Pardon this cynic, and one-time Capitol Hill staffer, when I question the promise of the Senate Intelligence Committee “following the evidence wherever it leads” to get to the bottom of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. The revelation of last year’s FISA warrant to monitor Trump campaign adviser Carter Page is a sign of lowered expectations. The committee has found its “burnt offering” for a public hearing. The bigger fish, Gen. Mike Flynn and Paul Manafort, are bargaining for immunity; the result will be sanitized public testimony.
Anticipating 20 witnesses, it is inevitable Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Mark Warner, D-Va., will retreat into closed-door hearings, and the probe will drag on past summer. Moreover, the scope of the inquiry is widening to the point where it might lose its original purpose, with evident White House pressure to fish for red herrings like the “unmasking” of American names that were incidental to the surveillance of Russians getting in touch with Trump Tower.
Will Burr allow the investigation to plow deep into the numerous enemy contacts with quite a few Trump associates to determine if there was coordination – if not collusion – in order to harm Hillary Clinton’s campaign?
Note how baldly the White House was caught working with the discredited chairman of House Intelligence, Rep. Devin Nunes, to throw up a smokescreen – after the intelligence chiefs publicly concluded in January that there had been major interference from the Russians in last year’s election!
Consider the stunning March 30 Senate testimony of a key witness, Clinton Watts – a cyber-security expert and former FBI agent – regarding Russian “active measures” in the midst of the campaign. Watts flatly stated that Trump himself had become a cog in such Russian activities. When asked why Russian methods worked in the 2016 election cycle, Watts answered: “I think the answer is very simple and is one no one is really saying in this room. … the Commander-in-Chief has used Russian active (disinformation) measures at times against his opponents.”
To buttress the claim that Trump aided Russian efforts, Watts cited several instances, among them: Trump’s ongoing criticism before and after the campaign of U.S. counter-intelligence reports of Russian interference in the election. “Part of the reason active measures work is because they parrot the same lines,” Watts said.
Given the “lit fuse” nature of the Senate committee’s inquiry – and the trail of disappearing Russians who were reportedly involved in hacking into our system – it is quite probable that Burr, despite a harmonious bipartisan beginning, will try what he did with the long version of the Torture Report of 2014: over-classify it and seal it up.
Finally, the recent re-emergence of prominent geopolitical differences between Washington and Moscow is bound to be a continuing distraction from the intelligence inquiry, and it will serve to blunt its political impact.
Chairman Burr has already laid down a blanket cover for his committee’s investigation: “We are all targets” of Russian intelligence.
Jackson, a Davidson resident, was chief legislative assistant to the Senate Democratic Whip from 1974-77. He helped craft the original mandate of the Senate Intelligence Committee. This commentary originally appeared in The Charlotte Observer.