Intelligence panel chair asks why Democrats denied FBI access after Russian hacking

In the first open U.S. Senate intelligence hearing since federal officials released to the public a declassified account of Russian hacking prior to the 2016 presidential election, Chairman U.S. Sen. Richard Burr said Tuesday that American values are “under assault,” but he tried to send a reassuring message that “our democracy is not at risk.”

“I know that the public disclosure of these activities surprised many,” Burr said. “The notion that another state would attempt to interfere in our elections is troubling.”

The Republican senior senator from North Carolina said he doesn’t doubt U.S. intelligence agency findings of deliberate Russian interference to discredit Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and, more broadly, to attempt to undermine confidence in the U.S. government.

Burr promised the Senate Intelligence Committee will conduct an independent, bipartisan review of what the CIA, the FBI and the director of national intelligence call a multifaceted and aggressive “influence campaign,” directed by Russia’s highest-ranking government officials and President Vladmir Putin.

Separately, Burr wants to know who among federal intelligence employees had early access to the hacking report released last Friday, he told McClatchy in an interview after the hearing. Some details in the still-secret report were published last Friday by at least one national news outlet.

President-elect Donald Trump angrily tweeted on Friday that “classified and/or highly confidential” information had been leaked to NBC prior to intelligence officials briefing him on the report. Later, Trump tweeted that he would ask Burr and the head of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., to investigate “top secret intelligence shared with NBC prior to me seeing it.”

Burr said he plans to ask for a list of “the pool of individuals that knew the content of this report prior to the president being briefed, the ‘Gang of Eight’ being briefed and the president-elect being briefed.”

“So I have some idea as to how big the pool of individuals are that may have leaked a story to NBC, accurate or not accurate,” Burr said.

Burr didn’t say whether Trump had personally contacted him about it. U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said Tuesday that he wanted the committee to look into the media leak.

“It would be the normal request that the committee would make regardless of whether we had had a referral from an individual, because the committee’s responsibility is the security of information and data. So if somebody has breached their authority . . . they should be pursued,” Burr said.

That effort, though, Burr said, would be separate from the committee’s current work, which publicly kicked off Tuesday with the heads of four top intelligence agencies providing witness testimony.

In particular, during Tuesday’s public hearing, Burr wanted to know why the Democratic National Committee didn’t give the FBI direct access to servers and devices that had been compromised in a cyberattack.

FBI Director James Comey told Burr the agency and its investigators had made “multiple requests at different levels” for access to DNC infrastructure and John Podesta’s devices for the purposes of investigating cyberattacks and subsequent information leaks. Podesta was chairman of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

“Would that access have provided intelligence or information helpful to your investigation?” Burr asked.

Comey answered that such access renders the “best evidence,” but investigators had to settle on getting information about the cyberattack through a reputable private company that worked with Democratic hacking victims.

“We’d always prefer to have access hands-on ourselves,” Comey said.

He told Burr he did not know why the DNC and Clinton’s campaign chairman wouldn’t give the FBI direct access.

Burr told McClatchy afterward that he’s been focused on the DNC denying the FBI access since at least May of last year.

He said he wants to know why “any organization that had been attacked as viciously and had had as much data exfiltrated wouldn’t want to have law enforcement involved in the forensics and why they chose to go to an outside (entity).”

“From a standpoint of a person responsible for oversight, it has to make you potentially question the accuracy of it,” Burr said of the third-party information that the FBI had to settle for. “And I would only suggest that since we have our own intelligence apparatus, maybe they have tools that are unique to them and not to the private sector companies. That’s not something we can talk about in open session.

“I don’t think the actors are in question. The question is, did we miss some of the texture we could have gotten because we didn’t have access?”

During Burr’s period of questioning Comey and U.S. Director of Intelligence James Clapper, he also sought to clarify publicly whether Russian hackers may have altered DNC or Podesta emails before leaking them. Clapper said there was no evidence of manipulation prior to leaks.

Burr, who will lead the ongoing Senate Intelligence Committee investigation, pledged on Tuesday a nonpartisan approach and to follow the “intelligence wherever it leads.”

He said he’s instructed a select group of committee staff members to review the underlying, classified evidence and sources that have led the intelligence agencies to conclude Russia meddled in U.S. affairs.

Also Tuesday, Democratic senators on the committee attempted to get information from Comey and others about whether they’re looking into the Trump campaign’s or the incoming administration’s possible ties to Russia.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., hammered the issue and asked Comey to provide a declassified report or say whether there’s an investigation before Trump’s inauguration.

“I think the American people have a right to know this. And if there is delay . . . if it doesn’t happen before January 20, I’m not sure it’s gonna happen,” Wyden said.

Comey said he wouldn’t confirm or deny any pending investigations.

The exchange led to a terse comment aimed at Comey from Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine. In an apparent reference to Comey’s public statement just before Election Day about new information in a previously closed case involving Clinton’s emails, King charged: “The irony of you making that statement I cannot avoid.”

Comey pushed back, saying there’s a difference between talking about open versus closed FBI investigations. The FBI probe surrounding Clinton and her private email server was closed before the election.

Anna Douglas: 202-383-6012, @ADouglasNews