Congress moves ahead with Russian election-hacking probes

·Chief Investigative Correspondent
(Photo illustration: Yahoo News, photos: AP [2], Getty Images)
(Photo illustration: Yahoo News, photos: AP [2], Getty Images)

The House and Senate Intelligence Committees are moving forward with separate inquiries into Russian hacking of the 2016 election, including exploring allegations of communications between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign.

The Senate Intelligence Committee voted in closed session late Tuesday to approve a formal investigative plan for the panel’s previously announced inquiry, setting a tentative deadline of three months to complete the probe.

On Wednesday, the House Intelligence Committee publicly announced for the first time that it will conduct its own investigation into the intelligence community’s conclusion about Russian meddling in the election. As part of its probe, the panel said, it will examine U.S. “counterintelligence concerns” about the election, “including any intelligence regarding links between Russia and individuals associated with political campaigns.”

The scope of the two inquiries would appear to specifically include looking at the validity of a widely circulated 35-page dossier alleging numerous unverified contacts between Trump campaign figures and Russian officials. The report, compiled by a former British spy hired by a political opposition research firm working for anti-Trump donors, also contained sensational claims, denounced as “fake news” by Trump, of compromising personal information that the Kremlin had allegedly gathered about him during a 2013 trip to Moscow.

“We’re not taking that off the table,” said Jack Langer, a spokesman for California GOP Rep. Devin Nunes, when asked if the committee’s probe would include investigating the claims in the dossier.

But how thorough the two congressional probes will be — and how much cooperation they will receive from intelligence agencies now controlled by the Trump administration — is far from clear. The tentative deadline of three months to complete the Senate investigation struck several committee staffers as extremely tight for such a potentially wide-ranging probe. In part, it reflected the desire by Republican chair Sen. Richard Burr for an “expeditious” probe that would not drag on through the first year of the Trump presidency. Democrats agreed with the timeline, emphasizing that the three-month deadline could be extended and that it has the advantage of preventing the intelligence agencies from “foot-dragging” requests for documents and interviews.

Signs of tensions between the panels and the agencies have already become apparent. The House release noted that, in response to the committee’s initial, little-publicized request earlier this month to examine documents relating to the Russian hacking, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence responded that staffers could come to its office to examine the materials — but that they could not take them back to their offices on Capitol Hill.

“It will not be adequate to review these documents, expected to be in the thousands of pages, at the agencies,” Nunes and Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the panel, said in a joint statement. “They should be delivered to the House Intelligence Committee to provide members adequate time to examine their content.”

The dual congressional probes coincide with a separate FBI counterintelligence probe into allegations that several figures involved in Trump’s presidential campaign — including former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former foreign policy advisor Carter Page — had ties to figures in the Kremlin. Manafort and Page have both denied any wrongdoing.

So far, FBI Director James Comey has refused to confirm anything about the probe — including even its existence — to members of Congress, asserting that it is in keeping with FBI practice not to comment on pending investigations. Comey’s refusal, most recently in a closed-door briefing for House members, infuriated some Democrats, who argued that it contrasted with his approach to the Hillary Clinton email probe.

Comey informed Congress, and the public, of developments in that case twice in the two weeks before the election — potentially influencing the outcome, in the view of some Democrats. But FBI officials say those letters were pursuant to Comey’s commitment to Congress to keep members informed of developments in that well-publicized case. The officials have given no indication that Comey intends to be any more forthcoming about the ongoing Russia probe.
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