One of the most important men in Washington, DC, these days is Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon. Sure, all senators are big shots. Even Democrats in the minority. But Wyden is in a special position: He can guarantee for the public whether or not an ongoing and (for now) behind-closed-doors investigation examining Vladimir Putin’s operation to subvert the 2016 elections—and any possible ties between Donald Trump’s circle and Russia—is conducted thoroughly and legitimately.
Since Trump has moved into the White House, there has been less public chatter in political and media quarters about the Russian hacking that, according to the US intelligence community, was mounted by Putin’s spies as part of an extensive clandestine operation to undermine the US presidential campaign in order to benefit Trump. The same goes for allegations that Trump or his associates interacted with Russian officials or intermediaries during the campaign. After the election, Russia’s deputy foreign minister said “there were contacts” between Trump’s team and Russian officials, and various news reports have noted that the FBI has examined connections between Trump associates and Putin-allied Russians—without offering much detail about these FBI inquiries. Yet in the first, chaos-filled weeks of the Trump presidency, the story of Russian meddling in the election—after blowing up with the disclosure that President Barack Obama and Trump were briefed about private intelligence memos alleging Russia had run a yearslong secret program to cultivate Trump and gather compromising intelligence on him—has seemed to move off the center stage.
One cause of this seeming quietude is that after several weeks of political controversy regarding how best to investigate the matter—with Democrats joined by a small number of Republicans (that is, Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Marco Rubio) calling for a robust inquiry—the Senate intelligence committee agreed to initiate its own probe. (The House intelligence community shortly followed suit.) After first being reluctant to include possible Trump-Russia ties in the investigation, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the Senate intelligence committee chair, relented. (Burr, no coincidence, was a member of the Trump campaign’s national security advisory council.) But now that the intelligence committees are supposedly on the case—and with the FBI not discussing whatever inquiries it may be holding on this front—the controversy (or scandal!) has been nudged to the back burner. This often happens in Washington: a secret investigation is launched, the story goes dark. (When Trump had a call with Putin after his first week in office, there was no indication from the White House that the new president had said anything to Putin about the Russian covert interference in the election. A senior Trump administration official told the Washington Post the chat had been “pleasant.”)
Enter Wyden. For the public, at this point, there is no way to tell if the intelligence committee is doing a good job investigating these dicey issues. Republicans on the committee certainly have an interest in not embarrassing, inconveniencing, or delegitimizing Trump. So it’s up to Wyden and the other Democrats on the committee to monitor the probe and inform the citizenry if it ends up being a whitewash. And Wyden has already indicated that there is information on Trump-Russia ties within the US government that ought to be declassified, that he will push to keep the committee’s inquiry on track, and that he will press to make as much of its findings as public as possible. In early January, during a rare public hearing of the Senate intelligence committee, which focused on the intelligence community’s recently released report concluding Putin’s regime had mounted the hacking to help Trump, Wyden pressed FBI Director James Comey on whether he would declassify information the bureau had obtained related to possible Trump-Russia connections and “release it to the American people” before Trump was inaugurated. No, Comey said, adding, “I can’t talk about it.” Wyden noted he was worried that if such information was not unveiled by then, it might never be—meaning, the incoming Trump administration would lock it up. And with this questioning, Wyden signaled that the FBI did indeed possess information on this subject.
Wyden failed to squeeze this material out of the FBI before Trump became president. But now he is in a position to tell the public if the Republican-led intelligence committee is doing an honest job with its all-important inquiry. A few days ago, I interviewed Wyden in his office and asked him about his role in this all-important project.
At the start of our conversation, Wyden, sitting at a long wooden conference table and wearing the usual senatorial dark suit (but with no tie), noted that he has a rule related to his intelligence committee duties: “Break no oaths. Share no secrets. Ask tough questions.” He pointed out that the “tough questions” part is a legacy from his father, Peter Wyden, who was a renowned investigative reporter and author in his day. Wyden cited from memory a passage from his dad’s book on the CIA’s disastrous 1961 Bay of Pigs operation. In this portion, President John Kennedy, who authorized the paramilitary operation in his first weeks in office, asked an aide, “How could I have been so stupid to let them go ahead?” Wyden said he keeps this in mind to remember a key goal: oppose stupid policies.
The 67-year-old senator, who has served in the upper chamber since 1996 (after 15 years in the House of Representatives), was reluctant to discuss specifics regarding the intelligence committee’s probe. Why didn’t the committee pursue an investigation sooner? After all, in early October, the Obama administration publicly announced the intelligence community had concluded Russia was behind the hacking. “I’ll let you ask Chairman Burr,” he said. Were Democrats on the committee pushing for an investigation at that point? “I can’t get into that, the private discussions,” he replied, adding that “what was noteworthy” was that the Obama administration by early October believed there was enough solid information to release that statement.
But was that a sufficiently strong response from Obama? Wyden paused for a moment—he often paused to carefully consider his replies—and then he said, “Let’s put it this way. There is a big gap between what the public had a right to know and what came out. And that continues to be true to this day.”
He hadn’t quite answered the question. I tried again: Was the Obama administration’s response—that statement and a remark from Press Secretary Josh Earnest promising some form of undefined retribution—enough? “No,” Wyden said. “It was not enough.” Did Wyden or other Democrats on the intelligence committee request a more vigorous response from Obama? Wyden answered, “I have to say, because these are all private conversations in classified settings—I don’t think I can say.”
But what did Wyden want Obama to do? There must be a nonclassified answer to that, I maintained. Once again, he paused: “More…I think the way the public is brought in to these positions and the way materials are classified is totally out of whack. People normally think things are classified and buttoned up for national reasons. I find it’s far more likely to be political security than national security.” He added, “There should have been more information released before the election.”
It seemed clear that Wyden did not believe that Obama had replied sufficiently to the Russian hacking prior to the election.
Three weeks after the election, on November 29, Wyden organized Democratic members of the committee to send a letter to Obama requesting more information be made available to the public. It was only two sentences long: “We believe there is additional information concerning the Russian Government and the U.S. election that should be declassified and released to the public. We are conveying specifics through classified channels.” For reporters and others paying attention to this story, it was a frustrating letter, revealing no details regarding the information Wyden and his colleagues were trying to pry out of the FBI, CIA, or other agencies. And Wyden still cannot elaborate what was conveyed through those classified channels. But he said, this was the “first time I know of that seven senators got together and called on materials to be declassified that way.” He noted there was no immediate White House response. (In early January, the intelligence community, at Obama’s instructions, did release a declassified version of its report noting it had concluded Putin’s operation was designed to assist Trump.)
Wyden noted that after sending the November letter, he and other Democratic members of the committee “kept pushing for information…recognizing that after January 20 it is a very different political climate for gathering information. What was needed was a much more detailed set of facts laid out, so that the public would have a better sense of what was actually taking place. And that can be done without compromising the nation’s security.”
The Senate intelligence committee has stated it will take three months to conduct its investigation. Might that be too short a time to do this investigation well? I asked Wyden. He didn’t address this point. Instead, he said that what was most important is that the committee, as it has vowed to do, holds open hearings and releases its findings once the the gumshoe work is done. “I am going to push as hard as I can to get the maximum transparency as quickly as possible,” Wyden remarked. “There is a question about whether the administration will cooperate.” That’s why, he noted, the committee will have to be prepared to use subpoenas.
Wyden did appear to worry that politics might get in the way of a fierce investigation. I asked if he has been surprised that congressional Republicans—with the exception of McCain, Graham, and Rubio—have largely ignored, downplayed, or dismissed the importance of the Russian hacking. “Conservative Republicans are being asked by the Trump administration to suspend beliefs they have held in many instances for decades,” he said. “For conservative Republicans, it’s an article of faith to be skeptical of Russians, the KGB, and Putin. Then all of a sudden you have the intelligence community coming in and saying they were hacking. That was in October. And you have a presidential candidate…practically encouraging it.” But, he added, “I’ll let them speak for themselves.” Are Republicans in an awkward position? “That’s an understatement,” Wyden commented. Referring to Trump, he continued: “How do you go from essentially saying the intelligence community are like Nazis to going out there and saying, ‘I’m going to be the best friend you ever had.’ Some of this is really head-scratching stuff.”
Wyden has six fellow Democratic members of the intelligence committee, including Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the vice chairman of the panel, to be part of the monitoring process. And Warner, Wyden, and others have said that if the committee’s investigation doesn’t meet their expectations, they will call for another inquiry—perhaps an independent bipartisan commission. But Wyden noted that there is a possible wild card within the committee: McCain. He is not a full-time member, but as the chairman of the Senate armed services committee, he is an ex-officio member of the intelligence committee and has the right to know all its secrets. Consequently, he, too, can track the investigation and evaluate the amount of information the committee releases to the public. “Don’t underestimate the importance of having the chairman of the Senate armed services committee making it clear he’s going to insist on answers and getting to the bottom of it,” Wyden remarked.
Wyden will be aiming to do that, too. He has previously demonstrated he can be fierce in pressuring the secret-keepers. In a famous exchange, Wyden, during a March 2013 hearing, asked James Clapper, then the director of national intelligence, whether US intelligence agencies collected data on Americans. Clapper answered, “No, sir,” and, “Not wittingly.” The Edward Snowden revelations soon showed that was a false statement. Clapper was forced to apologize to the committee. And for years, Wyden has been a vocal proponent of limiting government surveillance.
Now Wyden has a difficult task: to ensure that a highly sensitive intelligence committee investigation is done right and that the public learns as much as possible about the Russian operation to affect the US election and about possible ties between the president’s inner circle and Russia. “What’s important,” he said, “is to get the facts out. Even if the politics have some consequences, there are a lot more damaging consequences to stonewall all this and push it aside.” Perhaps. After all, it is quite possible that for some in Washington, stonewalling is actually the better option.