For skeptics who don’t accept the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment conclusion that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russia’s intelligence services, the GRU and the SVR, to meddle in last year’s US election—and there are, indeed, skeptics, including on the left—the ICA got some strong support on Wednesday from three leaders of the Senate and House intelligence committees.
Since January, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) have spent countless hours digging into the ICA, along with questions of collusion between Russia and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and yesterday we got the first glimpse into what they’ve found.
In a joint news conference, Senator Richard Burr, SSCI’s chairman and a conservative Republican from North Carolina, and Senator Mark Warner, a moderate Democrat from Virginia, described SSCI’s work so far. Since January 23, they said, the committee and its staff have conducted more than 100 interviews, comprising 250 hours of testimony and resulting in 4,000 pages of transcripts, and reviewed more than 100,000 documents relevant to Russiagate. The staff, said Warner, has collectively spent a total of 57 hours per day, seven days a week, since the committee opened its inquiry, going through documents and transcripts, interviewing witnesses, and analyzing both classified and unclassified material.
“We have interviewed everybody who had a hand or a voice in the creation of the ICA,” said Burr. “We’ve spent nine times the amount of time that the IC [intelligence community] spent putting the ICA together.… We have reviewed all the supporting evidence that went into it and, in addition to that, the things that went on the cutting-room floor that they may not have found appropriate for the ICA, but we may have found relevant to our investigation.” Burr added that the committee’s review included “highly classified intelligence reporting,” and they’ve interviewed every official in the Obama administration who had anything to do with putting it together.
The bottom line? Burr said that while SSCI isn’t yet prepared to announce its conclusions, especially when it comes to whether or not Team Trump colluded with the Russians—“the issue of collusion is still open,” he said—“we feel very confident that the ICA’s accuracy is going to be supported by our committee.” Warner, standing next to Burr, agreed, adding, “We’re being extra cautious here.” Burr, however—perhaps conscious of the fact that he’s a Republican assessing a report that concluded that Russia helped elect a Republican president—hedged a bit on the ICA’s conclusion that Putin’s intent was to support Trump over Clinton. (During the brief news conference, though, no one asked, if that’s the case, why then did Russians steal and release only e-mails from Democrats that were damaging to Clinton?)
Minutes after Burr and Warner ended their news conference, Representative Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who is the ranking member on HPSCI, came out with a statement in strong agreement with the two senators. “At this point in the House Intelligence Committee’s Russia investigation, I fully concur with the observations of the leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee that the Intelligence Community’s assessment is well supported by the intelligence and evidence gathered to date,” said Schiff. “Although more work remains to be done, the testimony, documents and other evidence is strongly corroborative of the community’s conclusions as to the Russian intervention in our election and Russian motivations.”
The ICA, which was issued on January 6, following President Obama’s December 2016 order to prepare such a report, has come under fire from many on the right, beginning with Trump himself, who’s called the whole thing “fake news,” “a hoax,” and “a witch hunt.” And the ICA has drawn fire from the left, too, including in the pages of The Nation, from people who have called the Trump-Russia story a concoction of Obama’s intelligence officials and the so-called Deep State, and who have said that Russiagate ought properly be called “Intelgate.”
The task of HPSCI and SSCI, along with the work of Robert Mueller, the Justice Department special counsel whose team of nearly 20 prosecutors and criminal-law experts is digging into Russiagate, is partly to shed light on how the intelligence community came to the conclusions it outlined in its January report. Members of the House committee told The Nation that in the end they hope to declassify much of the underlying material that shaped the ICA in order to inform the American people about the scale and scope of Russia’s intervention. Among those conclusions: that Russia mounted a covert operation during the 2016 election; that it was specifically designed to help Donald Trump; and that it was ordered by Putin.
In background to the ICA itself, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) made it clear that, as is the normal practice for the release of the community’s conclusions on any classified matter, it isn’t able to reveal Top Secret data. “The Intelligence Community rarely can publicly reveal the full extent of its knowledge or the precise bases for its assessments, as the release of such information would reveal sensitive sources or methods and imperil the ability to collect critical foreign intelligence in the future,” said the ODNI in January. “Thus, while the conclusions in the report are all reflected in the classified assessment, the declassified report does not and cannot include the full supporting information, including specific intelligence and sources and methods.”
The ICA did add, however, that its conclusions were hardly based on a single source, or even a handful of sources. That’s important, because some critics of the ICA, on both the left and the right, have argued that the intelligence community based its conclusion that the Democratic National Committee was “hacked” by Russia merely on the findings of one private cybersecurity firm that did a forensic analysis of the stolen e-mails. But the ICA report said that its very detailed conclusions were based “on a body of reporting from multiple sources that are consistent with our understanding of Russian behavior,” adding, “insights into Russian efforts—including specific cyber operations—and Russian views of key U.S. players derive from multiple corroborating sources.”
Since the ICA was issued, there has been an avalanche of leaks and media revelations about aspects of Russia’s meddling in the election and about contacts between Russians and Trump’s family, campaign staff, business associates, and aides. But there has been virtually nothing leaked about the sources and methods of how the ICA was put together—one sign that the intelligence community is being extremely careful not to jeopardize its ability to monitor Russia’s efforts to affect US politics and elections. But during the summer we got one hint, in The Washington Post, that the US spy machine had a source or sources inside the Kremlin. An “intelligence bombshell” that detailed Putin’s personal involvement in the hack-and-spearphishing attack of 2016 was derived “from sourcing deep inside the Russian government.”
It is, of course, extremely rare for the US intelligence community to show the public how it knows what it knows. One famous exception is the release, during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, of photographs of Soviet military installations in Cuba involving missile launchers and related equipment. Since then, there have been few similar exceptions. But because of the immense political importance of Russiagate—which could, after all, lead to the forced resignation or impeachment of President Trump—it’s likely that a significant chunk of the underlying data will eventually see the light of day.
Still, it’s critically important to note that members of Congress who serve on HPSCI and SSCI, of both parties, along with congressional leaders, have unfettered access to the underlying, classified, and Top Secret intel that is behind the ICA. And while some Republicans, notably HPSCI chairman Devin Nunes, have thrown up obstacles to the investigation, and many have attacked the intelligence community for leaking information damaging to the White House, none who have looked at the underlying intelligence have said that it doesn’t prove what it says it proves.
In fact, to believe in “Intelgate” is to believe that the entire American intelligence system, along with the Justice Department and the FBI, the House and Senate intelligence committees, and countless private security experts and analysts, have fallen victim to a hoax perpetrated by the Deep State. It is to believe that dozens, scores, hundreds of former US officials who served under Obama, and who had Top Secret security clearances, have engaged in a conspiracy of silence since leaving office or, worse, have slyly taken part in a campaign to smear Trump. It is to believe that the dozens of members of Congress—both Republicans and Democrats, on the intelligence committees and in leadership positions—who have had access to the underlying intelligence that supports the January ICA think the evidence is weak but for some reason are afraid to challenge it. And it is to believe that America’s best investigative reporters, some of whom have received detailed leaks about what Mueller and the intelligence community know, are patsies.
According to Burr and Warner, SSCI plans to hear from more than two dozen additional witnesses this month alone. On October 25, they’ll convene an open hearing for testimony by Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer, who’s enmeshed in a tangle of relationships with Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs. And on November 1, representatives of Facebook, Twitter, and Google will be called before SSCI as the committee seeks to learn more about Russia’s efforts to use social-media platforms to made inroads into American politics and elections. And Senator Burr said his committee will keep trying to uncover the secrets behind the so-called Trump Dossier, compiled by two private security firms and by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence operative, which outlined a years-long pattern of business and political ties between Donald Trump and Russia.