The Need for a Select Committee on the Russia Connection
Susan Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes write in Lawfare:
Momentum is building for a major bipartisan independent inquiry into the various allegations of ties between President Donald Trump and his associates and the Russian government. Much of this support takes the form of calls for a bipartisan commission in the style of the 9/11 Commission.
The need for the formation of some new body dedicated to a credible and exhaustive inquiry of the Russia Connection is clear. The most effective model, however, is not a 9/11 Commission-style outfit but something more mundane: a select congressional committee with a large and first-rate staff and a membership committed to getting answers.
Before turning to the ideal form for a congressional inquiry, let’s review the various ongoing investigations within the executive branch. Those include interagency task force inquiries into foreign money coming into the presidential election, as well as investigations of specific conduct by former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and advisors Roger Stone and Carter Page and others for possible ties to Russia. It is unclear whether there is a relationship between those inquiries and the hacking and active measures campaign U.S. intelligence officials determined Russia undertook to help Trump win. Separate reports regarding contacts between former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and the Russian ambassador—in which the two were discovered to have discussed sanctions despite earlier denials—led to Flynn’s recent resignation. Following Flynn’s departure, multiple media outlets reported that intercepted communications showed that Trump campaign officials had “repeated” or “constant” contact with Russian intelligence in the year leading up to Trump’s election. There are also the salacious but largely unverified allegations contained in a privately prepared dossier. Finally, there are persistent unanswered questions about whether President Trump has financial ties to Russia.
In short, there seems to be quite a bit going on in term of investigation, very little of it visible to the public. But none of it is a substitute for a serious congressional examination of the subject.
This is not chiefly because of any concerns about the integrity of the executive branch investigations, though those concerns do exist. They were heightened over the past week with revelations that the White House had inappropriate contacts with the FBI, in apparent violation of Department of Justice policies, and tried to direct the Bureau to kill recent press stories. While the FBI declined to do so, CIA Director Mike Pompeo and SSCI Chairman Richard Burr reportedly did participate in those calls with the press.
That said, the questions of whether Attorney General Jeff Sessions should recuse himself from the current matters and whether the Justice Department should step aside entirely and appoint a Special Counsel to conduct the investigation are largely distinct from the question of congressional investigations.
While the subject matter overlaps, the executive branch and the legislative branch are conducting different investigations for different purposes. Namely, the executive branch is conducting a set of foreign intelligence and counterintelligence investigations that may (or may not) have criminal investigative elements. Its goal is not to answer public questions about what happened or what may still be happening.
By contrast, Congress is charged with ascertaining information related to legislative purposes—including the imposition of sanctions in response to the activity of a hostile foreign power, the discharging of its oversight function with regard to fraud, abuse, or corruption in the executive branch, and legislative measures that might be necessary to protect the American electoral system. It also has a duty to publicly address major questions the political system is struggling with now in a fashion the public can absorb and process: What is the President’s relationship with Russia? And is there reason to be concerned about it?
The Current Congressional Investigations
The essential problem is that there is no current congressional mechanism with the investigative scope, staffing, and will to answer these questions in a serious fashion. There are currently a number of congressional inquiries. In the Senate, the Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), the Judiciary Committee, and the Armed Services Committee have all begun investigations generally related to Russian interference in the U.S. election. To date, the SSCI investigation has been the principal inquiry taking place in Congress. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has resisted calls for the formation of a new select committee or Commission by insisting the SSCI “is more than capable of conducting a complete review” within its existing structure and jurisdiction. The week before the inauguration, Chairman Richard Burr and Vice Chairman Mark Warner released a joint statement pledging to undertake:
a bipartisan inquiry of the intelligence reporting behind the Intelligence Community assessments from January 6, 2017 on [Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections].
The scope of the Committee’s inquiry will include, but is not limited to:
A review of the intelligence that informed the Intelligence Community Assessment “Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections;”
Counterintelligence concerns related to Russia and the 2016 U.S. election, including any intelligence regarding links between Russia and individuals associated with political campaigns;
Russian cyber activity and other “active measures” directed against the U.S., both as it regards the 2016 election and more broadly.
The statement concluded with the promise that “[t]he Committee will follow the intelligence wherever it leads. We will conduct this inquiry expeditiously, and we will get it right.”
At the time, that statement offered some degree of reassurance. The committee seemed to consider the question of Russian interference in the U.S. election and its ties to campaign figures to be a non-partisan issue related to safeguarding fundamental democracy. Importantly, the SSCI had many of the necessary elements for a successful investigation: Much of the subject matter is already within the committee’s ordinary oversight jurisdiction, and members and staff are cleared to receive highly-classified materials—which is critical for an investigation that involves sensitive ongoing operations.
Unfortunately, it has now become clear that the SSCI inquiry is insufficient to the task over the long term—for a number of different reasons.
First off, . . .
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