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This Week, Will The Russia Story Actually Be About Russia?

Places are reserved for journalists in the hearing room ahead of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions' testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election in the Hart Senate Office Building on Tuesday. More such hearings are still to come.
Chip Somodevilla
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Places are reserved for journalists in the hearing room ahead of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions' testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election in the Hart Senate Office Building on Tuesday. More such hearings are still to come.

Updated 11:00 a.m. ET Saturday

This week, Washington is looking ahead to another stretch in which the time is always news o'clock and the stories just don't stop.

The marathon of high-profile congressional hearings continues Tuesday with a session scheduled by the Senate Judiciary Committee's panel on crime and terrorism. It appears aimed squarely at the ongoing imbroglio over Trump associates' possible connections to last year's Russian election meddling.

Subcommittee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., titled the session "Concurrent congressional and criminal investigations: lessons from history."

In other words: How can House and Senate committees keep clear of an executive branch process — like that being led by Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller?

Then on Wednesday, the House and Senate intelligence committees both have hearings planned about last year's election.

Texas Rep. Mike Conaway, the Republican leading the House committee's Russia inquiry, announced that former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson will appear to "answer questions related to Russian active measures."

In other words: the slate of dirty tricks that U.S. intelligence agencies say Russia's spy services pulled on the United States, including cyberattacks on elections systems and American political figures and some of their top aides.

Meanwhile over on the other side of the Capitol, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., will be having their own version of that discussion with two panels of outside experts at nearly the same time the House Intelligence Committee is in session with Johnson.

Witnesses at the Senate hearing are to include the acting director of the Department of Homeland Security's intelligence and analysis cyber division, the assistant director of the FBI's counterintelligence division and state elections officials.

Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe also makes an appearance on Capitol Hill Wednesday afternoon — ostensibly about the bureau's FY 2018 budget, but other topics could come up.

McCabe was supposed to testify Friday, but that hearing was canceled after a difficult few days in Washington that began when Rep. Steve Scalise, the House majority whip, and three others were shot Wednesday in an attack on a Republican congressional baseball practice that appeared to be politically motivated.

After several weeks in which D.C. has focused on the Trump aspect of the story, and especially actions the president might have taken this year in response to these investigations — including firing FBI Director James Comey — the election itself could move back into the spotlight.

News organizations including NPR have reported that Russian cyberattacks last year against state elections offices were much more widespread than first understood, and national security leaders like Comey have warned that unless Washington does more to deter them, the Russians will resume their mischief in the 2018 and 2020 election cycles.

State election systems were designated as part of the nation's "critical infrastructure" by Johnson in January of this year, during the final weeks of the Obama administration. That allows DHS "to prioritize our cybersecurity assistance to state and local election officials, but only for those who request it," Johnson explained in a statement at the time. And there are other such ideas that will likely get an airing next week.

Should presidential campaigns get cyber protection from a federal agency the way the Secret Service provides physical protection for presidential candidates?

Should the United States launch a big information war against Russia to retaliate against its aggressive wave of cyberattacks and disinformation?

And should the FBI try harder to deliver criminal punishment to the Russians it knows were involved?

Former acting Attorney General Sally Yates raised that prospect when she appeared before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism with Clapper at one of its hearings about the Russian election hacking — but she also made clear about the limits of what might be practically possible.

"I think we have to do more to deter the Russians, and it wouldn't hurt to prosecute a few folks, but I don't think we should kid ourselves," Yates said, "that we'll be able to prosecute our way out of this problem."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: June 16, 2017 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this story quoted congressional testimony suggesting that state election systems have not yet been designated as critical infrastructure by the Department of Homeland Security. In fact, that designation was made by DHS on Jan. 6, 2017.
Philip Ewing is an election security editor with NPR's Washington Desk. He helps oversee coverage of election security, voting, disinformation, active measures and other issues. Ewing joined the Washington Desk from his previous role as NPR's national security editor, in which he helped direct coverage of the military, intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and more. He came to NPR in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously, he served as managing editor of Military.com, and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.