Efforts by the Republican leaders in Congress to limit investigations of alleged Russia-backed computer hacking and its impact on the presidential election to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees have been facing stiff opposition from within and without the GOP. That only intensified over the weekend after the news broke that the agencies that make up the Intelligence Community believe that the Democratic National Committee and prominent Democrats were hacked at the direction of the Kremlin with the intention of aiding the candidacy of President-elect Donald Trump.
On Sunday, influential senators from both parties called for the establishment of a “select committee” with a mandate to find out the extent of the Russian effort and to help formulate ways of preventing future interference in U.S. elections.
In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Sunday, Senate Armed Services Committee Chair John McCain (R-AZ), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) wrote, “Recent reports of Russian interference in our election should alarm every American. Cybersecurity is the ultimate cross-jurisdictional challenge, and we must take a comprehensive approach to meet this challenge effectively.”
In remarks to the press Sunday, Schumer said, “Leader McConnell has said let the intelligence committee do this alone. That is not good enough.”
The idea that a typical standing committee might not be the ideal place to house an investigation like this is not a new one, said Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
“This is a problem that cuts across many jurisdictions; it is not just about intelligence or defense or cybersecurity,” he said. Committees, he added, are in silos, meaning that they generally have access to only certain information sources. In addition, he said, committees can become “captive” to the agencies they oversee, making it difficult for them to make judgments critical of their performance.
There are also concerns, Ornstein added, that “a committee chair may not be the best person to run such an important inquiry.” Ornstein did not mention anyone by name, but some observers have expressed concern about the suitability of House Intelligence Committee chair Devin Nunes, who is on the Trump Transition Team and at one point expressed doubts about the need for an investigation to lead the inquiry. Trump himself has repeatedly said that he doesn’t accept the findings of the Intelligence Community and believes its findings are politically motivated.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Ornstein observed, “Select committees have a long history of independence and importance.” He cited the Senate Watergate Committee as a particular example. Select Committees can, in theory at least, be seen as above the political fray when examining issues of broad national significance. However, as the House Select Committee on Benghazi demonstrated in 2015 and 2016, they are not immune to partisanship.
Nevertheless, key members of the incoming president’s own party seem determined to keep the pressure on their leaders to form a committee with broad investigative authority and to do it quickly.
“We need a select committee,” McCain said on CNN Sunday. “We need to get to the bottom of this, and we need to find out exactly what was done and what the implications in terms of the attacks were, especially if they had an effect on our election. There’s no doubt they were interfering… the question now is how much, what damage, and what should the United States of America do. And so far, we’ve been totally paralyzed.”