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  March 3, 2017

Sessions-Russia Controversy Marked By Lack of Declassified Information, Russophobia

Former FBI special agent and whistleblower Coleen Rowley says the ongoing demonization of Russia is dangerous for U.S. foreign policy
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Coleen Rowley is a former FBI agent and whistleblower. Rowley jointly held the TIME "Person of the Year" award in 2002 with two other women credited as whistleblowers.


KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Kim Brown in Baltimore.

Less than a month after being confirmed as the nation's top law enforcement officer, there are already calls from Congress for Jeff Sessions to resign. This, after a Washington Post story reported this week that the former senator from Alabama, met twice with the Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak, contrary to his sworn testimony before a Senate Committee, during his confirmation hearings last month. Let's take a listen.

AL FRANKEN: ...If there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian Government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?

JEFF SESSION: Senator Franken, I'm not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians. And I'm unable to comment on it.

KIM BROWN: Questions are swirling around Washington about whether Sessions perjured himself before Congress, and as of Thursday afternoon, over a 130 Congressional Democrats have already called for Sessions to resign. Including Senate Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and the top-ranking Democratic on the House Oversight Committee, Elijah Cummings.

A growing number of lawmakers, including Republicans, have also called on Sessions to recuse himself from any FBI, DOJ investigations, regarding links between the Trump administration and the Kremlin. And the latest developments on Thursday afternoon, is that the Attorney General has agreed to recuse himself. Let's take a look at that.

JEFF SESSIONS: First, about the comments that I made to the committee that have been said to be incorrect and false, let me be clear, I never had meetings with Russian operatives, or Russian intermediaries, about the Trump campaign. And the idea that I was part of a, "continuing exchange of information," during the campaign between Trump surrogates, and intermediaries for the Russian government, is totally false.

That is the question that Senator Franken asked me at the hearing, and that's what got my attention. As he noted, it was the, first just breaking news. And it got my attention, and that is the question I responded to. I did not respond by referring to the two meetings, one very brief after a speech, and one with two of my senior professional staffers, with the Russian Ambassador in Washington, where no such things were discussed.

In my reply to the question of Senator Franken... was honest, and correct, as I understood it at the time.

KIM BROWN: Joining us now to unpack all of this, is Coleen Rowley. Coleen is a retired FBI agent and former legal counsel for the FBI. She testified about the 9/11 lapses to the Senate Judiciary Committee. She is known as a whistleblower, due to her testimony to two Congressional committees that led to an investigation of two FBI 9/11 failures. She joins us today from Minnesota.

Coleen, thank you so much for being here.

COLEEN ROWLEY: Yes. Thanks for having me.

KIM BROWN: So, Coleen, let's start with this on a very basic level. So, what is the problem with then Senator Sessions, meeting with the Russian Ambassador? His argument is, that as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, a conversation with an ambassador from a foreign country isn't out of the scope of his senatorial duties.

So, on a very base level, what is the issue here?

COLEEN BROWN: You know, I don't think -- when we learn that it was just a normal meeting with an ambassador, that there actually is much of an issue. Sessions says that he meets with dozens of ambassadors for different reasons. He's on the Senate Arms Services Committee, so it all comes down to what was discussed at that meeting.

What we learned in the press conference is that it was the Russian ambassador who sought the meeting. And Sessions and two of his aides attended, they actually didn't even know what the meeting was about when they attended, and then someone asked during the press conference what did they talk about.

Sounds like they talked a little bit about Sessions visiting Russia. They talked about terrorism, they talked about Ukraine, obviously an ambassador's job is to try to lobby the officials of the country that he or she is stationed in. So, this seems very normal.

Now, you know, what happened this morning was that people jumped to conclusions that Sessions had met with that ambassador, that it was Sessions idea, and that it had something to do with the Trump campaign. So, I think that all those hours of media frenzy were probably false, unless something further comes out that the meeting was not what Sessions described it as.

And because there were two aides at this meeting, I think he said they were both military colonels, I think it's pretty difficult to mischaracterize the meeting when there were witnesses to the meeting.

KIM BROWN: Well, in response to that, Coleen, I think some of the issue that some who are calling for Jeff Sessions to resign, and also to recuse himself, which he did this afternoon, was the fact that Jeff Sessions, at the time of these two meetings, was a surrogate of the Trump campaign.

So, not necessarily saying that he was conducting campaign business with Ambassador Kislyak, however, but he was firmly on team Trump at that time. So, given that Jeff Sessions had already decided that he was going to be part of Donald Trump's campaign to be elected president, isn't that where the problem comes in, with this communication with this Russian ambassador?

COLEEN ROWLEY: Well, the news was actually characterizing this as perjury. That's where the Democrats were accusing him of having lied to Senator Franken. And, again, when he explains that he understood the question to be, was this contact about the campaign, and in fact, the conversation had nothing to do with the Trump campaign. It had to do with foreign relations, it had to do with whatever this ambassador met with him for, but it didn't have to do with the Trump campaign.

So, again, unless we find out differently, I think that this is where it's at. Recusing himself from the investigation, which was the advice of the ex-DOJ Ethics Committee, that sounds like a good idea. I can't see anything that would... that seems reasonable. Certainly if you were part of a campaign, and now there's an investigation of that prior campaign, by the DOJ ethics committee, it sounds reasonable for them to suggest that he ought to recuse himself, and that's what he's done.

KIM BROWN: Indeed. But also, I mean, given the fact that Jeff Sessions was asked about communications with the Russians, as I believe, as Senator Franken categorized it during that Senate Confirmation Hearing, why didn't Jeff Sessions just admit to these meetings. Even if they were innocuous, as he claims, then that seems like a relatively simple thing to say before the Senate Committee, "Well, I did meet with the ambassador." So, why not just admit it, if it wasn't anything?

COLEEN ROWLEY: I listened to the question several times from Senator Franken, and it definitely was in the context of the breaking news that there had been continuing, that Trump associates had had continuing contact with Russian operatives. And so, it was natural for him to interpret the question that way, and that's actually the question that was posed to him.

And, you know, I actually testified to Congress, and you're thinking fast, and maybe he just didn't think, "I should be..." say, "Well, I do meet I do meet all the time, with ambassadors from foreign countries." He should have said that, of course.

Of course, on the other hand, Senator Franken knows that as well. They're all meeting with foreign officials all the time, especially if you're on the Arms Services and Foreign Relations Committees. If you're on those committees, you are meeting with foreign people all the time. So, the senators know that as well. I think the question was pretty specific, and I think he did answer it honestly at that time.

You have to also understand that the story about the Russians possibly, them hacking, and the possible influence, this story has really taken off and developed since September, October. So, back in September, October, it was not nearly... there were mentions of it, but it was not nearly the story and the media frenzy that has developed since that time.

Now we have Congressional Enquiries, we have maybe, maybe not, somewhat at least, of an FBI investigation, it's in the news all the time. You know, I keep harping on the fact that it's really counterproductive for foreign policy, to have this continuing demonization of Russia. And it does put us on this military road to ratchet up the Cold War. And to, you know, we have troops on the border of Russia in the Baltic nations, etcetera. I think that's the really dangerous part of this whole talk.

And the Democrats are playing politics with it. I've had many people say, "Well, I don't care about the facts, I want to get Trump, some way, some how. And so, if we have to demonize Russia to do it, then we should do that."

I don't agree at all with that. I think that this is dangerous for foreign policy purposes. And Sessions, you know, heaven knows, he may well not be a great Attorney General, but on the other hand, I think in this one instance he answered the question honestly.

KIM BROWN: We're going to take a quick break. When we come back we'll continue our conversation with Coleen Rowley, talking about Attorney General Jeff Sessions, his announcement on Thursday that he will recuse himself from any investigation between links with the Trump administration and Russia.

Stick around. You're watching The Real News Network.




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