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How House Intel Committee’s Russia Investigation Turned into a Cautionary Tale

(Photo: CSPAN; Illustration by POGO)

The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence report on Russian interference with the 2016 election, released with heavy redactions last Friday, could have been an opportunity to provide meaningful public oversight of a national security crisis of unprecedented proportions. Instead, it landed with a thud along with a conflicting report from the Committee’s Democratic minority in the wake of a contentious investigation that made for more headlines about partisan bickering than actual revelations—and left even some members of the Committee’s majority critical of some aspects of the investigation and findings.

This sort of cautionary tale would serve no purpose unless someone learns from it. Reviewing the twists and turns of the House Intelligence Committee’s oversight efforts on Russian election meddling is an opportunity to learn what went wrong, why, and how to prevent future Congressional investigations from suffering the same fate.

In a report on best practices learned from Congressional investigations, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) highlighted factors that could help make inquiries more effective: true bipartisanship, adequate tools and resources, clear focus, and Congressional leadership support.

The House Intelligence Committee’s Russia investigation appeared to miss the mark on many of these best practices—resulting in a muddled effort that left its members’ duty to the American people unfulfilled.

The bipartisanship issue was awkward nearly from the start. After all, it was an investigation into a presidential election led by a committee chair, Devin Nunes (R-CA), who was a close ally of the President and a member of his transition team.

Things went sharply downhill in late March 2017, when White House staff fed Nunes information alleging that U.S. intelligence engaged in “incidental collection” of Trump staffers’ communications during the campaign. Nunes held an impromptu press conference on the allegations then bizarrely headed to the White House to brief President Trump himself on the issue (even though White House staff gave Nunes the info in the first place). He did all this reportedly before reviewing it with the other members of the Committee.

The Washington Post reported Nunes later apologized to Committee members for his handling of the situation, but the damage was done.

Nunes said he would step away from leadership of the Committee’s Russia investigation in April following an ethics complaint related those White House escapades, leaving Representative Mike Conaway (R-TX) to take the lead. The House Ethics Committee formally cleared Nunes in December, yet in the meantime Nunes’ step back did not function as a formal recusal, as the Los Angeles Times noted.

Instead, Nunes continued to take actions that manyobservershave noted appeared to be driven by partisan efforts to undermine the Special Counsel’s criminal investigation and distracted focus from the issue at the heart of the investigation: the alleged Russian efforts to tamper with the American electoral process and disrupt a core function of our democracy.

Nunes successfully pushed for the release of a controversial memo that focused on those issues earlier this spring. However, a Committee transcript shows that only two Committee members reviewed the actual documents the memo was based on before the Committee voted on its release.

The transcript further reveals that a Republican majority of the Committee voted against a motion to allow the Justice Department to even provide a briefing on the underlying documents, and suggests Republican Committee members voted at a previous session to restrict Committee members’ access to the documents themselves. In a February letter, POGO and Demand Progress called on House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) to remove House Intelligence members who “elected to keep themselves and their colleagues in the dark” in that instance.

Upon release of the memo, the FBI claimed it had misleading omissions and the Committee’s Democratic minority members later released a counter-memo. (Nunes and the Justice Department reached an agreement in April to allow all Committee members to view the underlying documents.)

Congressional investigations into classified information can be complicated because so much of the deliberations are carried out behind closed doors, making it hard for the public to judge those agencies under investigation or the accuracy of Congressional findings. But given the severity of the concerns at stake in the Russian investigation, there’s no excuse for willful ignorance. Indeed, the topic at hand—a foreign power attempting to undermine the credibility of American elections—is one where Congress is uniquely positioned to perform rigorous oversight on the public's behalf.

As the director of POGO’s Center for Defense Information Mandy Smithberger testified before Congress in April, committees on the House side that deal with such sensitive issues—including House Intelligence—need more Congressional staff with clearance to access to the highest level of classified information to do their job effectively.

While House Intelligence has staffers with such access, known as Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information or TS/SCI, hiring and firing decisions about those staffers are made by the chair and ranking member. Personal staffers for individual members are limited to having two eligible staffers with lesser “top secret” access, which can leave members unprepared to individually evaluate the most crucial issues that come before the Committee.

The Senate has already acknowledged the need for more robust TS/SCI staffing in similar oversight roles. For example, members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence are provided with staff designees with TS/SCI clearance. Making personal staffers who support House members working in similar circumstances eligible for that same level of clearance, rather than just top secret, would empower them to better prepare their bosses to serve the American people.

“This would significantly strengthen those members’ ability to conduct oversight, as it allows staff to press the intelligence agencies to answer the hard questions,” Smithberger said. Yet reports suggest the House Intelligence Committee was not properly resourced to carry out a robust investigation into Russian election meddling and added only minimal staff to help with the increased workload. (Nunes himself acknowledged that his committee was under-resourced in a February 2017 budget request—citing an op-ed in The Hill co-authored by POGO—that resulted in the limited staff bump.)

When House Intelligence voted along partisan lines to formally close its investigation in March and release the majority report, Democrats on the Committee argued the investigation failed to follow certain relevant lines of inquiry and to make contact with dozens of potentially relevant witnesses, among other missteps.

Remarkably, even some of the Committee’s Republican members who voted in favor of the Majority report’s release made statements that appeared to contradict one of its most controversial points: a rejection of the U.S. intelligence community assessment’s determination that Russian election meddling was aimed at promoting Trump’s candidacy.

Representative Trey Gowdy (R-SC) in a statement at the time said it was “clear, based on the evidence, Russia had disdain for Secretary Clinton and was motivated in whole or in part by a desire to harm her candidacy or undermine her Presidency had she prevailed,” which an aide clarified meant that, yes, Gowdy thought Russia was trying to help Trump. Asked about the issue on CNN, Representative Tom Rooney (R-FL) said he believed there was evidence to support the intelligence community assessment that Russian efforts were aimed at boosting Trump’s candidacy, but that the Russians also seemed intent on sowing discord across the board. Perhaps if Gowdy and Rooney had more staffers with TS/SCI clearances to help them throughout the investigation, they could have pushed for changes to the report that more accurately represented their full views or might have had the capacity to produce a substantial dissent.

In the same interview, Rooney argued it was time for the Committee’s Russia investigation to end because it had “completely gone off the rails” and “lost all credibility.” This lack of comfort with the process and outcome from Majority Committee members suggests a fundamental breakdown in House Intelligence’s operations.

The House Intelligence Committee’s investigation is not the only Congressional inquiry digging into Russian election meddling. On the Senate side, both the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees have ongoing investigations that appear to be grounded on more bipartisan footings. And, of course, outside of Congress, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s criminal investigation is still making headlines with new charges, subpoenas, and plea deals.

But these other investigations don’t mean we should be complacent about the problems with the House’s Russia inquiry. Instead, it is now more important than ever to pursue reforms that could help House Intelligence better serve the public interest in its next investigation.

A good place to start is with a list of suggestions POGO and other public interest groups sent to Speaker Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) in September 2016. Along with more staff with the capability to review classified information, the organizations proposed reforms that would increase transparency and modernize Committee membership process to make it less partisan, among other changes.

Unfortunately, leadership on the Hill didn’t heed the advice of POGO and others then. Maybe now that the House Intelligence Committee’s Russia investigation has demonstrated how badly reforms are needed, they’ll listen.