As the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded a public hearing on Tuesday with top intelligence officials, the main headline was a warning for lawmakers that Russia was planning influence operations in 2018 to again stir trouble in the upcoming mid-terms elections in the United States.
But then, panel chairman Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) gave his final remarks to end the hearing, sending a series of messages along the way, as he signaled that his panel would have a lot more to say about Russian interference in the 2016 elections.
“What was unsaid today is that the Special Counsel is not the only investigation going on in Washington,” Burr told the hearing room, as he went on to make clear that the Intelligence Committee might be in the news a lot in coming weeks.
Here’s some of what we learned from Burr’s statement, and some of what you might read between the lines about the Russia probe.
1. Senate Intelligence Committee may give the first big Russia review. While most of the attention has been on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, Senators on the Intelligence Committee have been conducting their own extensive probe, working to better explain what happened in 2016, and what the Russians did. “We realize we have to answer for the American people, what did Russia do to mess with the 2016 elections,” Chairman Burr said on Tuesday. The North Carolina Republican said he hopes his committee in coming months will put out reports on election security in 2018, how U.S. Intelligence dealt with the 2016 Russian interference, and a full review of what happened.
2. Burr says Russia focus could include a “company.” In his final comments at Tuesday’s hearing, Burr said his panel would keep investigating to uncover any “cooperation or collusion by any individual, campaign or company” – that last word was a notable one to reporters who have covered the Russia story, because it raised the specter of a specific business being involved in a concrete manner in possible Russian interference in the 2016 elections. In the past, Burr has pointedly refused to rule out collusion involving the Trump Campaign. From his statement, it sounded like he wants his panel’s findings out in coming months – that could make the committee the first authority to produce a report about the election meddling by Moscow.
3. While the House fights, the Senate works. The dynamic could not be any different between the House Intelligence Committee and the Senate Intelligence Committee right now on Russia. While Senators are preparing to release a bipartisan array of findings and recommendations in coming weeks and months, the House panel is fighting over dueling partisan memos, with no sign of any final report that could be agreed upon. That’s also true of the situation in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has split along partisan lines. But on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Burr, and top Democrat Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), have been able to hold together their panel in a way that others have not. If they bring forward a truly bipartisan final report, it will make their findings in the Russia investigation that much more believable.
4. More than just Senate Intel focusing on election security. As the Senate Intelligence Committee was warned about possible Russian meddling in the 2018 elections, another committee on Tuesday afternoon looked at the same matter, as experts warned that much needs to be done by the states to protect against cyber threats from Russia and other actors. “The threat to electoral processes remains high,” said Robert Butler, a former senior Pentagon information operations official. Butler suggested – and some Senators embraced – the idea that the U.S. needs to be more aggressive in responding to any Russian meddling in the U.S. elections. Others worry local officials aren’t ready to take on the Russians. “Electoral integrity cannot be protected by leaving civilians alone on the front lines,” said Professor Richard Harknett of the University of Cincinnati.