March 31, 2017–Capitol Hill is a place of contrasts. The most recent is the startling difference between inquiries into the Russian Caper being mounted, respectively, by the United States House of Representatives and Senate. The House committee’s “inquiry” has been a pure smokescreen, engineered by a chairman acting as an operative of the Trump White House, in ways calculated to protect President Donald J. Trump from the consequences of his methods. (The jury is still out on what actually happened in the Russian Caper–and the appropriateness, even legality, of that–but it is quite clear that tactics used subsequently to distract attention and/or evade scrutiny are wholly unacceptable.) Democratic Party members of the House Committee are powerless in the face of California Republican Devin Nunes, the chairman. Nunes may be destroying any bipartisanship that existed among his colleagues, recasting himself as a laughing stock, but the practical effect of his actions has been to destroy the House investigation.
That leaves the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI). Readers of this space will recall that during the time of the fight between the Senate committee and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) over the SSCI’s inquiry into the CIA torture program, my analysis was that the agency maneuvered to obstruct and emasculate its Hill overseers. Langley had good success doing so, enough that at the end of the day the SSCI seemed impotent. Now the Russian Caper plus the failure of the House inquiry casts the SSCI in the lead role for what probes that remain possible within the current framework.
The good news is that the SSCI, so far, seems to be stepping up to the plate. Over the past several weeks Virginia Democrat Mark Warner, the ranking opposition member and vice-chairman, has garnered most of the public attention, but has consistently held to a bipartisan approach, and said good things about how the Senate committee will proceed. Then on March 29 Senator Warner appeared with his chairman, North Carolina Republican Senator Richard Burr, at a joint press conference. For forty minutes they laid out how the SSCI will proceed, defended each other, and generally put on a good face.
Senator Burr had gotten off to a rocky start after taking the committee over from California’s Dianne Feinstein. Burr had demanded government agencies return all copies of the SSCI torture report to the committee, evidently intending to deep six the data, handing the final victory to CIA. Investigation of the Russian Caper–which calls Republican party loyalties into question–is an even more difficult proposition for the GOP senator than overseeing the agency.
But Burr and Warner are clearly together in this enterprise. Senator Warner spoke of thousands of documents handed over to the SSCI investigators, and the first public hearing the committee held, on March 30, pulled no punches, with a former FBI special agent discussing Russian active measures tactics. It seemed a good start. Perhaps the Senate intelligence committee is getting its mojo back. We’ll see.