The Senate Intelligence Committee is scheduled to hear public testimony Thursday from former FBI Director James Comey, among others. Many people may be wondering why this is necessary or important, since the Justice Department has appointed a special counsel to investigate Russian interference in last November’s elections and the possible involvement of members of the Trump campaign. The short answer is that the Senate hearing will help Congress fulfill its constitutional responsibilities by exploring issues separate and apart from the special counsel’s investigation. The special counsel, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, and his staff are primarily interested in determining whether any laws were broken during the presidential campaign or in the early months of the Trump administration — including the recent firing of Comey. Mueller will be looking at potential conflicts of interest, such as former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s reported payments by foreign sources, and whether the firing of Comey during an ongoing FBI investigation constitutes obstruction of justice.
The Senate Intelligence Committee, while delving into some of these same areas, has a different responsibility — to determine what happened in the past election and to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. Its goal should be to establish the methods by which the Russian government and its operatives sought to influence the election’s outcome; determine who among the Trump campaign, transition and White House staffs had contact with them and whether they were compensated; and to recommend changes in our laws and policies to provide future safeguards against foreign intervention in our elections.
Just this week, we have learned that Russian military intelligence executed a cyberattack on at least one U.S. voting software supplier and sent spear-phishing emails to more than 100 local election officials just days before November’s presidential election. And my colleague, Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., a member of the House Intelligence Committee, told the Chicago Tribune on Monday that Russian operatives hacked the Illinois State Board of Elections last year to view database files — a move possibly designed to make voters distrust the state and federal election system.