Against the backdrop of President-elect Donald Trump's campaign to discredit the intelligence community, current CIA chief John Brennan gave an eyebrow-raising answer when asked if his agency had seen evidence of collusion between Trump's circle and the Russians whose cyberattacks aided his electoral victory. Brennan's unusual response appears to be subtle pushback against Trump's discrediting strategy.
Anyone who has reported on national security issues knows better than to read too much into a non-denial, but what CIA chief John Brennan did Sunday morning goes beyond the typical non-denial.
When Fox News Sunday's Chris Wallace asked Brennan if the intel community had any information about contacts between President-elect Donald Trump or his associates and the Kremlin, Brennan volunteered telling hypothetical scenarios in his response (emphasis mine):
WALLACE: Does the intelligence community have any information — I’m not talking about rumors, information — about contacts between the Trump camp and associates of the Kremlin about discussions during the campaign about hacking the Democrats?
BRENNAN: The intelligence community collects foreign intelligence on foreign parties, entities or people. If in the course of our intelligence collection, we pick up information related to U.S. persons or officials, which we refer to as incidental collection, we share that information with the appropriate authorities. In most instances, that’s the FBI.
And so, if we did come into contact with that type of information, it would have been shared with the FBI, and we would make sure that our intelligence committees then were aware of it as well.
WALLACE: So, is there such information?
BRENNAN: As I said, if we came into — if we had that type of information, we would share it with the FBI.
WALLACE: I mean, I just would say, that's not a denial, sir.
BRENNAN: Well, I wouldn't confirm or deny something like that on your program, as much as I respect you, Chris.
Brennan could easily have led with his refusal to confirm or deny, but instead, appeared to leave a trail of bread crumbs leading to the FBI, which is facing an Inspector General's investigation. He also could have safely denied knowledge of such evidence without revealing classified information.
Brennan's response is an extraordinary departure from the standard non-denial, and included a very detailed description of how such hypothetical evidence would be collected, which Wallace did not ask him about.
Brennan volunteered that hypothetical twice, each time pointing the finger at the FBI as an answer to Wallace's questions about the existence of information on Trump's collusion with Russia. If such evidence existed before the election, this insulates Brennan from the charge that he did not act properly on such information. It is also a very different response than if Brennan had simply said at the start that he would neither confirm nor deny the existence of such information.
The fact that Brennan volunteered this information twice, unprompted, is significant — if Wallace had asked him about how such intel would be treated, that would be different, but it appears Brennan was pointing viewers in a specific direction, and did so without any obvious lead from Wallace.
This response came just minutes after Vice President-elect Mike Pence delivered a dodgy response to a similar question, one which could similarly shield him if evidence of collusion comes to light.
Whether Brennan was hinting at the existence of such information, or simply trying to give the impression that he was, is an open question. But given Trump's ongoing campaign to discredit the intelligence community, either explanation is possible. Or both.