Heard on the Hill

Senate Intelligence Committee in focus on C-SPAN and the big screen this fall

Don’t mess with the intel panel

Annette Bening plays former Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein in the upcoming political thriller “The Report.” (Courtesy MovieStillsDB)

It’s going to be a big couple of months for the Senate Intelligence Committee, both on Capitol Hill and at the box office.

Chairman Richard M. Burr and ranking Democrat Mark Warner find themselves once again at the epicenter of the biggest political story in Washington, tasked with leading the Senate’s review of President Donald Trump’s interactions with Ukraine that seem all but certain to result in impeachment by the House.

“Don’t expect us to move at light speed — that’ll probably happen in the House. But the committee is committed to make sure that we get to the bottom of what questions need answered,” Burr, a North Carolina Republican who has already announced that his current Senate term would be his last, told reporters on Sept. 26.

Like his 1974 Volkswagen Thing, Burr’s committee is not built for speed. Rather, its staff specializes in careful interviewing and review of evidence, most often in classified settings.

The panel had been wrapping up its review of Russian efforts to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election when other bombshell news broke — the intelligence community whistleblower reporting on a call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy that included a request for assistance investigating former Vice President Joe Biden, a potential 2020 Democratic foe, and his son, Hunter Biden.

Burr and Warner released the second volume of the Russia investigation on Tuesday that made even more clear that Russia engaged in a coordinated social media campaign to both support Trump and undermine American democracy.

The Intelligence panel tends to find itself in these kind of sticky issues.

Even so, you wouldn’t think the sort of investigation it conducts would have the makings of a Hollywood thriller, but Hollywood appears to disagree.

The real-world inquiries by both the House and Senate Intelligence committees, as well as the anticipated impeachment proceedings, line up with the Senate panel taking center stage on the big screen (and on Amazon) — with next month’s release of “The Report.” The film looks back at one of the last times the committee found itself emerging from the shadows, featuring Annette Bening as an uncanny Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

The movie, set for a limited theatrical release Nov. 15 before reaching Amazon’s streaming service after Thanksgiving, also stars Adam Driver as Daniel Jones, the Feinstein staffer who spent years during the California Democrat’s tenure as Intelligence chairwoman locked away in a secure facility in Northern Virginia leading a review of records of the CIA’s use of torture techniques during the George W. Bush administration.

The film also highlights one of the more bizarre sagas in the annals of executive-legislative relations — an event that if it happened during the Trump administration, might have gotten even more attention than it did at the time.

Feinstein, a senior member of President Barack Obama’s own party, came to the Senate floor in March 2014 with a most peculiar allegation: that the computer network being used by Senate staffers conducting the review of classified documents related to the torture program had been effectively spied upon by the CIA.

“This search was not only of documents provided by the committee by the CIA, but also a search of the stand-alone and walled-off committee network drive containing the committee’s own internal work product and communications,” Feinstein said.

That speech, portions of which Bening reprises in a convincing portrayal of Feinstein (if a less convincing portrayal of the Senate floor), serves as a jarring reminder of just how much the separation of powers have already been called into question in recent years.

John O. Brennan, the CIA director at the time of the breakdown, ultimately apologized to Feinstein for what the intelligence community’s inspector general had described as, in the words of a CIA spokesman, actions of agency personnel “in a manner inconsistent with the common understanding reached between [the committee] and the CIA in 2009.”

Under that agreement, Jones and other Senate employees involved in the investigation were supposed to have been granted exclusive access to a set of computers and a network for the purpose of reviewing the torture files.

Even as Democrats and Republicans came to different conclusions about the torture report, as well as about the wisdom of releasing conclusions publicly, the movie offers some perspective about the immense scale of the staff work that goes into such a project.

The more recent work under the leadership of Burr and Warner, looking at Russian election interference efforts, provides another reminder of that.

And for anyone who does find themselves being interviewed by the two senators, other members of the Intelligence Committee or their ace investigative staff — the Russia inquiry also provides another valuable lesson.

Just don’t lie.

Former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen can tell you what happens then. (Prison.)

“It’s a loud message to everybody that is interviewed by our committee, regardless of where that prosecution comes from: If you lie to us, we’re going to go after you,” Burr said last November after Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress.

Put another way, whether it’s under the direction of Feinstein or Burr, just don’t mess with the Intelligence Committee.

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