Less than a week into Donald Trump’s presidency, both chambers of Congress have launched probes into alleged hacking by Russia that spy chiefs believe was designed to help him win.
The moves could deepen the rift between the new president and the intelligence community — which has said that Russia intervened in the U.S. election with the goal of helping to elect Trump. It could also eventually drive a wedge between Trump and the Republican Congress, depending on the information that is uncovered and how aggressively lawmakers move to follow it.
The Senate Intelligence Committee, which is in charge of the Senate’s investigation, kicked off its probe Tuesday with a meeting to establish the scope of its inquiries. Lawmakers have pledged to look “everywhere the intelligence tells us to go” in investigating Russia’s activities in the 2016 elections, said the committee’s chairman, Richard Burr (R-N.C.) — even if that includes links between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.
The House Intelligence Committee has also launched its formal inquiry, Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and ranking Democrat Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) said in a statement Wednesday. They promised their focus on Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 election would include “any intelligence regarding links between Russia and individuals associated with political campaigns.”
The committee leaders added in their statement that they have already begun to receive documents related to the investigation, while warning incoming Trump administration officials that they expect them to “fully and promptly support our requests for information related to the inquiry. It will not be adequate to review these documents, expected to be in the thousands of pages, at the agencies.”
And Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said his committee in the next week or two will launch its official investigation into how best to deter and counteract cyberthreats posed by countries such as Russia. He plans to hold at least one full committee hearing, calling on officials such as Adm. Michael S. Rogers — the director of the National Security Agency and the head of U.S. Cyber Command — to testify.
Republican leaders are not promising a quick turnaround.
Burr surmised that it would take months to “aggressively” comb through all the intelligence pertaining to the suspected hacking, given that the scale and extent aren’t yet clear. And Republican leaders are clearly waiting on the intelligence panels to take the lead.
“It’s not much of a foreign policy role, once you had the briefing we had the other day,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). He was referring to a briefing the nation’s spy chiefs gave to the full Senate in the days preceding Trump’s inauguration.
“The intelligence community is really robust in what they’re doing, and if you’re really trying to look at what happened during the election, the run-up to the election, that’s really the committee that should be looking at that anyway,” Corker said.
“At present, we can’t even get witnesses, or anybody in intelligence,” to testify, because “they’re off-limits to all of us,” he said.
Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said earlier this month he had no plans to have his panel investigate the Russian-hacking allegations. The Senate Banking Committee has also not outlined plans for any major investigations, though it has jurisdiction over any sanctions to step up punitive actions against Russia.
That leaves the Senate Armed Services Committee to tackle how the United States should marshal its defense and national security resources to deter — or respond to — cyberattacks.
After the opening full committee hearings, the plan is to hand off the day-to-day work of the investigation to the head of a new cybersecurity subcommittee, Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), at an undetermined point in the future.
But Rounds will not have a free hand. Though the full membership of the cybersecurity panel has not yet been set, McCain has decided to award one of the rank-and-file seats to himself. Rounds has already promised that he is “not going to overstep my bounds” when it comes to the chairman.
Rounds, a first-term senator and former governor of South Dakota, was the last-minute pick to replace a McCain confidant, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who opted not to seek the waiver necessary to take on the panel as his third subcommittee chairmanship.
Graham has secured such a waiver before, but he and McCain cast the move as practical, denying that Senate GOP leaders might not agree to let Graham, the conference’s loudest Trump critic, spearhead what is likely to be the Senate’s highest-profile investigation into Russian hacks.
In an interview, Rounds said he has confidence in the new administration because of Trump’s national security picks — particularly James Mattis as Pentagon chief. Rounds said that he is “not looking for a fight” with officials but added that he is prepared “to go wherever the information takes us,” promising that “we’re going to get results.”
Rounds has lobbied for cybersecurity responses in relatively quiet anonymity, but his signature mark in the arena is the current law, passed as part of a massive defense bill last year, insisting the Pentagon define when a cybersecurity breach or attack constitutes an act of war.
His goal now is to craft policy describing what to do in the event of a cyberattack. He would not outline his ideal terms, pledge to fully publicize the results or endorse new sanctions on Russia. He noted that “if Congress places sanctions on [Russia], the administration can’t simply decide not to enforce them.”
But Rounds said that would-be hackers and adversaries should understand there will be “serious repercussions” for anyone trying in the future to interfere with an election through cyberspace.
“We should not take anything off the table,” he said, likening cyberattacks to other acts of war. “What we would do in regard to a [physical] attack, we should also be able to use for a cyberattack.”