Crucial Senate hearings on Russian role in U.S. elections on tap

Last Updated Mar 30, 2017 10:18 AM EDT

WASHINGTON -- Some tactics Russia used to meddle in last year’s presidential election would give shivers to anyone who believes in American democracy, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat says. 

Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia spoke ahead of a committee session Thursday that will address how the Kremlin allegedly uses technology to spread disinformation in the U.S. and Europe. Warner and the panel’s chairman, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., provided an update on the committee’s investigation into activities Russia might have taken to alter or influence the 2016 U.S. elections and whether there were any campaign contacts with Russian government officials that might have interfered with the election process. 

“There were upwards of 1,000 paid internet trolls working out of a facility in Russia, in effect, taking over series of computers, which is then called a botnet,” Warner told reporters on Capitol Hill Wednesday. 

Warner said the committee was trying to learn whether voters in key states, such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, might have been served up Russian-generated fake news and propaganda along with information from their traditional news outlets.

“We are in a whole new realm around cyber that provides opportunity for huge, huge threats to our basic democracy,” Warner said. “You are seeing it right now.”

Burr added that Russians are trying to influence elections in Europe, as well. 

“I think it’s safe by everybody’s judgment that the Russians are actively involved in the French elections,” Burr said. 

Scheduled to appear at the committee’s open hearing are: Eugene Rumer, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Roy Godson, professor of government emeritus at Georgetown University; Clint Watts, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute Program on National Security; Kevin Mandia, chief executive officer of the cybersecurity firm FireEye Inc.; and retired Gen. Keith Alexander, former director of the National Security Agency and president of IronNet Cybersecurity.

Pledging cooperation, Burr and Warner said they would steer clear of politics in their panel’s probe. They made a point of putting themselves at arm’s length from the House investigation marked by partisanship and disputes.

Burr said he wouldn’t even answer questions about the House probe. “We’re not asking the House to play any role in our investigation. We don’t plan to play any role in their investigation,” Burr said.

Standing alongside Warner, Burr said, “Mark and I work hand in hand on this. ... We’re partners to see that this is completed and that we have a product at the end of the day that we can, in bipartisanship, support.”

“This investigation’s scope will go wherever the intelligence leads it,” he said. “So it is absolutely crucial that every day we spend trying to separate fact from fiction and to find some intelligence thread that sends us to the factual side of all the names and all the places that you in this room have written about.”

The senators’ comments came the same day an attorney for former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn said the retired U.S. Army lieutenant general hasn’t been interviewed by the Senate intelligence panel. One of Flynn’s lawyers, Robert K. Kelner, said they have had discussions with committee staff members, but Flynn has not been contacted directly.

So far, the committee has requested 20 individuals to be interviewed. Five have been scheduled, and the remaining 15 are likely to be scheduled within the next 10 days. Additional witnesses could also be interviewed.

During a news conference, Burr identified just one of the witnesses: President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. The White House has said Kushner, a senior adviser to Trump, has volunteered to answer questions about arranging meetings with the Russian ambassador and other officials.

Asked whether the committee had spoken to Flynn or his representatives, Burr told reporters, “It’s safe to say that we have had conversations with a lot of people, and you would think less of us if General Flynn wasn’t in that list.”

Mr. Trump asked Flynn, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, to step down last month from his post as national security adviser. The president said he made the decision because Flynn had misled Vice President Mike Pence and other White House officials about his conversations with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S.

Flynn’s ties to Russia have been scrutinized by the FBI. They also are part of the House and Senate committee investigations into contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russians.

On the House side, Democrats have called for intelligence committee Chairman Devin Nunes to recuse himself because of his previous ties with Donald Trump’s team before Trump took office.

Nunes, R-Calif., met with a secret source on the White House grounds last week to review classified material, which he says indicates that Trump associates’ communications were captured in “incidental” surveillance of foreigners. Trump has used Nunes’ revelations to defend his claim that former President Barack Obama tapped phones at Trump Tower in New York, though Nunes and his committee’s top Democrat, Adam Schiff of California, say there is no such evidence.

In response to a reporter’s question, Burr said he had not personally coordinated with the White House in shaping the scope of the Senate committee’s investigation.

Asked if he could promise to oversee an impartial probe, Burr responded: “Absolutely. I’ll do something I’ve never done. I’ll admit I voted for him (Trump). ... But I’ve got a job in the U.S. Senate and ... it overrides any personal beliefs that I have or loyalties that I might have.”

Warner said he had seen no evidence the White House was interfering and would complain publicly if he did.

Ahead of Thursday’s Senate hearing, Warner pledged to keep the investigation focused on the reason it was started.

“An outside foreign adversary effectively sought to hijack our most critical democratic process - the election of the president - and in the process decided to favor one candidate over another,” Warner said. “I can assure you, they didn’t do it because it was in the vested interest of the American people.

“Russia’s goal, Vladimir Putin’s goal, is a weaker United States - weaker economically, weaker globally - and that should be a concern to all Americans, regardless of party affiliation.”

Burr said the investigation’s mission is to look at all activities Russia might have undertaken to alter or influence the election and to examine contacts any campaign had with Russian government officials that could have influenced the process.

He said committee staff members have been provided with an “unprecedented amount” of documents, including some that, up until now, have been shared only with the so-called Gang of Eight - the Republican and Democratic leaders of both the House and Senate and the four leaders of the intelligence committees, plus their staff directors.

Burr said staffers dedicated to reviewing the documents -- who are full-time staffers who previously had the necessary security clearance -- are sifting through “thousands” of them.

The committee is “weeks away” from finishing its review of the related documents, Burr said

Warner said some intelligence agencies have not been as cooperative as others in providing materials, and he declared, “We cannot tell the American people our conclusions unless we have access to all the pertinent information.”

Burr said the committee was in constant negotiations with intelligence officials about access to additional documents.