Last week, the Washington Post reported that the Central Intelligence Agency briefed Senators that it is “clear” that Russian hacking operations were designed to help Donald Trump win the Presidency. While there has reportedly been an intelligence community consensus for some time that Russians were interfering in the 2016 election, the conclusion that there was a pro-Trump motive has roiled the political discussion since. In an astonishing response, President Elect Donald Trump’s transition criticized the intelligence community for past failures and rejected evidence of Russian election interference.
Last August, I called for a bipartisan investigation of the evidence of the Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election. Due to partisan hazards and sensitivities, I called for a “9/11 Commission approach” to this apparent attack on our democracy:
Russian interference in the U.S. political system calls for action by the intelligence community, law enforcement, and congressional committees. There is a paramount need for a credible factual accounting of the hack and its aftermath for the sake of policy formulation, our strategic posture, and democratic legitimacy. But Congress’s track record is not great in this arena. Therefore, these unique circumstances call for a 9/11 Commission-like entity to handle this investigation.
I would recommend that Congress establish a blue ribbon investigative commission in the model of the 9/11 Commission, with a budget and mandate that extends into next year regardless of which party holds the House and Senate gavels after the election. This body should be comprised of serious foreign policy and law enforcement leaders with a small but highly professional investigative staff that is cleared to review the appropriate intelligence materials. Congress should provide it with subpoena power. This commission should then report its findings late next year to Congress and the Executive Branch, with a declassified report mandate for public consumption.
Support is gathering on the Hill for an investigation along these lines. On December 7, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) introduced a bill, H.R. 6447, to establish the “National Commission on Foreign Interference in the 2016 Election.” Importantly, it would establish a bipartisan commission “in the legislative branch,” comprised of twelve members. The Senate Majority Leader, the Senate Minority Leader, the House Speaker, and the House Minority Leader would each get to appoint three commission members. Section 7 of the legislation grants the commission subpoena power, which would be critical to the success of the investigation. Over the weekend, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul touted this proposal in a Washington Post op-ed.
On the Senate side, numerous Democrats and three Republicans have signaled public support for legislative inquiry into Russian election interference. On December 11, Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) put out a joint statement calling for a bipartisan congressional investigation. Unlike the 9/11 bipartisan commission approach, the Senators’ release signals a select committee model in order to “work…across the jurisdictional lines of the Congress.” A bipartisan commission would be comprised of former government officials and nongovernment experts, whereas a select committee would be run by Senate and/or House members. Interestingly, the release went out under the auspices of the Senate Committee on Armed Services. The lack of Senate Republican leadership or Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) members is noticeable, especially given SSCI’s often exclusive jurisdiction over information revealing intelligence sources and methods.
In my August post, I argued that allegations of Russian influence operations played out through two overlapping lenses: domestic electoral politics and international geopolitics. The “overlap” stems from the partisan utility of the alleged Russian operations themselves. If Russia sought to help Donald Trump, he and his supporters have some political incentives to deny it in order to avoid a taint to his legitimacy. In turn, his critics have incentives to undermine the legitimacy of his election by Russian association.
However, all Americans should be gravely concerned about the geopolitical dimensions of a successful Russian intelligence operation. Arranging for selective leaks of information damaging to Hillary Clinton, without leaking hacked Republican information, would reveal Russian motives go beyond chaos to Trump preference. Withholding information damaging to Republicans would provide Russia extortionate leverage over the Trump administration. Given the close margins in a handful of states, it is not inconceivable that Russian operations could have actually influenced the election outcome.
In these matters, a patriot has nothing to fear from the truth. If an investigation counters the conclusion of the CIA that Vladimir Putin sought to tip the election to Trump, then we can put this issue to bed. But what if an investigation confirms Russian interference? It would certainly be unwelcome news at the Trump White House. However, that is reportedly already the judgment of our intelligence professionals. At this point, the only way a President Trump can inoculate himself is if he has called for a full accounting, and then denounces the Russian effort, hits Russia with a proportional response, and enacts safeguards for our future elections.
Some argue that Congress should wait until the conclusion of the intelligence community-wide inquiry ordered by President Barack Obama. In September, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper suggested the executive branch can only extract necessary cooperation from allied foreign intelligence services without threat of public disclosure in congressional proceedings. While that is a valid concern, I disagree with the conclusion. First, the gravity and nature of these allegations call for concurrent Article I and Article II investigations. Second, whether Congress oversees an executive branch investigation after the fact or conducts its own parallel inquiry, foreign intelligence services still face the same concern.
The President-Elect’s own words support a credible, independent investigation. According to a Shane Harris article in the Wall Street Journal, “Mr. Trump repeatedly has denied there is any evidence of Russian involvement in the election hacking, despite having been briefed in secret on the matter by the very intelligence community he criticized.” In an interview December 11 on Fox News, Trump repeated this claim: “They have no idea if it’s Russia or China or somebody. It could be somebody sitting in a bed someplace.” If you believe the members of our intelligence community, there should be a comprehensive investigation and we should be formulating an appropriate response to Russian aggression. If we don’t have enough information, then that also calls for an investigation that is credible, independent, and bipartisan.
Given the gravity of the allegations and quantum of evidence, the American people deserve an accounting of Russian intermeddling. For all our sake, let’s let the chips fall where they may.
Image: Sept. 7, 2016 file photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin holds the Cabinet meeting in Moscow’s Kremlin, Russia. Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File.