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Senate Panel Pushes Ahead With Russian Influence Investigation

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There's a new poll out that says nearly three quarters of Americans want to see an independent investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. In that Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, more than 60 percent said they had little or no confidence in Congress' ability to be fair and impartial. Still, the intelligence committees in the House and the Senate are pushing ahead in their respective investigations. And we have one of the Senate committee members on the line now to give us a progress report. He is Republican James Lankford of Oklahoma.

Senator Lankford, welcome to the program.

JAMES LANKFORD: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So so far in the Senate hearings on Russia, you've heard from witnesses testifying on kind of the technical aspects of Russian hacking. You've heard witnesses talk about fake news, Russian intentions to sway the election. There hasn't been any discussion yet about the Russian government and any possible connections with Donald Trump's campaign. Is that something the Senate panel is looking into?

LANKFORD: Yes, it is, actually. But what you reference there are things that have been in the public eye. We started this investigation about five months ago gathering documents, going through it, trying to figure out the scope, getting organized. As you know, with most investigations, there's a tremendous amount of fact finding and gathering before you interview people to be able to know the exact questions that you want to be able to ask and know that you have the background information be able to do that.

This started months and months ago with Russian meddling and it continues to expand, which is entirely appropriate, which is the way that an investigation typically works.

MARTIN: So are you saying...

LANKFORD: But most of our work will be behind the scenes, though.

MARTIN: Well, that's what I was going to ask. You're saying that any inquiry into connections between the campaign and Russian officials, you're saying that's taking place behind closed doors?

LANKFORD: That's correct. And that will continue to be able to go through the process until we get to the point that we can bring a lot of these things out into a public setting. Obviously, the documents that we're dealing with, sources and methods, are extremely secret. And this is part of what America does to foreign nationals as we're trying to evaluate what is happening, what is coming at us internationally. That's the nature of intelligence, and we don't apologize for that.

We want to know what our rivals and enemies think so that we can make wise decisions and pass those on to both the president and Congress and deal with those issues. But when we deal with all these things, it's also extremely important we also keep them quiet long-term.

MARTIN: Your Democratic colleague on the committee, Senator Ron Wyden, told our national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly that he has serious concerns about the investigation. He said it needs to move faster, it needs to be more transparent. And I'm quoting here, he says, "particularly on the key issue of following the money." Is your committee not exploring potential financial relationships between Russia and Donald Trump?

LANKFORD: Oh, no, everything is on the table. Everything is walking through. We have committed as a committee from the beginning that we're going to go where the facts lead us. And where the facts lead us, we're all going to go together to be able to go through that. We're not responsible for the facts. We're responsible for getting to the bottom of every issue and then be able to pull it out. So I remind people, many of these investigations take a very long time.

We as Americans are very comfortable with a murder trial, for instance, taking two years from the point of the murder to the time it actually gets to the trial. Most Americans remember very well what happened when Ken Starr was brought in as an independent investigator, an outside prosecutor, to be able to examine President Clinton at the time. That investigation was three years total time. In fact, it was more than three years before it actually brought to a final report.

So we're now in about our fifth month from the very genesis of this to where we are now. We still have a ways to go and a lot of information to get to.

MARTIN: But you're fine with the pace of things at this point?

LANKFORD: You know what? I would always prefer to go faster. But when you're dealing with thousands of pages of documents and trying to get organized, that is the nature of it. It takes a while, as it does for any case, to be able to build all the facts together.

MARTIN: Mark Warner, who's the ranking Democrat on your committee, said yesterday that two new staffers would be added to work on the investigation. But this is coming after a lot of criticism about staffing. The Daily Beast reported that the committee didn't have one single staffer who was dedicated to this investigation full-time, at least. You compare that to the recent House Select Committee investigating the terror attack in Benghazi. That committee had 46 full-time staffers working on it. Are you understaffed?

LANKFORD: We are not understaffed. We are staffed appropriately in the sense that we've got to have people with top secret clearance and that can walk through this that have the trust not only of us but of the previous administration and of all the intelligence agencies right now. So when we started this investigation, it was key that we had staff that we knew, we trusted, we could keep things together because of the access to documents that they have.

It's very unusual to have this amount of access to some of the documents that they have. And so we're trying to keep this small but efficient. And the staff that are there that are working through it have all the time that they need to do it. When you say that they're not fully dedicated to it implies that they do this occasionally, an hour a week or something. They are fully on it.

MARTIN: Well, they weren't employed full-time until this most recent add.

LANKFORD: No, no, they are full-time employees of the Intelligence Committee. They are focused on the intelligence issues full time. But to say that they are only doing this, that's correct that these are staff members that are also engaged with the whole of the staff. But they have all the time that they need and are set aside and focused on this investigation.

MARTIN: The Daily Beast also says there are no lawyers among your staff. Is that right?

LANKFORD: Well, these are intelligence staff. And so that's a little bit different from what you're looking for. They, again, have access to individuals to be able to help with questioning, with prosecution questions. What are the key issues that need to be addressed? That is entirely appropriate. But the focus here is an intelligence investigation.

MARTIN: So what is your overall message to the American people, who, according to that poll, don't have a lot of confidence in your committee's ability to get to the bottom of this?

LANKFORD: You know, I come from Oklahoma, and so Will Rogers had many jokes about Congress in the 1930s. And all of those jokes are still true a hundred years later. So I understand the issues about Congress. There is no such thing as an independent investigation in Washington, D.C. Everyone has a bias, one direction or another. And what's the key is to be able to get people on board that know what they're looking at, know who they're talking to, have access to the documents.

To do that, you have to be able to get people on board.

MARTIN: We'll leave it there. Republican Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma. Thanks so much.

LANKFORD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.