The Russia Connection

Senate Intelligence Committee Reality Check-In

By Benjamin Wittes
Tuesday, April 25, 2017, 8:15 AM

Over the past two days, two stories have emerged suggesting that the much-ballyhooed Senate Intelligence Committee investigation into L'Affair Russe may be, well, a little bit overly ballyhooed. 

First, on Sunday, the Daily Beast reported that:

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s probe into Russia’s election interference is supposedly the best hope for getting the public credible answers about whether there was any coordination between the Kremlin and Trump Tower.

But there are serious reasons to doubt that it can accomplish this task, as currently configured.

More than three months after the committee announced that it had agreed on the scope of the investigation, the panel has not begun substantially investigating possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, three individuals with ties to the committee told The Daily Beast.

The investigation does not have a single staffer dedicated to it full-time, and those staff members working on it part-time do not have significant investigative experience. The probe currently appears to be moving at a pace slower than prior Senate Intelligence Committee investigations, such as the CIA torture inquiry, which took years to accomplish.

No interviews have been conducted with key individuals suspected of being in the Trump-Russia orbit: not Michael Flynn, not Roger Stone, not Carter Page, not Paul Manafort, and not Jared Kushner, according to two sources familiar with the committee’s procedures.

Then, yesterday, Reuters piled on:

The Senate's main investigation into allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election is equipped with a much smaller staff than previous high-profile intelligence and scandal probes in Congress, which could potentially affect its progress, according to sources and a Reuters review of public records.

With only seven staff members initially assigned to the Senate Intelligence Committee's three-month-old investigation, progress has been sluggish and minimal, said two sources with direct knowledge of the matter, who requested anonymity.

The allegations in these stories are not by any means of equal weight, nor are they—at least in my opinion—of equal merit. So it's worth breaking them down and assessing them separately. 

It is certainly true that the Senate investigation is understaffed. Susan Hennessey and I warned about that some time back:

This brings us to a final problem with the SSCI inquiry: its staffing. The SSCI already has a full time oversight role. It has major ongoing legislative projects. It is simply not staffed at the level or in the manner necessary to also conduct a highly complex and time-consuming investigation on a matter of critical national importance.

This project needs a large staff devoted to it and it alone.

The two stories flesh out this problem in some detail. Reuters reports that:

Previous investigations of national security matters have been much larger in terms of staffing than the one Burr is overseeing, according to a review of official reports produced by those inquiries, which traditionally name every staff member involved.

A House committee formed to investigate the 2012 attacks on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans had 46 staffers and eight interns.

The Senate Intelligence Committee's years-long study of the CIA's "enhanced" interrogation techniques during President George W. Bush's administration had 20 staff members, according to the panel's official report.

A special commission separate from Congress that reviewed the intelligence that wrongly concluded former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction ahead of the 2003 invasion of Iraq involved 88 staffers.

A special Senate committee's 1970s investigation into Watergate-era surveillance practices tapped 133 staffers.

A joint House-Senate probe of the 1980s Iran-Contra affair during Ronald Reagan's presidency involving secret sales of arms to Iran to try to win the release of American hostages, with proceeds going to Nicaraguan rebels, had 181 staffers.

Reuters later concedes that: "The listed sizes of various investigations may be an imperfect comparison because not all staffers listed may have actually had a substantial role, congressional sources said. Investigations often grow in size over time, and a committee aide said the panel had secured $1.2 million in additional funding for the Russia election investigation."

The Daily Beast story reports that:

Of the seven staffers so far assigned to review classified documents related to the Russia investigation, none of them has prosecutorial or investigative experience, according to three sources with ties to the committee.

Most of them lack a background in Russia expertise. Not one of the seven is a lawyer.

. . .

[O]f the seven staffers, none has been assigned full-time to the work of the Russia probe, according to four sources with ties to the committee. Every one of the seven staffers has other oversight responsibilities, and thus a dual-hatted role that prevents them from focusing singularly on the investigation.

Of the seven, two are the staff directors of the committee—an enormously demanding job even in the calmest of circumstances, which limits their involvement. One of the seven even attends law school part-time.

Does this complaint have merit? Does the Committee need to staff up? No question about it.

After an initial stumble, Committee Chairman Richard Burr has done an excellent job in cultivating both the reality and perception of bipartisanship in this investigation, in notable contrast to the House intelligence committee. But the sourcing of both of these stories clearly reflects a certain measure of Democratic impatience. Burr needs to take that impatience seriously and staff this matter in a fashion that erases any question that resources are what constrains it. Fortunately, the committee has options in this regard. It can take detailees from the intelligence agencies. And, as Reuters notes, it has at least some additional resources available for hiring. One way or another, if the committee is going to be a serious alternative to either a national commission or a select committee, it will need a lot more hands on the project. I don't purport to know what the right number is, but it's a lot more than seven, and it's not people with other concurrent responsibilities.

Put another way, Burr and Vice Chairman Mark Warner simply cannot afford more stories that raise questions about their seriousness about the project and that link the slow pace of progress to their staffing decisions.

The other allegations, however, strike me as much less merited. The Daily Beast complains that we haven't yet seen interviews with the major figures in the Trump-Russia connection and that the committee has, so far, spent its time reviewing the intelligence community's assessment of Russian active measures with respect to the election.

This actually seems like a sign of professionalism and seriousness in the investigation, not anything dilatory or inappropriate. The subject of this investigation is sprawling, complicated, multifaceted, and enormously sensitive—both in political and in intelligence terms. The committee may well get only one crack at witnesses. It is quite reasonable, therefore, to begin by fully reviewing the record of what the intelligence community has already done, what information it has collected, what analysis it conducted, what conclusions it reached, and what conclusions it rejected. We don't need a Senate intelligence committee investigation to interview Carter Page or Paul Manafort or Roger Stone without doing the hard work first of knowing what is knowable using the full resources of the U.S. federal government. We have CNN for that. The idea that the committee might take the time to know what questions to ask in what will be high-stakes depositions or interviews is just good practice.

You can see the value of this approach in the committee's first, and so far only, public hearing, which was serious, informative, and reasssuringly non-partisan. The Daily Beast story actually credits the dysfunctional House investigation with accomplishing more than the Senate investigation. This is silly.

The Senate committee deserves a lot of credit for the manner in which it has proceeded. That it is not currently well-postured to build on the foundation it has created is a fixable problem, and it needs to be fixed. These stories represent a warning shot that they need to be fixed quickly if the investigation is to retain the bipartisanship the committee's leadership has carefully built.