How Senate Intel Committee remains a bright spot of collegiality

Michael Bonfigli /The Christian Science Monitor
Mark Warner, D-Va., Vice Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee speaks at the St. Regis Hotel on May 9, 2019 in Washington.

At a time of hyper-partisanship, the Senate Intelligence Committee stands out as a rare island of bipartisanship and collegiality – even on the issue of Russian meddling in U.S. elections.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., vice-chair of the committee, has a ready answer for how he and the chairman, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., have pulled it off, while their House counterparts have not.

“Hard work!” Senator Warner said Thursday at a Monitor Breakfast for reporters.

Why We Wrote This

While partisan rancor has hamstrung much of Congress, lawmakers on the Intelligence Committee are still working together effectively. Sen. Mark Warner explains how – one of many topics discussed at the Monitor Breakfast.

“It’s a little old fashioned, but the idea that politics ends at the water’s edge I think is a bit of a mantra that we’ve tried to maintain,” the senator said. “We’ve tried to stick to, follow the facts.”

And, he added, “I’m proud of the fact that we are the last standing bipartisan effort in this endeavor,” a reference to his committee’s continuing investigation into Russian election meddling. Chairman Burr has said he hopes the committee will finish its work by August.

Mr. Warner would not confirm reports that his committee had issued a subpoena to Donald Trump Jr. – a noteworthy move that pits a Republican-led committee against the president’s son. But, he added, the committee has been “very clear with everyone that we reserve the right to bring witnesses back if we have further questions.”

Looking at special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian election meddling, Mr. Warner said that his committee had 90 to 95 percent of what Mr. Mueller had determined, in terms of the contacts and efforts by Russians to interfere in the 2016 election.

“And we will have other areas that will frankly be much more extensive than what Mueller had and much more descriptive about the organized ongoing effort,” he said.

The committee’s task centers less on conspiracy, and more on making sure election interference doesn’t happen again, Mr. Warner said.

Still, he said, because of the committee’s intelligence oversight responsibilities, it needs to see Mr. Mueller’s underlying evidence.

“And if we can’t get all of the evidence that Mueller had in terms of counterintelligence, then we can’t make the kind of report and recommendations that we need to make in terms of how we prevent this from happening” again, he said.

To view the breakfast, here is the C-SPAN video.

Following are excerpts from the Monitor Breakfast with Mr. Warner, lightly edited:

On the need for new laws protecting the integrity of U.S. elections:

It may not be Russia the next time, it may be other adversarial nations. But if we don’t put protections in place, shame on us. [There needs to be] an obligation to make sure that you would affirmatively turn over to law enforcement if there’s been contacts by a foreign government. If we don’t have some rules around social media that would allow these entities or frankly, agents, to create fake accounts and use bots to sow dissension, I think history will judge those who stood in the way of that as being irresponsible.

On whether the Russians tried to infiltrate other US organizations besides the National Rifle Association:

[Long pause] I don’t think I’m ready to answer that today. But it was a good question. I just think that’s something we ought to be announcing jointly as we finish. But it’s a fair question. I imagine you should keep asking it.

On the advent of 5G – or fifth generation wireless systems:

For those of you who are not techies, if you want a good analogy: 5G is kind of like, in a previous generation, moving from radio to television.

On China’s central role in the global move toward 5G:

5G is a case where China’s been able, through both its equipment and financing opportunities, to flood the zone on the international standard-setting bodies. And we may be at the point, in this next level of technology breakthrough, that we have a Chinese equipment vendor dominating the market and China basically writing the rules.

That is a hard thing for policymakers and, honestly, folks in the West to wrap their heads around.

On growing privacy concerns:

If you’re concerned about your privacy, I can assure you Facebook and Google know more about you than the FBI and the CIA.

On proposals to break up Facebook and other tech giants:

I would rather start with other rules of the road and potentially a lighter touch. Not because Facebook isn’t extraordinarily powerful and that notion of keeping that option on the table if we can’t find appropriate guardrails to me makes sense.

But this market now is global in nature. And I do have a huge concern that if we were to take down the American-based companies – a Facebook or a Google – that they would simply be replaced by Alibaba, Baidu, Tencent, and suddenly you’re trading companies where we do have some ability to influence with companies that we have no ability to influence that are frankly agents of the Communist Party of China.

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