Sen. Lankford: Michael Flynn accusations ‘more open to interpretation’

Politics

HARI SREENIVASAN: On Capitol Hill today, current and former U.S. government officials testified before members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, painting a clearer portrait of how Russia meddled in the 2016 U.S. elections.

A current FBI official told the Senate Intelligence Committee how the Russian government directed cyber-attacks to wage an information campaign that favored then-candidate Trump.

Homeland Security official Jeanette Manfra also offered new details on how Russians attempted to interfere with state election systems.

JEANETTE MANFRA, Department of Homeland Security Official: As of right now we have evidence of 21 states — or election-related systems in 21 states that were targeted.

MAN: But in no case were actual vote tallies altered in any way, shape, or form?

JEANETTE MANFRA: That is correct.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In a separate and almost simultaneous hearing before House Intelligence, former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson described learning about Russian hacking into Democratic National Committee systems months after the FBI became aware.

JEH JOHNSON, Former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security: It had been some months before I was learning of this that the FBI and the DNC had been in contact with each other about this. And I wasn't happy to be learning about this several months later. Very clearly, I wasn't pleased that we were not in there helping them patch this vulnerability.

HARI SREENIVASAN: We get more on the Senate Intelligence Committee's Russia investigation now with one of its key members, Senator James Lankford, Republican from Oklahoma. He joins us now from Capitol Hill.

Senator, thanks for being here.

This afternoon, we heard multiple DHS officials say that they have more and more evidence that Russia tried to interfere in the campaigns or interfere in the election systems in 21 different states. And while they stress that none of the votes were flipped in any of these states, they did say that some of these intrusions kind of made it past of the security systems.

So, my question is, why not release the information on which states or which localities were compromised?

SEN. JAMES LANKFORD, R-Okla.: So the FBI has a very clear policy. They don't expose victims. And they consider these states to be victims of an intrusion on the outside.

If the states want to be able to say that or if they want to be able to release that, obviously, they're welcome to do. But for a location that was actually attacked by an outside force they're not going to release it.

Some of those will continue to come out. Some of those states will say, yes, we're one of the states, and the list will eventually come out.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You agree it's important, regardless whether if you're Democrat or Republican, to make sure that these things are fixed, especially between now and 2018?

SEN. JAMES LANKFORD: Absolutely, it is.

There were really three simultaneous hearings today, one in the House, two in the Senate, both of them in the Senate dealing with state election systems and also dealing with state penetrations from outside actors trying to be able to reach into multiple state agencies.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Since the investigation into Russian meddling began, has anything changed your opinion in how serious this is?

SEN. JAMES LANKFORD: Oh, no, it hasn't changed my opinion. I serve on the Intel Committee and I have been very aware of it. I think more Americans are aware of what is going on, as we try to engage our federal government to be able to step up to the level of risk that we really face.

A lot of states have become more aware of it, and their state CIOs, chief information officers, and other agencies are now stepping up to say this is a real threat and we need to be able to treat it seriously.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Since this began, we have reports just in the last couple of days from The New York Times now that says the CIA director, Mike Pompeo, continued to brief Michael Flynn even after he was given information that Michael Flynn might be compromised.

Was this — was this handled appropriately?

SEN. JAMES LANKFORD: It was handled appropriately.

I was very surprised at The New York Times story. They get some things right. For this one, it seemed much ado about nothing.

The fact that in the earliest days Michael Flynn was there and that there were some people from the previous administration that didn't like Michael Flynn or thought that he had been challenged before, this administration, the current administration, was still trying to determine that, and to be able to put that off on Mike Pompeo, who had also just been hired days before, literally , they're confronting Mike Pompeo, saying he could have — should have confronted a White House official days into his new post, I think, is an unfair reevaluation or rewrite of history.

HARI SREENIVASAN: This also seems to — from an outsider's perspective, even when it comes to intelligence-gathering, there's a layer of politics on it and a layer of distrust, because you would think that by the time the information filters up to the head of the CIA, that whoever is coming up with that information is putting country first and not party.

SEN. JAMES LANKFORD: Correct.

And you would also assume that there is a way to be able to interpret that information. And at times, you see an accusation that may be released out, for instance, with Michael Flynn, to say he might have been compromised, he might have been vulnerable to blackmail.

When you actually see that information, I think a lot of Americans will look at it and go, what in the world are they talking about? One analyst will look at one thing and see it one way. Another analyst will look at it and see it an entirely different way. There's more open to interpretation here than what the Americans are being led to believe in this by that story.

I would just tell people to take a deep breath. Let's not try to revise history of what was actually going on in literally the very first week of a new administration as they were getting organized.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Is there any concern that Michael Flynn had access to information that he shouldn't have had?

SEN. JAMES LANKFORD: No, I haven't seen that concern on that.

He is the national security adviser working next to the president, so in his time that he was the national security adviser, he is working in the White House. He should have access to that information.

Obviously, once the president fired him, he should have access to no information at all at that point.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You have also had the opportunity to listen to Mike Rogers in — I'm sorry — you have had the head of the DNI and the head of the CIA in closed-door sessions.

Has anything that they have told you, without having to reveal it here, given you any greater sense of comfort or a greater sense of alarm?

SEN. JAMES LANKFORD: No, they haven't.

Obviously, when we walk through classified information and sources and methods and how things are determined, we get a chance to see the raw data. Very often, what comes out in open hearings is an impression that has been made, and then you look back at the data and you have to determine whether I would agree or disagree with that same impression.

We are walking through all the investigations in a very bipartisan way. The Senate Intelligence Committee is a very bipartisan committee where we try to look at all the information, have real conversations.

You don't have Republicans and Democrats behind closed doors. We have people passionate about national security behind closed doors. And I think that's the way that it should be.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The White House is supposed to announce, possibly as early as this week, to settle this question on whether or not there exists recordings of conversations between the president and former Director James Comey.

As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, do you have any reason to believe that there are or that there are not tapes?

SEN. JAMES LANKFORD: We don't know. We have, obviously, made the request that we would receive those recordings.

It would clear up a lot of the issues. Obviously, the former FBI director, Jim Comey, said he released out his memos that were of an FBI document that after he left employment he released them out anyway to try to proactively cut that off.

I wish he wouldn't have done that. But if we have recordings, we could get the recordings and get all the information out there. But at this point, if there is a recording, based on a tweet from the president saying he — that Jim Comey better hope that there aren't, I would, quite frankly, tell you, if the White House has recordings, they should release them. That settles the issue.

HARI SREENIVASAN: If there are recordings, is that concerning to you?

SEN. JAMES LANKFORD: Well, it would only be a question for me to figure out why they're trying to record what's happening in the White House and what is happening in private conversations.

If there are, we need to get the information out. Let's resolve the issues and try to determine why those were happening, what was the source of those, and then that will help settle a lot of issues.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Senator James Lankford from the Senate Intelligence Committee and from Oklahoma, thanks so much.

SEN. JAMES LANKFORD: You bet. Thank you.

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