FBI chief turns down Putin’s offer for US to tag along on Russian investigations
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director Christopher Wray made clear that US law enforcement does not support a proposal by Russian President Vladimir Putin to have American investigators go to Russia to observe interviews of suspects wanted by the US.
"I never want to say never, but it’s certainly not high on our list of investigative techniques," Wray said wryly at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado on Wednesday.
Wray also dismissed the other side of Putin’s proposed deal: to let Russian investigators come to the US to observe questioning of suspects that they are interested in.
"That’s probably even lower on our list of investigative techniques," Wray said.
Putin made the overture on investigations to President Donald Trump at their summit in Helsinki on Monday, and Trump praised it as an "incredible" offer.
In exchange for the opportunity to have former American ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul and a number of other Americans questioned, the Russian president offered to let special counsel Robert Mueller observe interrogations of 12 Russian intelligence agents indicted by a US grand jury last week for hacking Democratic Party e-mail accounts.
The White House on Wednesday declined to rule out accepting the proposal.
"The president is going to meet with his team and we’ll let you know when we have an announcement on that," White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told a news briefing.
Sanders said Trump "said it was an interesting idea…. He wants to work with his team and determine if there is any validity that would be helpful to the process."
Wray also reiterated that the US intelligence community stood by its view that Russia interfered in the 2016 US election, despite Putin’s denial this week to Trump.
"He’s got his view, he has expressed his view," Wray said when asked about Putin’s denial to Trump at their summit in Helsinki on Monday.
"The intelligence community’s assessment has not changed. My view has not changed, which is that Russia attempted to interfere with the last election and that it continues to engage in malign influence operations to this day."
Those acts were "aimed at sowing discord and divisiveness in this country". he said.
On Monday, Trump appeared to accept Putin’s denial in a press conference after their meeting in Helsinki, sparking outrage in Washington and a rare statement of disagreement by the head of the US intelligence community, director of national intelligence, Dan Coats.
On Tuesday Trump retracted his comments, saying he accepted the view of US spies that Moscow had in fact meddled.
"I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place," Trump said, reading a statement from the White House.
Yet Trump continued to suggest doubts, adding: "It could be other people also; there’s a lot of people out there."
Wray also took issue with Trump’s suggestion on Wednesday that Russia had not continued to interfere this year as the US prepares for congressional elections in November.
Wray said the FBI had not yet seen any specific actions targeting US election infrastructure — compared with 2016, when Russian hackers targeted voter registration and voting management computers across the country, according to US intelligence.
"But certainly other efforts, what I would call malign influence operations, are very active. And we could be just a moment away from going to the next level," he said.
"For me, it’s a threat that we need to take extremely seriously and respond to with fierce determination and focus."
Asked whether he saw, like Trump, that other countries were involved, Wray said some countries would indeed try to influence US politics in various ways "going forward". However, he said: "There is no question that Russia has been by far the most aggressive actor."
Wray also took issue with Trump’s repeated condemnations of the investigation by Mueller into possible collusion with Russia’s election meddling as groundless and politically motivated.
"It’s not a witch hunt," he said, using Trump’s words.
Asked whether, amid intense criticism of the FBI by Trump, he had threatened to resign in recent months, Wray declined to answer directly.
In May 2017, Trump fired Wray’s predecessor, James Comey, after Comey refused to back off from the Russia probe.
Wray implied that he, too, would not bow to unreasonable pressure.
"I’m a low-key, understated guy. But that should not be mistaken for what my spine is made out of," he said.
AFP and Reuters