A year after Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded there was no evidence President Trump colluded with Russians to steal the 2016 election, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence issued its fourth of five reports in a slow-moving and muted investigation into the same matter. While the committee asserted in July 2018 that it agreed with a disputed Obama-era finding on Russia’s motivation for interfering in the 2016 presidential election, its highly redacted report on the intelligence community’s January 2017 claim was finally released Tuesday morning.
The report is yet another reminder of how the committee helped Democrats and other critics of President Donald Trump perpetuate the now-debunked theory that Trump was a secret Russian agent. The Senate’s Intelligence Committee is ostensibly chaired by Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican who is currently avoiding questions about why he dumped stocks after receiving private briefings about coronavirus threats.
In practice, the committee has largely been run by Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. The committee’s major and perhaps only contribution to the Russia collusion storyline was to employ a high-level staffer tasked with handling classified information who was convicted of lying to the FBI about leaks of classified information to reporters he was having affairs with. Both Burr and Warner begged a judge to be lenient with their former employee. The judge sentenced him to two months in prison.
Tuesday’s committee report is at odds with the findings of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (at least when it was under the leadership of Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif.), which revealed significant malfeasance in how the intelligence community conducted its Russia collusion investigation beginning in 2016.
A sprawling year-and-a-half investigation by the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General corroborated all the major findings of the HPSCI report, including that intelligence community officials lied to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court, fabricated and doctored evidence in support of applications to spy on American citizens who volunteered for the Trump campaign, and even colluded with agents of sanctioned Russian oligarchs in their attempt to take down Trump. Here are those HPSCI reports on Russian active measures and the DOJ’s abuse of the FISA process.
What We Know
For years, the country was gripped by selectively leaked pieces of information written in such a manner as to suggest that Trump was a traitor who colluded with Russia to steal the 2016 election. Grand theories of “collusion” with Russia formed a major portion of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and post-election strategy, and were echoed by a sympathetic media as well as some “NeverTrump” Republican officials and pundits.
An intelligence community assessment leaked to the Washington Post in December 2016 added fuel to the fire. An assessment was publicly released on January 6, 2017, at the same time that high-level Obama intelligence officials were leaking to CNN and other credulous media outlets that they had reasonable confidence in a dossier that detailed Trump’s secret and extensive collusion with Russia.
Further criminal leaks, such as information about what turned out to be a perfectly benign phone call between the incoming national security advisor and a Russian diplomat, created even more of a firestorm. The hysteria led, among other things, to a sprawling special counsel probe that seriously damaged the Trump administration’s ability to govern, dangerously hampered foreign policy, and resulted in no finding of collusion by any single American, much less anyone associated with the Trump campaign, much less Trump himself.
HPSCI’s Russia report questioned not the finding so much as the the tradecraft used for the part of the intelligence community assessment related to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategic intentions. The ICA said Putin “aspired to help” Trump by “discrediting Secretary Clinton.”
Russia’s long-practiced election interference manifested in 2016 with a social media operation that insulted both Trump and Clinton and was mostly about sowing division along racial and political lines. The IC assessment claiming love of Trump motivated the operation was one of the keys to launching damaging investigations against him. HPSCI found that while most of the intelligence community’s analysis held up to scrutiny, “judgments on Putin’s strategic intentions did not employ proper analytic tradecraft.”
The House committee said the ICA’s path to making that judgment “failed to meet longstanding standards,” including properly describing the quality and credibility of underlying sources, properly expressing and explaining uncertainties associated with major analytic judgments, making sure to incorporate analysis of alternative explanations (particularly when major judgments will have high-impact results), basing confidence assessments on the quantity and quality of source material, being informed by all relevant information available, and being independent of political considerations, among other things.
HPSCI said the failure was specific to this finding rather than the overall assessment while also noting how out of the ordinary the drafting and reviewing of the assessment was. It has previously been reported that an extremely small group of individuals hand-picked by some of the most political Obama intelligence officials compiled the assessment instead of going through the normal review process that seeks broader and less-political inputs.
Two years later, HPSCI’s sister committee on the Senate side finally weighs in to report it “did not discover any significant analytic tradecraft issues in the preparation or final presentation of the ICA.” Neither HPSCI nor the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence discuss how they reached those conclusions, since the tradecraft question is highly classified. The SSCI began its report by praising the intelligence community’s “impressive accomplishment in drafting and coordinating of the Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA).”
Wildly Different Oversight Approaches
The two committees’ divergent judgments perfectly encapsulate their wildly different approaches to oversight, at least when they were both controlled by Republicans. Since the House Intelligence Committee was taken over by Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., following the 2018 midterm elections, the committees have taken a remarkably similar approach.
From the moment the intelligence community began leaking its Russia findings to the media rather than briefing them to the intelligence committees, the two chairmen responded differently. For Burr, the leaking of the findings to a hostile media were a reason to be cautious — not toward the media or the leakers, but toward Trump.
He later led efforts to protect Robert Mueller from any oversight of or accountability for his sprawling and damaging special counsel investigation into the conspiracy theory of collusion. For Nunes, the chairman of the House committee, the leak itself was problematic.
“I am alarmed that supposedly new information continues to leak to the media but has not been provided to Congress despite my letter asking for more information on this topic, and despite the Committee’s request to schedule an urgent classified briefing that would set the record straight on the IC’s current assessment,” Nunes wrote on December 16, 2016.
The Senate Committee’s uncritical reception of whatever the intelligence community told its overseers or leaked to the media was not matched by the House Intel Committee. Perhaps because the intelligence community treated long-standing Russian interference somehow as a unique 2016 situation to hurt Trump, Nunes was skeptical. While much more of a Russia hawk than some of his fellow members, his posture toward the (admittedly absurd) conspiracy theory of collusion with Russia was noticeable after the election.
Rather than take the intelligence committee at their word, the House Intelligence Committee demanded evidence, threatened agency heads, cajoled agency heads, played hardball … and got actual evidence. By comparison, Burr absconded from the fight, except to reinforce efforts to undermine the Trump administration and proudly employ a man who lied about leaks of highly classified information.
Tale of Two Chairmen On FISA Abuse
The approach Nunes took began to bear fruit with the shocking revelation that the dossier played around with by intelligence officials was in fact a Democratic product that had been secretly bought and paid for by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee . Clinton and the DNC had hidden that absolutely shocking and game-changing fact — and in some cases lied about it — from the American public, journalists, and investigators.
With Nunes closing in on the bank records that would reveal this elaborate ploy, the information was given to friendly reporters at the Washington Post. It likely would have never been made public if not for the tenacious work by Nunes and HPSCI.
But perhaps their biggest achievement was to fight tooth and nail to reveal abuse of the FISA process. While the inspector general has now not just corroborated what the House committee found about tremendous abuse of the process, but added to it, there was a time the conventional wisdom in D.C. was that there were no concerns with the process.
Burr helped form that consensus, joining with Schiff and activists in the media to strongly defend the Department of Justice’s applications to spy on Trump campaign official Carter Page. He told media outlets he saw nothing wrong with the applications and that there were “sound reasons” to spy on Page. The media used this statement to further peddle the collusion narrative.
Two of the applications were later deemed invalid and another two are still under review. The inspector general catalogued numerous errors and failures in the securing of those wiretaps, including the falsification of evidence and 16 other major problems and errors.
Transparency vs. Delay
Since Clinton and the DNC launched their Russia collusion narrative in the spring of 2016, multiple investigations were launched. The FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane investigation was on its last legs when it was picked up by Mueller’s team.
His investigation was concluded more than one year ago. A lengthy inspector general colonoscopy was completed last year. The House committee put out its full report two years ago. But for the central investigation that the Senate Intel committee is supposed to be investigating, the jury is still out. Even this report backing up the discredited intelligence community is only the fourth out of five planned reports.
Purpose Of Committee
Whereas HPSCI members clearly thought oversight of out-of-control intelligence agencies was their job, Burr has always asserted his primary concern isn’t truth so much as to maintain bipartisanship. It is the central feature of his committee, the feature most praised by corporate media, and results in a de facto leadership by Democrats.
This emphasis on bipartisanship reached its most ridiculous point when Burr said he had no problem with text messages that came out showing Warner talking to Adam Waldman, an attorney for Oleg Deripaska, a sanctioned Russian oligarch. The texts showed Warner trying to arrange a back channel communication with Christopher Steele, the foreign operative who put together a dossier of anti-Trump claims sourced to Russian officials and other questionable characters.
Even when those texts showed Warner specifically saying he wanted to keep the communications outside the purview of the committee, Burr defended him. There were reports that Burr went to then-Speaker of the House Paul Ryan to falsely accuse the House Intelligence Committee of leaking these texts. That wasn’t true, although the culprit of that leak hasn’t been found. It is more likely that disgruntled Republicans on the committee, frustrated by what Burr and Warner have done to it, were responsible.
While it’s understandable that Burr and Warner wish to further the Russia collusion conspiracy, there is no reason the American people or media need to go along with it. Declassifications have overwhelmingly corroborated and affirmed the HPSCI report, and it’s time for accountability from Congress rather than yet another attempt to paper over what the IC did during the 2016 election and beyond.
With Democrats controlling HPSCI, Republicans should consider whether they want to have someone capable of that oversight and accountability in charge of their sole remaining intelligence committee.