Monday’s House Intelligence Committee hearing featuring FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers reinforced how a bipartisan congressional investigation will be impossible in the hyper-politicized environment of 2017. Even when presented with the extraordinary fact that the FBI is investigating Trump campaign associates, Republican members chose to parrot the White House’s condemnation of leaks rather than to explore the nature of the hacking and how to prevent it in the future. Leading this line of questioning was none other than Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, the former Chairman of the Select Committee on Benghazi.
At the end of the hearing, Gowdy and Chairman Devin Nunes urged Comey to conclude the FBI’s investigation as soon as possible because the president and his associates now have a cloud hanging over them. Gowdy took two-and-a-half years to complete the Benghazi inquiry. Similarly, Nunes demonstrated he is incapable of leading a true investigation when he ran to the White House on Wednesday to share "information" he had acquired regarding apparent surveillance of Trump campaign officials rather than discussing it within his committee, his Senate counterparts, or congressional leadership.
One key lesson from the Benghazi episode is that there should be as few investigations as possible to maximize resources and keep the inquiry focused on essential facts to remain timeliness and relevance. Now that Comey confirmed the existence of an FBI probe, it must be allowed to continue as long as needed to uncover Russian activities and the details of the contacts of Trump campaign officials.
Democrats, too, can learn from Benghazi. The Select Committee demonstrated the political expediency of advancing conspiracy theories with thin evidence. If Democrats mirror that strategy, any hope of a bipartisan solution to the Russia election crisis will quickly dissipate. Instead, they should follow the tone set by Representative Adam Schiff, the ranking member on the Intelligence Committee, who carefully laid out the facts of greatest concern without rushing to judgment. That will lend the greatest possibility of establishing a bipartisan 9/11 type commission to investigate Russia’s active measures campaign rather than recreating the hyper-political inquiry into the events of September 11, 2012 in Benghazi.
The prospects of establishing such a commission are admittedly challenging. But there should be enough influential Republican Russia Hawks, including Senators Lindsay Graham, John McCain, and Marco Rubio, who may break with the White House to support an independent commission under the leadership of respected bipartisan officials. For Republicans concerned about the 2018 elections, supporting a commission would be an opportunity to assert independence from a White House under investigation.
The 9/11 Commission provided serious non-partisan analysis necessary to compel an overhaul to the intelligence community. A similar type of commission is necessary to enact the policy and bureaucratic changes in response to Russian active measures against the U.S. and our allies and to protect our nation’s cyber vulnerabilities.