How House Republicans scrambled the Russia probe

How House Republicans scrambled the Russia probe
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Wow! What another week in the Russia probe. “Crossfire Hurricane” erupts; the Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyClinton's security clearance withdrawn at her request Kavanaugh tensions linger after bitter fight Senate heads home to campaign after deal on Trump nominees MORE’s (R-Iowa) 2500 interview pages released; the Senate Intel Committee shows solidarity with the intelligence community, breaking with the House Intel Committee; House Intel doubles down on its findings; the one-year anniversary of the Mueller probe; Rudy Giuliani seemingly unhinged on Fox News; the right searching for a FBI spy in Trump campaign. All in just this week. Are you flummoxed? Let’s make this simple.

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Usually, you have three entities pursuing the facts. You have a criminal investigation, not to be interfered with. You have Congress, which works around the criminal probe so as not to interfere, but gathers facts to inform their broader policy and legislative interests. Congress can uncover so much more than mere crimes, such as ethical violations, gross mismanagement, abuses of power and moral authority, and big cultural issues which explain how corruption arises. And finally, you have the press and media, which collect information from leaks from the first two, plus from their own sources, and weave them into a narrative for the public to be aware.

In the Russia probe, that usual order has been scrambled.  Mueller’s team is clearly conducting the train, the press is running circles around Congress, and most of Congress has folded, with Senate Intel being its final hope.

Congress should be looking to discover the extent of Russian meddling in our elections and how we can prevent it in future elections. But Congress is severely oversight challenged. The House
Republicans and the Senate Judiciary Committee chose to play politics. I have written before on this.
They have nothing to offer but bewilderment. 

The 2500-page dump was a dud, showing they misspent their time and resources and unaccompanied by a memo interpreting the findings or showing how it advances the mission of the investigation. Aren’t lawyers and investigators supposed to know the answers before they ask the questions? Isn’t that why they do pre-hearing interviews? The Senate Intel bipartisan solidarity has shown them up. The biggest bungles were the Nunes Memo and Nunes Redux, and then the Grassley/Graham “criminal referral” stunt of Christopher Steele.

Why are certain aspects of these investigations advancing with credibility, while others are failing?

The answer is all about the approach. If, as an investigator, you approach your work with curiosity but skepticism, you have a better chance to succeed. If you begin with bias, you’ll flame out, like the House Republicans and Senate Judiciary have. Let’s take the case of the Christopher Steele dossier. It is relevant because it speaks directly to Congress’ interest in Russian influence.

If you begin your assignment with wanting to save the world from Democrats and the deep state, you’ll probably attack not just the substance of the reporting, but also the messenger by, for example, making a criminal referral to DOJ. If, on the other hand, you took an inquisitive approach, you would see the dossier as a potential road map. You wouldn’t have to believe the substance of it unless it passed various smell tests that investigators know how to construct. You can then corroborate or debunk as you go, statement by statement.

So far, the Steele dossier has largely held up against the hurricane more than the deep state hysteria has. Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMurkowski not worried about a Palin challenge Kavanaugh fight a GOP wake up call, but more is needed MSNBC's Nicolle Wallace: I told Jeb Bush 'he should have punched' Trump 'in the face' MORE (R-Ariz.) thought it plausible enough to refer it to the FBI. The FBI, DOJ and several judges thought enough of it to allegedly include it in a FISA application. My reading of it makes me want to know if any or all of it is true, and I would set out my traps to test its validity.

While in the Senate, I had the intelligence portfolio, as well as law enforcement oversight. So I would be on familiar ground to start my inquiry.

Working with the intelligence community (IC), I would start by establishing the credibility and bona fides of Steele the professional. Does he have a history of credibility with the IC? How much confidence do they have in his ability to currently gather intelligence? And so on.

Once establishing his bona fides, I would seek the IC’s assessment of his understanding of how the Russian government and its cut-out organizations and schemes work, to include names he identifies in the dossier. Do these assertions in the dossier sound like he knows what he’s talking about? Are the sources he’s talking to likely to know the type of information they are passing to him?

You haven’t even started verifying the substance of the dossier, only the credibility. Having been satisfied of his credibility, I would do my best to peel back layers of the onion and either verify or refute each of his statements, such as whether Michael Cohen was ever in Prague in August 2016, etc. Some would be harder than others to verify. But you have an advantage in verifying the statements because, guess what. The president has effectively started a war on the IC. That means you’ll likely get the benefit of the doubt, in my experience, when seeking information, as long as sources, methods and on-going cases will not be jeopardized. Who knows how far you would get?

Those who didn’t take this approach chose to dismiss it outright for political reasons because they can arguably be considered biased, not curious. After Grassley/Graham sent the “criminal referral” on the Steele matter, did they also send one regarding Natalia Veselnitskaya’s false statement to the Judiciary Committee claiming she had no ties to the Russian government, only to fess up later that she was an informant of Yuri Chaika, the prosecutor general? Did that not fit into the political agenda?

Earlier this week, former senator and oversight icon Carl LevinCarl Milton LevinCongress must use bipartisan oversight as the gold standard National security leaders: Trump's Iran strategy could spark war Overnight Defense: McCain honored in Capitol ceremony | Mattis extends border deployment | Trump to embark on four-country trip after midterms MORE (D-Mich.) contributed a column to The Hill regarding how House Republicans have abused their oversight authority. His column is a polite exercise in constitutional oversight 101 for the young pups in the House who need to understand that they are overstepping their bounds.

I would go a few steps beyond that criticism. They are not merely overstepping their bounds, they are grossly abusing their authority by turning a constitutionally-granted power into a thoroughly political campaign. I lay blame at the feet of Speaker Ryan (R-Wis.) who has failed to ameliorate the damage their antics have caused the House as an institution.

Kris Kolesnik is a 34 year veteran of federal government oversight. He spent 19 years as senior counselor and director of investigations for Sen. Charles Grassley. Kolesnik then became executive director of the National Whistleblower Center. Finally, he spent 10 years working with the Department of the Interior’s Office of Inspector General as the associate inspector general for external affairs.