Evelyn N. Farkas was executive director of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism from 2008 to 2009 and deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia during the Obama administration.
The leaders of the U.S. intelligence community, crammed shoulder-to-shoulder last week before the Senate Intelligence Committee, told Congress two things: First, Russia is going to escalate its election meddling efforts this year. Second, the president has not directed the intelligence community or an interagency group to actively counter Russian interference.
The intelligence heads assured the American people that they will be monitoring and reporting on Russian activities, but that won’t be enough. We need a bipartisan, congressionally mandated commission to examine Russia’s attempt to influence the 2016 elections and to make recommendations to prevent a repeat operation.
Skeptics might resist this as redundant and unrealistic. Why fight to put resources into yet another review of Russian meddling, especially when the president is unlikely to sign legislation creating a commission?
The answer is simple: It appears increasingly likely that the American people may not get a full accounting of Russia’s attempt to influence our elections. And without understanding the basic facts of what happened in 2016, the intelligence community and the government as a whole cannot determine which policy options would most effectively counter Russia and other foreign adversaries in the future .
As far as we know, the administration has not directed any internal review, and the special counsel investigation is obligated only to bring facts that support indictments to the public’s attention. Anything Robert S. Mueller III uncovers that is insufficiently substantiated — where there is a question of motive or where there are no illegal acts — will not be made public.
Meanwhile, the congressional investigations are underfunded, understaffed and overtly politicized. The antics of Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) have created the appearance, if not reality, that some members are actively working with the White House to block the investigations. The unprofessional behavior, mainly on the House side, has diminished the credibility of both congressional investigations and Congress as a whole.
And there is another reason to take responsibility for a full review out of the direct purview of Congress: Any accounting must also look at what Congress did or didn’t do, and recommendations for future action to block Russia must also be directed at Congress. The legislative branch should not get a free pass.
Two criteria could increase the likelihood that both parties and even this White House would sign legislation to create such a commission. First, Congress could mandate that the commission look into the actions of everyone — not just the Kremlin, its security services, bots and other forces, and the Trump campaign and its staff, but also the U.S. government under President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton’s campaign and Congress. In this way, no one side would be targeted, and everyone’s shortcomings would be exposed. If Congress were to create a commission with such a mandate, it could escape the political pitfall currently plaguing all of the investigations: They appear to be targeted only at President Trump.
Second, the commission could be staffed with elder statesmen and women from both parties — people with impeccable credentials and ethics. Any Russia commission will only be as legitimate as the sum legitimacy of its commissioners. This was crucial in the case of the 9/11 Commission, as well as the Graham-Talent Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism.
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) and Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) have already proposed legislation to establish such a commission. However, although both the House and Senate versions of the bill have garnered considerable support, it has come almost entirely from Democrats.
The work of the FBI and the congressional intelligence committees goes on but faces much political pressure from the White House and congressional leadership. A commission of sober, experienced experts would be better suited to follow facts where they may lead. It could also provide the United States with a full description of what the Russians did and how they did it. And based on that, it could compile recommendations that the intelligence chiefs and the entire Cabinet could use to build a plan of action for 2018 and beyond.
But this will not happen without popular pressure for action. The American people must demand the full accounting and informed plan of action to defend our democracy that only an independent commission can provide.
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