3rd congressional panel opens probe into Russia election meddling

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina will join in leading a bipartisan investigation of Russian election meddling in the free world.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina will join in leading a bipartisan investigation of Russian election meddling in the free world. AP

A Senate Judiciary Committee panel on Thursday announced a third congressional investigation into Russia’s efforts to influence last fall’s elections and help Donald Trump capture the White House.

The latest inquiry, a bipartisan effort to be led by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, also will explore allegations that similar Kremlin operations are occurring overseas.

“Our goal is simple. To the fullest extent possible, we want to shine a light on Russian activities to undermine democracy,” Graham and Whitehouse said in a joint statement.

The House and Senate Intelligence Committees already have opened separate investigations into the matter. The launch of yet another inquiry could in part reflect pushback from both parties to President Trump’s continued talk of warming relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Graham and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona have been particularly outspoken, calling for creation of a select committee to investigate Russia’s election interference. Earlier this week, McCain expressed to McClatchy concern about the suspicious death of a Kremlin insider, triggering speculation that he was a source of information about Russia’s election tampering.

The two senators and other members of both parties have spoken of toughening, not weakening, sanctions on Russia in response to its aggressive behavior toward former Soviet bloc nations.

But hours before leaders of the Judiciary subcommittee on crime and terrorism made their announcement, the new administration lifted some sanctions that former President Barack Obama had imposed on Russia’s FSB intelligence agency, the main suspect in the hacking of top Democrats’ emails, including the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

The chiefs of three U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that the Russian government was behind the hacking scheme, internet posting of fake news disparaging Clinton and other efforts to undermine the election. They said Putin personally ordered the effort, first to damage America’s democratic political system and then, and after it became clear that Trump had a chance to win, to bolster his prospects.

There have been similar reports of Russian election interference in Germany, France and other European nations.

Last month, Trump’s presidential campaign was drawn into the U.S. controversy with the public release of a dossier of uncorroborated information collected by a former British intelligence agent as opposition research on behalf of Trump political opponents. The dossier suggested that several Trump campaign aides were aware of the Russian hacking scheme – allegations that Trump dismissed as “garbage.”

Then came reports that a possible source of information in the dossier, Oleg Erovinkin, a former top officer of the Soviet KGB and its Russian successor, the FSB, was mysteriously found dead in his car in Moscow on Dec. 26, 2016.

Erovinkin has been described as the chief of staff to Igor Sechin, the head of the state-controlled Russian energy company Rosneft. Sechin is called the second most powerful man in Russia after Putin.

Blogger Christo Grozev, a Bulgarian journalist who owns newspapers and radio stations across Europe and the Ukraine, described Erovinkin as a liaison between Putin and Sechin.

The ex-spy’s dossier makes repeated references to a “Sechin associate,” and “a Kremlin insider” and “a close associate of Rosneft President and Putin ally Igor Sechin.” Erovinkin matches all three descriptions.

The Russian news site Life.ru ran a breaking news story on Dec. 26 saying that Erovinkin had been killed, his body left in his Lexus parked in a Moscow alley. Later in the day, the website changed the story to say he died of a heart attack.

Pointing to the death, McCain told McClatchy earlier this week that “every aspect of the attack on the United States of America needs to be pursued.”

Separately, three top Russian intelligence officials and a cybersecurity contractor have been arrested and charged with treason. There has been speculation that one or more of those arrested may have assisted the U.S. investigation into the hacking.

Graham and Whitehouse said their goals will include trying to better understand the intelligence community’s assessment of Russian intervention, to learn more about the Kremlin’s methods in other democratic nations and to explore ways of deterring future foreign influences on U.S. elections and institutions.

Greg Gordon: 202-383-6152, @greggordon2

Kevin G. Hall: 202-383-6038, @KevinGHall