James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, on Thursday disputed an article that appeared in February in The New York Times about contacts between President Trump’s advisers and Russian intelligence officials.
Answering a question about the Times article during an appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mr. Comey said that “in the main, it was not true.”
The article was the first to reveal direct contacts between Trump advisers and Russian officials before the election — contacts that are now at the heart of F.B.I. and congressional investigations. Multiple news outlets have since published accounts that support the main elements of The Times’s article, including information about phone calls and in-person meetings between Mr. Trump’s advisers and Russians, some believed to be connected to Russian intelligence.
Mr. Comey did not say exactly what he believed was incorrect about the article, which was based on information from four current and former American officials, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because the information was classified. The original sources could not immediately be reached after Mr. Comey’s remarks, but in the months since the article was published, they have indicated that they believed the account was solid.
James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee.Doug Mills/The New York Times
One possible area of dispute is the description of the Russians involved. Some law enforcement officials took issue with the Times account in the days after it was published, saying that the intelligence was still murky, and that the Russians who were in contact with Mr. Trump’s advisers did not meet the F.B.I.’s black-and-white standard of who can be considered an “intelligence officer.”
But several former American intelligence and law enforcement officials have said that other American agencies have a broader definition, especially when it comes to Russia. They said that President Vladimir V. Putin uses an extensive network of government officials and private citizens with deep links to Russian spy services who supplement the intelligence apparatus and report back to the Kremlin. At least some of the contacts, they said, involved Russians who fit into this category.
In testimony last month before the House Intelligence Committee, John O. Brennan, the former C.I.A. director, said he became concerned last year about direct attempts by the Russian government to recruit members of Mr. Trump’s campaign.
“I encountered and am aware of information and intelligence that revealed contacts and interactions between Russian officials and U.S. persons involved in the Trump campaign that I was concerned about because of known Russian efforts to suborn such individuals,” he told lawmakers. “And it raised questions in my mind again whether or not the Russians were able to gain the cooperation of those individuals.”
Based on his answers to one Republican senator on Thursday, it also seemed that Mr. Comey may have disagreed with The Times’s description of the evidence for such contacts. The Times article said that American authorities had relied on “phone records and intercepted calls” to amass evidence of the contacts between Mr. Trump’s advisers and Russians. But Mr. Comey offered no elaboration on this point.
Subsequent reporting by The Times and other news outlets has revealed that, last year, American investigators also received information from human intelligence sources and foreign spy services.
The Feb. 14 story said that there was no evidence of collusion between the Trump advisers and Russia’s campaign to disrupt last year’s presidential election, a fact that officials have since said publicly. The F.B.I. declined to address Mr. Comey’s comments about the article.
Since that article was published, there have been revelations in The Times and other news outlets reporting that Mr. Trump’s advisers were in contact with Russian intelligence.
Last year, for example, the F.B.I. obtained a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor the communications of Carter Page, a former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser. Law enforcement officials believed the Russian government was trying to recruit Mr. Page as a foreign agent.
A former senior American intelligence official said that Mr. Page met with at least one suspected intelligence officer during two trips he took to Russia last year, although it is unclear whether Mr. Page knew about the identity or the motivations of the Russian.
Mr. Page has repeatedly declined to say whom he met and spoke with during one of the trips, to Moscow last summer. He has described them only as “mostly scholars.”
During the transition, Jared Kushner, a senior aide, met privately with the head of a Russian bank with deep ties to Russian intelligence, seeking a direct line of communication to the Kremlin. The banker, Sergey N. Gorkov, is a graduate of Russia’s spy school.
Roger J. Stone Jr., a longtime Trump adviser, exchanged Twitter messages last year with Guccifer 2.0, an online persona that authorities say was a front for Russian intelligence officials.
During the hearing, Mr. Comey said there were inaccuracies in many articles about the F.B.I.’s Russia investigation, a problem he attributed in part to anonymous sources discussing classified information.
Source: Michael S. Schmidt, Mark Mazzetti, and Matt Apuzzo The New York Times