visibly frustrated.
Warner told Rogers the committee had “facts that there were other individuals” who were aware of his conversation with Trump and that a memo had been prepared “because of concerns” about the call.
In one particularly heated exchange, King lambasted the two intelligence officials for not offering a legal basis for refusing to talk about their discussions with the president regarding the Russia investigation. The probe is now being led by Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III, following Trump’s May 9 firing of Comey.
“It is my belief that you are inappropriately refusing to answer these questions today,’’ King said angrily.
“I think your unwillingness to answer a very basic question speaks volumes,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.).
Coats said he didn’t have a specific legal justification for declining to answer such questions, but suggested he might be able to do so during a closed briefing. Asked if he would be forthcoming in such a setting, Coats said he intended to be but did not know yet whether the White House would block such discussion by asserting that executive privilege covers his conversations with the president.
The exchange suggested the president could use executive privilege to prevent certain information from being shared with a congressional investigation into any possible coordination between Russia and Trump associates.
Although the hearing was supposed to focus on a critical surveillance authority that is set to expire in December, much of the discussion was dominated by Democrats’ efforts to elicit testimony about potential efforts by the president to interfere in the criminal investigation.
They also asked acting FBI director Andrew McCabe whether he ever discussed with Comey any conversations Trump had with the then-FBI director. Hours later, the Intelligence Committee released a remarkably detailed statement written by Comey in advance of his testimony on Thursday. In it, Comey recounted how Trump pressed him for a pledge of loyalty and for assurances that he was not under investigation, and also urged him to drop the probe into Flynn.
McCabe said he did not want to address conversations between Comey and Trump because “those matters also begin to fall within the scope of issues being investigated by the special counsel” — a strong hint that the investigation may expand to cover potential criminal attempts by the president to impede its course.
The acting director of the FBI also clarified a key point from an earlier congressional appearance, in which he had said there had been no effort to slow or interfere with the Russia probe. What he meant, McCabe said, was that the firing of Comey had not stalled the investigation.
Also frustrating the Democrats was Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein’s refusal to state outright what he had told senators in a closed session last month — that he knew a memo he had written critical of Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server would be used as justification for Comey’s firing. When asked if he knew that was the case, he responded with answers that did not directly address the question.
“You’ve filibustered better than most of my colleagues,” an exasperated Heinrich said. “So we’ll move on.”
The surveillance authority that expires this year is known as Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, a 2008 law that enables the NSA to collect intelligence on foreign targets such as suspected terrorists and nuclear weapons proliferators through U.S. telecom and tech companies.
Coats told the panel he tried but failed to get an estimate of the number of times U.S. individuals’ communications were “incidentally” collected. That would cover cases when a U.S. person was mentioned in communications between two foreign targets or when a foreign target was in communication with a U.S. person.
To get that figure, “NSA would be required to conduct significant additional research trying to determine whether individuals who may be of no foreign intelligence interest are U.S. persons,” he said. That would entail “intense identity verification research,” which is invasive of people’s privacy, he said.
Also, he said, to do that work would shift analysts from focus areas such as counterterrorism, counterintelligence, North Korea and Iran. “I can’t justify that at a time when we face such a diversity of serious threats,” he said.
Coats’s answer upset Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who noted that Coats had pledged at his confirmation hearing to produce a number. Wyden accused Coats of saying that producing an estimate would jeopardize national security.
“That is a very, very damaging position to stake out,” he said. “There are a lot of Americans who share our view that security and liberty are not mutually exclusive.”
Section 702 is crucial to preventing terrorist attacks, Coats said. He disclosed a previously classified incident involving a person named Haji Iman who rose at one point to become the second-in-command of the Islamic State. NSA and other spy agencies spent two years looking for Haji Iman, whose real name is Abd al-Rahman Muhammad Mustafa al-Qaduli.
Using Section 702 intelligence, NSA and other agencies were able to track down Haji Iman and two associates. The terrorist was killed by a U.S. air raid in Syria last year.
Devlin Barrett and Julie Tate contributed to this report.