When chairman Devin Nunes turned the U.S. House intelligence panel’s investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign into a clown car act a few weeks ago, plenty of patriots and pundits — including this newspaper’s Editorial Board — called for a new investigation, independent of elected politicians.
To no avail — yet. Unless you credit those calls for Nunes’ decision Thursday to “temporarily” recuse himself from the investigation.
But the confidence-uninspiring House show isn’t the nation’s only functioning hope for revealing whether and how this nation’s Cold War enemy attempted to put Donald Trump in the White House. There’s still the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Right, Sen. Durenberger?
“My Senate instinct is that somehow the Senate will ride to the rescue,” the 1985-86 chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee told me recently. “But I’m fearful that even if that committee does a good job, we may be beyond trusting it.”
For Dave Durenberger — a Minnesota Republican U.S. senator from 1978 to 1994 — that was a difficult thing to say. But it was a week that saw the Senate discard one of its long-standing minority-empowerment rules, the filibuster, in order to confirm a U.S. Supreme Court nominee who had mustered little bipartisan support. At age 82, Durenberger is too clear-eyed and candid not to voice concern about the Senate’s eroding credibility with the American public.
Durenberger knows something about how the Senate intelligence committee should conduct a truth-revealing investigation of covert operations that brush close to a sitting president of the Senate majority’s own party. He chaired the committee when the first wave of news broke about the complicated and illegal arms-for-hostages scandal that became known as Iran-contra.
When the crash in Nicaragua of a U.S. plane bearing supplies illegally headed for the contras, a right-wing militia, became news in November 1986, Democrats had just won back the Senate majority. They were due to take over the Senate in January. Durenberger’s stint as committee chair was weeks away from ending. He could have opted to do nothing.
But he decided that the committee could not be idle for two months in the face of such news. Its role was — and is — to provide legislative-branch oversight of executive-branch covert operations. That means “assuring the reliability of what the administration says it’s doing, and making sure that what they are doing is appropriate,” he explained. “We were supposed to put a damper on adventurism, and if we couldn’t, to pass on what we knew to a public committee” that could apply more assertive public restraint.
The longer the intelligence committee waited to investigate, the greater the likelihood that people who knew the truth would not share it, Durenberger concluded. Already he suspected that President Ronald Reagan’s former national security adviser Robert McFarlane had lied to him and the committee’s ranking Democratic member, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, a few weeks earlier about the administration’s dealings with the contras and Iran.
Durenberger charted a plan. The committee would act quickly, meeting almost daily. Its interviews would be closed, with just enough information provided to the media at the end of each day’s session to assure the public that the Senate was doing its job. High-level administration figures were summoned to testify one at a time, without staff. The most senior people were called first.
They opted not to call the president himself. That would risk a media circus — and that’s precisely what the intelligence committee ought not do, Durenberger said. “Our job is 100 percent secret,” he said. Leaks to the press by committee members were forbidden, so much so that a committee member caught leaking was likely to lose his seat.
With that approach, “we got about 95 percent of the story” in two weeks’ time, Durenberger said. Significantly: The committee’s findings were not made public. Rather, they were handed in January to congressional committees designated to carry the public phase of the investigation forward. Reagan also was briefed. That put the administration on notice: Senators in both parties were positioned to catch them, should they engage in dissembling.
That satisfied Durenberger. He believes that having the intelligence committee’s November 1986 record in hand enabled the 1987 congressional Iran-contra investigating committees to do their work well. Keeping his committee’s findings private allowed it to stay true to its mission going forward.
Can the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence function as effectively today? Durenberger is rooting for it to do so. He urges Republican chairman Richard Burr and Democratic vice chairman Mark Warner to follow his playbook: Move fast. Solo interviews with top players first. No leaks. Protect the Intelligence Committee’s mission as a truth-seeker and a check on covert activity by the executive branch. Let another committee take the findings public if that’s warranted.
But even if today’s committee takes that course, he conceded, the result may be unsatisfying. The same intense partisanship that led last week to the end of filibusters for Supreme Court confirmations makes it hard for the Senate to come to consensus about what happened in the 2016 election, let alone about what should be done in response. “Try as they might, they may not be able to bring their own parties around” to a plan of action, he fretted.
Nevertheless, he wants the Senate to proceed. “It’s hard for Americans to trust the Senate today — but there’s a part of us that wants to build back trust,” he said. “Americans want to know that there is an internal discipline within the Congress that has not been politicized.” The Senate can provide that assurance, he said.
I’m less sanguine about that prospect. Too much is riding on getting to the whole truth about last year’s election in a way that the vast majority of Americans find credible and impartial. Unless Americans reach a shared understanding of the ways in which a foreign power sought to manipulate their votes last year, this democracy will be vulnerable to unfriendly external manipulation again and again.
I second the Editorial Board’s call for an independent investigation.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.