Following the Money on Senate Russian Investigations

A careful look shows at the two committees looking at Russian interference in the 2016 election don’t have the resources for the job.

May 12, 2017

To special counsel, independent prosecute, special commission, select committee, or regular investigate, that is the question.

As the constitutional crisis deepens in the wake of Tuesday’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, the quest to assure the public that Russian interference in the 2016 elections is being investigated properly is heating up. Some form of inquiry is in order. But which kind?

To hear GOP Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the status quo is just fine. "Today we'll no doubt hear calls for a new investigation, which could only serve to impede the current work being done,” he said on the Senate floor the morning after Comey was sacked.

Yet, virtually every government watchdog group, including the Brennan Center, has called for the appointment of a special counsel, concerned that Comey’s firing has compromised the FBI and that the involvement of the purportedly recused Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the dismissal suggests continual meddling.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) wants a select committee. “I have long called for a special congressional committee to investigate Russia’s interference in the 2016 election,” McCain said. “The president’s decision to remove the F.B.I. director only confirms the need and the urgency of such a committee.” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) wants a special commission.

Given all the different forms of investigation being proposed, The Washington Post, published this helpful lexicon to all the animals in the investigative zoo.  

For the most part, however, the GOP is standing fast. “Republicans are putting their faith in the Senate Intelligence Committee and career FBI investigators to conduct investigations that they say will not be partisan in nature,” Politico reported.

They might be the only ones who still have faith.

Here’s the rub: The Senate has not allocated a single penny to investigate the issue. Both the Intelligence Committee and the Judiciary Committee (which is investigating former National Security Adviser’s Michael Flynn’s contacts with the Russians) are operating with the same budgets and pretty much the same personnel they had before the subject blew up. Everyone who is investigating Russia’s involvement in the 2016 campaign is doing it in addition to their day job.

As of April, the Intelligence Committee had seven people working on the matter part-time, and none of them had significant investigative experience. Finally at the end of the month, in part because of grumbling about the pace of the probe, two investigators – one Republican, one Democrat – versed in National Security Agency collection methods were hired by the panel.

Although it seems like a lifetime ago, it’s worth remembering that the week began with former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates’ testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee about her warnings to the White House that Flynn could be “compromised” by the Russians.  

At the same hearing, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) pointed out that Judiciary only had “meager resources” to devote to the probe. Not a single staffer was working on it full-time. “[The Committee] does not have professional staff assigned to this investigation. It's the ordinary staff…who are working it,” Durbin noted.  And the committee is about to get a lot busier with Trump’s announcement Monday of five federal appellate court nominees.

Although it seems obvious, but to investigate something properly, you need adequate staff and resources. And, as of today, neither the Senate Intelligence Committee nor the Senate Judiciary Committee have that.

By contrast, consider how the Senate responded to the great Y2K scare. You remember. The basic idea was that the world’s computers would go haywire on January 1, 2000. Actually, the threat was real, but a tad overstated. Most companies and governments easily updated their programs to cope with the calendar change. Faced with the problem, the Senate established a special bipartisan committee in 1998 and gave it a $1.75 million budget. When the committee was done with its work, the Senate passed a resolution thanking its chairman and vice-chairman, a Republican and Democrat, for their leadership and hard work. That was almost 20 years ago and involved a friendly committee with cooperative parties.

It seems like another country produced that panel: one that worked in a bipartisan fashion and allocated adequate resources and time to ameliorate a looming problem.

Meanwhile back in America in 2017, one point is clear: until the Senate allocates sufficient resources to its investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 election, it may well be impossible to learn the truth. 

(Photo: Thinkstock.)