Report

As Russia Investigation Widens, U.S. Lawmakers Get Rare Access to Raw Intel

The Senate Intel Committee takes a field trip to CIA headquarters.

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On Tuesday, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee boarded a bus to Langley, Virginia, as part of their probe into Russian election meddling. Many facets of the congressional probe into Russian election meddling are unusual, but these field trips are part of yet another “first” for the intelligence panel: access to raw intelligence.

“Committee members have been granted unprecedented access, similar to what the Gang of 8 has had,” a spokeswoman for Vice Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee Mark Warner (D-Va.) wrote in an email to Foreign Policy, referring to the small bipartisan group of high-ranking lawmakers who regularly get access to sensitive materials from the intelligence community.

“Committee members as well as staff are personally reviewing the intelligence at Langley,” she continued.

After “significant negotiations,” the chairman and vice chairman got access to “categories and types of intelligence documents that have never been provided to Congress before” — even beyond what the Gang of Eight has received in the past.

The congressional probes into the Russian hacking of the 2016 election are running in parallel to the FBI’s investigation. The bureau’s director, James Comey, testified to Congress on Wednesday but offered no new details about the investigation.

Sen. Warner’s office wouldn’t say specifically what types of intelligence are being shared beyond noting that it is “raw.”

The materials are most likely derived from raw signals intelligence or intercepted digital communications, according to retired U.S. Navy Cmdr. Tim Johnson, who has extensive experience briefing intelligence professionals and Congress about intelligence programs. “Another possibility could be intelligence gathered from some sort of special access program,” wrote Johnson, a former spokesman for two National Security Agency directors, in an email to FP.

Some intelligence programs or tools are “unacknowledged,” meaning Congress provides a lump sum to the military or intelligence community absent specific details. If a wider group in Congress were getting access to this sort of intelligence, it would be “a marked divergence from what congressional members usually see,” he wrote.

While there has been some frustration in Congress with the intelligence community’s tendency to withhold sensitive information, the Russia investigation appears to be an example of greater cooperation. Intelligence analysts are spending more time with Hill staffers to provide context about the intelligence products being shared, and offering recommendations for more people to interview. On the Senate side, staffers have already interviewed more than 30 intelligence community professionals.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), the new leader of the House’s Russia probe, declined to comment on the investigation.

After reviewing thousands of pages of documents, congressional staff will be reaching out to witnesses for interviews, starting with associates of top-level Trump contacts like Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, and Carter Page, who have volunteered to meet with the committee. The investigation is expected to take many more months.

Not everyone is satisfied with the progress of the investigation. “I’ve made clear to leadership I have concerns about the pace,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told CNN. He’s told the press he thinks the probe isn’t moving quickly or openly enough and isn’t devoting significant resources towards key questions, including what money may or may not have exchanged hands between U.S. and Russian officials.

Many of the staff members working on the investigation are only part time, or will have other duties. Even the new Senate minority counsel assigned to the Russia investigation, April Doss, will be pulling double duty. Doss, a former NSA lawyer, will also be an “NSA monitor” according to public statements made by Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.).

There are disagreements about whether partisan bickering has held up the Senate investigation. Burr’s office has kept mostly silent about its activities, but several news outlets published details on the languishing progress at the Senate, which had no full-time staff members devoted to the investigation and had not yet scheduled any witness interviews.

Additionally, it’s unclear whether or not the committee will schedule future public hearings during the investigation.

The House has been saddled with considerably more public drama, particularly after Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) dramatically revealed that Barack Obama’s National Security Advisor Susan Rice had requested the intelligence community ”unmask” the identities of Trump officials in foreign intelligence cables. Nunes has since recused himself from the House’s probe, replaced by Rep. Conaway.

The Senate leadership wants to devote more manpower and resources to the investigation, and has discussed bringing in intelligence community detailees — experts at the CIA or NSA who might help directly with the probe — but there’s no guarantee the intelligence community will provide that staff.

Some intelligence professionals are worried about the focus of the congressional investigations. “I think the Committees should do an investigation into Russian activities,” said former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers during an event at Harvard University on Tuesday evening. “I disagree with how they’re doing it … the criminal piece of this should be done by the FBI,” he concluded.

Speaking at the same event, James Clapper, the recently retired director of national intelligence, expressed similar concerns about the investigation. “I don’t know if Congress is the right body to do that,” he said.

Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/Getty Images

Jenna McLaughlin is Foreign Policy's intelligence reporter. You can reach her on Signal at 203-537-3949. @JennaMC_Laugh

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