Senate investigation of Russian hacking will be broad, going beyond 2016 elections

The Senate’s most powerful committee with oversight of U.S. intelligence agencies will meet mostly behind closed doors as it takes on a broad and serious investigation into “cyber activity directed against our nation by the Russian government,” said U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, intelligence committee chairman, on Friday.

Burr, who is North Carolina’s senior Republican senator, laid out in a news statement a lengthy description of the committee’s work ahead, which will be done by Democrats and Republicans, in nonpartisan fashion, he said.

Officials who work for President Barack Obama, as well as members of President-elect Donald Trump’s team, could be called on to testify under oath in front of Congress on the issue of alleged Russian hacking and subsequent leaks. The hacking targeted the Democratic Party and, specifically, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

The Senate intelligence committee plans to “interview senior officials of both the outgoing and incoming administrations, including the issuance of subpoenas if necessary to compel testimony,” Burr’s statement said.

Burr’s statement didn’t mention Clinton or Trump by name but said the committee’s work will, in part, look at how intelligence analysts gathered information about “Russian ‘active measures’ in the U.S. political sphere.” And, he said, the committee wants to know how the intelligence was provided to policymakers and how it was used.

But, the upcoming investigation is not limited to only the 2016 election.

Burr says the committee will hold wide-ranging hearings to look into “other specific aspects of Russian behavior.” He and committee vice chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., have had concerns about Russia’s “behavior around the world,” Burr said, adding that the intelligence committee has held more than 10 hearings and briefings on the issue in recent years.

Russian officials have denied responsibility for U.S. election-related hacking.

Later in the day, at a news conference, Obama pointed a finger at Russian government officials “at the highest levels” – without accusing directly Russian President Vladimir Putin – as he blamed foreigners for hacking into the Democratic National Committee email system and leaking embarrassing and personal documents, which he said seemed to have disadvantaged Clinton in the election.

When pressed on whether intelligence analysts think Putin personally directed the cyber attack, Obama tried to dodge the question again but said, “Not much happens in Russia without Vladimir Putin. (Russia) is a pretty hierarchical operation.”

Obama has grave concerns, he said Friday, about foreign forces taking advantage of U.S. weaknesses with the intention of influencing American democracy and voters’ opinions. He decried an influx of “fake news” during the election cycle.

Although the DNC hack was orchestrated by Russian government officials, it wasn’t part of an “elaborate espionage scheme,” Obama said.

And, he acknowledged the difficulty intelligence analysts and investigators face when tracking origins and intentions of hackers. The president called out not only Russia but also other nations, and specifically China, for past hacking activity targeting American businesses.

The election-related hacking is still under FBI investigation, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch confirmed Friday in an interview with CNN.

For Burr’s part in the investigation, he said he’ll lead some hearings that will be open to the public but the bulk of the work will be done in secret “because we take seriously our obligation to protect sources and methods.”

“The committee will follow the intelligence wherever it leads,” he said. “We will conduct this review expeditiously, but we will take the time to get it right and will not be influenced by uninformed discourse.”

Among areas the committee will probe include “a thorough examination of the underpinnings of the intelligence that prompted the (Obama) administration to issue the Oct. 7 statement that the Russian government directed the recent compromises of U.S. political organizations,” Burr said.

In the president’s news conference Friday, he defended the way the White House and intelligence agencies under his purview have responded so far. Obama emphasized he wanted to avoid creating a “political football” out of the hacking issue before the Nov. 8 election.

Obama called subsequent media coverage of Clinton’s candidacy and the leaked DNC emails “troubling,” but avoided saying, when asked directly, whether he thinks Russian hacking caused the Democratic nominee to lose. Obama has ordered an extensive U.S. investigation into any foreign meddling in domestic affairs, dating back to 2008.

News of Burr leading the congressional inquiry into Russian hacking came earlier this week as Republican Party leaders in Washington partially relented to calls for an official investigation from Democrats and GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona.

As intelligence committee chairman, Burr is in the middle of a sensitive situation.

Some Democrats, as well as Republicans Graham and McCain, have pushed for a special investigatory committee to alleged probe Russian interference. Others on Capitol Hill have been outraged by a lack of formal information from the intelligence agencies to members of Congress.

For example, Rep. Devin Nunes, Republican from California and a member of Trump’s transition team, criticized the agencies for putting out conflicting information and not briefing the House Intelligence Committee this week, which Nunes chairs. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-W.I., was similarly incensed by the CIA refusing to brief him on the hacking. Johnson is chair of the U.S. Senate committee on homeland security.

Meanwhile, Trump and some of his allies have outright rejected the claims of Russia influencing the election and the topic has opened up a rare war of words between the incoming president and the outgoing administration.

Burr was a campaign ally to Trump. He’s promised an aggressive investigation into Russia and has stressed it cannot be motivated by partisan or political leanings.

The intelligence chairman also used his statement Friday to express support for federal workers and people serving in the U.S. intelligence community.

“Without exception, I know them to be hard-working, patriotic Americans. They care deeply about their country, and work every day to keep us safe. They come from all walks of life and hold views across the political spectrum. Unlike many in Washington, though, they check politics at the office door and focus on their mission,” Burr said.

“They are tasked with keeping our nation’s leaders well-informed about events around the world. While their failures are often well known, their successes rarely see the light of day. We would all do well to remember the sacrifices they make on our behalf and keep in mind that what we do with the intelligence they provide is up to us.”

Anna Douglas: 202-383-6012, @ADouglasNews