As the House Intelligence Committee gathers on Monday to hold its first public hearing into Russian interference in the 2016 election, experts say this marks an important opportunity to begin explaining the complexities of the Kremlin’s actions to the American people — as long as it doesn’t devolve into partisan warfare.
FBI Director James Comey and Admiral Mike Rogers, who heads both the National Security Agency (NSA) and Cyber Command, will testify before the committee as it sets out to tackle its main task as well as various allegations levied by President Donald Trump about leaks and wiretapping.
“We’re really still in this chaotic space in the United States where people are confused and there are multiple congressional inquiries and different investigations, and it all seems so confusing,” Alina Polyakova, deputy director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center and senior fellow for the Future Europe Initiative at the Atlantic Council. “And it hasn’t been well-communicated.”
The scope of the Committee’s investigation involves answering questions surrounding what Russian measures were directed toward the U.S. and its allies and if those included links with U.S. citizens or political campaigns. It will also address the U.S. government’s response to the Kremlin’s interference, as well as what possible leaks of classified information took place related to the Intelligence Community’s assessment that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a cyber and influence campaign aimed at interfering in the election and boosting Trump’s chances.
The key focus
Steven Hall, a former senior CIA officer who retired in 2015 and spent much of his career overseeing intelligence operations in the countries of the former Soviet Union and the former Warsaw Pact, said that any of the data points regarding the allegations of cooperation or collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians require serious investigation.
“For me, the one that stands out that needs the closest look is what was Michael Flynn up to when he went to Russia on RT’s dime,” Hall said. “That to me is one of the more concrete things that bears hearing testimony directly from Flynn about, under oath, and finding out were there any additional conversations, was the campaign discussed, what exactly went on. That for me is one of the key things.”
Flynn served as Trump’s first National Security Advisor before he departed the White House following revelations he had withheld the truth on speaking with the Russian ambassador about sanctions. In early March, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes called Flynn a “tangent” to the investigation, but said he would welcome his or anyone else’s testimony during the course of the investigation.
“But as I said, we’re not going to just call in witnesses based on just press reports alone,” Nunes said at a Wednesday press conference, adding that the inquiry has not yet spoken to Flynn “at this point.”
John Sipher, who retired in 2014 after a 28-year career in the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, said the most important thing for the congressional investigation is to confirm what the IC already concluded — that “the Russian government managed a dedicated attack against the U.S. election and the Democratic nominee.”
Sipher, who is a member of The Cipher Brief Network, said he also hopes the investigation will look into any potential aspects of the Trump campaign’s role in the Russian effort.
“I would like them to ask why any member of the Trump campaign was in contact with Russian government officials,” Sipher wrote in an email. “Why would a Presidential campaign risk meeting representatives of a hostile and corrupt government? How would meeting Russian officials inside and outside the U.S. help a candidate win votes in Iowa, Ohio, etc.? I would also like them to ask if the Trump campaign can document similar contacts with officials from other countries, both inside and outside the U.S.”
However, the investigation must stay focused, Sipher said, and “while I would like to see a serious investigation into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia, it may be better for this effort to remain focused on Russia.”
“It will be important if the investigation clearly supports the findings of the Intelligence Community,” he said. “If they find problems with the consensus of the intelligence report, it will highlight serious issues worth further attention. The best thing they can do — if they do not address the Trump campaign issues — is to explain in simple and clear language exactly what the Russians did and why. The American public needs to understand the seriousness of the issue, and that Russia’s actions were a serious act of aggression.”
“I think that too many people don’t really understand what happened. This was made worse by the emotion of the election,” Sipher added.
Cortney Weinbaum, National Security Policy Associate at RAND Corporation, said the committee could focus their efforts on revealing the extent of Russian activities and what the U.S. could do both at home and abroad to ensure elections are free from interference.
“What infrastructure did Russia need in the U.S. to conduct these activities, and which aspects of that infrastructure still remain in place? Has Russia continued to conduct these activities since the election? If so, are they demonstrating an ability to apply even more sophisticated or advanced tactics in future US elections?” Weinbaum said.
Polyakova noted that public hearings about Russian interference in the U.S. elections could potentially offer a chance to deeply examine Kremlin influence operations and for the first time, really inform the public about how the efforts work to shape and feed a narrative favorable to Russia.
It is important the committee’s series of open hearings feature witnesses who know “how disinformation works and who can explain that even though it’s unlikely that your average American voter changed their vote from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump because Putin told him to, it doesn’t mean there was no influence operation,” Polyakova said.
When asked what the most important question to answer is in the investigation, Nunes said “I don’t see that there’s one important question. I think they’re all important.”
Ranking member Adam Schiff, meanwhile, highlighted three major aspects the inquiry needs to focus on. One focus needs to be uncovering the “whole range” of what the Kremlin did, given the need to help European countries who are facing the same kind of information warfare, Schiff pointed out, while another is the U.S. government response and how to improve that in the future. The third is the question of whether any U.S. citizens were involved.
“I think we know a lot about the Russian hacking and dumping — we know the Russians did it. We know, obviously, some of the platforms they used for the dissemination of this information. I think one question that the country has that is among the most weighty is, were U.S. persons involved? Did they get help? Was there any form of collusion with the campaign? And I think the public knows far less on that issue than they do on many of the others,” Schiff said.
“And for that reason, as well the far-reaching consequences one way or the other, I think it’s very important that our committee get to the bottom of it and if at all possible, speak with one voice on that important issue,” he added.
A likely detour
While the inquiry is aimed at the Russian active measures campaign in the 2016 U.S. election, Monday’s hearing will see another topic taking center stage. Trump’s claims that his predecessor, President Barack Obama, wiretapped him while he was a candidate will be up for discussion, although Nunes and Schiff have said there has been no evidence to back up those allegations. At a joint press conference on Wednesday, Nunes said that the “evidence still remains the same, that we don’t have any evidence that that took place.”
On Thursday, the leadership of the Senate Intelligence Committee said in a joint statement that “based on the information available to us, we see no indications that Trump Tower was the subject of surveillance by any element of the United States government either before or after Election Day 2016.”
The White House has continued to stand by Trump’s allegation. In response to White House press secretary Sean Spicer saying on Thursday that the congressional intel committees have not been provided all the information, a spokesperson for ranking member Sen. Mark Warner said “the bipartisan leaders of the Intelligence Committee would not have made the statement they made without having been fully briefed by the appropriate authorities.”
The House Intelligence leaders have said they will ask Comey about the allegations on Monday.
These allegations from Trump serve as “sort of a diversionary tactic to make people forget what’s really going on” with the election interference investigation, given that the White House tasked the intelligence committees with looking into these, former CIA officer Hall said. As Spicer said on Thursday, “The bottom line is, is that I think the president made it clear two Sundays ago that he wanted the House and the Senate Intelligence Committee to work with these agencies to collect the information and make a report.”
“You’ve got to wonder if Trump wakes up tomorrow and has a bizarre thing he thinks is going to throw everybody off track and says, ‘Hey, you guys have to investigate that too — there’s no evidence for it, there’s no fact, but you guys should be looking at that too’ — is Nunes going to say, ‘Yep, we’ll look at that too’?” Hall said.
“If I were Trump sitting in the White House right now, that’s what I’d be doing. I would say, ‘How much chaff can we get up in the air that will force the committee to do almost anything but look at what really matters most or really worries him the most,’ which is calling into question the results of the election — in other words, possible connectivity to Russia,” he added.
The most effective process?
Experts noted that there are concerns about the congressional inquiries, given the politicized nature of the issue and the history of previous investigations. Hall suggested that an independent, 9/11 style commission, rather than inquiries by the Intelligence oversight committees, may be the best approach for the issue of Russian interference in the U.S. election.
“I have to say, sadly, I don’t think the congressional oversight committees are the most effective and even the right way to go on this,” Hall said, noting he worked for a year in the CIA’s congressional affairs office, and he has great respect for the committees’ professional staffers. “But the committees are, by definition, inherently political, and I saw this again and again on the committees where you would have splits along party lines. This issue is simply too important.”
Partisan divisions present the most likely setback to the investigation, according to Weinbaum.
“If the parties cannot agree on the purpose of the hearing, they risk not making significant progress,” she said. “These hearings provide an opportunity to conduct an unbiased look into how a foreign government intervened in a U.S. election, but only if the hearings do not become a witch-hunt into either the former Obama administration or current Trump administration.”
Former CIA official Sipher, meanwhile, said he worries that Congress “does not have the expertise to handle the investigation effectively and that, despite the best efforts of a few serious representatives, it will quickly become a partisan affair. I fear that the subtle and complicated issues will get lost.”
“I am very concerned that that the investigation will devolve into partisan warfare and leave us in an even more difficult position than we are now,” he added. “The investigation of CIA’s enhanced interrogation program is a good example. The Democrats came to one conclusion, and the Republicans to another. Despite all of the effort and work, the country is not any wiser for the effort.”
A number of other congressional committees are investigating the Kremlin’s actions as well. The Senate Intelligence Committee has said it will hold its own public hearings in the future, while on Wednesday the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism held a hearing on Russian tactics to undermine democracies around the world.
Meanwhile, the House Intelligence Committee’s second public hearing will be held on March 28, and expected witnesses invited by the committee are former CIA Director John Brennan, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, and two senior officials from CrowdStrike, the cybersecurity firm that identified and attributed the hacks of the Democratic National Committee.
Mackenzie Weinger is a national security reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @mweinger.