WASHINGTON --Experts on national security painted a sinister picture for senators examining Russian meddling in the 2016 election, detailing the worldwide impact of fake news, smear campaigns and even killings they say could have ties to the Kremlin.
Clint Watts, a former FBI agent now with the Foreign Policy Research Institute Program on National Security, said the Senate intelligence committee should "follow the dead bodies."
He said several Russians tied to the investigation into Kremlin disinformation activities have been killed in the past three months - not only in Russia, but in western countries as well.
Earlier Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin again dismissed what he called "endless and groundless" accusations of Russian meddling in the U.S. election, describing them as part of the U.S. domestic political struggle. He also said he is ready to meet with President Donald Trump at an upcoming arctic summit.
The hearing Thursday focused mostly on how experts say the Kremlin uses technology and disinformation to influence the opinions of Americans and not on the U.S. policy toward Russia.
Trump, throughout the campaign and since he's been president, has expressed an interesting in improving relations with Russia. Watts said he fears for his own safety after speaking about Russian efforts.
"I'm a little bit lost as to what our interests are or how they're coalescing," Watts said. "My biggest concern right now is I don't know what the American stance is on Russia."
Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the committee's senior Democrat, talked about disinformation spread in the final weeks of the campaign through key states such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. One question he said he wants the committee's investigation to answer is whether Russia would have the ability to do that without the assistance of someone with a deep knowledge of American politics.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., raised concerns that the committee's investigation is not focused enough on following the money, which includes looking at the president's finances and that of his business partners. Wyden said fishy real estate deals and money laundering might mean that the "Russian government may be only a step or two away" from American institutions.
Burr and Warner have pledged cooperation with each other on the committee's probe of Russia's influence during the campaign, distancing themselves from the fractured House intelligence committee's investigation that has been fraught with partisanship.
Democrats have called for House intelligence committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes to recuse himself because of his ties to the Trump team, especially because the investigation includes looking at contacts that Russians had with President Donald Trump's associates. Nunes, R-Calif., met with a secret source on the White House grounds last week to review classified material, which he says indicates that Trump associates' communications were captured in "incidental" surveillance of foreigners. Nunes says he sees no reason to step aside.
Burr has said that so far, the Senate committee has requested 20 individuals to be interviewed. Five have been scheduled, and the remaining 15 are likely to be scheduled within the next 10 days. Additional witnesses could also be interviewed.