The Russia Connection

Advice to the Senate Intelligence Committee: Slow Down

By Susan Hennessey, Benjamin Wittes
Friday, September 8, 2017, 12:42 PM

On our Foreign Policy feed this week, we identified the questions that the Senate Intelligence Committee should have answers to before issuing its final report on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. The piece begins:

Last week, Politico reported that congressional investigations are ramping up “as lawmakers return from the August recess amid fresh revelations about contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia.” The news comes shortly after the Chairman of the committee undertaking the most serious investigative effort made a surprising statement — one that got a bit lost amid the steady drumbeat of revelations of contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian.

Richard Burr, Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), told the New York Times he was “hopeful that we can bring finality to [the investigation] by the end of the year, but I also can’t anticipate anything new that might come up that we don’t know today that would extend it by a month or two months.”

Wrap the Russia investigation up by the end of the year? Is Burr serious about that?

If Burr is really contemplating an investigation that issues its report within the next four to six months, it might mean he’s way ahead of where we — and a lot of other people — have assumed he was. But remember that the SSCI is undertaking an investigation of enormous complexity, and it’s pursuing that investigation with lean staffing that is an example of either a laudable Republican commitment to efficiency in government or, well, under-resourcing of what should be an important congressional priority. Given these handicaps, Burr’s comments likely indicate that the investigation has been scoped too narrowly. The other possibility, of course, is that Burr is deluding himself and that the investigation is reasonably scoped but far less advanced than he imagines and that it will, as a consequence, take far longer.

Whichever is the case, with the investigation’s chairman laying out an ambitious timeline to complete the investigation, now is a good time to ask what the American public should expect the SSCI investigation to produce. That is, what are the questions we want Burr and his committee to answer? What is the work we’re expecting this report to do?