The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Making sense of Russia, Uranium One and Hillary Clinton, as Congress opens an investigation

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) announces a probe into a deal on U.S. uranium mines reached under the Obama administration. (Video: The Washington Post)

The House intelligence and oversight committees began a joint investigation Monday of the Obama administration's 2010 approval of a business deal that gave Russia's atomic energy agency control of a company with uranium-mining interests in the United States.

The Hill reported last week that at the time of approval, the FBI was investigating Russia's corrupt business practices in the nuclear industry; the Hill also reported that it was unclear whether members of a committee that signed off on the deal, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, were made aware of the inquiry, which presumably would have factored into their decision.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said Congress will try to determine “whether there was an FBI investigation, was there a [Justice Department] investigation, and if so, why was Congress not informed of this matter?”

Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), a member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said his panel “will be focusing on how the interagency process worked in this. We don't think that it worked out very well.”

Below is a breakdown of major claims and questions about the uranium deal, originally published Oct. 19:

To hear Sean Hannity tell it, the media is ignoring “what is becoming the biggest scandal — or, at least, one of them — in American history.”

Hannity is jumping waaay ahead of the facts. So is Breitbart News, which has been running misleading headlines such as this: “FBI uncovers confirmation of Hillary Clinton's corrupt uranium deal with Russia.”

Brent Bozell, founder of the conservative Media Research Center, claims that there is “another coverup in the making.”

President Trump agrees.

Recent reporting by the Hill has, indeed, added a layer of intrigue to the sale of a uranium mining company to Russia's atomic energy agency, which was approved by the Clinton-led State Department and eight other U.S. government agencies. But the latest developments, as they relate to Clinton, are not as explosive as certain news outlets — eager to draw attention away from reporting on Trump and Russia — would have you believe.

Let's break it down:

What the Hill reported

Journalists John Solomon and Alison Spann reported Oct. 17 that before the Obama administration approved Russia's 2010 acquisition of a majority stake in a Canadian firm that owned uranium mines in the American West, the FBI had begun investigating a Kremlin scheme to grow Russia's influence in the United States' nuclear industry through corrupt business practices.

Here's an excerpt:

Federal agents used a confidential U.S. witness working inside the Russian nuclear industry to gather extensive financial records, make secret recordings and intercept emails as early as 2009 that showed Moscow had compromised an American uranium trucking firm with bribes and kickbacks in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, FBI and court documents show.

Why the FBI investigation matters

Investigators' findings suggest that maybe it wasn't such a good idea to let Russia buy the mining company.

Uranium One, as the firm became known under Russian ownership, controls one-fifth of uranium mining capacity in the United States — a sizable share. For this reason alone, the wisdom of approving Russia's takeover of the company is debatable.

“Since uranium is considered a strategic asset, with implications for national security, the deal had to be approved by a committee composed of representatives from a number of United States government agencies,” including the State Department, the New York Times explained in 2015.

If committee members knew that Russia, as it tried to acquire a large stake in U.S. uranium, was engaged in illegal business, then approving the deal would be even harder to justify.

So, did committee members — especially Clinton — know what the FBI had found?

That's unclear.

“Multiple current and former government officials told the Hill they did not know whether the FBI or [Justice Department] ever alerted committee members to the criminal activity they uncovered,” Solomon and Spann reported.

This is a key point. In response to the Hill's report, the Senate Judiciary Committee has asked the agencies that signed off on the deal to disclose what, if anything, they knew about the FBI's investigation. If it were to turn out that Clinton and others were aware of the FBI's findings — and ignored them — that could be difficult to explain.

But there is reason to doubt that Clinton would have been in the know. The FBI investigation was still four years from completion at the time that the uranium deal was approved. (One Russian official, Vadim Mikerin, was indicted in 2014 and later sentenced to four years in prison.)

Then there's this:

Ronald Hosko, who served as the assistant FBI director in charge of criminal cases when the investigation was underway, told the Hill he did not recall ever being briefed about Mikerin's case by the counterintelligence side of the bureau, despite the criminal charges that were being lodged.
“I had no idea this case was being conducted,” a surprised Hosko said in an interview.
Likewise, major congressional figures were also kept in the dark.
Former Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), who chaired the House Intelligence Committee during the time the FBI probe was being conducted, told the Hill that he had never been told anything about the Russian nuclear corruption case, even though many fellow lawmakers had serious concerns about the Obama administration's approval of the Uranium One deal.

If people like Hosko and Rogers did not know about the FBI's investigation, then Clinton probably didn't, either.

What about those donations from Russia to the Clinton Foundation?

The New York Times reported in 2015 that “as the Russians gradually assumed control of Uranium One in three separate transactions from 2009 to 2013, Canadian records show, a flow of cash made its way to the Clinton Foundation.”

It is virtually impossible to view these donations as anything other than an attempt to curry favor with Clinton. Donations alone do not, however, prove that Clinton was actually influenced by money to vote in favor of the Uranium One sale — or to overlook the FBI investigation. Again, there is no evidence that she even knew about the investigation.

Similarly, it is virtually impossible to view foreign dignitaries' habit of lodging at Trump's Washington hotel as anything other than an attempt to curry favor with the president. Reservations and room service alone do not, however, prove that Trump's foreign policy is actually influenced by money.

Some people willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt are denying Clinton the same courtesy.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) says he’d “prefer” reporters to stop saying that he recused himself from the panel’s Russia probe. (Video: The Washington Post)