Russia's Hacking Warrants an Independent Inquiry

The right way to do it.

Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

A month after it ended, the 2016 U.S. presidential election is only getting stranger. Intelligence agencies and private researchers now largely agree that Russia conducted a pervasive online campaign -- through hackingtheft and propaganda -- to disrupt the electoral process. The question is what to do about it.

The first priority should be conducting a formal investigation. Yet confusion reigns in Congress about how to do so. Some Republicans want the matter investigated by the intelligence committees; others want a bipartisan probe or new committees altogether. A better option is an independent inquiry, on the model of the 9/11 Commission.

Such investigations aren't always high-minded affairs. But in this case an independent commission, made up of non-lawmakers appointed by Congress, would have two salient virtues.

One, it would be public. In addition to its classified investigation, the 9/11 Commission held weeks' worth of hearings, heard public testimony from 160 witnesses, and published a detailed report that became a national bestseller. It remains the definitive word on an emotionally charged and hugely complicated tragedy, and it was a driving force behind subsequent reforms.

Russia's electoral meddling deserves similar transparency. An independent public investigation would help restore faith in the electoral apparatus and assign accountability. It could shed light on Russia's motives and resolve a simmering dispute between intelligence agencies on the topic. Not least, it could help ensure that such meddling doesn't happen again.

An investigation by the congressional intelligence committees, by contrast, would mostly be conducted behind closed doors, and the results might never see the light of day. The Senate Intelligence Committee's 2014 report on the CIA's abuse of terrorist detainees -- five years and $40 million in the making, yet to this day almost entirely secret -- is instructive.

A second advantage of an independent commission is that it can watch the watchers. As the 9/11 Commission concluded, congressional oversight was itself part of the problem: The relevant committees had a limited understanding of the intelligence activities they were overseeing -- in particular, "know-how about the technologies employed" -- and lacked the power to do much about them anyway. The situation was, in a word, "dysfunctional."

Not much has changed since then, and it's increasingly clear that similar deficiencies played a role in the current debacle. Defending the electoral system against foreign interference involves the White House, the military, multiple intelligence services, law enforcement, a vast federal cybersecurity workforce, political parties and actors, private companies with government contracts, state electoral bureaucracies, and the thousands of busy and fallible humans behind all of the above.

Russia clearly exploited this fragmentation and was abetted by a cascading series of errors and misjudgments by U.S. authorities. The House and Senate intelligence committees bear some responsibility for this dysfunction, and fixing it will require them asking some hard questions. Self-criticism, alas, is not a congressional specialty.

An independent commission offers the best chance of delivering a depoliticized investigation into this attack. It could go a long way toward restoring the integrity of the U.S. electoral process. And it might, at long last, help bring this ugly, divisive election to a proper end.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.