- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Facebook and other internet ads that Kremlin-linked operatives ran during the presidential election campaign were intended to “create chaos” across the political spectrum, not back a specific candidate, the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee said Wednesday.

In the first extended update from Congress’ highest-profile probe into Russian meddling in the election, Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican and chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, and the committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Mark R. Warner of Virginia, said months of investigation have not identified any collusion between Russia and Donald Trump’s campaign, but the inquiry is continuing.

In recent weeks, the sprawling investigation has zeroed in on the social media and tech firms that dominate the internet, including Google and Twitter. Ranked among the country’s largest spenders on federal lobbying, the companies initially balked at cooperating until Facebook succumbed to mounting bipartisan pressure to provide more details about the unprecedented surge of Russian propaganda ad buys last year.

While special counsel Robert Mueller investigates suspected ties between the Kremlin and Mr. Trump’s campaign, the lawmakers described a broad-brush approach to stoke social divides and undermine confidence in the U.S. electoral system.

“The subject matter of the ads seems to have been to create chaos in every group that they could possibly identify in America,” said Mr. Burr, referring to some 3,000 ads that Facebook turned over to the committee this week.

At a packed Capitol Hill press conference, Mr. Warner said Twitter’s briefing to lawmakers was disappointing given the gravity of the situation.

Mr. Warner said investigators were waiting for more information from Twitter and that he wants Facebook to release the ads already linked to Russian operatives. He added that the social media companies have more work to do to figure out how they have been exploited.

Mr. Burr said the companies will testify in an open hearing later this month. Other committee members applauded the focus on the internet.

“We are making progress in a careful way,” Sen. Susan M. Collins, Maine Republican, told The Washington Times. “My major concern is that the public needs to have a better understanding of what happened and that we need to take steps to harden our electoral systems before next year’s elections.”

Sowing division

The Senate committee, which launched its investigation last spring, has conducted more than 100 interviews over roughly 250 hours and generated more than 4,000 transcript pages. It has also reviewed more than 100,000 pages of documents, Mr. Burr and Mr. Warner said.

Mr. Burr and Mr. Warner largely backed the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusions that Russia did try to meddle in the presidential campaign — though they painted a portrait of an American competitor intent on sowing divisions.

They also said they have received generally good cooperation from the Obama and Trump administrations but have “hit a wall” with Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence agent whose dossier on Mr. Trump sparked a series of embarrassing — and apparently untrue — stories about his ties to Russia as a private businessman.

Mr. Steele has declined to be interviewed, Mr. Burr said, hurting the panel’s ability to piece together the background of the dossier.

The leaders said their committee is still investigating suspected collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.

“Let me be pretty clear: The issue of collusion is still open,” Mr. Burr said.

Regarding scrutiny involving former FBI Director James B. Comey, who appeared before the panel after he was fired by Mr. Trump in May, Mr. Burr said the probe had “exhausted every person they could speak with” and that Mr. Mueller and the Department of Justice were now leading that investigation.

Mr. Burr had expressed hope that the inquiry would conclude by the year’s end but said he had no definitive timeline and that 25 more interviews were scheduled.

He and Mr. Warner have been lauded for running an investigation seen as unified and focused compared with a more partisan probe in the House. Still, Mr. Burr issued a sober warning for potential witnesses to cooperate with the remainder of the inquiry.

“I strongly suggest you come in and speak with us,” he said. “If we believe that you have something valuable to bring to the committee, if you don’t voluntarily do it, I will assure you today you will be compelled to do it.”

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