Hint: It’s not 44 years

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - PAUL KANE paul.kane@wash­post.com

How the Rus­sia and Water­gate probes dif­fer.

This week marks the 44th an­niver­sary of the pub­lic de­but of the Se­nate Water­gate Com­mit­tee. On May 17, 1973, the com­mit­tee kicked off hear­ings that be­came must­see TV, broad­cast live on the three net­works in the af­ter­noon and re­played at night on PBS.

“What did the pres­i­dent know, and when did he know it?” was the fa­mous ques­tion posed by Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) early on in the Water­gate hear­ings, a defin­ing phrase still in­voked to­day when a politi­cian is caught in scan­dal.

Since those hear­ings, just about ev­ery con­gres­sional com­mit­tee con­duct­ing a high­pro­file in­ves­ti­ga­tion has had to live up to the legacy of Baker and Sen. Sam Ervin (D-N.C.), the lead­ers of the Select Com­mit­tee on Pres­i­den­tial Cam­paign Ac­tiv­i­ties. It’s an al­most im­pos­si­ble stan­dard to meet — and also one that of­ten gets lost in myth rather than facts.

Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), who are the chair­man and the rank­ing mi­nor­ity party mem­ber of the Se­nate Select Com­mit­tee on In­tel­li­gence, re­spec­tively, are the lat­est to stand in the long shad­ows of the Water­gate com­mit­tee. They reg­u­larly face ques­tions about why they aren’t moving faster to in­ves­ti­gate Rus­sian med­dling in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

In fact, they’re moving more quickly than Ervin and Baker did 44 years ago. If it doesn’t seem that way, that’s got more to do with the in­sa­tiable ap­petites of so­cial me­dia and ca­ble news than with re­al­ity.

In De­cem­ber, as rev­e­la­tions mounted about Rus­sian hack­ing, there were bi­par­ti­san calls to side­step the in­tel­li­gence panel and cre­ate a select com­mit­tee modeled on the one that Ervin and Baker led in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon. Af­ter Pres­i­dent Trump’s dis­missal Tues­day of James B. Comey as FBI direc­tor, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) re­it­er­ated his de­mand for a such a com­mit­tee, con­tend­ing that Burr and Warner were un­able to meet the grav­ity of this mo­ment.

Yet, when you talk to ex­perts in con­gres­sional over­sight, they have quite dif­fer­ent ad­vice for the In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee: Slow down, hold on, don’t get tricked into rush­ing your­self just be­cause we live in an era of in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion through so­cial me­dia.

“It’s a huge mis­take to get go­ing too soon,” said Loch John­son, who served as a top ad­viser to what was known as the “Church Com­mit­tee,” a spe­cial panel in 1975-1976 that in­ves­ti­gated in­tel­li­gence abuses and led to the cre­ation of the in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tee.

He wor­ries that Burr and Warner might be moving too quickly in the probe. “I was a lit­tle sur­prised Burr got his start off so quickly,” said John­son, a dis­tin­guished pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional af­fairs the Univer­sity of Ge­or­gia.

De­spite the some­times-care­free de­meanor that Burr gives off, his panel is off to a fast start com­pared with other ma­jor con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

Burr — who holds the same Se­nate seat once oc­cu­pied by Ervin — has al­ready led three pub­lic hear­ings fo­cused largely on med­dling by Rus­sia. Com­mit­tee mem­bers have re­viewed thou­sands of pages of raw in­tel­li­gence ma­te­rial, ac­cord­ing to aides to Burr and Warner. In­ves­ti­ga­tors have com­pleted in­ter­views with more than 30 in­di­vid­u­als in­volved in the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity’s anal­y­sis of Rus­sian at­tempts to tip the elec­tion to Trump.

Mem­bers of the Trump cam­paign and tran­si­tion team have been put on no­tice to de­liver doc­u­ments, and last week, the com­mit­tee is­sued its first sub­poena since 2005, for records from for­mer na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Michael Flynn.

The Water­gate Com­mit­tee was cre­ated in early Fe­bru­ary 1973, af­ter Sen. Ed­ward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), whose brother de­feated Nixon in the 1960 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, of­fered leg­is­la­tion to in­ves­ti­gate what be­gan as a mere break-in at the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee head­quar­ters at the Water­gate Ho­tel build­ing.

It took 31/2 months for Ervin and Baker to be­gin hold­ing pub­lic hear­ings. They spent that time hir­ing their lead coun­sels, Samuel Dash and Fred Thomp­son, fully staffing up and con­duct­ing in­ter­views. Baker didn’t ut­ter his im­mor­tal “when did he know it” line un­til late June 1973.

And the com­mit­tee didn’t is­sue a fi­nal re­port un­til June 27, 1974, more than two years af­ter the DNC break-in.

The House in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Nixon also moved at a slower pace than to­day’s on-again-offa­gain-on-again probe by the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee. Only af­ter the “Satur­day Night Mas­sacre” — Nixon’s Oc­to­ber 1973 fir­ing of top Jus­tice Depart­ment of­fi­cials and the spe­cial pros­e­cu­tor con­duct­ing the crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion — did the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee agree to be­gin hear­ings that would lead to its July 1974 votes to rec­om­mend im­peach­ment of the pres­i­dent.

The com­mit­tee in­ves­ti­gat­ing the CIA, led by Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) in the mid1970s, took shape in Jan­uary 1975 and didn’t hold a pub­lic hear­ing for seven months. Church put to­gether a staff that pored over doc­u­ments and in­ter­viewed wit­nesses in pri­vate.

“The hear­ing will be 10 times more au­then­tic and in­for­ma­tive if you’ve done your re­search ahead of time,” said John­son, who has writ­ten more than 30 books on the CIA and na­tional se­cu­rity. “Oth­er­wise, you won’t know what ques­tions to ask.”

Those in­ves­ti­ga­tors, dig­ging through un­re­lated doc­u­ments, hap­pened upon in­for­ma­tion about CIA-di­rected as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempts of for­eign lead­ers, John­son said. The im­pli­ca­tion is clear: If Burr and Warner rush to meet the de­mands of the 24/7 ca­ble-news age, such ev­i­dence could be over­looked.

McCain took this long-game ap­proach him­self over­see­ing a cor­rup­tion in­ves­ti­ga­tion in­volv­ing lob­by­ists bilk­ing tribal casino clients. A few days af­ter The Wash­ing­ton Post broke the ini­tial story in Fe­bru­ary 2004, McCain pushed the Se­nate’s Com­mit­tee on In­dian Af­fairs to launch an in­ves­ti­ga­tion. But the first pub­lic hear­ings came seven months later.

Now, how­ever, Burr and Warner face a very dif­fer­ent cli­mate driven by so­cial me­dia. Even Trump took to Twit­ter re­cently to mock the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tions as a “tax­payer funded cha­rade.”

There’s al­ways the risk that by moving de­lib­er­a­tively, Se­nate in­ves­ti­ga­tors will al­low wit­nesses to con­ceal doc­u­ments. But the Comey fir­ing ap­peared to light a small fire un­der Burr, who spent the next sev­eral days de­fend­ing the ousted FBI direc­tor, vow­ing to ramp up the in­ves­ti­ga­tion and is­su­ing the panel’s first sub­poena.

“We’re will­ing to go to what­ever bas­ket of tools we feel is nec­es­sary,” Burr told re­porters Thurs­day.

And Warner de­fended ques­tions about the “pace” be­cause the com­mit­tee is in the “un­charted ter­ri­tory” of prod­ding the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity to share such crit­i­cal in­for­ma­tion, which takes a lot of time.

John­son ap­proves of that sen­ti­ment. Get­ting it right of­ten re­quires pa­tience. He also noted that dur­ing the Church Com­mit­tee’s dark pe­riod, when there were no ca­ble news out­lets or so­cial me­dia, those in­ves­ti­ga­tors faced some of the same pres­sures.

“‘What’s wrong with these guys?’ ” John­son re­called think­ing about one head­line. “Even in 1975 we had our crit­ics.”


Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), left, and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) are in­ves­ti­gat­ing pos­si­ble Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence with the 2016 elec­tion.

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