WASHINGTON — As anonymous officials leak explosive details on President Donald Trump and his White House’s alleged ties to Russia, the usually-quiet Senate Intelligence Committee has found itself in the spotlight, pushing forward on its probe into Russian meddling in the US election.
In the last week, leaks from unknown corners have brutally yanked the question of the Trump inner circle’s ties to Russia back into the spotlight. But despite speculation that an underground cohort of intelligence officials is orchestrating the narrative, a coherent national security voice on the Trump-Russia question is missing. The Director of National Intelligence’s office is director-less. CIA director Mike Pompeo has retreated into the dark shadow of Langley, and little information is trickling out through official FBI or Department of Justice channels.
The only shared turf for these various intelligence players is the Senate’s Intelligence Committee. And now, it’s their unenviable job to try and figure out what, exactly, is going on. Wearily, they’re trudging forward on a probe littered with potential political landmines.
As recently as last Friday, staff were going to off-site locations to review intelligence related to the probe. But amidst a barrage of leaks over the last week — which even committee lawmakers said they first learned of from news reports — they’re scrambling to differentiate fact from fiction.
“Leaks are a tough thing to plug,” one official said, requesting to speak on background about the sensitive investigation. Asked if they were concerned the intelligence committee was learning of significant counterintelligence issues from newspapers rather than the government, the official anxiously said, “Yes.”
Officials speculated Tuesday that the leaks are likely coming from former Obama Administration officials.
Asked how the committee is parsing through the competing developments, the official said “very carefully.”
The early stages of the Intelligence Committee’s probe, first announced in early December, were hamstrung by standard, if wildly inefficient jockeying on the Hill over which of the Senate’s many committee’s had jurisdiction over the Trump-Russia issue. Both the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held hearings on Russia’s efforts to manipulate the election, and some democrats have pushed for a wholly separate “select” committee to handle the issue. Majority leader Mitch McConnell said Democrats backed off that demand on Wednesday, at least for the immediate future.
The scope of the Intelligence Committee’s Russia probe has been debated through the weeks, but has now been settled and agreed upon by both Republican and Democrat leaders. Its timeline will include everything from the post-election transition period to the year leading up to the election, and both Sens. Richard Burr and Mark Warner have left open the possibility that Obama and Trump administration officials will be called to testify.
Burr, who chairs the Senate committee, and Warner, the committee’s top democrat, said Tuesday that the investigation would include the Russian effort to manipulate the election, connections between the Trump campaign and Russian officials and any Russian efforts to undermine the transition period, including former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with the Russian ambassador.
Though the inquiry is only in its nascent stages, conversations with staffers from both sides of the aisle suggest it’s the most cooperative, cordial and bipartisan the committee has been on a major, politically charged investigation in recent memory.
There was brief, if fiery, politicking over the committee’s investigation in January, when Burr — breaking from the initial announcement of the inquiry — told reporters that the panel wouldn’t probe connections between the Trump campaign and Russia, and would instead focus on the broader Russian intelligence effort to undermine the election. His comments caused a headache behind closed doors, as democrats and reporters furiously scrambled to find out what had changed.. The back-and-forth played out in press releases until both Burr and Warner said in a joint statement that yes, of course the investigation would include the campaign.
One official said in the days just after lawmakers had returned to the Hill in January, there was concern that committee Republicans would back off of the probe. But Warner, in a significant departure from his usually quiet demeanor, stepped up and unequivocally said the inquiry was of solemn import, and compared the situation to the Watergate and Church Committee eras of the 1970s. The official, who also requested anonymity to discuss the committee’s investigation, said it was a profoundly encouraging moment for the panel’s democrats. It was a clear indication, the official said, that Warner would be an advocate for the committee’s inquiry.
In recent days, Burr too has underscored the seriousness of the investigation, if not as publicly as his democratic colleagues. He’s closely monitored developments on Flynn’s ouster, and was noticeably troubled early this week that so little of the information had ever trickled up to the Hill.
That he’s now in charge of the sweeping Russia inquiry puts the North Carolina Republican in between a rock and a hard place. Since taking over the helm of the intelligence committee, Burr has pressed for more active and aggressive oversight, and has kept a rigorous travel schedule to match. But his decisive reelection victory in November came at a cost — throughout the contentious race, Burr towed Trump’s line, and hasn’t yet directly criticized the White House publicly.
But Burr has shown no indication that he’s ever angled for a Trump administration job, and says he’s not running for re-election. How seriously he takes his obligation to carry his president’s water remains to be seen.
Burr has been slammed by colleagues in recent days, who fear he’s slow-rolling an investigation into a fast-moving story. But much of the inquiry’s slow start was due to bureaucratic wrangling — some intelligence agencies insisted products be viewed on site rather than sent to the Hill, and some of the intelligence was so tightly controlled that it was unclear if staffers could even view it.
Much of those complications have since been negotiated, and the investigation is moving forward, if not as quickly as non-Intelligence committee lawmakers might prefer.
Ali Watkins is a national security correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Ali Watkins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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