Let’s start with what we know: There can be little doubt that the Russian government attempted a multipronged operation last year to try to influence our presidential election. All 17 members of the U.S. intelligence community agree on that, and such unanimity on anything from so many government agencies — in the intelligence world or elsewhere — is rare. It is also clear that the goal of the Russians’ operation was to increase the likelihood that Donald Trump would be elected. This is not a partisan statement, especially if you look at it from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s perspective: Candidate Trump’s positions on Russia were very much more favorable to Moscow than were those of his opponent, Hillary Clinton (see also: NATO, Crimea, Eastern Ukraine). Personal antipathy between Putin and Clinton also probably played a role.
What else do we know? We have seen a series of data points linking the Trump campaign to the Russian government before the election. We know Michael Flynn, erstwhile national security adviser and active member of the Trump campaign, visited Moscow at the behest of RT, a Russian media outlet controlled and funded by the Kremlin and notorious for spreading propaganda. We know RT paid for the trip and also compensated Flynn. We know that Flynn sat at the head table with Putin during an RT event. We know there are as yet unproven allegations of connections between Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chief, and Russia (possibly via a Russian intelligence officer and a Russian oligarch/organized crime figure). We know there are outstanding questions regarding Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, as to whether he traveled to Europe for meetings with Russians (which he has denied). And more recently, it has come to light that Trump adviser Roger Stone was in contact with hacker Guccifer 2.0, who claims to have been involved with the breach of Democratic National Committee servers.
The steady drumbeat regarding some kind of contact between the Trump camp and Russia, coupled with the assessment of the IC, has caused Congress to begin investigating. The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, led by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), will hold public hearings this week, while various other committees indicate they plan to investigate, as well.
But figuring out the connections between the Russian government and the Trump administration won’t be possible if we leave it up to Congress. For such a serious — and politically fraught — matter, we need an independent investigation.
Even if only one of the data points pointing toward contact between the Trump campaign and the Russians is accurate, a serious probe is required. This is not a matter of looking into a misguided policy that was pursued illegally (like Iran/Contra), a possible intelligence failure resulting in thousands of American deaths (the 9/11 attacks) or the gross politicization of intelligence for political means (whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction before the 2003 U.S. invasion). For the Trump campaign or any of its representatives to be in any way coordinating with the government of Russia during the campaign constitutes a threat to a primary pillar of American democracy: free and fair elections. That Russia meddled in U.S. presidential elections is bad enough; cooperation or collusion between a candidate and a foreign power — particularly Russia, a serious adversary — in an attempt to win would be unprecedented in modern times.
The gravity and inherently political nature of the situation are precisely what make investigation by congressional committees ill-advised. I have seen both the House and Senate committees on intelligence in action during my time working in the CIA’s Office of Congressional Affairs. As a longtime intelligence officer and member of the Clandestine Service, I was impressed with the committes’ attention to security and secrecy. Members and staffers enjoyed access to incredibly sensitive programs and information, and in some cases the professional staff had a better understanding as to what was going on during briefings than I did. I cannot recall a time during my tenure when either a staffer or a member leaked classified information.
But that’s not the issue. The real problem is the politics that are baked into the congressional oversight system. Because members of Congress are involved, party politics inevitably comes into play. Take, for example, the investigation into the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques, undertaken in 2009 by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), then chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The result was a unilateral report issued by the panel’s Democrats. Republican members never agreed with how the investigation was run, and they refused to participate. And then there was the controversy over whether Senate staffers had tried to access information the CIA had not cleared for them, the subsequent CIA search of computers used by the staffers to determine this (which the committee believed was an illegal hack) and the ensuing distrust on both sides.
While the “Torture Report” dealt with a sensitive topic involving American values, the possibility of a presidential election corrupted by a foreign power is incredibly more incendiary. At the end of the day, the “Torture Report” decided nothing and caused no change that had not already occurred inside the CIA, and the results of the report remain contested. I doubt if most Americans outside of Washington can recall the results of Feinstein’s work or whether anything decisive happened in its wake.
This cannot happen with the investigation into possible Russian ties to the Trump campaign. Allegations of torture quite correctly caused our democracy to take a hard look at what our intelligence services have been asked to do by an administration. But allegations of a candidate cooperating with an adversarial foreign power to win a presidential election strike at the very heart of our system. The seriousness of these allegations means we cannot leave the investigation to any politician who has a vested interest in the outcome, as both Republicans and Democrats do. Members and staffers on the oversight committees simply cannot act in a truly bipartisan fashion. This fact is a product of the hyper-partisanship present in politics right now. At a different time in our history, I might have believed a politician who said, “This issue is critical and needs to be dealt with in a bipartisan fashion.” In today’s political vocabulary, that translates into, “This issue is critical, and if you are from the opposing party you need to get behind us on this.”
Already there is evidence that the investigations by the intelligence oversight committees are becoming political. The issues associated with Flynn are being called “a tangent” by Nunes, even as a better understanding of Flynn’s activities while in Russia is critically important. President Trump has made allegations that his campaign was subjected to surveillance last year, and despite there being no evidence of this, Nunes has agreed to include the claims in the investigation, thereby stretching the committee’s resources — and, more important, the nation’s attention span.
The 9/11 Commission tried to get to the root cause of how thousands of Americans could be killed in the United States by terrorists. Those attacks were horrible, but politically, everyone in power in Washington agreed on who the enemy was and that nothing like the attacks should never happen again. It was, truly, a bipartisan matter. The much more insidious possibility of Trump’s cooperation with Russia to win the election should be of the same kind of bipartisan concern, investigated by an independent commission, too. If that doesn’t happen, and the results of the oversight committee’s work is simply a shoulder shrug, grave damage will have been done to the bedrock of our democracy.