WASHINGTON (CN) — Late last November, overshadowed by the daily spectacles of dramatic impeachment testimony in the House, Senate Republicans launched a little-reported offensive against a former Democratic National Committee consultant.
At the center of the storm of the Republican investigation is Alexandra Chalupa, a former Democratic consultant who has been vilified in conservative media to advance a conspiracy theory that Ukrainians interfered in the 2016 presidential elections—against President Donald Trump.
After the Russian government’s hack into the Democratic National Committee’s servers, Chalupa reported the breach to federal authorities, who extracted her laptop and smartphone in service of their investigation.
Senator Ron Wyden, D-Ore., warned on Thursday that the Republicans’ investigation echoes Russian disinformation, and if they succeed, the repercussions could be chilling for private citizens who are victims of a crime.
“The Senators’ request will have a chilling effect on the victims of nation state cyberattacks, and would discourage them from seeking law enforcement assistance, thereby jeopardizing our national security, limiting our ability to respond to sophisticated cyberattacks, and undermining the civil liberties of American citizens,” Wyden wrote in a three-page letter addressed to Attorney General Bill Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray.
In a letter on Nov. 22, overshadowed by the impeachment hearings, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson asked the FBI and the Department of Justice to provide the contents of Chalupa’s electronic devices to their committees.
Citing controversial editorials by The Hill’s John Solomon, the chairmen wrote: “If this reporting is accurate, it appears that the DOJ and FBI have in their possession material relevant to our Committees' ongoing investigation into collusive actions Chalupa and the DNC took to use foreign government sources to undermine the Trump campaign during the 2016 election.”
Grassley and Johnson also demanded copies of the FBI’s interview notes with Chalupa, officially known as 302s, which consist of raw and unvetted intelligence.
Written by Solomon, a conservative journalist, the Hill’s editorials that Grassley and Johnson relied in their anti-Chalupa offensive upon have come increasingly under fire. Multiple impeachment witnesses cast doubt on the stories, which have been described as a smear campaign against ousted U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch.
“This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves," former National Security Council official Fiona Hill testified.
A recent batch of files released by House Democrats appears to show Rudy Giuliani’s indicted associate Lev Parnas sharing an advanced copy of Solomon’s first anti-Yovanovitch editorial with former Ukrainian prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko.
“The Hill has since acknowledged it would review and correct Solomon’s purported ‘reporting,’” Wyden wrote.
The Hill declined any specific comment on recent revelations about Parnas’ text messages.
As the scandal brewed in November, its editor-in-chief Bob Cusack sent the following statement to employees.
“Because of our dedication to accurate non-partisan reporting and standards, we are reviewing, updating, annotating with any denials of witnesses, and when appropriate, correcting any opinion pieces referenced during the ongoing congressional inquiry,” Cusack told his staff on Nov. 18. “As previously stated, the views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.”
“We reiterate that we do not condone sending material out before publication,” he added.
In December, Wyden accused his Senate colleagues of laundering Kremlin talking points.
“It’s incredibly dangerous for my colleagues to ignore the warnings of our intelligence agencies and misuse taxpayer money to spread Russian propaganda and Rudy Giuliani’s bizarre conspiracy theories,” Wyden wrote on Dec. 6. “The Senate should not be acting as an arm of the Russians or the president’s attorney.”
The Oregon senator echoed those sentiments Thursday.
“I am deeply concerned at the senators’ attempt to obtain the personal information, including cell phone communications and computer files, of a U.S. citizen, as well as their efforts to enlist the FBI and Department of Justice in their efforts to legitimize Russian propaganda,” Wyden declared. “The FBI is not a political weapon and should not be pressured into violating a citizen’s civil liberties for political gain.”
Asked about the civil liberty implications of his probe of Chalupa, Senator Grassley obliquely changed the subject to ex-Trump campaign aide Carter Page.
“Democrats’ newfound concern about Russian disinformation and civil liberties is particularly rich given that we now know the FBI relied heavily on the debunked, Russia-sourced dossier to spy on a Trump campaign aide,” Grassley claimed.
In fact, Senator Wyden has been on the forefront of civil liberties issues for the bulk of his career, playing a crucial role in exposing the National Security Agency’s regime of bulk data collection and calling to reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Senator Johnson did not immediately respond to emails requesting comment.
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