WASHINGTON ― When the top Republican and Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee announced earlier this month that it would investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election, the parameters of their probe clearly represented a compromise. The committee would investigate links between Russia and individuals associated with political campaigns. But it would also dig into the leaks of classified information that informed months of news stories about a separate FBI-led probe of Russian intelligence officials and people affiliated with President Donald Trump.
The House panel held the first public hearing related to its probe on Monday, during which lawmakers had the opportunity to question FBI Director James Comey and National Security Agency head Adm. Michael Rogers. It was the committee’s first test of its ability to conduct an investigation that will satisfy both its Republican and Democratic members. But on Monday at least, most Republicans on the panel appeared to be more interested in discussing leaks of classified information to reporters than potential ties between the White House and Moscow.
Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) asked Rogers if The Washington Post’s bombshell report last month that former national security adviser Michael Flynn had discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador before Trump’s inauguration could damage national security. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said he had “never seen such a sustained period of leaks” and referenced reports in the Post and The New York Times. Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) questioned whether the Times might have misrepresented sources for an article and mused about a “so-called source” actually being a Russian surrogate. Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) even raised the specter of prosecuting journalists for publishing classified information, which would be an enormous escalation in the crackdown on leaks.
Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) asked the FBI last month to investigate leaks to reporters, suggesting those leaks came from government officials loyal to former President Barack Obama.
The Obama administration charged nine individuals with disclosing classified information to journalists under the Espionage Act, more than all previous administrations combined, but it did not prosecute the journalists themselves. Some lawmakers, like King, have called for such prosecutions. But it has been generally agreed across partisan lines that journalists shouldn’t be charged with crimes for disclosing information in the public interest.
Gowdy, however, noted on Monday that there isn’t a legal exception that allows reporters to divulge classified information. Comey responded that he couldn’t recall a reporter being prosecuted in his lifetime.
Gowdy also suggested that leaks are a larger concern than a foreign power attempting to disrupt a U.S. election. Though he said it was “incredibly important” to investigate whether Russia tried to influence the democratic process and “incredibly important” to look into Russia’s motive and the U.S. response to it, he said such matters may not “rise to the level of a crime.” But “the felonious dissemination of classified material most definitely is a crime,” the congressman told Comey.
Such arguments are especially troubling given that Attorney General Jeff Sessions declined during his confirmation hearing to rule out prosecuting journalists for doing their jobs.
The Republican lawmakers’ focus on leaks echoes the Trump administration’s tactic of repeatedly attempting to shift attention from the revelations in news reports ― such as the claim that Flynn misled Vice President Mike Pence and, by extension, the American public ― to the fact that information was leaked to the news media.
“The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy,” Trump tweeted on Feb. 15 after The New York Times reported that members of his campaign team had repeated communication with Russian intelligence officials. “Very un-American!”
Just ahead of Monday’s hearing, the president similarly tweeted:
White House press secretary Sean Spicer similarly brought up the leaks during his Monday afternoon press briefing, arguing that the issue of disclosures to the news media should be “one of the big headlines” coming out of the congressional hearing.
The GOP’s approach to Monday’s hearing sends a chilling message to journalists. It is also an early indication that the House Intelligence Committee is unlikely to fulfill a growing demand from lawmakers for a serious probe into Russian interference in last year’s election.
Comey made two surprising revelations early in the hours-long hearing: that the FBI is investigating links between the Trump team and Moscow and that there is no evidence that Obama wiretapped Trump Tower, as Trump alleged in a series of tweets. But few Republicans pressed the FBI director to elaborate on those disclosures ― unless it was in an attempt to discredit the conclusions.
Democrats on the committee went into the investigation skeptical that a body headed by Nunes, a member of Trump’s transition team, was capable of conducting a probe that could produce damning findings against the president. They have already threatened to pull support from the investigation if they feel their Republican counterparts are obstructing the process. Ranking member Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said in his opening statement on Monday that he didn’t know if the committee was capable of conducting its investigation “in the kind of thorough and nonpartisan manner that the seriousness of the issues merit, or whether the enormous political consequences of our work will make that impossible.”
So far, Republican leadership in the House and Senate have managed to relegate congressional probes of the Trump-Russia scandal to their respective Intelligence Committees. If the House committee’s effort were to unravel, however, it would likely prompt calls for creation of a special select committee to handle the investigation.
Five hours into Monday’s hearing, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) accused Republicans of focusing “on the false issue of leaks rather than asking serious questions about Russia’s assault on our democracy.”
“This further demonstrates that it is past time to establish a bipartisan, independent commission,” Hoyer said in a statement. “Our national security and the foundations of our system are at stake.
The House panel is set to hold another hearing on Russian election interference on March 28, when members will have the chance to question former CIA Director John Brennan, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former acting Attorney General Sally Yates.
The story has been updated with a comment from Rep. Adam Schiff.