Independent commission needed to investigate Russian hacking of our democracy

FBI Director James Comey, left, and National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers, testifies on before the House Intelligence Committee on allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
FBI Director James Comey, left, and National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers, testifies on before the House Intelligence Committee on allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The Associated Press

Editors’ note: Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, is chairman of the Intelligence Committee. He declined the opportunity to present his views here.

In 2015, Russian intelligence agencies penetrated the computers of political organizations, think tanks and other U.S. institutions in what looked like a foreign intelligence-gathering operation. The Russians are not alone among foreign nations in conducting espionage in the United States designed to learn more about the political parties or persons of interest like candidates for president. Nor was this the first time we were hacked by Russia.

What made the Russian action so extraordinary was what they did with the information they had stolen; instead of using it to inform their decision-making or identify further targets of espionage (although they may have done this too), President Vladimir Putin decided to become an active participant in the U.S. election and attempt to influence its result for Donald Trump and against Hillary Clinton.

This is not idle speculation or the partisan characterization of ambiguous events – it is the consensus conclusion of all our intelligence agencies. Those same agencies have also concluded that Putin will do it again. Indeed, as you read this, the Russians are similarly meddling in European nations to influence their elections, against the likes of Angela Merkel, and for far-right candidates like Marine Le Pen.

In order to do a proper investigation of Russian intervention, Congress must commit itself to a truly nonpartisan effort that follows the facts wherever they lead, and looks at questions like these: When did the Russians decide to turn intelligence gathering into data weaponization, and why? What was the U.S. government response and how do we protect ourselves in the future? And did the Russians have the help of U.S. citizens in this compromise of our democracy, including people associated with the campaign they assisted?

The opportunity to conduct that type of investigation had two severe setbacks this week. The first occurred after the Intelligence Committee’s Monday hearing – in which FBI Director James Comey revealed that persons associated with the Trump campaign are under an investigation to determine whether they acted as agents of a foreign power. Within days of that hearing, the chairman of our committee announced to the press he had obtained information that he was unwilling to share with his own committee and presented it to the White House.

The second setback occurred at the end of the week, when the chairman decided on his own to cancel the open hearing scheduled for Tuesday with former CIA Director John Brennan, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates.

These witnesses can shed further light on Russia’s hacking of our democracy, as well as insights into why the president’s former National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, lied about his conversations with the Russian ambassador purportedly on the subject of the sanctions placed on Russia over its involvement in our election. The cancelation of the hearing also violated a bipartisan agreement to conduct as much of this investigation as possible within the public view.

These actions have raised a profound question about whether the Republican leadership, not only of our committee but of the House as well, is truly committed to investigate the matter. They also underscore just how essential it is to establish a truly independent commission with adequate staffing and resources, and divorced from any political considerations or interference to work in parallel with any effort in Congress.

My colleagues and I will soldier on with the investigation, regardless of any hurdles placed in our way, because the alternative is to let the matter go uninvestigated. But it is my hope that the majority party will recommit itself to a fair, impartial and thorough investigation, because it is fundamentally in the public interest for this work to go forward in a bipartisan manner.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, is the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. He can be contacted at his Washington, D.C., office at (202) 225-4176 or his district office at (818) 450-2900.